New British Cinema: Old Boys Q&A with Director

On 9 May, Storyhouse hosted a screening of Old Boys and a Q&A with the director, Toby MacDonald. One of our Young Content Creators, Matt, went along…

Over the next few months Storyhouse will be hosting a fantastic film season entitled New British Cinema showcasing the directorial debuts of some very exciting home-grown talent. As well as showcasing these films, on selected screenings Storyhouse is honoured to welcome along the directors to talk about their work and journey towards getting their first film onto our screens. Over the course of this season, I will be providing coverage of these events, why we should engage with these indigenous films and what lessons can be passed on to anyone who may wish to pursue a career in film.

The first film in this season is Old Boys directed by Toby MacDonald. In his own words, this film is an exploration of “why British men are so bad at speaking to women”. Set in an all-boys boarding school in the 1980s, the film focuses on Amberson (Alex Lawther, The End of the F***ing World), a shy and awkward school boy who uses his creative skills to woo his new French teachers daughter, albeit on behalf of his far more conventionally handsome, but far more dim head-boy Winchester, whom Amberson is living vicariously though.

The film is a triumphant culmination of influences. Director Toby MacDonald is aware of the long British cannon of boarding schools on film, drawing inspiration from classic British cinema such as Goodbye Mr. Chips and If… . Old Boys infuses this tradition with the sensibilities of the 80s coming of age films of John Hughes, while tonally inspired by films of the Czech New Wave, who he praises for their balance of humour and humanism.

Having started working as a film runner, Toby MacDonald always harboured what he described as a “secret urge” to become a filmmaker. He took the plunge in 2000 with a short film Je t’aime John Wayne, using his friend’s idea of “a French new wave film about a man who smokes as he brushes his teeth”, the film was in his own admission “surprisingly successful”. At a time where British cinema was dominated by much more serious topics and social realism, this comedy stood out. This short film worked its way through film festivals and earned him acclaim from the BAFTA’s.

Toby MacDonald states a desire to create a “film school for self”, taking the approach of avoiding the hierarchy of the conventional film school route into cinema and instead learning by doing. This is something that did not come without its problems, especially when transitioning from short films to features. Issues with the screen play delayed proceeding for many years, he quips about how “governments change, and families occur” during these years, lamenting that this is something that he should have started much earlier. However, perseverance prevailed, his reputation earned through short films helped encourage the BFI & Film 4 to become involved and the hiring of a writer in order to nail the tone he had aspired to.

I found him to be an exceptionally modest director, not shying away from how important collaboration is within creating a film. Crediting his friend who helped him in the role of producer to get his films to festival and the tremendous actors he has had the privilege of working with. Having the luck to have met with Alex Lawther at the beginning of his rise and being stricken by his apparent brilliance he found the perfect person for the role of Amberson. Meanwhile other cast members were found in far more grass-routes means, Jonah Haur-King who plays Winchester was plucked from a school play as MacDonald spotted his charm to play the “Labrador in trousers” as he is characterised in the film. Saddling himself with the difficult task of his directorial debut being bilingual, both in English and French, he turned to popular names within French Independent cinema in Pauline Etienne and Denis Ménochet who had by chance been searching for a chance to work with one another.

He praises Pauline Etienne for her ability and track record in playing strong and truthful female characters, which is exceptionally important in this film, as she is the only female cast. Meanwhile Denis Ménochet provided his fantastic sense of humour, while causing the director problems due to his “obscene adlibbing” in French, of which he knew very little. MacDonald places a great deal of trust and faith in his cast stating he “goes with what the performer brings”, and I feel this shows in the final piece, Old Boys feels very authentic, the humour isn’t forced, and the characters feel very well fleshed out and natural.

Toby MacDonald provides a great deal of hope for aspiring filmmakers. “The best way to do it, is to do it” he says, having come from an era of having to work with film he notes the ease to now to go out and be creative, suggesting that “a good film can be made on a mobile phone”. The lack of equipment is little excuse these days and that “if you make something good, film festivals will be glad to have it”. This is an approach that has served him very well, and with this debut feature, you can only see him going from strength to strength, creating films that are so wonderfully and uniquely British.

We hope you will join us in continuing to celebrate New British Cinema. For more information about the season, head here.

This article was written by one of our Young Content Creators, an initiative ran in conjunction with Young Storyhouse to provide budding content creators paid opportunities to showcase their unique voices within Storyhouse’s digital channels.

Young Content Creators are supported by Film Hub North, awarding funds from The National Lottery.