Alex Lawther & Toby MacDonald on Old Boys, creative blocks, and The End of the F***ing World

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By Patrick Sullivan, Film & TV Editor & James Turnbull, Film & TV Online Editor

Epigram Film & TV spoke to the director and star of Old Boys about their film refreshing Cyrano de Bergerac with a public schoolboy twist.

Alex Lawther is building a reputation as one of Britain’s brightest young actors. A memorable turn as dubious teen protagonist Kenny in Black Mirror’s ‘Shut Up and Dance’ (2016) propelled him into the limelight, but even before then he was the younger version of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). By the time The End of the F***ing World (2017) took the world by storm, Lawther was a star to watch.

Trailer courtesy of Verve Pictures

Before filming Black Mirror or The End of the F***ing World, he filmed Old Boys (2019) over two years ago with BAFTA nominated director Toby MacDonald, and his character work as a lonely but creative scholarship student, Amberson, at an archaic public boys school, has set the trend for his acting trajectory.

‘I was asked last night: “Why do you play so many boys who are unrequitedly in love?” I’d never thought of that before and it’s so true! I wonder why that is. In a weird way, Amberson is the older brother of Kenny and James. They have an even worst time of it than he does.

‘I hope that for all the similarities the characters have, they’re also individual and I try to treat them as an individual each time.’

The loneliness Amberson experiences, especially at the beginning of the film, as well as the isolated spirits of his previously seen characters, could not be more different from Lawther’s open nature and the childhood he enjoyed. ‘I was very lucky at school to have some really lovely friends and [...] that’s what made my experience different to Amberson’s. What I love about Old Boys is that it becomes a celebration of friendship between Winchester and Amberson and the love they have for each other. I had the friends I guess I wish Amberson had.’

‘I was asked last night: “Why do you play so many boys who are unrequitedly in love?” I’d never thought of that before and it’s so true!'
Alex Lawther on his similar roles

We met both Lawther and MacDonald in a quiet room off the main Watershed forum, after they had just introduced a preview of their film to a sold out cinema. They were both dressed casually for the occasion, with Lawther especially displaying a preppy style with a lightweight scarf and layers to match the interchangeable conditions of a February trip to the West Country. Toby MacDonald, the man at the helm of the film, was remarkably modest, nursing a pint of beer and consistently surprised at our preparation of questions for him rather than his star.

Even when asked to describe his film, MacDonald offloaded to Lawther, who said: ‘Old Boys is set in a boys school in the South of England, into which comes a girl called Agnes (Pauline Etienne). Agnes is the daughter of the new French teacher and quickly falls in love with Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), a traditional school hero. [Winchester] is lovable but spectacularly dim. He enlists my character, Amberson, to help in order to woo her. In the course of doing so, Amberson falls in love with her too and this complicated love triangle commences.’

MacDonald’s tendency to hold his breath until invited to speak was evident initially, but when he did speak he was assured and considered, introspective about the work which discusses in fine detail.

‘The feelings the characters, particularly Amberson, have I identify with very strongly, [...] the repressed creative side and the lack of being able to speak to girls.

‘We used the architecture of Cyrano de Bergerac [for inspiration]. The version of that I love is the Depardieu/Rappeneau version (1990 film) in full verse. A lot of French cinema [was useful] in finding the particular, humanist satirical tone.

‘It was obvious to us Amberson shouldn’t get the girl and it was a lot to do with creating what his mindset would be afterwards. Him not needing the school and whatever happening with Agnes not getting in the way, we wanted to merge that emotionally so it felt like one single movement. It was always going to be a bittersweet ending.

‘Some people prefer clarity, but we felt Amberson was going through something at that moment and we wanted it to be as cinematic as possible.’

‘Screenwriting is perhaps the hardest and most time consuming task.'
Director Toby MacDonald on how learning screenwriting slowed his output

Old Boys marks MacDonald’s first feature length film, having found success in the early 2000s with shorts Je t’aime John Wayne (2000) and Heavy Metal Drummer (2005). Between then and Old Boys, he found his output limited to the odd commercial as he tried to learn screenwriting with his filmmaking partner in crime, Luke Morris, who has producing credits on his three major releases.

‘We thought it’d be a good idea and it’s took us into a black hole of development. As well as making films, I’ve also shot commercials as well to pay for my screenwriting habit. We used the short films we did as a way to teach ourselves as many parts of filmmaking as possible. Screenwriting is perhaps the hardest and most time consuming task.’

Acting, on the other hand, seems to come naturally to Alex Lawther, now aged 23. A calming and relaxed presence in the room, he speaks of his journey from child plays to the screen as if the former was only yesterday.

‘It was through after-school drama club - we had this amazing teacher, Miss Jenkinson. From 11 years old, I went every Thursday and I was doing this wonderful thing I had no experience of inside lessons. [It] was very fun, expressive, and silly.’

blackmirror

Netflix / Laurie Sparham

The University of Bristol is filled with talented, aspiring actors shining in productions with DramSoc, Spotlights, and other societies alongside their studies. When asked if he had any tips, Lawther said, ‘Bristol’s a great place to be! [Acting] is such a mysterious thing, when people start working and continue working it’s very individual but make sure you find a way to keep enjoying it because, otherwise, maybe do another job?’

Were there any scenes in Old Boys where the talented Lawther had to dig in? ‘It’s amazing when you do something like diving into a cold river in the early Spring how much of the [acting] is done for you because you are fighting the elements.’

The young cast were subjected to scenes filmed in Hertfordshire, during which they played the fake sport ‘Streamers’, a game like rugby but set in a river with a cube shaped ball. Toby jumped in at this point to contextualise Lawther’s understatement: ‘It was freezing!’

OldBoys_Still-5-min

Photo courtesy of Verve Pictures

The pair genuinely beam at the recollection of such warm (or not so) memories. ‘It’s a really wonderful way to start a team,’ Lawther said. ‘There’s no better way to do that than to be dripping wet and cold!’ Who would be the better ‘Streamers’ player though, braving the cold, icy depths of British waters?

‘Alex, definitely,’ Toby MacDonald adamantly stated.

‘Really?’ Lawther retorted.

His character certainly lacked all the natural athleticism needed to compete. ‘I get really moved by how courageous [Amberson] is at the end pushing through that fat dad. Great moment.’

‘I would say that Alex is very very tough,’ MacDonald said. ‘By working with him that first week in the river, he really showed extraordinary metal which shamed some of our other actors and inspired them. I was amazed at how strong he was.’

‘The same could be said for Toby, making his first feature film.’ Alex Lawther said. ‘I’ve worked with several first time feature directors and Toby has such class and calm, which, as an actor, is a big gift in the crazy circus that is filmmaking. [...] I don’t know what’s going through his head but at least he looks like he knows what’s going on! It’s reassuring and rare in people that make several films. If that’s anything to go by, under pressure in Streamers, then Toby [would be the better player].’

‘I don’t know what’s going through his head but at least he looks like he knows what’s going on!'
Alex Lawther on Toby MacDonald's calmness on set

The English director has certainly remained resolute in finally fulfilling his dream with the feature length Old Boys. In the time since he first broke onto the scene with Je t’aime John Wayne, the tapestry of filmmaking have changed significantly.

‘I probably wouldn’t do anything differently because there was a little bit of beginner’s luck. I was very innocent and, with Luke’s help, we just swept into it with the joy of not really knowing anything.

‘Short film making has changed enormously in terms of technology. What’s basically happened is it’s easier to make shorts, but it’s harder to get them seen. We brought Je t’aime John Wayne down to show [at Watershed] and I had to dig out the old print, an amazing artefact from that era, 35mm with an endless amount of festival labels on it from around the world. It was a different era with much more physical filmmaking. [As a result] shorts have got a bit longer. I’m a nine minute, 50 second purist.’

After finally breaking his duck, what next for the aspiring creative?

‘Me?’ Toby MacDonald said, surprised again at the direction of the interview. ‘More movies. Hopefully, one day with Alex. I suppose to keep exploring the slightly wonky tone that I’m really interested in.’

OldBoys_Still-2-min

Photo courtesy of Verve Pictures

Alex Lawther, the perfect actor for anything ‘slightly wonky’, refused to look far ahead into what looks to be a promising career. ‘It’s funny, I find it really hard to project myself beyond the next job. I find it hard to imagine myself in a story before the story has been in front of me and I read it. That’s when my imagination starts. I never really know what’s going to come next. I hope that for all the similarities the characters have, they’re also individual and I try to treat them as an individual each time.’

Certainly, there are many of us keenly anticipating any developments in The End of F***ing World, for which a second season has been confirmed. ‘I don’t even know if I’m in it!’ Lawther professes, but he is just as excited as the rest of us at the prospect of more. ‘I just want to see what happens next! I can’t celebrate Charlie Covell (the screenwriter) enough. I was reading the comic books the other day and they are brilliant, but Charlie, she’s made them into something else.’

The breakout success of the show, which skyrocketed in popularity when released on Netflix, caught everybody off guard, including its cast, crew, and star. ‘We were like, “What the hell have we made?” Then it got released on Channel 4 and the people who saw it seemed to respond well to it. The best we were hoping for was that people weren’t going to hate us or be revolted by it.

endofthef

Photo courtesy of Netflix

‘We were doubly surprised because Netflix is such a big platform and we were perhaps naive by not thinking about how many people it can reach and how quickly with a simultaneous release worldwide. When we were making it, there was a similar vibe [to Old Boys] because it was a Channel 4 production and [Old Boys] was Film4 and the story comes first. We had a brilliant script [for both] and some slightly wonky people in some slightly wonky location in the UK making a film or show together. Oh, that was so cringey saying “wonky” so many times!’

Alex Lawther and Toby MacDonald both prove British talent is still a constant in the fast moving film industry, despite the scenery being increasingly changed with the rise of digital film, streaming services and mobile technology. Maybe it’s not the end of the world as we know it at all.

Featured Image Credit: Epigram / Patrick Sullivan


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AUTHOR

Patrick Sullivan

Epigram co-Editor-in-Chief 2019-20, now digital puzzles connoisseur. EngD student researching sustainable composites, entering my sixth year at UoB (somehow).