Perhaps it helped watching this film out in China, at the Macau Film Festival, but there was something so endearingly and affectionately British about Old Boys, a charming romantic comedy set in a boarding school, loosely based on the famous tale of Cyrano de Bergerac. The affable director discussed his directorial debut, while giving much praise to his leading star, the wonderful young actor Alex Lawther.
You’ve mentioned this being based on personal experiences – did you go to boarding school?
Yes I did, I went when I was eight. It was a bit of strange experience.
The film takes an affectionate, if somewhat barbed take on boarding school traditions and culture…
Yes, I wanted it to have to human feeling to it I suppose. The filmmakers I look up to are people like Milos Forman, his work, even though he is condemning it’s done in a very human way. We didn’t want to take it that far, but that was an important part of not just preaching to the converted. We wanted to let the audience into the world. Whereas a film like If, the Lindsay Anderson film, is much harder and more political, we wanted to look at the emotional side of it for the boys.
The sport in this is called ‘streamers’ – did you create that, or is from your experience?
No, so lots of these schools have funny little games that grow quite big, often they’re based on a weird bit of architecture in the school, so we based it on the game at Eton which is famous, played for hundreds of years and I don’t think anyone scored a goal for a hundred years or something ridiculous like that, and I think the other one is a game played between two villages in the Midlands with a giant ball through a river, and a couple of ridges and there’s like a hundred players on each side and it’s really violent, and we wanted to combine that and find a way to show how status works in the school.
It’s a loose adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, was that always on your mind, or is that just one of those stories that is so ingrained into the fabric of storytelling, that it’s almost not an adaptation, if that makes sense.
I know exactly what you mean, it’s a loose adaptation, but the thing we really loved in Cyrano, and the brilliance of that story and the irony, is that sense of unrequited love that transposes to teenagers really perfectly. We tried to make it very light, we didn’t want to hit those beats too hard and I suppose if you don’t know Cyrano, you could watch it and you wouldn’t be thinking it was based on something else. The 90s Depardieu films was a really big film for me when I was an excruciatingly awkward teenager. I saw a lot of myself in Cyrano, he’s a hopeless romantic with a sort of greatness and every teenager feels that maybe they have that possibility to be great.
Popularity at school is a big theme in this. I’ve had friends who were so popular in school and then now, they’re not really doing an awful lot. It shows how little the politics in the playground can actually mean.
Yeah that’s definitely true and there’s something that happens when you’re a teenager and it’s that the world seems so vital and important and meaningful and your immediate world is everything at that time, and the things that you do you feel you’re destined to do forever, and then you get into your 20s and 30s and realise it wasn’t so significant. The thing we were after was a moment in there that your life could change, just meeting someone.
Alex Lawther is wonderful in the lead. You have this character on the page, but he must bring certain nuances and depth that even you couldn’t have predicted?
I think it’s a great question, because obviously there’s a tonal question whenever you set out to make a comedy and what the soul is going to be in your film, and what we were looking for with this character was his teenage awkwardness being the nose of Cyrano, basically. That was the thing that we wanted to find, but Alex just brings a depth and a soul to the character and an inner life that is astonishing for an actor his age. Somebody untrained, he’s a self-made guy and yeah, he brought a whole new thing to it. Also his relationship with Pauline Etienne and their chemistry together and what they found together with the characters as well, changed the film – and we realised that when we were making it, we knew that is what we needed to go with. That was a great lesson as a director because you think you’ve got something and then realise you’ve got something else, and you need to be able to realise what you have.
The film feels very inherently English, but watching it here in China and it felt like the audience really responded to it. What for you gives it universal appeal?
I think it’s a combination of the comedy and the heart. It’s down to Pauline and Alex, the way that they play those scenes we found is really universal, from Croatia to France to last night here in Macau, it has played as a universal story, and I think it’s to do with the tenderness of it. Also the boarding school environment had been set up recently with Harry Potter so people know about it and it has become a bit of a genre of itself.
And then we can all relate to unrequited love…