Supernova director Harry Macqueen on working with besties Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth

Supernova is writer and director Harry Macqueen’s second feature, and a deeply personal one at that.

The story of Sam and Tusker, an older couple played by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, struggling through the effects of early onset dementia, is emotionally moving thanks to the strength of the two key performances and Macqueen’s thoughtful script and directorial hand.

Macqueen, 37, is a sometimes-actor who made his on-screen debut in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles before going on to direct and star in Hinterland in 2014.

Supernova is his most ambitious project yet, and has attracted stellar reviews, particularly for Firth and Tucci’s on-screen bond.

He talks to news.com.au about the personal origins of Supernova, casting best friends Firth and Tucci and what changed and didn’t change when the couple at the centre of the story shifted from straight to gay.

I understand Supernova was born out of a personal experience for you?

That’s right. It started because I was working with a lady who had young onset dementia and when I was working with her, she didn’t know that diagnosis. So, I watched someone change quite a lot over the course of the year and then tragically, about a year and a half after that, she passed away.

It came into my life in quite a strange way, and I think I was profoundly moved by that, as anyone would be. Then I just went and tried to learn as much about it as possible. I volunteered for local charities and worked a lot in London, in the dementia world.

After about a year or two years, I thought this is a really important and interesting topic for a film. I was inspired by all of that experience.

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As a filmmaker, when something like that happens to you in your own life, is your instinct to mine that for a story? Do you find the process confronting or difficult to start?

I think it should be difficult to confront to start with. With something like this, that’s such a real-world human story, it helps if it comes to you in a very organic way, and it really did with this film. Hopefully you can see that in the way it’s written and the way it’s put together.

Hopefully it’s not pushing the melodrama of the situation or any of that. A really big part of it for me was to continuously think about condensing and synthesising it into this beautiful little complex relationship, and all the other issues of the film hang off that in the end.

For a while in the film, it’s not even explicit what it is that’s affecting Sam and Tusker. What was the intention behind withholding that information from the audience for a bit?

If you were in that situation, in this relationship, it’s not likely that you’re going to reference it every five minutes, you just live with it. So, it’s grounding the relationship in its context and then allowing that context to play out to the audience in its own time.

I think it’s important to see the characters hanging out with each other before you understand that there’s fissures in the relationship. And it’s a film, so there’s always going to be.

And if it’s a real relationship, there’s always going to be.

That’s very true.

What I think the movie does so successfully is that it presents this relationship that feels properly lived-in. You completely believe that Sam and Tusker have been together for 20 years. I suppose part of that is you’ve cast two actors who are friends, who know each other well, who probably have a shared secret language they don’t even know they have.

You can’t deny that 20 years of a relationship as best friends really helps. There’s a lot to be mined from that but I also think it’s important to say it’s also not helpful sometimes because you have to then separate what is useful and what is applicable to the character and situation and the film, from the relationship that you have woven with that person.

Actually, that’s very difficult. We worked very hard on that, trying to take from their own life and Colin and Stanley’s love for each other, what was relevant for us and leaving a lot of the stuff that wasn’t. It was quite the task.

Were there moments on set where you had to make that clear to either of them?

No, no, definitely not. Colin and Stanley are far too good at what they do. What is amazing about watching people that are that brilliant at acting is how seamlessly they can transfer from being Stanley and Colin to Tusker and Sam.

It’s quite beautiful to watch. But what it does mean is when you’re working with those two guys specifically is that it’s a lot of fun because they are a lot of fun and they do spend a lot of the time taking the mickey out of each other, laughing around. That’s just who they are as guys.

So, it’s a nice experience to be a part of, a privilege to have been allowed access into their relationship as a filmmaker.

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They’re the most high profile actors you’ve worked with in your career, what was the process of getting them involved?

In the end, it was very, very easy, which is very lucky. We went to Stanley first and he just fell in love with the script. I didn’t know at the time that he was friends with Colin, and he suggested we speak with Colin for the other role. Colin, it turns out, had already read the script and loved it.

This was the kind of script that maybe Stanley and Colin as actors don’t get that often and it’s beautiful of them and brave of them to actually have been involved in a film like this because it’s a small film comparatively, certainly for the stuff they do.

I’m really not a very experienced director or indeed writer, and it’s exposing playing these roles and they don’t really need to do that at this stage in their careers, let’s be honest. Hats off to them for trusting this project.

Originally the characters were written as a heterosexual couple, when that shifted, did anything in the characterisation or in the script change?

It did because the characters have a different lived experience. Stanley and Colin have both just turned 60, so if you’re in your late 50s as, let’s say, the characters were when we were filming it, a queer person has a very different lived experience than someone who is heterosexual, so you have a duty to make sure that it’s part of the character.

But the situation did not change in the slightest and I think that’s crucial. It didn’t suddenly become a gay film in some of the ways it could’ve done. I think that was an important thing to keep in mind for me because it’s about universal experience – love and loss, trust and betrayal, they’re universal experiences and you’ve got to treat them like that.

Supernova is in cinemas now

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