Interview with Clare Macdonald, Director of ‘The Mountain’

London Rocks International Film Festival is proud to be screening ‘The Mountain’ where Matthew, played by Jamie Wilkes, has to physically confront his inner demons who manifest as he is going about the seemingly mundane yet insurmountable challenge of daily life.

Mental health is something we are now starting to see broached in television, documentary and film, yet there is still a dearth in representation, especially regarding the male experience. Clare Macdonald is an award-winning film director who didn’t hesitate to take on a project which aims to break the taboo and open up a new conversation. They joined the producer Robyn Forsythe and writer Adam Steedman Thake who had been developing the script, and plowed wholeheartedly into a challengingly speedy production schedule, drawing on their experience and relationships garnered on other projects to create a rare thing: an intelligent and sensitive comedy.

“My personal preference is to explore heavy subjects through a bit of comedy as they’re really difficult. It’s so tough to project an inner life in a way which resonates, but it was such a fun project to work on. Even when Jamie’s character was having such a tough time and we doubted that it was a comedy, when you put it all together, it just worked.”

How much work did you put into the script once you came onto the project?

Adam and I worked on the script together when I came on board. It was important in particular to make sure that the film dealt with the subject matter seriously whilst remaining a comedy and also that it did not suggest that the character was cured somehow at the end. The intention of the film was to broach the topic and start a conversation about mental health struggles that are difficult to understand from the outside and also difficult for people suffering or caring for sufferers to talk about. One of the things we really focussed on together was the role of the carer which circles around the main story and the main character, bringing it back to her and the joyous impact that it has on her once he’s made this tiny bit of progress.

How did you move from finalising the script into production?

The intention of the film was central to every aspect of the filmmaking. Many of the filmmakers, cast and crew, had some personal connection to the material and felt deeply passionate about this mission. For example, the production design in the doctor’s office and waiting room is all about calling out the negativity and scariness of some of the messaging you can find yourself confronted with in these spaces, whilst also pushing to find the absurd and dark humour in that.

In terms of the performance, I wanted us to really feel the main character’s struggle, whether to answer a barrage of medical questions, well-intended though they might be, or to stay calm enough to make it home on the bus. The mental health crisis is a very physical and felt reality for this character. When it came to VFX or bringing to life inanimate objects in camera, the same intention helped ensure all the decisions were connected to our character’s physical reality in order to open his inner world to us. One excellent surprise was quite how much a large format camera really helped expand the space in our doctor’s office, which was very tiny in reality, but the camera made it into a bit of a Tardis and suddenly there was room for everything we wanted to do!

Were you ever worried about talking about mental health through comedy?

I was slightly worried that we could be seen as being tasteless as it is such a serious subject, but I think that’s why comedy is a great way to approach it because it’s a way to start a conversation that no one’s necessarily keen to bring up. My personal preference is to explore heavy subjects through a bit of comedy as they’re really difficult. It’s so tough to project an inner life in a way which resonates, but it was such a fun project to work on. Even when Jamie’s character was having such a tough time and we doubted that it was a comedy, when you put it all together, it just worked.

How did you approach the punchy funny notes within such a serious subject matter?

A lot of it was already in the script. We had such a short time frame on the film, I was given the script on the 5th of December and was asked if we could complete it by Christmas, although the subsequent Covid outbreak gave us a little extension on that. I always approach comedy as I would approach drama and, funnily enough, ‘The Mountain’ now has a nomination for Best Drama. Basically, truth and authenticity are the key to talking about anything you want to talk about. I don’t think that there should be any limits to what you can do in any genre. It’s just about whether there’s a kind of authentic intention behind it which I am always looking to draw out when I ask the writer a million questions.

Our male main character is the one who we obviously focused on in this story as gender does come into play. All of the characters that he encounters in that journey are from his very negative inner monologue, and there’s a lot of toxic masculinity in them. He’s inventing these characters himself from his environment and I asked Adam, how do you feel about that? Where does this pressure come from? Where does that pressure come from? He was really great about answering my questions and not telling me to take a hike.

Gemma Yates-Round, who plays Michelle, is brilliant and I felt a real u-turn in my empathy for her and her journey. How did you come to work with your cast?

So I had worked with Gemma on the previous film that I did called 1-800-D-DIRECT, which is about women in the 1960’s running a sex directory under the nose of their boss in a Manhattan dishwasher sales company. It was written by Gemma and Hayley Bishop, and I came on board and directed it and she was also playing one of the leads. Right from the offset I thought she’s got this amazing quality to her and an emotional depth to the performance. We saw lots of auditions for the main role of Matthew, which were all great options, but as this was a role with essentially no lines, I needed someone who could bring all the emotion to the screen without speaking, which is really challenging. It is also a short film and you don’t get a lot of rehearsal time. I had worked with Jamie before and seen him on stage, and he really can do pretty much anything, so I knew he was the right choice and he handled it beautifully.

What’s your particular style when working with and directing your actors?

It’s different every time depending on the piece. In 1-800-D-DIRECT most of the cast had been to college together so that project started with a table read to feel it out and then we put it on its feet and we had a bit more rehearsal time, which was absolutely necessary because we shot that one in a day, but they already had that connection together. For ‘The Mountain’, Jamie and I spent quite a long time actually talking about the character, about mental health and about the kind of feelings that create that inner monologue and how to connect into that. This all meant that on the day of the shooting he just came in and was in character. It’s always about trying to find a way to connect with each actor and the character and allowing them to bring that to life efficiently.

I love the VFX and think those elements add so much to the overall tone. How did you approach these?

Steve Bray was my VFX supervisor who I worked with for the first time on 1-800-D-DIRECT. I sent him a script before the shoot and he came back with the most amazing report which helped me plan. He came onto the shoot as I was doing things I had never done before, such as a snow storm in the flat, and as we didn’t have time for a screen test, it had to work! The initial script actually had a puppet scene instead of a live action sequence, which was impossible financially and timewise, so we had to decide on what we could do. I had a long chat with the amazing animator Chris Brake and we spent two hours talking about puppets. He makes these really emotional puppet films from the environment and I noticed that in his films if there is somebody eating eggs, the puppet will incorporate egg shells. The connection is really, therefore, authentic. So that’s how I approached our situation with a much lower budget and shorter timeframe. Steve was key to that because he was on set and he could look at it with his technical expertise. I had a list of shots that would need VFX and my goal was to deliver that list. l didn’t want to suddenly have 65 more shots and Steve was really brilliant because he would say exactly what we could and couldn’t fix later in real time.

The snowstorm is made of feathers because our character is lying in his front room on a couch with a cushion under his head at the time. The reality / imagined worlds are blurring and I wanted to pull that all the way through the scene. We were working with the art director who created the snow from a feather pillow and a fan. We worked hard to get the movement of snow right, as it doesn’t just fall – it flutters and floats and we worked on a few iterations to get the movement right and build out the storm in post.

What do you hope for your film?

The intention of the film was to start a conversation about mental health, and so far we are seeing that really happen at screenings, which is great. We have begun a festival run with BAFTA- and BIFA-qualifying festivals in the UK, and some exciting nominations including Best Director, Best Narrative Short, Best Post-Production and, the latest, Best Drama in the UK and the US. That is a pretty exciting outcome for a three day shoot less than a year ago!

‘The Mountain’ will be screening on Friday the 4th of November, during our 3rd Session, as part of the Experimental Film & Comedy – “Further down the rabbit hole …”

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