Britain doesn’t really have a high school movie genre, but it does have its fair share of films set within the confines of boarding schools. The latest to step within the unusual halls of privileged, fee-paying education is Old Boys. It’s a reworking of the classic Cyrano de Bergerac story, directed by first-time feature helmsman Toby MacDonald.
Alex Lawther plays the gawky Amberson – the story’s Cyrano figure – as he helps his hunky classmate Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) to woo the beguiling Agnes (Pauline Etienne), who is living next door to the school since her father started teaching there. Amberson, of course, is secretly falling for Agnes himself.
The movie is a likeable, offbeat British story that benefits from Lawther’s typically excellent performance and some excellent schoolyard weirdness. VultureHound got the opportunity to sit down with Lawther and director MacDonald ahead of the movie’s UK release, discussing the unique public school feel, the artwork that plays a crucial part in the story and, crucially, the bizarre hybrid sport of rugby and water polo that the pupils call ‘Streamers’…
It’s a really interesting film. I was struck by how strange it is. As someone who has never been in an establishment like that, I found it all very unusual…
AL: Did you find yourself thinking it couldn’t be real? I did. But I found that, with the ‘Streamers’ game, it is based on sports that actually are played at public schools in the UK – or sports like it, with similarly absurd rules. Just maybe less water.
It throws you straight in to this ‘Streamers’ thing, which is so thoroughly bizarre. How did that come about and how did you go about depicting it visually?
TM: As Alex said, lots of those schools have these funny games that spring up where the boys make up the rules themselves. Often it relates to an odd bit of architecture or a nook that they play against. Over the years it can become really important to the school and status. We wanted to use it to show what type of school it was, how the heirarchy worked and where Amberson was. We just had to find a river that was shallow enough to be safe and had a soft enough floor for the boys to play in. It took us a long time.
It could have been so much worse for you, Alex!
AL: It could… have been worse. [laughs]
TM: I don’t know if it possibly could have been worse for Alex. It was a tough first week in the water.
Was that the first week? I was going to ask what it was like to play ‘Streamers’, although that’s perhaps not quite the way Amberson would describe it.
AL: [laughs] No, I think ‘Streamers’ sort of happens to him. Having something very physical to do at the beginning of a film shoot is actually such a good way to start. You’ve all come from different places, and maybe you’ve done a job before, but you’ve been waiting to do this job. It can render you quite up inside your head, with lots of thoughts about how the shoot is going to go. Doing something physical and in cold water puts you into your body straight away. You get out of your head.
Also, as bizarre as the game is and as many problems as I have ideologically with it, it’s a really good way to team build really quickly.
Do you know the rules of ‘Streamers’?
AL: Nobody knows. Some people do. I’m sure Winchester does. He was born with them.
TM: We actually wrote a handbook of what the rules are. You can basically do anything but bite.
To bring it all back to the beginning, what was it like for you, Toby, to jump from shorts to a feature?
TM: It was tricky, but I had lots of help. We had a strong sense of what the film should be like, so that really helped as well. It was a great, really fun experience. Shorts are a great way to prep for doing features, so I would recommend it for everyone to try to make shorts, as long as they’re under 10 minutes. I’d suggest that’s the golden rule.
Taking the Cyrano de Bergerac thing as a base, how did you approach it, given how many times a version of that story has been told on screen?
TM: I suppose we wanted to thread it through very lightly. The thing that we loved is the story irony within the architecture of it, and the melancholy as well, which fitted with the feel of the school. I think we wanted people to maybe have moments where they’d recognise it really clearly, but we didn’t want it to be too on the nose.
AL: Good pun. [laughs]
TM: We wanted our story to have its own life. We always felt that it transposed across to teenagers. That Cyrano feeling seemed to work really beautifully for being a teenager, unrequited love and all of those emotions.
You create this public school atmopshere. Is that something either of you have experienced in real life?
TM: We researched a lot and looked at a lot of schools. Freddy Syborn, one of the writers, knows a lot of the people who went to those schools. He’s a great collector of the lingo and the weird traditions and stories. It’s quite a well-worn world, but I feel like people haven’t captured the full strangeness of it. I know that if…. has a real political power to it, but we wanted this to be a bit more about the teenage boys being stuck in a place like that for years of their life.
What was it like for you, Alex, to throw yourself into that world? Or, I guess, be thrown into that world?
AL: There were questions I had before scenes that would sort of resolve themselves as soon as we were in that environment, as soon as we were in a school that’s on top of a hill and we couldn’t see anything for miles other than, I think, an army base. The particular school we were shooting in has the tallest school chapel in the world, or something ridiculous. You just think of yourself as an 11-year-old, turning up at the school, seeing this chapel and thinking “that’s what I’ve got to live up to, those are the expectations that are on my shoulders”. That is crushing.
It’s beautiful too, of course. I can look it and think the architecture is lovely. At night, they had lights and it would make lovely shadows in the cloisters. It’s all sort of coldly romantic, from one perspective. But for that to be your every day. We spoke a lot about the feeling of prison and wanting to get out. A lot of the mood came for free as soon as we were shooting in those locations.
I’ve never seen the South Downs look so beautiful in a film. There’s a sort of weird landscape we have in the UK, where these rolling hills are beautiful but also actually quite sparse.
There is a weirdness to it. And that’s one of the things that feeds into this theme of isolation from normal society creating weirdness. So that’s why you obsess over history and create games. Every public school seems to have something like that chapel, like the oldest doorknob in England or something.
TM: I think that’s true. That sense of being trapped was really important to us. We wanted it to feel almost like a prison film, with these weird subcultures that grow.
The subculture idea is a big one in high school movies. It’s not really a tradition we have here in British films, whereas it’s huge in America.
TM: That’s true. When we researched the boarding school genre, you have stuff now with Harry Potter and there are movies from the 40s and 50s like Goodbye Mr Chips and The Guinea Pig, with Richard Attenborough. It’s a funny little thing on its own. Every now and then, someone will try it with different emphasis. We felt we had a different take it from the emotional perspective of the boys trapped there.
This is a slightly different role for you, Alex. It’s one of the first times I’ve seen you on screen and not been a bit scared of you…
AL: I wondered what you were going to say there. [laughs] It’s true though! There’s something nice about sharing this story that actually has a lot of hopefulness to it, which I think is more and important to have. It’s not just pure optimism. This story is bittersweet and very melancholic, but there’s a sense of hope for at least two of the three main characters. It’s a pleasure to do that.
It’s also a pleasure to tell a love story. I love telling them, and this particular love story between the three of them is great. The friendship and the love between them and the complex relationship over things not being said, and truths not being told and people not saying who they really are, is really enjoyable to tell.
The bittersweet nature is quite interesting because, for me, another theme is about expectations of people being shattered. The film undercuts both Winch and Agnes in Amberson’s eyes?
AL: Yes, and it undercuts them in a positive way too. There’s a point when Winch says “well, if she doesn’t like me like this, then fuck it” and he plays his guitar and sings his song, knowing it would go terribly. But at least he tried. There’s something admirable about that and I really liked that oddness in the film. Agnes is the most courageous of them for me, and I have the most hope for her. She’s the wisest of the three, whereas the boys have so much to learn. She has done a lot of her learning already, in terms of her wisdom.
She has been out in the world, whereas they have been sealed in this environment.
AL: Winch is desperately vulnerable, and they’re all suffering from this toxic thing hanging over them of being something you perhaps don’t want to be.
TM: That’s why it is striking a nerve with the teenage audiences we show it to. Beyond the comedy, there’s that sense of people trying to be something that they’re not quite. It’s really striking a chord with teenagers.
I wanted to ask about the art in the film, with the videos and the flick books. It has a really interesting DIY feel, as if these teenagers could have really done it. How was that put together?
TM: That was really important, making sure we always felt like it was Alex and Pauline who were making everything. It has been great to be at festivals with Alex and hear people come up and say they love all of his artwork. We worked with a really brilliant artist called Tilly Power and she created the art in character, if that makes sense. It was a joy to go to her room in the production office because she would just be making endless options for stuff. We filmed as many as we could and started to mould them more towards the story. She’s really brilliant.
AL: It’s an absolute joy, even if they’re only in the shot for a second or two. Just to see it tells you so much about what sort of story you’re in. I love the series when the Metronomy song, ‘Love Letters’, is playing. It’s so lovely.
TM: All of the handwriting is yours, right?
AL: It was a very complicated thing. My handwriting – Alex’s handwriting – was playing for Winchester’s handwriting. Then, Elliott Day from the props department was my handwriting too – Amberson’s handwriting. So we would get really confused. It was very DIY.
It’s a little bit all over the shop! That’s the thing about making a British movie, isn’t it? It’s all hands on deck.
TM: I think all movies are like that, aren’t they?
AL: Yes, I think so! [laughs] Whether you have three weeks or 12, you always feel like you’re racing along. Someone once said it’s like your house is on fire and you’re just pulling as many of your most valuable objects out of the house before it burns down.
TM: That’s a good analogy. [laughs]
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask what both of you have got planned?
AL: I’ve got a film that I made in the French language called The Translators, which will be released in October of this year.
TM: I can’t wait to see it. It’s such a good idea.
AL: It’s a sort of Agatha Christie style thriller, set in France. And as much respect as I had for Pauline Etienne before, it has doubled now that I understand what it is like to play in a foreign language.
And Toby, what’s next for you?
TM: I’m working on a couple of film things but given how long it took to make Old Boys, it might take a while for me to get them perfect. But yeah, more films.
So that’s time to sit down with a cup of tea for a bit first, now the house has stopped burning down?
TM: Yes, I think so! [laughs]
Old Boys is out in UK cinemas from 22nd February.