Jane Gull on Stephen Brandon: 'I just got to spend a lot of time with him and bring elements of his personality to the character.' Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
Jane Gull’s My Feral Heart is the story of an independent man, Luke (Stephen Brandon) who has been caring for his mother. The catch is that he has Down’s syndrome, so when she passes away, he finds himself forced to adjust to life in a group home, forging friendships and making an unusual discovery when out walking in the fields nearby. The film is, for the most part, a warm character study that considers Luke as a fully rounded person rather than someone who is merely defined by his disability – and calls his own prejudices into question.
Gull’s film – scripted by Duncan Paveling – is her feature debut, and though she wrote all but one of her short film scripts herself, she welcomed the opportunity to work with a writer.
“I think it’s better when a project has two heads,” she tells me when I catch up with her after the film’s world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival.
She adds: “I’ve been involved in the project since the initial idea. Duncan, the writer, has always in involved me in all the drafts and that really helped, I think.”
The portrayal of Down’s syndrome in the film – or, more specifically, the fact that Luke was born with the disorder isn’t dwelt upon – comes as a breath of fresh air in a film landscape littered with stereotypes, especially as he is the lead character of the film and we, the audience view things from his perspective.
Gull says: I didn’t even think about it. We don’t even mention Down’s in the whole film. I just went with it as I would with any story or any character with him as an individual human being.”
Jane Gull: 'We don’t even mention Down’s in the whole film. I just went with it as I would with any story or any character with him as an individual human being' Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
The feral girl is the most problematic aspect of a plot that is otherwise very naturalistic and Gull admits: “It would be a lot easier and more comfortable for the audience if it was his imagination.” She says that’s partially why the shots of nature are so crucial for helping the audience to go with the film.
“I did a short film called Twitcher and there were lots of similarities,” she says. “It’s about a birdwatcher who finds a young girl – and in that I quite a lot of nature shots and I am quite obsessed with the outdoors. So that wasn’t scripted, that was something I brought to it. With the feral girl, I knew when I got the script that the whole feral girl side of it was going to be something different to the story but I knew it was going to be something that could go disastrously wrong. So that’s what I wanted to do with nature. When he goes into the feral girl’s world, when he finds her, we bring the nature into it. A bit like, Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.”
Speaking about the casting of Luke Gull says: “I knew for this film to work, I had to find the right actor.
‘When I met Steve, I took a workshop and was looking at him to play one of smaller parts in the care home. I did some improvisations with him and I thought, I think he’s really got something. I think he could be good. He’s got a big range. He’d never done any films before, I don’t think he’d even done many theatrical performances. So I just got to know him, spent time with him – we did a sponsored walk in South End – and I just got to spend a lot of time with him and bring elements of his personality to the character.”
The majority of the other group home actors were also in the same drama group as Stephen, many of them knew one another already, which Gull says was a big help. Next, Gull says she’s working on a film called Solo, with additional projects in the pipeline. “I’m working with three writers, including Duncan, who is working on his next project,” she says. “I’ve also got a couple of other projects – one [Soho] that I have been working on for about eight years, so I’m hoping that will be the next one because I’m very passionate about it. It’s about a British dancer who goes to work in Greece for a summer season and ends up involved in human trafficking. “
My Feral Heart is on release in the UK now, for more details of screenings near you, visit the official site.