Orbital dynamics

Shelagh McLeod on working with Richard Dreyfuss, space, nursing homes and Astronaut

by Jennie Kermode

Shelagh McLeod directs Richard Dreyfuss in Astronaut
Shelagh McLeod directs Richard Dreyfuss in Astronaut

Screening at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, Astronaut is the story of Angus, an elderly man who is determined to pursue his dream of going into space. When a private company decides to run a contest for people aged 18 to 65, he decides to fudge his age to enter, but he also has to deal with the concerns of his family and some unexpected setbacks, with nothing quite going to plan.

Vancouver-born Shelagh McLeod, who grew up in England, has enjoyed a lengthy career in acting, including longstanding roles in Peak Practice, Doctors and Holby City. This is her first venture into writing and directing a feature length work, and I ask her what it was that made her want to tell this story.

"My mother died in a nursing home," she says. "In the nursing home gardens there was an old man in a wheelchair who would sit out there for hours, always staring up at the sky. The nurse would literally have to drag him in as night fell. One day I sat next to him and asked him, 'What is it that you’re looking up there..? What do you want?' He said, ‘Another go.'

Shelagh McLeod - "I have always been obsessed with space."
Shelagh McLeod - "I have always been obsessed with space."

"My mum died a few weeks later and I couldn’t get this elderly man out of my mind. What had he wanted so badly - what dreams had he had - and was he seeing those dreams vanish like dust? I have always been obsessed with space - I am fascinated and excited by space travel and what might be up there. My dad died young and he loved anything to do with space. So part of my father is in the role of Angus."

Richard Dreyfuss is wonderful in that role. Was it written with him in mind?

"Originally I was thinking of shooting the film in England. Then Jessica Adams, a talented Canadian producer had read the script, liked it and came on-board to produce. We then had the opportunity to make the film in Canada, where I was born. My fantastic agent Jennifer Godlhar, was so supportive of the project for years and when we started for looking for our Angus, she said ‘Have you thought of Richard Dreyfuss..?' Jessica and I looked at each other and I said ‘Well he won’t do it…' But Jennifer got the script to his agent and manager and they sent it on to Richard. The conversation began. We were over the moon when he said ’Yes!' He is a brilliant actor, one of the finest in the world."

I ask her about her depiction of life in a nursing home, where the highly capable Angus clearly feels patronised.

"We moved my mum a few times in different nursing homes as I was in agony about what to do with her," she says. "My elder brother and sister live in Toronto and I live in England. My younger brother here and I had so many long distance conversations about what to do. We are a very close family. And in the end you just want the best for your parent. The final nursing home she ended up in was very good. And the staff were great. But there were always funny moments.

"The moment in the story where the nursing home manager explained to Angus’s daughter the various levels of care actually happened to me. I was so grief stricken that this was to be my mum’s last home - and being somewhat dyslexic I have never done very well with diagrams and pie charts - so I just extrapolated from a few instances and put them into the script. The staff looked after my mother very well - and I spent a lot of time there. I was always trying to get my mum to work out - she could barely breathe. The staff would patiently explain to me that she was winding down - but typical actor that I am - we always think we can fix things.. I couldn’t fix things this time though. She died about five months later."

Is society too quick to dismiss what people of Angus’ age have to offer?

"Yes! It makes me mad. When we were pitching this film - some of the financiers would not entertain a story about the older generation. Jessica and I would plead with them to look at films like Marigold Hotel and the success at the box office. Finding Your Feet, another project aimed at the older demographic, we could barely get in to see the film it was sold out. This made me even more determined to get our film made. And it doesn’t have to be a gloom and doom look at old age. Cocoon was one of our references when we were pitching."

"He is a brilliant actor, one of the finest in the world"
"He is a brilliant actor, one of the finest in the world"

Capturing the family dynamic is obviously vital to the film’s emotional arc. How did she work with young Richie Lawrence to develop his chemistry with Richard Dreyfuss?

"It was pretty easy. Richie and Richard really got on. Richie is a wonderful young actor and had so many profound things to say; a really interesting take on life in one so young. Richard D would always listen to him very intently. And then we would all chat about the tone of the scene - where they were in their relationship. What Barney (Richie’s character) had going on a school - his friends, why his grandad moving in was so important to him. How he understood more than his parents why Angus should enter the competition and why he actively tries to help him. Barney has big dreams but hasn’t got great confidence in himself and when the competition comes up he sees a chance for Angus to have a shot at it and through this chance they really bond. To Barney, Angus will win - and he is determined to help him make that happen."

There's also a subplot involving a donkey sanctuary. Where did that idea come from?

"I love donkeys! But the real origin for the idea came from a friend of mine telling me a story about a friend’s mother - who had early stages of dementia. She found out about an auction and managed to bid on the farm that was being auctioned over the phone and bought it! She couldn’t afford it and it was a terrible mistake, but I was entranced by this story. This need to keep in the game no matter your age; the need to be free and assert independence never goes away, I wanted Rose (Angus’s dead wife) to have bought something she had always loved.

"The weird thing is that in Canada it was hard to find the donkeys. In the UK we have a lot of donkey sanctuaries - but we were shooting in Hamilton, a town outside Toronto. In the end we found this amazing woman who had a small herd of donkeys that she looked after beautifully. Patty, our lead donkey, was the most beautiful creature. I can’t tell you how loved she was on the set."

She does a great job of telling a big story with quite small, simple sets. Were budgetary restraints a significant issue, and would she have done anything differently if there were more money available?

Astronaut Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

"We had an amazing production designer - Helen Kotsonis - and a brilliant DOP, Scott McClellen. I would bring in pictures of other films for reference. Gattaca was one of my favourite films and the set design was amazing. I wrote the scene where the family all say goodbye on top of a very high platform - but I re-watched Gattaca and saw how economically and simply they shot the final scene. So Helen built a little vestibule, which worked really well.

"Time is always a critical consideration when you are shooting. So more time would always be my first wish. But we were happy with the final result. Of course, we could have always done with a bigger spaceplane!"

How does she feel about your film screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival?

"Thrilled. It's such a world renowned film festival. We had a wish list of film festivals for Astronaut. And Edinburgh was top on our list. So we were all very excited.

"My next project - NEXUS - was selected October last year for the prestigious Meryl Streep/Nicole Kidman sponsored The Writers Lab. Only 12 scripts were chosen out of hundreds. It was a brilliant experience and I have spent the last six months working on the new draft. We have just submitted Nexus for some funding. So, fingers crossed! It has a female protagonist who is in her 40s. It’s about space - but back here on Earth."

So finally, would she go into space if she had the chance?

"Like a shot," she says. "Apart from the claustrophobia, vertigo and asthma, I think I would be the perfect candidate! No - really, if I was offered the chance to go up I would take it. To see Earth from space , and to be connected to the rest of the universe - well I think that things would begin to make a lot more sense. Richard Dreyfuss wants to go as well. It would be a laugh to travel up together!"

Astronaut will be screened on Saturday 22 June 18:00 at Filmhouse 1 and on Monday 24 June 18:05 at VUE Omni 12.

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