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Interview: The Closer We Get

Scottish documentary The Closer We Get has just been released to a chorus of praise for its depiction of a family with secrets that need to be confronted. Mark Perkins had a chat with the director, Karen Guthrie.

How did the film come about?
I had an ongoing project about my parents, sort of on the back burner while I was doing other things. I thought I’d make a funny, two-hander investigative documentary about my dad, who was still in our lives to an extent, in that he hadn’t vanished, but who had a side to his life that we didn’t really talk about. I thought I’d do a road trip with my mum, meet people he knew and that he’d worked with, and make a light hearted and poignant film about him. I began with a filmed interview with mum, part of which is in the film. I don’t think I even watched it, but I felt it was a powerful piece of film, even if what happened afterwards hadn’t happened. I knew it would stand as a very powerful testament to somebody’s recalling of a very painful part of their life. Then weeks later my mum had a stroke and the tape sat in a drawer for a long time. I couldn’t bear to look at it. When I did, and realised how powerful it was, the idea crept back into my head that maybe I should mention it to her again, once she was back home. She said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’. I knew then it was going to be a wildly different film, as she was now housebound with the effects of her illness. I was helping with her care, and was exhausted. I wasn’t in the most creative frame of mind, but realised that what I was experiencing was unlike anything else I’d ever been through. My mum had changed, but was really becoming an even more incredible person than ever, and the fractured relationship with my father was here on my doorstep. Initially I thought it would perhaps be three people in a room; funny, a bit Mike Leigh-ish perhaps. I realised I could interweave my father’s story into it, but his story turned into the strange narrative you see in the film. I had two strands that I had to combine, that was the challenge, and I think that’s what elevates the film from being a personal memoir into a drama.

I agree. There were some real moments of shock almost as the story is told which I watched wide-eyed with amazement.
A lot of that comes down to the editor Alice Powell. She’s worked in fiction and really helped me to create a dramatic arc which would fit a fiction film. I had a lot of family archive film which I re-framed. When we’re living our lives in our ordinariness we don’t see what’s exceptional, what’s epic about it. In a way, the whole film is about re-viewing very ordinary people, using a different pair of spectacles and seeing how they are living and enduring these epic, biblical stories.

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There’s a character who walks into shot 20 minutes into the film (no spoilers, I’m not saying who) on a piece of home movie footage, who at the time would have seemed trivial but in the context of the film creates a jaw-dropping moment.
Yes, we worked hard on introducing characters, creating dramatic, hand-brake turns in the narrative, trying to make them as impactful as they really were in your real life.

The voice-over is a crucial part of the film. I imagine it was tough to write.
It was agony. Sometimes I would only be able to write a paragraph a week. I wanted to create a certain tone in the voice-over. I wasn’t sure what it should be, but I knew when it was wrong. I struggled to write in a way which had authority, but which was quite simple, as if I was telling you a parable, not like I’m telling it to you in the pub. I hope it gives sense of real intimacy with the film. I was trying to create a sense of what it was like to be me. I was lucky I didn’t have a commission for the film so there were no executive producers, I could covey my own sense of what it felt like to be trapped in this story.

The end of the film is extremely moving. Sad, but also profound and uplifting, ending with your mum talking about time and happiness, which elevates it into a different film.
The last 10 minutes were quite story-boarded compared to the rest of the film. It’s very elegantly put together, and the sound design is very considered, along with mum’s monologue, which was almost unedited. She gave that in one long, focused, philosophical moment. When I heard it, that gave me my ending. It’s very hard to end a personal film. Your life hasn’t ended, and you’re placing a frame on a certain sections of it. I didn’t want to end with her death, which is never stated in the film, but implied and I wanted to avoid a sad ending. She ends by saying time is meaningless, being together is what matters. We can see that as an inspirational, positive message.

When my mother died the rest of the family thought I wouldn’t want to carry on with the project. It actually increased my motivation, and I had to finish it. It was actually strangely comforting to be able to spend time with my mother on film, and see the best of her and the strength of the woman, and it was a kind of way that she got me through the bereavement.

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How has it gone down with the rest of the family?
My dad has seen it, and in Edinburgh he actually took questions from the floor, which I wasn’t expecting. Despite there often being people in the audience who’ve got something quite damning to say about him and they don’t hold back in saying what they think, he’s very proud of it. I think it’s a measure of the man that you can see all aspects of yourself on the screen, good and bad, and still say that’s fine, that’s me. He’s proud of the film and every time it gets another bit of success or an award he congratulates me. You might wonder why he agreed to be in the film, but perhaps now he’s 80 he wanted to put these things on record. Maybe it’s liberating at that age to have no secrets.

THE CLOSER WE GET is in UK cinemas now. www.closerweget.com
Head here for our review of the film




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