Laura Taylor in Film & TV

26/02/2019

Supporting emerging talent in the English regions: Toby Macdonald on Old Boys

Creative England co-financed Old Boys through the Creative England Production Fund, alongside Film4 and the BFI, with an aim to support emerging talent in the English regions. Our Head of Film, Paul Ashton, was particularly influential in steering the production team towards making use of local talent and the beautiful countryside of the South Downs. We interviewed director, Toby Macdonald on his first feature film and why supporting emerging talent in the English regions was an essential part of the production process for him.



Old Boys has attracted a lot of attention in the build up to its cinematic release over the weekend (22nd February). This charmingly funny, romantic comedy, starring Alex Lawther (The End of the F***ing World, The Imitation Game), set in rural Sussex is a real testament to the power of supporting emerging talent in the English regions.

The film revolves around the character of Amberson (Alex Lawther), who struggles to find his place in the confines of the hellish, pressurised atmosphere of an all-boys boarding school in the countryside. Amberson finds himself falling for the new French teacher’s daughter, Agnes (Pauline Étienne), who gives him a taste of life outside the walls of education.

I interviewed Toby Macdonald, the director of this quintessentially British film, following one of the film’s first screenings at the Watershed in Bristol. Read on to hear about how Toby captured the bitter-sweetness of heart-break, the joy and enthusiasm of working with a young cast, and his advice for emerging short film and feature film directors.


“Getting the coming of age story without the normal hormone explosion, which people quite often gravitate towards, was crucial”
- Toby Macdonald

Laura (Creative Engand):                

Firstly, well done with the film! I was at the screening last night and I thought that it was really charming.

Toby (Director):                                

[nods] Thank you.

Laura:

This is your debut feature film and it took you a while to develop. What were the challenges you faced when putting this production together?

Toby:                     

Initially, getting the story right was important. Getting the coming of age story without the normal hormone explosion, which people quite often gravitate towards, was crucial. Those sort of stories can be quite funny, but I suppose we wanted to have a more contemporary approach to the coming of age teenage boy story. We were really lucky that that Film4, the BFI and Creative England got so involved in the production process.

Laura:                    

How long did it take you to form relationships with Creative England?

Toby:                     

It was quite late on in the process, in terms of the script, we did a lot of drafts ourselves, which took a few years and then we sent it on from an engagement perspective which was really great. The Creative England part was really important as it gave us a push in the right direction. We got really great comments and notes from Paul Ashton. But also, the idea of the regions pushed us in the right direction - using regional talent was really great. When a script comes together, it’s important to listen to all the voices involved in the production.

Laura:                   

I’m really glad that Creative England could help you navigate that.

Toby:                     

They definitely did!


“Alex (Lawther) really set the tone with his professionalism and his work ethic”
            - Toby Macdonald

Laura:                    

The film has an amazing young cast – how did you find working with talent early on in their careers?

Toby:                     

It was really thrilling – I think there’s an enthusiasm and a joy in making a movie with a young cast. Alex (Lawther) really set the tone with his professionalism and his work ethic – he has a very veteran professional actor work ethic which really helped lead the cast. Pauline (Étienne) and Jonah (Hauer-King) were also amazing. Working with young actors really brought a tenderness and a truth to the script, which developed the film to a different level.

[Pause]

It has really struck a chord with teenagers, especially around the theme of uncertainty within the film.

Laura:                    

I really enjoyed the open ending of the story. There isn’t a traditional romcom ending to the film, it very much encapsulates the uncertainty of life, which I thought was quite a refreshing take.

Toby:                     

Thank you for saying that!


“A feeling that I definitely remember from being broken-hearted is that it opens you up to the world again”
                - Toby Macdonald

Toby:                     

Amberson is escaping from the certainty that the boarding school is giving him and then suddenly the world is opening up to him and he’s not sure about his future, which is something we really wanted to involve. A feeling that I definitely remember from being broken-hearted is that it opens you up to the world again. So, that bitter-sweetness at the end of the film for Amberson is an important life lesson. The ending was a slight source of controversy, but it was something we were keen on keeping in.

Laura:                    

What was it like working with someone as young, yet as already experienced as Alex?

Toby:                     

Alex is amazing. He’s a combination of cerebral and incredibly instinctive. He just has a depth to him that is really astonishing and also, I think the thing that was fun to explore with him was that he has an incredible gift for physical comedy. It’s sort of unexpected really – there’s a theory of English actors and what they’re good at and he broke away from that and really set the tone.

Laura:                    

[Laughs] Someone at the screening last night said that he was very similar to Stan Laurel with his physicality. Would you agree?

Toby:                     

Yes! [laughs] We actually talked a lot about Buster Keaton as a source of inspiration. Amerbson’s high-waisted trousers in the production was a suggestion by Alex. Overall, there were a lot of signposts to silent film acting, which is a bit of a lost treasure in the acting world. It’s a real testament to him that people were laughing throughout the film because it really showed that people cared about the character of Amberson.


“It was great to engage as much as we could with the local people”
               - Toby Macdonald

Laura:                    

You mentioned earlier that the English regions were an important factor in the production. The film was shot in rural Sussex – how important was it to you and the story to use the English regions?

Toby:                     

It was really interesting; it changed our thinking on how to approach the film. It was good that it pushed us to shoot somewhere like Sussex, where there isn’t a lot of filming going on, and it was great to engage as much as we could with the local people, who we used as extras. We found boys for the school, which was difficult because you need quite big hair to pull of being a public-school boy.

Laura:                    

[laughs]

Toby:                     

They really do all have quite big hair! [laughs]

The location manager Ben Gladstone found an incredible rifle range, which is where Amberson meets Agnes. It was a really amazing, old place in the middle of the forest.

We also found another little school, which we used for some interior shots. Luke (Morris) the producer is really brilliant with locations; he found the undulating hills, a little nook in the South Downs, which is a really wonky bit of countryside that just fitted perfectly.

It was great to be able to solve a lot of the creative issues we had through using the English regions.


“There’s a real sense of freedom to using the countryside”
         - Toby Macdonald

Laura:                    

I really loved seeing the undulating hills of Sussex!

Toby:                     

Again, I would have to credit Luke (Morris) the producer for that. There’s a real sense of freedom to using the countryside. Just a really simple thing like showing Amberson and Agnes breaking free from the school confines and going to the local pub really added to that sense.

[pause]

Obviously, I’m not advocating that school children should go to the pub though [laughs].

Laura:                    

[laughs] Obviously not.

As a final question, do you have any tips for emerging directors looking to make their first feature film?

Toby:                     

Definitely. I would say that the crucial thing is performance. It sounds really obvious to say but I do think that directors tend to focus more on other elements. The cast and performance are two things that you really can’t mess up on. I would give the same advice to short film makers as well; I think that good casting is really underestimated. The actors are the magic and I think that sometimes first-time directors can get in a pickle about the camera or other technical issues but if you can collaborate in a really wonderful way with your actors then that’s the way to succeed.

Laura:                    

It’s nice to hear that you’re connected to your actors, given how important it is that they carry the story.

Toby:                     

We were lucky with Old Boys that the actors became really good friends.

Laura:                    

Alex (Lawther) mentioned that at the screening last night. It’s lovely to hear that the cast are still so close.

Toby:                     

It’s really nice that they’re all close still.

Laura:                    

Thank you Toby and again, well done with the film.

Toby:                     

Thank you so much!


For further information, trailers and ticket bookings, visit the Old Boys website

Thank you to players of the National Lottery, for helping good causes such as those within the creative industries #LotteryFunded

  • Talent Development
  • Filming in England
  • Film Business Support
  • Film
  • lottery funding