In the brilliant new film Supernova, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci take a trip in a 16-year-old Auto-Trail Cheyenne 632. Practical Motorhome spoke to director and campervan fan Harry Macqueen about the unique challenge of filming in tight spaces.

Why a road trip?

I didn’t want to make a domestic drama set in someone’s flat and cinematically I wanted to get out on the road. There’s something bold and interesting about having an emotional journey and a literal journey at the same time and road movies have the ability to tick that box. Cinematically they can be really interesting things to do. Right from the start I thought it would be the kind of story that would fit being on the road – it’s an original way to tell this story.

Why a motorhome and why the AutoTrail Cheyenne?

A 16-year-old Auto-Trail Cheyenne 632 is the star of the movie

A few different reasons really. Together myself, Sarah Finlay the production designer and Dick Pope the cinematographer looked at loads of ‘vans. We didn’t want it to be too small or enormous. These aren’t super rich characters so we wanted a mid-range van. Also, we wanted something that was a more of one open-plan space rather than portioned up with a private bedroom. We felt there was an openness literally and metaphorically to how they would live in it – nowhere to hide. Also those vans sometimes have partitions or struts and we didn’t want to have to film around that so we settled on this one because it ticked lots of boxes. We rejigged the layout a little and changed the upholstery so the interior colour palette worked with the autumnal feel of the film. Sarah made the whole thing modular so that we were able to take out the bed and bench seat when we needed to. And we had to make sure we were okay legally in order to drive and film so seatbelts were added. The interior is the only window to the domestic element of these characters lives – we’ve never see them in their home deliberately, so the van itself has to speak volumes about who these people are, what relationship they’ve have and have had in the past.

What does the van bring to the story?

The film involves itself with the micro and the macro – so you’ve got this small intense intimate story in this ‘van offset against this enormous environment. And there are some enormous themes within that love, death, trust and so on. To contain those within a vehicle seemed like a dramatically pregnant and interesting thing to do. One of the things I was keen to explore right from the start was to not fake that and to keep the authenticity of how we were making the film to mirror the authenticity of the way the script was created, so we spent a long time choosing the ‘van and didn’t do much to it other than a bit of adaptation to the inside. We didn’t put it in a studio and tear it apart – we used the ‘van as it was. Colin drove it on live roads with all of us in the back and Stanley in the passenger seat. We ran with that and the film is better for it and it gives it a real authenticity and truth to how they move in that space and how we filmed in that space.

Any issues with van driving around?

No issues really – I mean Colin crashed it – well, I say crashed it, he was doing a very difficult turn into someone’s driveway and scraped the whole of one side of it. But apart from that, no – it ran pretty well and it had to go through some difficult terrain. The Lake District is an amazing beautiful place but not necessarily geared up for a motorhome and a load of film crew – certainly not where we wanted to film because we were in a remote place for a lot of the time. The ‘van itself had to do a hell of a lot of heavy lifting and I don’t remember a problem with it at all.

Why the Lakes?

Director Harry Macqueen with Colin Firth

I know the Lakes quite well because my uncle who is in the film (he plays Clive) lives there. I wrote some of the film while I was visiting him and found it an inspiring landscape. The atmosphere of the Lake District permeated the script from early on. Happily it all came together and we were able to shoot it where I’d written it. My favourite location was the final cottage which is on a farm in the middle of nowhere, towards Bassenthwaite at the back of a mountain called Skiddaw. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the elements and really dramatic and for the final section of the film that we would be filming there it really felt right. You drive up and see it looming in the distance; it takes a good 10 to 15 minutes to get to it from the main road. Every day driving there we felt the weight of what we were doing – it felt like a Brontë novel – incredibly weighty.

There are some beautiful shots – tell us about the cinematography

Colin and Stanley on location in the Lakes

Dick Pope is one of the best cinematographers in the world and one of the most experienced – he brought with him 50 years of experience to the shoot. He has enormous technical ability and he has this ability to know where to put that camera and capture performances at their most raw, truthful and uninhibited states – which is what we wanted for this. He was the perfect guy for the job. Again it was the micro and the macro – how we offset the intimacy and intensity of the relationship against this beautiful but brutal landscape. We didn’t want a chocolate box version of the Lake District – it’s more about how the landscape affects the story and the drama – it’s brutal, raw, elemental and unforgiving, which is important for the story.

How was it working with Tucci and Firth – amazing actors – you must have been chuffed to have the cast?

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play the lead roles in new film Supernova

It was a dream come true. You always hope when you’re sitting in your bedroom writing this stuff and trying to make it all happen – you hope that it will inspire people that inspire you and it did. Colin and Stanley are incredible actors but really trusting and generous people. They got involved in a project with a ‘pretty much’ first time director that’s never been heard of before, for no money, basically, and the trust they put in me was incredible. They’re amazing and bring an incredible quality to the film – they love each other, they’re best mates and I think you can really tell.   

Any more plans for campervan/motorhome related films?

Right now I think I’m taking a road trip break because I’ve done two and the next one probably won’t be. But I I did have an idea of making a trilogy of British road movies so perhaps at some point I will revise that. But also I love being in a campervan and have been on many amazing campervan holidays before and hope to continue to.

What camping holidays stick in the memory?

I’ve been to quite a few places – Cornwall, Glastonbury music festival and I’m planning on hiring a van and touring the north coast of Scotland and also America. I’ve never owned one but I would love to.

And what type of van would you go for?

A big RV would be good, thank you very much!

Interview by Paul Critcher

Film review: Supernova

Harry (centre) with Stanley and Colin

by Claudia Dowell

Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), who have been partners for 20 years, are touring the Lake District visiting friends, family and places from their time together. Tusker, who is a writer, has been diagnosed with young-onset dementia and this time spent touring is important. As the tour progresses their relationship is tested as they discover their plans for the future are not the same.

Much of the film is set within the close quarters of the motorhome, which seems to intensify the way the two men individually deal with their pain and grief – Colin Firth’s Sam is angry and anxious, while Stanley Tucci’s Tusker is quiet and resolved. It feels almost claustrophobic. This is relieved by the wonderful shots of the motorhome passing through the gorgeous landscape of the Lake District, but these and the scenes with family and friends still retain a deep intimacy and empathy. It’s beautifully filmed, with powerful and moving portrayals by the actors. Do try and see it.

Supernova is scheduled for UK release during 2021.

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