In an exclusive interview, director Tom Harper reveals why making The Scouting Book For Boys was a challenging and rewarding experience.
WARNING! This interview may contain spoilers…
How did you get involved with The Scouting Book For Boys; you knew screenwriter Jack Thorne already?
I hadn’t actually worked with Jack; we’d been doing an emerging talent scheme for Channel 4 called Coming Up which aims to pair writers with directors. He’d written this great script that I really wanted to direct but for a variety of reasons wasn’t able to. Having read that, I called him up and we went and had a cup of coffee and we got on. We knew we wanted to work with each other, and round about the same time I went in for a general meeting with Ivana McKinnon the producer and she had just commissioned [Jack] to do something. When he delivered it she gave it to me to read, one thing led to another and away we went.
So the script grabbed you straight away?
Absolutely. It’s quite rare that you find something that you love right from the off. Aside from the fact that Jack is a brilliant writer, one of the things that really got me was the central character of David. I found him absolutely fascinating. It’s very rare that you find a character or a protagonist or a hero oran anti-hero who doesn’t do what an audience would want him to do. All the time you get your central character who is essentially us, and does everything that we would want them to do, or we would want ourselves to do. But human life isn’t like that and reality isn’t like that and people don’t work like that. They make mistakes and they fuck up and they make a mess of themselves; certainly that’s true in my own life and most of my friends lives as well. I just found that really fascinating and exciting. Of course, in Scouting Book [David] does something that, well, I hope there’s no audiences members that would do the same thing. Because he’s different from us. At that point in the film he’s removed from us. I just found that fascinating.
Did you always have Thomas Turgoose in mind for the role of David?
No, not at all; I imagined Jack as a 14-year-old in the role! Because, as written, David is very much like Jack the writer [although] clearly not where the character goes to. And Thomas Turgoose is a very different character from Jack. Jack doesn’t like people much, he doesn’t really like going out – he would say the same so I don’t feel bad about saying that – and Tommo is the most gregarious socialite that you’ve ever come across! He’s always chatting to people and he really has the gift of the gab with the girls, you know, the works. So he did read for the part… he actually read at a very early stage and I wasn’t there at the audition, it was just the casting director. I heard him do a read through and what he did in that reading was change the way I saw David. It’s always lovely when an actor brings that to you, that they are so surprising that it actually changes the way that you actually saw the character.
[Tommo is] incredibly gifted at perceiving what you want from him. There are some actors who really do a lot of work on their back story and their motivation or whatever it might be. Whereas Tommo disregards all of that, and much more reads me; his understanding comes from reading me and all the other actors around him and responding directly to what’s going on in the scene. He really listens [and] through listening to the other actors and listening to me and gauging the situation he very instinctively fits into the role.
Casting Holliday in the role of Emily was less straightforward; didn’t you think she was too old for the role initially?
To be honest with you, it was an absolute nightmare! It was one of the hardest decisions that I’ve ever had to make. As soon as I met Holly for the first time I knew that she had something special, and Ialways knew that I wanted her to play the role. It drove me to distraction, really. There was no-one else that came anywhere close to her ability. There was part of me that I had in my mind that I would quite like to do a Shane Meadows or an Andrea Arnold and find someone off the street that was really amazing. All the people that we saw that were very raw and had a natural quality, when it came to the really big emotional stuff they just couldn’t get there. And Holly knocked them flat, really… there was no real comparison. But, I’d just done [TV show] Demons with her where she was playing an older person and she’d become a friend! So I was like, ‘Am I going to get away with this?’”
Well, both roles are perfectly cast and there’s a great relationship between Tommo and Holiday. Were any of their scenes improvised?
Mostly we stuck to the script. We did a lot of improvisation and mucking around in rehearsal, and there were little sections that were improvised peppered throughout the film but mostly we were pretty rigid to the script.
I’m about to do This is England the TV series with Shane Meadows, that Jack Thorne has written with Shane, and Shane’s got a completely different approach… to just throw the script out of the window! That will be an interesting and different way of working. It will be really nice for me because I really admire Shane and it will be good to work with a more experienced filmmaker. And directors rarely get to work with each other, so it’s been really nice seeing how Shane works and learning from that.
Scouting is undoubtedly a brave feature debut with very dark themes; were you worried about pulling it off?
The truth of it is, I never worry at all when I’m making it because it’s so absorbing and you have to immerse yourself fully in it and you have to do what is right for your instincts, and for the script and the story and the people you’re working with. But of course when you finish it, then it’s a different kettle of fish. I always start worrying massively when it’s over, and when you have to start showing it to people!
We screened at San Sebastian [film festival] first. It was great. It was in their massive cinema and they had the youth jury in that day, which are 350 17-21 year olds from across Spain! So this was quite nerve wracking. The first response to the film was when someone walked out, ripped up their voting slip and threw it on the floor! This is the first response we’ve ever had to the film, so I thought ‘This is going well!’ And the other thing I was crapping myself about was that they’ve got these massive boards where they project all around the festival cinemas and the venues of the rating system of what the youth jury has rated from one to ten and we were coming somewhere in the middle. And I was thinking, ‘Shit, we’re going to get one… we’re going to be at the bottom of the whole bloody thing! And not only are we going to come bottom, it’s going to be projected around the whole festival so everyone can see it!’ Fortunately we got 8.5 out of 10 and we were top for most of the time.
You shot the climactic final scene right at the beginning of the shoot; how was that?
It was pretty hard. If we’d had had any choice we would have done it differently. I think that Tommo does amazingly in it, but I think it was very hard for him. If I’m really honest about it, I think that Tommo is wonderful in it but I think that he’s even more wonderful in a couple of scenes in the cave. For me, there’s no performance that I can imagine that would be better than that. That was kind of later of in the shoot after we’d warmed up a little bit.
And also it was just a nightmare filming on that beach, because we had the tide coming in and we had the lifeguard shouting at us that we needed to be off the beach in two minutes. He’s trying to give the performance of his life! It was really, really hard and to be able to do that under those conditions… and it was freezing cold as well. “I kept having to break the scene because the tide was coming in. I’d be like, halfway through a massive emotional scene, ‘Right, cut and move!’ And everyone would pick up all the equipment and run up the beach, Holly, having been dead, would jump up and run up the beach. It was terrible!” But I can’t really complain about it because that’s low budget film-making, and that’s what’s exciting as well! You can’t complain. That momentum you get of having to move that quickly can also be a really good thing.”
Why did you shoot Scouting on film rather than digital?
There was a few reasons. The first one was to do with the look. I wanted a timeless, slightly nostalgic quality to it and that’s something that I think film gives. I think that digital formats are fantastic nowadays and really we are now in a position where you’re less choosing about quality and moreabout artistic intentions. The second reason was that there were a lot of daylight exteriors, and the area that digital films perhaps fall down in is perhaps highlighting the sky and things like that. The other reason was a logistical reason; digital cameras come with a lot of wires and there’s a lot of computers and cabling and lots of equipment to move around. And the great thing about film cameras is that you just need a battery pack and away you go. It all happens in camera. So when you’re walking half a mile along a beach, the fact that you’re got just a small camera and a battery pack is much more liberating than a big digital camera and all the equipment that goes with it.
For this film it was definitely the right choice. For me, it was more the fact that I wanted it to have that kind of rose-tinted glasses look, that childhood innocence lost. I think that film captures that in a way that has a natural feel to it that video doesn’t quite have.
So you don’t think digital would have given you the look you wanted?
I think it would have been different. I think it would have captured it as well but I think it would have had a different atmosphere. Film gave me more of the atmosphere that I wanted. And another thing; shooting in a cave set that we cobbled together from The Descent – we literally nicked bits of set from whatever was shooting at the time – without a big budget to build a topline set ourselves, if you were shooting on HD then perhaps that would be a bit more unforgiving of the set.
It’s interesting, because Robbie [Ryan, DoP] didn’t like doing the moonlight stuff [in the cave]. The idea was that there was meant to be a shaft in the roof where a little bit of light creeps in.. I think the film is a little bit heightened anyway, and I think you get a bit of licence when you’re making films. But I think that he’s lit the moonlight scenes just beautifully and it’s also got a very creepy, suspenseful atmosphere. I don’t know how he feels about it now, but I know at the time he was struggling with it. But perhaps that struggle meant that he did something really special.”
Now the film is finally coming to cinemas, is there anything you would change if you could?
That’s a really good question. At the end of the edit, when I first started seeing it having watched it in and out for a long time, there was lots that I would have changed. But now with a little bit of distance I think there’s less. And that’s just because you sort of say, ‘wll that’s what it was then’ Sure, if I was going to do it now then I might approach it very differently but I just think that’s what it was at that moment in time and I’m really proud of what it is. Even though there are things that I might do differently now. I think that if you didn’t feel that about your work then you would never be progressing or developing or moving forward.”
What’s next for you
I’m doing another one [film] Ivana McKinnon and Christian Colson at Cloud Eight called Cheerleaders, and then a five day feature in the vein of Le Donk that Jack Thorne’s written again and something called Earthquake Bird which is an adaptation of a novel by Susanna Jones.”
You directed the first season of Misfts; is there any news on the second series?
There’s more! I turned down a second series to do This Is England but we’ve just been nominated for an Royal Television Society award for the first season. It’s an example of good TV that is bold and it does do something different, and I had great fun shooting that and working with some really great people. I think TV can be great and can be liberating and can be really exciting but I think that’s quite few and far between.
You seem drawn to projects with young actors; is this intentional?
I’m certainly interested in young people because I think all too often they are vilified and demonised in the media and the press. Even in film; so much in film, in like Eden Lake or Harry Brown they arethe contemporary fear. I get so sick of it. I think that young people should be celebrated, and that difference should be celebrated and not feared. Certainly in Cheerleaders, certainly in [short films] Cubs and Cherries I wanted people to take a different view. And also in Scouting Book as well because David is someone that does commit a horrendously brutal act but I really don’t see him as evil, I see him as a young boy who is unsupported and immature and makes the worst mistake that he could possibly make. In doing so, holds on too tight to the person he loves most and kills her – and kills himself, really. Whether he comes back at the end from the sea or whether he doesn’t, his life is over. My biggest hope is that people at the end, while not being able to condone what he does, have some understanding.
Read Our Review of The Scouting Book For Boys
For interviews with Scouting stars Thomas Turgoose and Holliday Grainger, check out movieScope Issue #16, out now. You can also find more Scouting content, including an interview with DoP Robbie Ryan, in movieScope Issue #15, available from the movieScope website.