My Feral Heart is an intimate character study with a dash of mystery. It stars Steven Brandon, an actor with Down’s Syndrome, as Luke, an independent man with Down’s Syndrome whose life is upended after his elderly mother passes away. Luke is relocated to a group home, where he doesn’t feel like he belongs. A kindly caretaker at the home named Eve (Shana Swash) endeavours to ease Luke into his surroundings, as Luke befriends a troubled young man named Pete (Will Rastall) who is doing community service work near the group home. Luke discovers a seemingly feral young woman (Pixie Le Knot) lying in the field, and takes her to an abandoned barn where he cares for her in secret.
This is the feature film debut for director Jane Gull. Her short films include Sunny Boy, about a young man with a skin condition that prevents him from going out into the sun, and the documentary Our Street, about pensioners whose homes are threatened by the construction of a high-speed railway. The screenplay for My Feral Heart was written by professional counsellor Duncan Paveling. The film has been screened to wide acclaim at film festivals in San Jose and Fargo in the United States, as well as in Edinburgh and London. My Feral Heart was also screened as part of the disability-themed film festival Entr’2 Marches in Cannes, with Gull serving as the President of the Jury for the 2016 Entr’2 Marches competition.
Despite several technical difficulties over the course of the conservation, Gull was warm and patient throughout the interview. Speaking to F*** from England, Gull discussed working with Brandon, the experiences she had showcasing the film at different festivals, her views on the casting of able-bodied actors as characters with disabilities, and her suggestions for how the stigma associated with mental disabilities can be overcome.
At the centre of this film is the luminous performance of Steven Brandon. How was Steven cast in the film and what was it like working with him?
I looked all over the U.K. for an actor to play this role. I found Steven at a local drama group in my home town – after searching all over the U.K., I found him under my nose. I auditioned him and spent time getting to know him. He had never done any acting on screen before, but I could see he had natural talent. He was wonderful to work with, really hardworking and great fun.
Duncan Paveling, the screenwriter of the film, is a counsellor who has extensive experience in working with special needs youth and their families. What drew you to his perspective on the special needs community?
Duncan was introduced to me by a friend, who is one of our executive producers. Duncan had seen my short film Sunny Boy, and then he came to me with the idea of My Feral Heart to see if I was interested. I was, so he went away and wrote a first draft. We then spent 18 months developing it. I loved the characters and thought it was original. I have also spent time working with young people with learning difficulties so that was helpful.
Was Duncan on set during the making of the film?
Yes, he was one of the producers so he was on set but he let me get on with it. It can be tricky with a writer on set so we set the rules in advance. It was of course really helpful to have him on set if we needed to discuss story and he could go off and write extra scenes. He was very trusting and gave me the support and freedom.
The mystery element of the feral girl whom Luke finds and cares for is quite intriguing and never fully explained. Were you worried that audiences would be unsatisfied because this plot thread is unresolved?
I knew that this was always going to be something that would divide the audience. We are used in cinema these days to having everything explained. I think it’s good to make the audience do a bit of work, but [I] understand this might not please everyone. This is Luke’s story so I wanted to make sure the whole story was seen through his eyes. For the audience to know information about the girl that Luke didn’t, then that would not be right
There’s always the danger of cynics regarding a project like My Feral Heart as a “Very Special Episode” or “After-school special”, in which audiences are hit over the head with a particular message. How did you hold on to the sincerity and earnestness while avoiding treacly sentimentality in making this film?
Basically, the character of Luke, we never mention in the film that he has Down’s. It’s his story, and getting the audience to see the world through his eyes. There are themes and messages that run throughout the film, but I hope they don’t bang people over the head too much. He’s a character and a human being.
There are many people and organisations to whom you render special thanks in the credits. In what ways did the community support the making of My Feral Heart?
Ah, very much so. The film was shot in the very small village that I grew up in, where my parents still live and I have many friends there. We had real support from the community there, the local council and people giving us locations. Luckily Steven, who plays Luke, I searched all over the U.K. for an actor to play that part, but he actually was from that same area, so that was really lucky. Sometimes things are right under your nose and you just need to look.
What are some of the memorable reactions you have witnessed at the various festival screenings?
We’ve been over to America, to Cinequest. That was wonderful, actually, because that was our world premiere. It was an American audience and we had four screenings in San Jose at Cinequest. When you think of films in America, you always think that everybody wants to see the big blockbusters with the explosions. I was really overwhelmed by the audience there, who after they’d seen the film, said “it’s so lovely to see something like this, it’s really refreshing, it’s really different.” They really embraced it, so much so that we won the audience award for Best Drama, and I think there were about 97 feature films screening at Cinequest, so it was pretty amazing.
That’s awesome! Where else has the film travelled to?
After Cinequest, we went to Fargo. I didn’t go, but Steven went with the producer James Rumsey, and he had a fantastic time there. He got a standing ovation at the end of the film, he loved that! We’ve just been to Edinburgh, where we had our U.K. premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Then we went to the East End Film Festival in London, where they sold out, so they had to put on an extra screening.
The feedback must’ve been very overwhelming.
Yeah, it’s been fantastic! People have really embraced the film, really loved it. The elements of the film that are not tied up in a bow at the end, not everything is resolved in the end like we’re used to. That can divide an audience and not everybody is going to like everything, so I do think there is an audience for this film, and that has been proven in the festivals we’ve been to so far.
Can you speak about your lead actresses Shana Swash and Pixie Le Knot?
Sure. Shana actually trained at the same class I went to; she comes from a background I really identify with. We actually had about 700 actresses apply for the part, which just goes to show how many actresses there are in the U.K. I thought Shana was brilliant, absolutely brilliant and perfect for the part, and a lovely person as well. I think she’s got a big future ahead of her. And Pixie, she auditioned and I really needed to find an actress who obviously looked the part, who could do the physicality and who could show the emotions through her expressions and not through dialogue, because she [the character] doesn’t speak. So they were both perfect for the parts.
What are your thoughts on mainstream films from Hollywood and the U.K. in which able-bodied actors portray characters with disabilities? Do you feel that in general, their hearts are in the right place, or do you find it distasteful?
I don’t find it distasteful, I think where possible, if you can cast somebody who has the disability that’s portrayed in the film, [you should]. I think sometimes when you’re casting, you might need to look a little bit further. For example, when I was looking for somebody to play the character of Luke, I did put an advert out to the casting network, to agents and casting directors, but I only actually had three actors apply who had Down’s. There were 67 agents who put actors forward who didn’t have Down’s, and I wanted to find an actor who did have Down’s. Sometimes, you need to look beyond the usual casting places. I think, with big-budget films, and this is regardless of whether the characters have disabilities or not, they often want a name who can sell the film.
Even now, I’m looking at my next project and people are saying to me “oh, you need to have a name because it’s hard to sell.” I don’t necessarily agree with that, because I think every star has to start somewhere. With Steven, I think he’s an amazing actor and this was his first film, so I think everybody has to start somewhere. I think it really depends on the film and the story. If you’re playing a character who’s got an illness which slowly deteriorates through the story, it’s quite difficult. I definitely think there should be more roles written for people. That’s where it comes down to the script. Writers tend to write what they know about, so we need more writers to write more interesting characters for people to play. We need more interesting characters for women as well, and I think that’s changing. Different ethnicities too, it all comes down to the script, finding a good script with interesting characters.
What was it like working with composer Barrington Pheloung, and how did he come to board the project?
He came aboard the project because Duncan the writer had actually worked for him; I think it was one of Duncan’s first jobs. That was wonderful to have Barrington, he’s a hugely experienced and wonderful composer. It worked really well, even though we were in different countries. He’s from Australia and he composed the music in Australia. We had email correspondence and telephone calls. I was quite clear where I wanted the music in the film, and he pretty much agreed with me, which was great, and there were a few little extra places where he quite rightly said there should be music and that worked quite well. The music was exactly how I wanted it, so I was really happy.
One of the things I liked about the film is how much kindness Luke is shown, by his new friend Pete and by the staff at the group home. Was there a discussion about having Luke come up against more typical conflict in the form of bullies and general meanness?
Obviously, that was something that Duncan and I spoke about when he was writing the script. Especially in the care home, we always hear about all the bad things that happen in care homes and you only ever hear the bad news, but we’ve both met some amazing people who work really hard and they’re on really low wages as well. We wanted to portray the people in the care home as really trying to do the best that they can. That was quite a conscious decision actually, there are good people.
In the beginning of the film, we see Luke caring for his elderly and sickly mother. Have you come across people with disabilities who are themselves caregivers?
I myself haven’t come across people in that situation, but I know of people who have. I think it is a real concern. If you’re a parent, I’m not a parent but if you are a parent, I’d imagine that you’re always worried about your children and scared about what’s going to happen to them when, if it goes in the order that we imagine, that the parents die before the child, of course it’s not always that way around. Any parent would be concerned about their children, and that’s even more so when you’re a parent who has a child with special needs. In Luke’s situation, he really is looking after his Mum, and that’s what makes it even harder when she passes away, he loses his independence as well. His routine with his Mum is what kept him going, that was his purpose in life. When everything’s taken away from him, it’s really traumatic for him, dealing with the grief and dealing with his new surroundings.
And when we see him care for the feral girl, he’s found somebody to look after again and that gives him purpose.
Here in Asia, while organisations like MINDS have been hard at work in the area of outreach education, developmental and intellectual disabilities still carry a very strong stigma. What do you feel are the best ways such a stigma can be combatted?
I think by getting out and meeting people I really think that breaks down the barriers. We’re all human beings at the end of the day, and I think sometimes the stigma and the barrier is fear. I think if you spend a day with people getting to know them, I really do think that can break down barriers. You’ll see that we’re all human, we’ve all got the same concerns, sense of humour, no matter who you are.
A fear of what you might not understand.
Yeah. For example, the Mushroom Theatre Group which Steven is a part of, that’s an inclusive theatre group. It’s [only] for people who have disabilities, as long as you’re a human being – well, actually, they have a dog there as well, a beautiful, beautiful dog. I think having more inclusivity, not having ‘this is this group, and that is that group’, [but] everybody getting to know each other.
Opening up the boxes.
Finally, why should people go to see My Feral Heart?
It’s a film that has a big heart, that has great performances, it shows you a different side of the U.K., if you’ve not been to England before you’re seeing some of the lovely countryside, the mix of people, it’s a film hopefully that will make you think about humanity. It’s an original story, there’s lots of reasons to come and see My Feral Heart.
Visit http://www.sfs.org.sg/event.php?id=568 to learn more about the MINDS Film Festival.
My Feral Heart is reviewed here.