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Supernova: ‘I don’t think two actors on the planet could have done it better’

Writer-director Harry Macqueen on making new film Supernova with stars Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth playing a couple on a road trip dealing with a dementia diagnosis

Supernova is a romantic film. It explores a deep love and it shows how that love stretches, evolves and grows when it is challenged in the most heartbreaking way. Acting heavyweights Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth take on the roles of Tusker and Sam, who have been together for more than two decades and are looking ahead to a long life together until Tusker is diagnosed with young-onset dementia.

Plans are changed. Their relationship is changed. And their priorities are changed. Now, for both, spending together is more vital than ever, as they head off on a campervan trip around the Lake District, with Sam gradually having to assume the role of his partner’s full-time carer.

It is a film full of heart. A road movie, a love story, an exploration of the extremes of devotion.

“You can still be romantic – even, you could argue, more romantic – in the context of going through something as difficult as this,” says writer-director Harry Macqueen, who worked with dementia specialists at UCL and the Wellcome Trust and met families facing up to young-onset dementia during the years he spent researching his script.

“That is one of the things that really affected me and that I took from my research. Everything was rooted in a real deep love between two people or a family. That was the catalyst for wanting to tell the story like this. The focus of the film, I suppose, really is on the character that isn’t ill. The idea that you go from being an equal partner in a relationship to a carer for someone. That journey, I thought, was absolutely fascinating and inspiring and difficult, but I think it’s something a lot of us at some point might well go through.”

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Supernova’s release during Pride month is a mix of accident and design. The film was slated to come out much earlier, but like so many big films was delayed repeatedly due to lockdown restrictions. But its release at this time is important. Supernova is a rarity in that it centres on an older gay couple in a long relationship.

“The film is about universal themes that aren’t owned by a gender or sexual orientation,” says Macqueen. “Hopefully it’s a very original presentation of same sex love at a certain time in life, which is not seen often on screen. We don’t write stories about that. Even with straight couples love at that stage in life is, I think, underdone.

“One of the things the film does, I hope, is to present a story in which the sexuality of the characters doesn’t affect the narrative. But that said, if it was a straight couple, it wouldn’t be the same film because the lived experience of those people is very, very different. The lived experience of two 60 year old men who are gay is infinitely different from a couple that are straight.

“I spent a long time investigating whether I could write that. It’s not my lived experience. But then again, nor is being 60 and nor is having dementia. You have to try and do as much work as you can and be as compassionate and empathetic with the characters as you possibly can.”

How could we ever think that love between two gay people is different than love between two straight people? Love is love. That’s it

Tucci himself has noted: “It’s about two people who love each other, and they happen to be gay. You could easily swap it out for a heterosexual couple, and it wouldn’t matter. But equally, the fact it’s a gay couple adds a whole other element to it that I think is really important for audiences to see.

“This whole notion that homosexuality is other, I don’t know who came up with that, but it’s certainly lasted a long time, that idea. How could we ever think that love between two gay people is different than love between two straight people? Love is love. That’s it. There’s nothing more to discuss.”

Macqueen was helped by having two great actors at the top of their game. And by the fact that their own friendship was very real, having begun years ago when they worked together on 2001 thriller Conspiracy. Scenes as the pair bicker their way around the Lake District are beautifully played.

“It helps in an infinite amount of ways because creating something like this is all about trust,” he says. “And they have that in spades because they’re best mates. They love each other outside of work. You want to harness that relationship, which they did, so openly.

“But also, it’s really hard to throw that relationship away as well – which is also what your job is as an actor. They’re not playing themselves. They’re not playing a situation they’re in. So to use the parts of the relationship that are worth using and to absolutely reinvent other parts is the challenge. We worked really hard as a team to shape that but I think there’s no doubting there’s a level of authenticity they have reached.”

Neither Tucci nor Firth are gay. And there have been debates about the casting. Macqueen agrees the debate is important, while backing the decision to cast two straight actors in the lead.

“The reason we’re still having the conversation about it is because there isn’t an easy answer,” says Macqueen. “Acting is acting is, of course, one way into the conversation.

“But I think representation comes in many forms. And we’ve certainly done that in many other ways. But project by project, I think, is the honest answer. If the project is dealing with the characters in the situation with empathy and compassion and integrity, then I think it’s absolutely fine.

“I think there should be a freedom casting process. But I also think that you have to have an open door all the time and you have to be think very carefully about who you have involved in your project – not just acting, but everyone involved, to make sure the representation is there. And we definitely tried our hardest to do that. But I don’t think with this project there’s two actors on the planet that could have done it better. And partly that’s because they’re two great actors and partly because they love each other and are mates.”

And as for issues that affect older gay people, either a result of the accumulation of a lifetime of micro-aggressions, the difficulties finding suitable care homes, the increased likelihood of loneliness – these are largely absent in Macqueen’s film.

“I really, really tried hard with this film to present a situation and a community that didn’t have any of that bigotry, that wasn’t anything other than embracing to those characters and their situation – and indeed, their sexuality,” says the writer-director.

“I think that might be painting a picture of a society and a community that doesn’t yet exist. But I’m fine with that. Because if you can’t aspire to that state of affairs, then then I think that’s a shame. We made a film in which two gay characters are not are not threatened or don’t have any aggression towards them and are just accepted for who they are – and I think that has been really inspiring to people. I’m really glad that we made that choice.”

Supernova is out now in cinemas

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