Exclusive interview with Andrew Steggall on his debut feature Departure

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Presenting his debut feature film, Andrew Steggall has set down quite the marker with Departure, a riveting, poignant drama that evolves around a mother (Juliet Stevenson) and her son, (Alex Lawther) as they set off to France to clear up the family home before putting it on the market.

This layered, nuanced piece makes for an indelible watch, and we had the distinct pleasure of discussing the project with man at the helm, Steggall himself.

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Steggall on the Departure set

It often happens with bands who release their album, and with first-time filmmakers – but often what they’re presenting is something that has been with them for a long, long time. Was that the case for you?

Well it took six years to make from the time the idea first coalesced, but it was an attempt to express a moment of modest epiphany in my adolescence when I was 15, so it has been around for 21 years. But I wasn’t aware of it turning into a movie at the time, when I had that awakening that my parents were complicated and fallible and capable of unhappiness like I thought only I was. I think I felt that was a moment of my awakening, my coming of age, that I wanted to explore somehow. But then I forgot about it for many years until 2009 when it came back to me, and the actual reality of turning it into a film came at that point.

Do you think the character Elliot came to terms with his parents’ flaws and fallibility within this movie, or is that still to come later on for him?

I think it’s a central moment in the film, but I think he only thinks they’re flawed, he thinks they’re limited and not capable of complex emotional responses like he is, and that’s his narcissism and his immaturity. The film, I hope, in its quiet way will chart the progression from that perspective, to one that’s more accurate, which is that his parents are like him and he’s like them, in so far that despite their differences they are equally as capable of loneliness, and need and desire and unfulfilled longings and there will be no great transformation into adulthood that he might of imagined.

I’m now a year younger than my dad was when he had me – and I recently came to terms with the fact that we’re all winging it.

We’re all just winging it. The crucial thing, I think, is that we all have the knowledge that we’re winging it, but when you realised that your parents were just winging it as well, then you can forgive for them for any mistakes. You’ve only got one set of parents and there’s no point judging them particularly, unless they’ve been violently abusive towards you, but let’s assume they’ve been regular parents full of moments of brilliance and moments of weakness, then that for me was something I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge when I was a young teenager, and it took me a while to allow them a complicated inner life.

Did you make it aware to Alex that it was loosely autobiographical? Did you want him to base the character of Elliot around you at all, or treat it as a fictional creation?

By the time you’ve gone through 30 drafts of a screenplay, gradually the narrative changes and the characters say things you hadn’t anticipated them saying or doing, it’s so not autobiographical that it’s not relevant. I mean, I didn’t have a house in France, and most of the things that happen in the film didn’t happen. It’s autobiographical in a sense that it’s an attempt to express how I felt about something, but a series of moments that parallel an internal journey I went on at one point in my life. The result is oddly autobiographical in that aspects of Alex, the Elliot I wrote and of me have all come together to create this person in the film, and that’s very much indicative of Alex’s sensitivity and ability to both absorb and convey in a really subtle way.

Do you think that as a writer and director you’ll need to have that emotional connection with something in order to create it? Or can you see yourself one day leaving behind realism and crafting a horror movie, for example?

It’s a completely legitimate question – it turns out that the three things I’m writing on at the moment are scripts I’m very personally connected to, the characters are people that I don’t know, but they’re people who borrow from people I know, and the events and issues are important to me, but definitely not autobiographical. I suspect if I was to write a horror film I would be dealing with psychological issues that resonate with me, I don’t think you can escape your own voice, even if you were to direct a play by Shakespeare, you would still do it with your voice and a strange conflation of his voice and yours, simply because you’ll be there every day making decisions. I think it’s inevitable that in the work I do, and the work I hope to be able to do, there will be a strong personal voice.

Alex is remarkably talented, and he’s a really nice guy. He must’ve been a real pleasure to collaborate with? It’s a nuanced role, and considering he’s still in the infancy of his career, it’s quite an achievement to pull it off as he has done.

His bravery and maturity helped balance aspects of the character which were intentionally quite alienating in a way, and he breaths life into that part in a very winning and empathetic way, I think. He’s also just an incredibly nice person to know, so that was a gift, as was working with Juliet and Phénix, too. We all got on really well, and Juliet and Alex in particularly having the central love story were both equally interested in what was happening in between them, rather than what either one of them was doing, so there was an approach to acting and storytelling which was about listening, rather than talking.

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It must’ve been incredibly helpful to have Juliet on set, because this was your debut feature, and Alex is still so young…

She’s the only one who knew what she was doing.

That was basically my question.

You can’t sneak anything past her either – if you tell her it’s a medium shot, she’ll say, ‘no it’s not – make-up please’. She’s very good, very canny, trusting too, but you have to earn that trust, which is often the case with actors who have more experience and have been doing this a while. They’re not going to overtly test you, but there is a necessary and completely valid checking that you know what you’re doing before they surrender to you, because ultimately you’re asking them to jump off a building and you’re saying, ‘I’m going to catch you’. So they need to feel that your wit and intelligence and emotional inner life are at least equal to theirs in order for them to feel safe, I think.

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Alex Lawthe (left) with Juliet Stevenson (right)

Was it a challenge to have four lead characters and give each their own respective arc? To have so many issues and seamlessly intertwine them?

Listen, if you feel that I’ve achieved that then I’m really, really pleased. It’s difficult to do because you simply can’t tell everybody’s story equally. You hope that if you are hinting at one character’s inner life, you’re able to do that in a way that doesn’t feel token. I’ve definitely experienced people who have been to see the film and been hooked in by the Elliot and Clément story and then in the second half realised how much this is about Beatrice, which is maybe a mistake on my part, but subsequently they feel she was perhaps under-explored. However for those who have seen the film twice, they recognised a lot of moments and clues and expressions of her internal life that will perhaps be made more fully realised in the second half of the film.

Did you ever think about maintaining the elusive nature to the character of Philip, by not introducing him? Because I was wondering, halfway through, whether we were going to meet him or not.

Yes, a lot of discussions on that. But I felt it was necessary for Beatrice’s inner life to be fully realised we needed to understand one of the biggest parts of it, and we knew that if she was going to be unhappy, which she is, and if she’s going to be as troubled as she is, it was important, I felt, to finally understand that, and not just through hints but from really seeing what the marriage was like, and that was important to give depth and make more three-dimensional characters.

There are so many different themes to this, you could see it three times and latch on to a different one each time…

You really can, and that would mean three times as many tickets!

What would you say is the more prominent for you though? Is there one you feel is more prevalent that you feel the story centres around most?

I guess it’s an exploration of longing. There’s a quote from a book by Denton Welch called In Youth is Pleasure, which was a big inspiration on capturing an atmosphere I wanted to capture. It’s, “when you long with all your heart for someone to love you”. That really was what I was exploring, along with some other things.

You’ve also managed to avoid melodrama, and that’s a very thin line – was it something you were conscious of?

I hope so – but no totally unconscious of it, and that means some people really think I haven’t managed to avoid melodrama, but I think if you feel the characters have earned their moments of drama then it doesn’t feel melodramatic. If you don’t feel they’ve earned them, then the moments feel melodramatic, so I think it speaks for what you recognised in their inner life, you permitted them to be as unhappy as they are and be fallible, feeling that moments of drama, shouting or crying, were legitimate reflections of a valid intensity of feeling in their internal life. If you don’t, then you won’t.

I likened the film, in that regard, to the work of Asghar Farhadi, that ability to have this myriad of characters and themes, where if you explained the narrative to someone it could sound overly dramatic, but it’s handled with a certain delicacy.

Well thank you, you can write my epitaph.

So finally, what’s next for you – anything in the pipeline?

I’ve got two screenplays and a television drama, so they’re all being nudged forward.

There doesn’t seem to be the divide between film and TV directors anymore, the line is blurred now and opened up the playing field. Do you think it’s opened up more doors for directors such as yourself, to now move freely between the two?

I hope so. I’d love to do long form and I think there are some stories that will suit that, and I have a story which would suit that. Lots of the novels that have adapted onto film could’ve been done as a television drama because the classical novel better suits six-12 hours than it does an hour and a half, whereas short stories suit the feature film. Brooklyn is an exception, and there are lots of exceptions to this rule, but it’s great that cinematic voices are working in TV, and that films can be made by television directors, who can have a really clear focus on narrative. I just live now, I don’t know what it was like before, I’m just lucky to have made one film and hope to make another – that’s all I can say.

Departure hits UK cinemas today and you can watch the trailer below:

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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