Harry Macqueen’s Supernova, which makes its world premiere bow at the San Sebastián Film Festival next week, is a film founded in contrasts. A simple, intimate love story that follows a middle-aged gay couple, Sam and Tusker, on a road trip through England’s Lake District as they get to grips with Tusker’s diagnosis with young-onset dementia, its title nevertheless hints at the huge existential war the two are waging to preserve their love as illness threatens to tear them apart. Its two central performances from stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci eschew declarative moments of grandstanding dialogue in favor of quieter moments of painful reflection, and yet it still promises to ensconce both performers firmly into this year’s awards conversation for the power of its emotional gut punch.
It might also be a landmark film; a rare example of cinema telling a gay narrative in a way that isn’t directly affected by the fact of its characters’ sexuality. Sam and Tusker have lived together contentedly for years before the events of the film, and their sexuality is incidental to the struggle they’re now taking on. It’s remarkable for how unremarkable it is, and it is undeniable how universal Macqueen’s specificity becomes.
It helps, too, that Firth and Tucci share 20 years of friendship off-screen, forged as they starred in 2001’s Conspiracy together. Theirs is an effortless chemistry that has seen the pair through good times and dark times, and it manifests in Supernova as much through moments of bickering levity as through deep emotional catharsis.
In short, Supernova is a remarkable ode to the power and triumph of love, anchored by a pair of breathtaking performances from Firth and Tucci and the masterfully understated direction of Macqueen. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming; as singularly intoxicating as its Lake District backdrop and essential viewing for any who know the pleasure and pain of fighting for someone we love.
Assembled for their only group interview ahead of Supernova‘s world premiere, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci join writer/director Harry Macqueen to talk through their history together, the magic they found in Supernova, and the moments of revelation that emerged through their own travels in the Lake District.
Supernova premieres in San Sebastián on September 23 and will be released in the UK through StudioCanal, with North American rights still on the table at time of publication. Producers are Emily Morgan of Quiddity Films and Tristan Goligher of The Bureau. The Bureau Sales is handling sales.
DEADLINE: There was a story around the start of production where the headline read, “What Did We Do To Deserve A Love Story Starring Colin Firth And Stanley Tucci?” Harry, what did we do?
HARRY MACQUEEN: I have no idea [laughs]. Maybe we’ll find out. It seems the combination of Stan and Colin certainly resonates with people, before the film is even out, so that’s always an exciting and nerve-wracking prospect, I think. As much for Colin and Stan as for me. I hope there’s a good follow-up article from whoever wrote that.
I don’t tend to write for people necessarily. And when I started working with Shaheen Baig, who’s the casting director, and obviously an incredible force of nature anyway, we talked about a lot of people for these characters, honestly. But as we narrowed it down and narrowed it down, we became interested in also perhaps making the couple not both English, and so we went to Stan first. And I sort of pinch myself every time I say it, really, because from that moment, it was easy really. I met him, we got on famously, and he said, “Can we talk about who plays opposite me? Have you thought about Colin Firth, because I could get the script to him?” Of course, I said, “That would be amazing.” And he said, “Good, because I gave it to him yesterday and he read it and loves it and he wants to meet you.” It was quite extraordinary quickly it came together in the end.
DEADLINE: Is that true, Colin; this script came to you as contraband from Stanley?
COLIN FIRTH: He passed it to me in a plain, brown envelope [laughs]. Yes, perhaps that has something to do with what attracted me, really. Sometimes it’s, “Who’s the messenger?” It started with Stanley. He and I have known each other for a very long time, and so it was always associated in my mind with Stanley. It was the idea that one of these characters would be inhabited by Stanley, and it was impossible to separate it from that. Stanley’s face and voice were all over it as I read it. Apart from the words on the page, that was really all I had to go on at the time.
Now… we all have to ask Stanley why he sent it to me. I suppose I was just the nearest neighbor.
STANLEY TUCCI: Yeah, everybody else was out of town [laughs].
I thought your sensibility was right, and I thought I needed a great actor to do this with, and that’s you. Also, because you’re my friend, and we know each other so well, it seemed we could bring that to it; a history, that maybe two actors who didn’t know each other couldn’t bring.
DEADLINE: What struck you about this script that made you want to share it?
TUCCI: It was so pure. There was no fat on it; it was just pure. I just thought it was so beautifully written. It was poetic; at once real and poetic. And then I watched the first movie Harry made, Hinterland, and it was so beautiful; just beautiful. I thought, This is a really wonderful filmmaker.
FIRTH: Yeah. This often happens, but particularly with this, and I’m sure you’ll understand: it’s almost a shame to talk about it. But we will, anyway [laughs]. It’s the simple fact of it being two people who love each other, and it’s coming to an end, and the fear of losing the person you love. It’s just these two people, but the setting being the backdrop of the Lake District with its beautiful emptiness and vast space contrasted with this tiny space they live in in the van. It’s just the two of them and it’s all down to one person’s feelings for another. For all the considerations and controversies that might surround the issues that the film addresses, in the end so many of those issues are about love, and that’s what the entire focus of this film is.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked together occasionally over the years. But do you remember how you first met?
FIRTH: I’m curious to hear Stan’s answer to that first.
TUCCI: I mean, I think I met you on set, right? In the first rehearsal for Conspiracy.
FIRTH: We were playing Nazis together. I don’t know if that qualifies as a romantic comedy setup.
TUCCI: Definitely not. I don’t really remember the full circumstances of it, but I do remember we got along for some reason. You were very kind to me because I was the only American. I’d never worked in England before, and you were very generous and very easy to talk to.
FIRTH: Somehow, we found ourselves following up over the years in various places. I think we were both working in Vancouver at the same time at some point. We met in New York. We’ve seen each other in different countries.
My memory was that it was a little bit one-way in the beginning. I was smitten immediately, and I think you took a little time.
TUCCI: Really? I was playing hard to get.
FIRTH: Yes. I don’t think you adored me as much as I deserved—or, indeed, adored you—for a while. I think I had to win you over.
MACQUEEN: It’s a story as old as time.
TUCCI: That’s right. I do remember, though, you used to come to my dressing room, and I would make cocktails for us.
FIRTH: Is that true?
TUCCI: Yeah, at Shepperton.
FIRTH: They must have been good cocktails, because I have no memory of that [laughs].
I do remember you knocking on my dressing room door—and this dates it precisely—we were at Shepperton Studios, and you’d knocked on the door of every dressing room of every actor to personally apologize for the election of George W. Bush. It was one morning, and we were shooting at that point. And as the only American you felt obliged to basically acknowledge it personally.
TUCCI: Yes, I did. But now, I take no responsibility for this current President at all. I don’t.
FIRTH: No, okay.
DEADLINE: Stan, you mentioned feeling that bringing a friend like Colin aboard could help sell the history of this relationship. How much do you each think your friendship informed the way you went about inhabiting these characters?
TUCCI: Oh, it made a huge difference, I think. Colin’s a great actor and he was right for it, but also there’s a shorthand you have with friends that’s very hard to achieve with someone you don’t know. Actors are good at it; you make friends very quickly and you have these relationships that sort of happen instantaneously because you’re in these intense situations together.
Actors will make friends faster than just about anybody makes friends. But they also discard those friends almost as quickly [laughs]. It’s very rare that relationships are maintained in show business. It’s a testament to a real friendship, because things happen intensely, and then you’re pulled apart [at the end of a shoot] and you’re like, “Oh. Maybe it wasn’t really meant to be. It was just the circumstances.”
FIRTH: In the 20 years we’ve known each other, it has gone through many shades, because a lot of it has been frivolous and fun, but we’ve also seen each other through hard times. It’s comprised of a lot of elements that I don’t think either of us would have done an inventory of looking back, but I think they’ve all probably fed into whatever connection we have today.
I totally agree with Stanley. I think, yes, you can hit the ground running sometimes rather miraculously with a new team of people, whether it’s fellow actors or the director you’re working with, but I think the shorthand Stanley’s talking about has immense power. I think there’s just a recognition which reads. I suppose if I’m reflecting on the specifics of this film, in some ways I think it was possibly at its most helpful with the lighter stuff. That can be much harder to achieve; a kind of casual familiarity in the very early stages of a film where we’re just driving along in the van. The banter. The little, tiny disagreements.
MACQUEEN: You guys make each other laugh a lot, and that’s really important. You’re exactly right. The genuine nature of being able to laugh until you cry with someone is quite tricky to do if the person can’t actually make you laugh.
FIRTH: It’s very hard to manufacture. The light stuff’s the hardest of all, really.
TUCCI: It is, yeah.
FIRTH: I think it was actually very conducive to that, because Stan and I were isolated in that van due to the constraints of where you could put the camera. We often couldn’t even see the crew. They were either hidden in the back of the van, or in a car that was driving in front of us. In the studio, the crew would be outside the van entirely, so we kind of had it to ourselves. There were times when we were making each other laugh where I was convinced that the crew would be standing outside completely stone-faced, because the jokes were just meant for one another. And I’m sure that helped. It was shot in a way in which it felt like it was just the two of us.
DEADLINE: This story is about living with young onset dementia and end of life care, and how that impacts a relationship. And it just so happens that this is a gay relationship. It doesn’t merit huge attention—these people have been together for years, and they have more pressing concerns than their sexuality. I can’t recall a film that has so effortlessly normalized a gay relationship in this way that makes it urgently specific and yet also beautifully universal.
TUCCI: I don’t know that there is one. I don’t think I’ve seen anything where it’s just about two people who love one another, and they happen to be gay. Really, the story is about love, and love is love. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, whatever. Real love is all the same.
FIRTH: As a general rule, I’ve noticed they do tend to go together; the more personal you make something, the more it resonates and therefore becomes universal. I sometimes think that when you’re straining at being universal, it can be more alienating. But by making it so profoundly personal and specific, really you couldn’t have devised a better world in which to focus on two individuals. And that’s why it resonates.
The few people I know who’ve already seen the film have found applications in their own lives. We’re talking about different generations, different sexualities, different relationships. It could be someone’s father. It could be someone’s partner. It could be a friend. But by making it specific, I think it has made the love feel alive.
MACQUEEN: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. You said it, Joe; the universality of the experience of love and, indeed, death… those are the all-encompassing themes of the film, but if you’re inviting an audience to spend some time in a very specific, microcosmic world, which we do with Colin and Stan, then I think they can get on board with those bigger themes.
Also, it’s a simple script. It’s a very simple story from A to B. I think that helps. It doesn’t try to force itself to be anything massively overarching. It’s quite a delicate little tale, really, and so it seems to resonate with people in quite a profound way because of that.
DEADLINE: You had mentioned to me before we started the interview that you spent a lot of time thinking about the history of the relationship between Sam and Tusker. How they met, what their lives were like together before the events of the film. But the finished film is very sparing with those details. Were you surprised, in the end, by how little you needed?
MACQUEEN: To be perfectly honest, I think that only came from having two such brilliant people playing these roles. Ultimately, that was it. You could probably write a pretty rubbish script and Colin and Stan would still make it pretty damn watchable.
FIRTH: I think we’ve proved that’s not necessarily the case over the years [laughs].
MACQUEEN: I do think that, genuinely, if the film was going to work, it would be because the relationship at the heart felt authentic and honest. That’s the film’s greatest triumph, and that’s really solely down to Colin and Stanley taking it on and inhabiting these characters and doing it so openly and so beautifully. That’s the hard stuff. If you get it right, I think people can really emote with these characters and buy into the world you’re presenting. But it’s very easy to get it wrong, too.
Casting it, it was always going to be the case that, if it were possible, we’d find two actors who knew each other. It’s a very intimate film, and it’s pretty much just the two of them for most of it. You almost can’t buy that chemistry.
DEADLINE: Was it always set up that Stanley would play Tusker, the character living with young onset dementia, and Colin would play Sam, the man caring for him?
MACQUEEN: No, and what was so amazing about that part of the process to me personally was that I was afforded the great honor of watching both of them play both roles. We read a lot of the script together where they flipped it around, and we came to our conclusion about how it should be based on that. You don’t often get that opportunity when you’re preparing a film. It was amazing experience. But I think I’m right in saying that you guys had a pretty good idea of who you thought would have been better at each role, right?
TUCCI: Yeah. I had been thinking about it, and then Colin said, “I really think we should do it like this…” It just felt better, right? I don’t know why, necessarily.
FIRTH: It is hard to put your finger on why. I will always be intrigued by the “what if” of how this film might have felt the other way around. It would be a very, very different film. I’d like to think it could have worked if we’d switched roles, but I think it would have been transformed.
TUCCI: Well, we could make it again.
FIRTH: Let’s do that.
TUCCI: It did have a feeling of a play, where if I were doing it on stage, I would probably want to switch the roles back and forth each night. That would be fun.
FIRTH: I agree. I was the first of us to say it out loud, I think, “Are we sure we’re in the right roles?” As Stanley said, he was quite quick to agree that it should at least be investigated. Harry wanted to test it out. And I think this is testament to the writing, really, which is that once we’d made the decision, I actually grieved the loss of Tusker a little bit. I wanted to play Sam, but I didn’t want to let go of playing Tusker. Because it wasn’t just about who you’d be playing, but it meant that I was going to be playing opposite Tusker. Perhaps loving and being loved by the man I thought I was going to play.
It does feel like a play. In some ways it does. It had the advantages that you often only get in theatre, where you have very long, single scenes, which makes it the province of the actor. You’re not as much at the mercy of editing that chops things around. You have a run at it. You’re given three acts to play, and it’s for you to go through the gears, to process it, to explore it. It did make it very much alive, because as we would do these long scenes, Stanley wouldn’t be doing the same thing every time. There was nothing manufactured or repetitive.
TUCCI: It tests you as an actor. A lot of movies don’t test you. Or they test you simply by having you wait around 17 hours to do a shot of you driving a car, or whatever it is. This is a real test of your fortitude, of your technique, of your imagination, because there’s nowhere to hide. There’s literally nowhere to hide. Harry turns the camera on, and then you have to say those incredibly powerful words. If you don’t do that right, it’s not going to work.
DEADLINE: I wonder, then, are there moments of real revelation that come from that; moments that surprise you by how deep they go or how truthful they feel as you’re doing them?
TUCCI: Absolutely, yes. Because it is so specific and it’s so pure. If you do it in an unadorned fashion—either as a director or as an actor—the simpler you make it, the deeper it goes. If you put too much ornamentation on top—crazy shots, or too many edits… The more unadorned it is, it’s like you just drop deeper and deeper and deeper.
MACQUEEN: Being uninhibited within that and being able to let the words and scenes play out in whatever way feels most comfortable in the moment, is always what you’re striving to do. It’s commonly said that if you have quite meaty, long scenes where you’re just letting it get shot in real time almost, you have a better chance of mining those little magic moments. It has a pace to it as well, which is, by definition, organic. As Stanley said, the more you mess around with that stuff, actually the more fake it seems. It’s purity that you’re always trying to go for with something like this, and I think if you can just let people off the leash a bit, then that really helps. I think we got to do that.
TUCCI: It’s a testament to Harry’s script too that the naturalism of the script was as innate as the poeticism that’s in it. Just go in and say your lines, and let’s see what happens. You don’t have to do a lot with lines like that, and when a camera is set in the right place, all you have to do is go in and say the lines. Then… it just happens.
FIRTH: I think it’s another feature of good directing—and the kind of directing I relish—is not when a director says to you, “Do it like this.” If you walk onto a set and the production designer has created a world you can recognize with the naked eye, that can have an impact on you. It not only fires up your imagination, but it does so collectively because we’re all looking at it. Some directors will use music to do that, but light and production design you can see… All too often on a film set, you can’t really see it at all. It’s all kind of behind you, and when you look in the monitor you can go, “Wow, that’s beautifully composed.” But the cottage at the end of the film was a fully art-directed house. It felt like stepping into a Bergman movie. I recognized the world we were in. It was the same with the interior of the van, and although the Lake District itself wasn’t art-directed, it was chosen. We could see the light and the geography we were surrounded by, and that is good directing. We’re put in a world which basically makes the whole sensibility coherent for everybody.
DEADLINE: The film is set on a ride through the Lake District, which is extraordinarily beautiful, and it’s shot through the lens of Dick Pope, who is one of Britain’s finest cinematographers. And yet the intimacy you described inside that fairly crappy van makes it the place we really want to be. We want to live inside this relationship the whole time.
TUCCI: Yeah, and the key thing there was Harry’s vision for the film. He has a very clear vision, which a lot of people don’t have.
FIRTH: That intimacy was on the page. Going back to that question—what attracted me—it’s very, very hard to name it, because it’s a very undefined thing; the reaction to a script you’ve been asked to inhabit. You just feel it in your fingertips or on the back of your neck. But I think you’ve helped me articulate it a little bit by saying you want to be in that relationship. That’s what we were being invited to do, however agonizing the journey is. Obviously, it’s desperately painful, but still, it’s painful because of the beauty of what they’re losing. We were being asked to inhabit this relationship, and I completely fell in love with both of these characters on that first reading.
Any well-written script will have this about it, but the characters are not in isolation. One character should be—and it’s very pronounced in this—defined by the other. Sam is all about Tusker, in fact probably to a damaging degree. Meanwhile Tusker is trying to help Sam with, “You cannot only be about me. You can’t sacrifice your life, your craft, your career. You must have it back.” They’re so intertwined in that dynamic, but I fell in love with their love, and whichever character you’re playing, being on the receiving end of a love like that, I think, has this immense power.
DEADLINE: How much research did you put in to making sure the depiction of dementia was truthful?
TUCCI: Harry did so much research to write the piece. I mean, he immersed himself. I looked at a lot of documentaries, but I found it very painful and I could only look at them for short periods of time. But you want to be truthful to the people who live with this. You want to do it right. You don’t want to make it melodramatic. You just want to do it right.
FIRTH: Harry’s research was exhaustive, and he was extremely useful as someone who could brief us. He took us to University College London to meet Sebastian Crutch, a professor of neuropsychology there. He showed us films and talked us through this particular kind of dementia. It was informative, obviously, but as Stanley said, it was a very emotional experience.
If the nature of the beast here is, in terms of what we do, to do it with empathy, it was very important to be taken through that. I think if Harry hadn’t been so immersed in this, and hadn’t felt so passionately about it, perhaps that wouldn’t have happened, because that stuff communicates.
MACQUEEN: Yeah, I think when you spent a long time, as I had prior to shooting the film, with people who were living this experience, you do have a moral responsibility to make sure that how you handle the material is reflective of how those people experience what is a profoundly difficult and always profoundly moving thing. For me, there was no choice in that. I was asking of these people to give me their time, and welcome me into their world, and I absolutely had to try and get it right.
We worked on that throughout the process, really, right from the start with me researching it, and right until the end of post-production. And Stanley and Colin were pretty essential in getting that right too. We did the hard work, and I think we have made something that we should be really proud of.
FIRTH: With dementia, the sheer numbers globally mean the chances are that many of us have some connection to it. It has had a profound effect on my family through more than one generation, and it is devastating. I think an awful lot of people will have a direct relationship with it.
But again, if we’re talking about universality, the story doesn’t only have to relate to dementia. We all know what it’s like to lose somebody. We all know what it’s like to fear something like this, and I think the film will resonate with people whose issues aren’t specifically these ones.