Inspired by his own film Beautiful Young Minds, British filmmaker Morgan Matthews directs ‘X+Y’, a story of a young boy with autism who has a gift for mathematics. The cast includes Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins. It screened at Glasgow Film Festival and I was fortunate enough to speak to Morgan Matthews about the project…
Coming from a career in documentary filmmaking, why was this the right time for your first foray into feature fiction?
“I’ve made a lot of documentaries and have done so in differing styles but at the same time felt that I was making them in quite a similar way. I want to be creatively challenged every time I make a film and try all the different forms of storytelling, and whether it’s documentary or fiction you’re still telling a story. In some ways there are a lot of similarities.
When I started making documentaries, it was in a way that wasn’t really original but definitely felt original to me. For example, I made a film called ‘Britain in a Day’ where we used user generated content shot by people all around the country with mobile phones. We ended up with around 800 hours of footage! This was a model used I think for the first time by Kevin Macdonald when he made ‘Life in Day’. He was the exec producer on my film. I wanted to do that film because it was challenging so I guess I reached a point where each project needs to be a challenge for me creatively. If I did go back to making films as I used which involved me running around with a camera on my shoulder and doing it that way, there’d be something liberating in going back to that as it would feel fresh and new again.
The main reason would be that I got the chance to be creative with a story and work with amazing actors and other talented people. To be in that world and have the privilege of working with those people made sense!”
Your latest film was inspired by your documentary Beautiful Young Minds. Can you tell me how the transition came about to develop the idea into ‘X+Y’?
“I made Beautiful Young Minds eight years ago and that followed a group of young mathematicians on their way to the International Mathematical Olympiad and I got to meet a lot of people at that time, from the students themselves to the tutors teaching them and also the parents. It felt like a very rich world worth exploring in fiction so I was inspired to develop it. I didn’t see purpose in just remaking the story in the documentary so I got together with James Graham who is a fantastic young writer. At the time he was emerging in fringe theatre and we began working on a script.
The process of getting it to shoot took around five years, which also involved getting the funding and casting for it. We had the support of the UK Film Council as it was then and in particularly that of BFI’s Lizzie Francke who is a big supporter of British films. BBC Films then got involved as well as a few other organisations to make the film happen.”
The cast list for the film is full of star studded names such as Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan. What was the secret to attracting such an impressive group of actors?
“It always helps to work with a great casting director who has the connections and insight to make things happen. It falls into place once you get one person on board as it gives others the confidence that it’s going to be okay! I’d seen Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins acting together on stage in a play called Constellations, and so knew they liked working together and were great friends. There was a chemistry between them in terms of their performances. From this, I had the confidence to cast them together and I think when Rafe said yes, it helped Sally say yes!”
With the recent success of the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, comparisons can be drawn between his condition and that of Rafe Spall’s character Mr Humphreys, which is alluded to in the script. I found the physicality of the performance very moving. Was there a lot of training involved to achieve the effect of the deterioration caused by multiple sclerosis, and what was Rafe like to work with?
“There’s a scene in the film where Rafe’s character is sitting in a group of people, all of which are suffering from multiple sclerosis and in his research and training for the role he went to similar groups and spent time with people with MS. From talking to them and observing their physicality, he brought a lot to the table and some of the experiences actually fed into the script. I think this translated into his performance in a meaningful and authentic way.
I think it’s a different performance to Eddie Redmayne’s in that Eddie played the part of someone that is a very well known man. We all know what he looks like and about his condition so his performance would be scrutinized in a different way, in terms of how close it is to the real Stephen Hawking. Rafe didn’t have the challenge of playing a real person but it was still important that it was authentic, and he done that very well!”
As Nathan excels in maths throughout the film, his talent takes him to training in Taiwan. What was it like to shoot in Asia as opposed to in the UK and was it challenging to maintain the same tone despite quite a drastic change in setting?
“I really enjoyed the experience of going to Taiwan for a number of reasons and for me, it was quite liberating because it was less restrictive than shooting in the UK. In the UK, most of the shots were interiors and when we did do exteriors, all the other people in the scene are extras, whereas when we were out in the streets in Taipei, none of the people around us are extras. The fact that a film crew is moving through busy streets or parks isn’t something that seems to bother people there. That for me was great because it became very close to shooting a documentary and allowed us to show an authentic experience of Taipei without having to try and recreate it.”
For a young actor, Asa Butterfield has achieved so much and worked with some of the biggest in the business. As Nathan he gives an incredibly mature, touching performance. Can you describe what it was like to direct him, and did he bring a lot to the character that wasn’t planned in advance?
“You’ve probably done your homework and will have seen that Asa has been in a lot of big films from a very young age. ‘X+Y’ for him would’ve been quite a different experience because of the small scale of the production but for me it was very big compared to what I had done before. He was a very down to earth young man who was only sixteen at the time we were filming. Quite interestingly, when he walks down the street he is not necessarily recognised because he was a very young kid in the roles he is best known for and looked very different. He goes to a normal comprehensive school in London and lives a more or less normal life than goes off to shoot big feature films.
During the making of ‘X+Y’, Asa met Daniel who was in the documentary we’d spoken about earlier and who the character of Nathan was loosely based on. Daniel was able to explain to Asa what was going on in his head which is quite complex stuff but he could articulate his experiences. This really helped form Asa’s performance. Also he has this wonderfully expressive and very photogenic so that helps!”