Q&A: Brad McGann

Q&A: Brad McGann

Marisol Grandon 12:01AM BST 24 Jun 2005

The director of In My Father's Den talks to Marisol Grandón

Adapted from a novel by Maurice Gee, In My Father's Den is a complex narrative about Paul Prior (Matthew Macfadyen), a jaded war photographer, who returns to his native New Zealand when his father dies. After 17 years of recording atrocities, his own brother barely recognises him. Paul reluctantly revisits the complicated family entanglements that he left behind and embarks on a gentle friendship with 16-year-old Celia (Emily Barclay), the daughter of his first girlfriend, who is in the throes of adolescence. Paul quickly falls out of favour with the local community however when Celia disappears and suspicion mounts about the nature of their relationship. Here, the director and screenwriter Brad McGann talks about the process of adaptation, the challenges of editing, British censorship and rising star Matthew Macfadyen.

The book is set in the 1950s and 1960s. Why was it important for you to make the story contemporary?

Maurice Gee was writing about a New Zealand which for me no longer existed. It's a culture that changes so rapidly. When he wrote In My Father's Den, some of the themes made perfect sense. He dealt with issues like nature vs nurture, repression in a polite society, the fundamental hypocrisy of religion and puritanism. They weren't concerns of mine. The New Zealand I'd grown up with was more secular, more open-minded. I felt they had to be reimagined in order for it to work with a modern day audience. Apart from it appealing to a certain contingent in New Zealand, I couldn't see what it would offer. The more potent ideas for me were timeless; the ones that could transport very easily into a modern-day setting, from generation to generation. Themes like family and fractious relationships, the way the past impacts on the present, the fact that, no matter how far you run from your history, it has a way of catching up with you. Often it's the people we care about most who end up hurting us.

Are there any elements of the story that chime with your personal life?

Probably not directly. There are parts of myself that I've brought to the film. It's quite a bleak film in some ways but I don't see myself as a bleak person. I was really interested in the interior landscapes and the psychological landscapes...really going beneath the surface. I wanted to explore the way that damage can manifest itself in behaviour. I had to go into myself and explore the way my past has impacted the way I behave as a human.

Paul Prior returns to the town and appears very glamorous to the people living there, yet you can tell he's from that place and he has an affinity with it.

I had been living away from home for, strangely, 17 years, so I identified with the idea of going "home" and having ambiguous feelings towards it. It's a really common thing with New Zealanders. New Zealand is very isolated. When you've been away from it for a long time, the intensity of that isolation really takes you by surprise. People know each other and all these old connections still exist. The journey home is something which I totally relate to; to be at once in love with and at odds with New Zealand is something I understand. I know people who have left and cut the cord both emotionally and physically. Our origins are so tied up with who we are but if you want to reinvent yourself in the world you can do it, as a New Zealander. You can become whoever you want in the outside world. Going back is always difficult. It's not just that it's a dark place or that we have dark psyches, it's just really easy to leave behind this small, isolated country.

Tell us about the structure of the film.

The book is told out of order...it was a non-sequential narrative. So I employed the same structure to in the film. Dennis Potter had a huge impact on me, particularly from a writing point of view, even though he's more of a television writer. I love the musicality of his narratives. He deals with flashback in a way that is more about shifting time frames. At film school, I was always told that flashback was death to narrative. It's been drummed into me. Whereas The Singing Detective uses flashback and is mesmerising, evocative and intelligent. I worked out why it worked and how I could use a similar approach, albeit different. I watched the Dennis Potter interviews from just before he died. For me he was the inspiration.

The editing is quite lean but very rich. What do you like about editing? Was it a real challenge given the multilayered narrative?

It was challenging because it's a film where things are played beneath the surface, and you're dealing with multiple time-frames. Characters say what they don't mean and hide what they really want to say. There was a conflict between the mystery genre and the demands of the characters. It was hard to make that work in a way that was organic and authentic. The editor played a principal part in determining whether that balance was right. I see the editor as being one of the crucial creative parts in this film, as much as the cinematography, the direction and the acting. Chris [Plummer] comes from a musical background.

What was Matthew like to direct?

As a first-time feature film-maker I couldn't have asked for anyone better. No ego. I had an intelligent, sensitive and highly insightful person helping me create this character Paul which was a very difficult role. It could easily have slipped into melodrama and Matthew really understood the character. He was dealing with people who were a lot less experienced than him and he never overshadowed them. It would have been really easy for the film to be more about him than, say, Celia (Emily Barclay).

Patti Smith - in particular the song Horses - plays an important part of the soundtrack. Did you always have her in mind when you wrote the script?

Yes, she is somebody I dearly love. She has this raw energy that was another influence in this film apart from Dennis Potter because of the urgency and the purity of the messages. I wanted that sense of pain and urgency to come through in the final realisation of what was going on in the film. She's very evocative and elliptical as well...the subtext of her film is just really strong.

You made the character of Paul Prior a war photographer. Why?

I wanted to explore how behaviour shifts from experience. The idea of Paul running from his own war but recording other people's wars is about trying to make sense of what happened to him on some level. There is an obvious connection between what happens to us and what we end up doing with our lives. He finds vicarious ways of dealing with the tragedy of his mother. On a subconscious level, he's trying to make sense of why these things happen in the world. He records it and analyses it in a way that doesn't involve emotion. It's his way of analysing an event without any emotional obligation given that what happened to his mother totally crippled him.

How did you research for this aspect of the character?

There were two books I read after I had written the script. Anthony Loyd's book My War Gone By, I Miss It So is an English book about Bosnia. I also read Greg Marinovich's Bang Bang Club and saw the James Nachtwey documentary called War Photographer. These three people were particularly instrumental. Even though everything in In My Father's Den is original, the experience of writing the script has been informed by reading the stories of real-life war photographers.

In one scene, Paul displays masochistic sexual tendencies when he sleeps with a local woman. Why did you choose to include that specific pattern of behaviour?

Well, that's been cut out of the European theatrical release! They would only release it on five prints rated 18 if we kept that scene.

How do feel about that?

Annoyed, to be honest. It amazes me that you can show incredible violence in the cinema and then you show a certain sexuality and people get upset. We block catastrophe from our lives and but it manifests themselves in behaviour. Paul is a damaged character and the scene helped to show that in terms of behaviour. It made you examine your assumptions about the character. We never really know people when we meet them for the first time. I think the characters should challenge us. The scene wasn't an issue in New Zealand and unfortunately it was censored at the last minute.

What about the scene where he smokes crack cocaine?

That again came from the stories of war photographers. Some of the journalists I researched would take pharmaceuticals with them in order to sleep, eat and live in dangerous environments. They speak of coming off them again in real life when they return from their travels but all it takes is the smallest crisis to trigger the addiction again. Thankfully that scene has not been cut.