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Astronaut: Interview with Shelagh Mcleod

Astronaut: Interview with Shelagh Mcleod

ASTRONAUT director Shelagh McLeod has made a wonderful emotional journey sending legendary actor Richard Dreyfuss back to space, possibly to catch up with his Close Encounters of the Third Kind mates. On the serious side though, this is an enlightening drama of courage and passion for life. Amongst a plethora of accolades and career achievements, including a Masters in creative writing to gain confidence to step behind the camera, Shelagh was truly charismatic and amusing to have a conversation with.

Proving to be a solid auteur herself after years of happiness as an actor travelling the world, Shelagh had wanted to direct for a long time, especially only working with limited female directors across an established career and now part of a thankfully hanging trend.

Let’s begin with Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

SMC – Ah you remember that, a brilliant shoot. Great director and crew treated us all so well while working with outrageous Liz Hurley, such fun.

What was the genesis of Astronaut to writing and directing?

SMc – My mother passed away in a nursing home eight years back, it was a beautiful home. In the gardens, there was always a guy in a wheelchair looking up at the sky for hours. Gathering my courage, I said: ‘What is it you’re looking for’ and he said, ‘another go’. It made me think what people yearn to achieve or wanted again in life. It set me off as a beginning to create Angus, whom perhaps wanted to be an Astronaut. I lost my dad very young, he always wanted to go to space. I always have too and knowing some amateur things about space travel, this movie was born.

Partially based on fact then?

SMc – In a way, I spent months researching various careers Angus could’ve had. Then I came across a great science guy who works on my projects, so from there we thought civil engineering and deep dived into limestone.

I’ll get to Richard as Angus shortly, however when it came to casting wonderful Krista Bridges (perfect as his daughter) was she always in mind?

SMc – You’re the first person to ask, I’m really glad you did. There’s amazing actors in Canada, we auditioned many whilst there was a couple we were soughting after. But my brilliant agent Jennifer represented Krista, so I watched some of her acting demos. Randomly around midnight, my agent sent me Krista’s audition tape which brought tears pouring down my face, so good. Then when we all met her at the casting call, Krista was spellbinding while reading for us. Everyone agreed to give her the role.

How was the clearancing or permission to reference NASA?

SMc – The clearancing was mind-blowing, but NASA were pretty good as we had a poster buried along with all his paraphernalia in his old house plus NASA is quite small on the poster.

Does the Sundown Valley Manor actually exist or a built set?

SMc – It does now (laughs). Actually it’s a clay shooting lodge, we scouted but knew immediately this is it. All our scheduled days to film worked except one when a shooting gathering was booked years ahead but we didn’t worry much thinking working around it would be OK. It is the scene when Angus and Len (Graham Greene) are on the porch talking as Krista turns up with son Barney. On the day there was a cracking shot every 30 seconds but they were all so clever, they timed their dialogue around each boom. Our sound team miraculously cleared it up.

Was Richard a walk-up as Angus, he’s got to be in the mix for awards?

SMc – Would love that, he so deserves recognition here, I agree. Known for my acting, not filmmaking, I saw my agent because Telefilm (a funding Canadian company) greatly funded us and I needed to ask who’s playing Angus. I am no Steven Spielberg by any means so choices were going to be at a premium we thought. The moment my agent suggested Richard I thought, oh we’ll NEVER get him, but she sent script to his agent. Apparently after Richard read it, his wife Stella read it and a few Skype sessions later talking science fiction stuff, we got on so great, he agreed.

Do you have to direct an icon such as Richard or just let him flow?

SMc – Not at all but he says it himself, he comes with a certain energy; they were all great actors anyway, we had such little time getting what we needed in 3/4 takes. So often it was good fun on set, Richard questioned the odd character trait and we adjusted accordingly if required, perfect.

Was it always called Astronaut, or other options?

SMc – Good question Shane, for years it was called The Competition. But Richard ambles onto the set day one as I’m shaking with fear thinking I could run away at this point with nobody caring because Richard knows exactly what he’s doing (laughs). He comes up to me exclaiming I can’t call it The Competition. Quizzing him I asked why: ‘Because 40 years ago, I made a film – The Competition’ (1980 with Amy Irving, Lee Remick). Suddenly I replied, ‘Oh nobody will remember that.’ However he said people definitely will. The crew all started coming up with names, one I really liked was Kicking Stones. I thought of Astronaut, financer’s agreed.

There is a line ‘I didn’t call you the day she died because I was too busy losing her’ that brought me to tears.

SMc – He and Krista got that tremendous scene which was the final one of the night when everybody wanted to go home. Two takes only both brilliant with no CGI tears or stuff to blow in your eye creating tears. They are very present as actors, it is the most exhausting thing from my 40+ years acting, you have to be ready to go for moments like that. It’s tough.

Is there a director’s cameo I may have missed?

SMc – Yes I am (laughs) as the doctor who pops in to say his blood pressure is a little low. A friend of mine knew I wanted to play this part, he said that’s fine don’t make it a vanity project. Then it got to shooting, I got nervous in the moment. My director of photography offered to do an extreme close-up but I said, oh no I don’t want to make it a vanity project (laughs). I do think the scene plays well for Richard.

May I also mention regal Graham Greene whom I admire in everything.

SMc – Positive, everyone fell in love with Graham on set. Unbelievable how he acts with what seems so little effort or fuss. The scene when they are listening to the visiting singer sing, we had so much footage because the camera kept on Graham enjoying the music bringing us to tears again. The script just said Len taps along but Graham made it spellbinding.

Captivating actually, singing as if she’s performing at Wembley Stadium.

SMc – Exactly Shane, the actress asked me for any notes. I just said, ‘You have probably been singing at the Royal Opera House, now you’re here, it’s a tough gig.’ Her sudden answer was, ‘Got it!’

Does it hurt Astronaut is not in cinemas on the big screen with crowds drawing in the emotions?

SMc – It does, we were lined up to on March 20th across UK into 70 theatres. We were all gutted working so hard beginning to end then another 18 months post-production. We got the call on March 18th, two days before lift-off, cinemas confirmed closed. There is talk of a rerelease in select cinemas because we filmed in anamorphic. I do hope it also happens down under.

Why should people seek out Astronaut in your own words?

SMc – It’s a universal message of hope, no matter your age. We all have dreams, no matter how big. You do get to a part in your life looking back seeing dreams disappear. We hope the movie says: keep dreaming, believing as it can happen, connecting all families who are experiencing it together.

ASTRONAUT (Rated PG, 97 min) – Available to rent or buy on digital platforms

Shane A. Bassett

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