Exclusive Interview: “Astronaut” Director Shelagh McLeod

By Caz Armstrong

“Astronaut” (2019) is an uplifting and encouraging drama about Angus (Richard Dreyfuss), an ageing widower coming to terms with his failing physical health and life in a care home. He always wanted to be an astronaut so despite his age, physical condition, and protests of those around him, he enters a competition to go on a commercial space flight.

Caz Armstrong had the opportunity to speak with director Shelagh McLeod about her directorial debut and pursuing passions later in life.

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Caz: Where did the idea come from?

Shelagh: My mother was very ill. It was a battle to get her into a decent nursing home and I became extremely angry as I saw how old people are shuffled off. In the nursing home gardens, there was a lovely elegant old man who was in a wheelchair and he would never want to come in. So I asked him one day  “what are you looking for up there, what do you want?” And he said “another go”.

It broke my heart a bit and I realised that it ain’t over until it’s over. I felt that the elderly should be listened to and heard and I wondered what he wanted another go at. I always wanted to be an astronaut so I thought maybe this old guy had wanted to go to space.

It always came to me as a man, people have asked me why it wasn’t a woman. I lost my father when he was 61 years old and it was an ode to him. But also because it was an old man I met, not a woman.

You went back to education later in life, was that part of the message as well – that it’s never too late to educate yourself and to pursue your dreams?

I went to drama school and I barely left with an exam. I was extremely good at tap dancing but I didn’t have an academic education and I was very dyslexic.

The university put their arms around me and I found what I’d been looking for for a very long time. I just felt this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, it doesn’t matter what age I am but I want to write and direct – and occasionally act.

Did your approach differ between Richard Dreyfuss who is about 60 years older than Richie Lawrence who played Barney?

The funny thing is the actors all really liked each other so they all worked together very very well. They were both very playful. Richard is an extremely playful guy and likes to play on set. Richie was the same way.

“I would say to anybody of any age don’t feel you can’t do this because you’re too old.”

Can you tell me a bit more about why you chose to shoot it in anamorphic?

I was chatting to the DOP Scott McLellan about it and he said he’d like to shoot it in anamorphic. When you see it on the big screen it really does work because it has this sort of widescreen larger movie look to it. But it’s a very intimate story, it’s a kind of fable. It’s a slightly old fashioned film so it’s got to have this feeling of times gone past and I think the anamorphic really helps that come out.

The lighting was quite clean and bright as well, was that to fit into the same approach?

To be honest the problem we have with shooting the interiors and making them very bland was that the bedrooms were literally 6’x8’.

I would have loved to have more of that lavish look to it. And the dance scene was originally written to take place outside against the big backdrop. But the temperatures just plummeted so we had to cram into a very small room. So there were limitations to what we could do with the interiors but the outside works very well I think.

How did your years on the screen help you to make that shift to behind the camera?

It’s the technical side I’ve really worked hard at because working with actors is second nature to me.

I’ve worked with so many famous actors and I learned so much from watching them. That was really helpful when I started working with Richard Dreyfuss because I knew he was one of my very favourite actors and he was a brilliant guy.

This project, and the way I work as a director, will never be about me, it will be about the vision of the film, about the collaborative process.

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Richard Dreyfuss and Shelagh McLeod in Astronaut (2019)

“It’s a film for anybody who’s ever had a dream and might be looking back on their lives and seeing those dreams vanish and thinking “Can I still hope? Can I still dream?” And we hope this film says “yes you can!””

You wrote and directed it, was it difficult to let go of some of those strings to other people?

They always say the director is the captain but as long as I knew I had the vision in my head I could create a great atmosphere on the set no matter how tired and cold and fed up we were. The only thing I worried about was blocking. I blocked the scenes every night in my hotel on paper, playing the parts myself. Trying to get 7 people in a room that’s 6’x8’ is quite hard!

Did you have to cut anything that you were sorry to lose?

We originally shot the scene where Richard is taken by his family and breaks into the space centre in a blizzard. It looked so beautiful, they’re not only fighting for the characters to win but they were also fighting the elements and it’s such a great scene.

I fought and fought to keep that scene in and finally I was overruled because we couldn’t cut it to the next scene. So we re-shot that scene in May the following year. It was fine, it works well but it was such a shame.

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How did you celebrate when the film was finished?

We finished on the day before Christmas Eve. Jessica Adams and Sean Buckley, our two incredible producers threw a lovely party and Richard Dreyfuss showed up with a Santa hat on!

I said I can’t believe we got through it with snowstorms, illness, I’m so relieved. And Jess said she was so relieved that nobody died! But actually, sadly Jennifer Phipps who played Alice died in April last year. She was 87 and it was her last job. She was happy on set, and that’s what the film is about.

This film may not be for the film theory textbooks, and I’ve read every one of them. But it’s a film for anybody who’s ever had a dream and might be looking back on their lives and seeing those dreams vanish and thinking “Can I still hope? Can I still dream?” And we hope this film says “Yes you can!”

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How would you encourage people to take that first step if they’ve got a dream?

Don’t give up!

I knew this was going to be my first film, it wasn’t going to have the budget, so I asked myself what is this film really about? I kept drilling down in the story and the message of the story is about friendship, love, family and achieving our dream.

I’ve worked with a lot of directors and only four have been women. I had to keep reminding myself that I can do this and I am allowed to do this because I want to do this.

I would say to anybody of any age don’t feel you can’t do this because you’re too old. The one thing about getting older is that we have more stories to tell. I wish I’d stepped behind the camera earlier but I’m doing it now. I’ve got 5 or 6 projects stacking up and I’m hopefully going to kick down those doors and the next film will be bigger.

What is your next project?

I have a script and it’s almost good to go, it’s called “Nexus”. It was shortlisted at Sundance in 2016, and it was chosen by the Meryl Streep Nicole Kidman writer’s lab last year. I would be delighted if we either shoot it here or in Canada. Telefilm in Canada has been a massive supporter of me and the film.

In memory of Jennifer Phipps. May she rest in peace.

“Astronaut” is released on digital and on-demand platforms in the U.K on 27th April.

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