Amid the implosions and tectonic shifts that have rocked the film industry over the past year, a quietly devastating British relationship drama has been steadily gaining awards buzz since it premiered at last year’s San Sebastián International Film Festival.
Supernova, the second film from writer-director Harry Macqueen, stars longtime friends Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a couple touring England’s scenic Lake District in an RV with their dog. Tusker (Tucci) is slowly succumbing to early onset dementia, and the trip is a way for him and partner Sam (Firth) to make the most of the time they have left together.
Macqueen was inspired to write the film after becoming aware of people in his life who were dealing with early onset dementia. Almost from the start, he knew he wanted to focus the story on a same-sex couple. The director recently chatted with NewNowNext about why that was — and about helping to craft Tucci and Firth’s potentially Oscar-worthy performances.
What made you want to focus this story specifically on a same-sex couple?
I think what I realized quite early on is that what I was dealing with — the themes I was dealing with in the film — were universal themes. Love and trust and loss and companionship and mortality and all of those things. And of course, those sort of transcend sexuality. I’m also a filmmaker who aspires to make important, progressive films. I was also conscious that I hadn’t really ever seen… If I was gonna write a love story about a couple who were in their late 50s, 60s — I hadn’t seen that done very much, if at all, in a same-sex set-up. That seemed to me like a really important step to make. I suppose it’s sort of sad, in a way, that I hadn’t seen those stories told before on the screen, at least not very often. So, it became something, very early on, that was crucial to everything that the film stood for.
Did you ever get any push back along the way? Like, “This might be more palatable to a wider audience if it was about a straight couple?”
In all honesty, absolutely not. Not for a second. Everyone that collaborated on the film absolutely embraced the project for what it was. I think a lot of that is due to…the people that funded the film ultimately—the BBC and the British Film Institute—you know, they’re incredibly inclusive institutions. And to be honest, if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have listened to it for a second. You have to make stuff for the rights reasons, and the right reasons often aren’t money.
The opening shot is of the couple asleep in bed. Colin Firth’s character, Sam, is naked. Why did you want to open the film with that shot?
Well, first of all, I think when you’re starting a film, I at least hope to try and let the audience into the world of the film as seamlessly and evocatively as possible. And that image, to me, sums up everything about their relationship and what they’re about to go through. It’s intimate, it’s trusting, it’s naked — literally. It’s everything that you’d want a relationship to be, in a photo, I think. Two people in each other’s arms, asleep, I think is a beautiful image. Also, I think it’s quite a striking image. Starting a film with a semi-naked person in bed, and starting it very quietly and delicately—it seemed to me quite a bold thing to do, really.
It’s also very upfront about the fact that these two people have a sexual relationship. The film doesn’t shy away from or elide their sexuality in that way, which a film like this, about a middle-aged gay couple, easily could have.
Yeah, absolutely. Also, given what the film is about, that kind of way of expressing love for someone is explored in a very delicate way. You have a duty to the audience to show them all the sides of their relationship.
I want to talk about casting Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. They are both just fantastic in the film. But I’m curious whether you ever considered hiring out gay actors to play these roles.
We thought about it right from the start of the process. I’d been thinking about that from the moment I made them a same-sex couple, however many years ago. I think that conversation about representation in films is incredibly important — and incredibly nuanced. To be perfectly honest, there’s no simple answer to it. If there was, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. I think what’s important as a filmmaker is that your policy of who you hire is as inclusive and open as it possibly can be. That’s crucial. And I also think you have to work within the confines of each project. With this, we just simply couldn’t have got two better actors to be playing these parts. And by “better” I mean, obviously, talent, because they’re amazing. But also, you know, they’re best friends, and that was always going to be key and it was something in the casting process that I was very keen to find two actors that at least knew each other. And in Colin and Stanley what you have, lo and behold, is two people that love each other, and are so close. You can’t ignore that as a filmmaker, that level of intimacy and authenticity and trust that they have with each other right from the start of the process.
I thought it was so interesting that Stanley Tucci was initially going to play Sam and Colin Firth was going to play Tusker, and they ultimately switched roles. How did that happen?
It was really early in the process, and Colin and Stanley had been chatting about the project to each other and reading it to each other. And they came to the conclusion that maybe we should try at least to see what it was like the other way ’round. There was just something about the energy of each character that they felt — and they both felt this — possibly maybe was a bit more aligned with the other person. I’m an actor myself, so I know that the instinct — you can’t ignore that. They sort of auditioned for me. We sat in a room and we read the script, and they switched parts and they read the script again, and it was incredible. What came from that was the right decision.
What kind of work did you do with them to help them embody these characters? Did you discuss what their lives had been like up to this point, and before they met each other?
Yeah, all of that backstory of the characters is an important part of the process when you’re getting into character. So, we did a lot of that. And it’s also very important for a project like this because it’s not a film that shows the audience that. We don’t see them in their natural environment. We don’t see them at home. We don’t flash back to their past lives. So, the audience has to be convinced right from the start about the history of their relationship. We also did a lot of work towards the themes of the film: young onset dementia and how you live with that. That was really the focus of our attention in the pre-production period, was to get that right, because that’s far and away the most important thing about the film.
I hope this doesn’t sound…prurient, but did you discuss their sexual dynamic? I ask because, if this was a story about a straight couple, that’s not an aspect of the relationship that they, as straight men, would really have to consider. But it’s something that might impact the way they interact.
I think it’s an important question, because that intimacy is very important in the film. We did talk about that quite a lot, and I think Colin and Stanley together, without me, did a lot of their own thinking and conversations into what that would be. But also, crucially, it’s about how that then changes when you’re in this situation. I think that’s really what the key thing to portray was, who is naturally the more front-foot person in that physical dynamic? And who is it now? How does mortality and a terminal illness affect that level of intimacy? That’s a very, very interesting question, and it’s one we certainly explored.
You’ve said that you wanted to write a story about a same-sex couple in which the characters’ sexuality didn’t shape the narrative. I think a lot of people — certainly some gay people — will hear that and think, “That’s refreshing!” At the same time, there will be others who insist that queer people’s narratives are always shaped by their sexuality and society’s reaction to it. What do you say to that?
Firstly, I agree with you. What I was maybe ineloquently saying was that… I mean, the sexuality of the characters absolutely shapes the narrative. That’s crucial to everything. I guess what I was trying to get at was that their sexual orientation doesn’t literally inform the plot. It’s not mentioned by anyone in the film. Obviously, there are many films — very important films — about people coming to terms with their sexuality. That’s a story that’s important to tell. But this, given how old [Sam and Tusker] are, didn’t feel like one of those stories. It felt like, actually if we were gonna try and be forward thinking in how we presented this story, we would make a film where their sexuality wasn’t questioned or talked about. And I might be wrong there, but certainly for me it felt like a refreshing thing to do. What I tried to do with the film, really, was evoke a world that I hope I live in, in which characters’ sexuality isn’t judged, isn’t relevant, frankly. Perhaps that’s an aspiration of mine, but I certainly feel like I don’t want to make films, necessarily, about a society where that sort of bigotry still exists.
Supernova is out now in select theaters and on digital February 16.