Interview with Morgan Matthews
Director of X+Y
Director Morgan Matthews recently spoke to us about his newest film, X+Y. Given a world-premiere at Toronto Film Festival in early 2014, the film has since gathered a very positive reception. Our editor, Charlie Green, saw the film and caught up with Mr Matthews at the BFI London Film Festival just ahead of its European premiere to discuss it.
Briefly, the film follows Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a social awkward teenage maths prodigy who has just found new confidence and friendship as he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO).
X+Y is released in UK cinemas from March 15th 2015.
One of the focal points of the film is on maths - sort of. But, if you was to take that out and replace it with science, English or another subject, then the fundamental story and aspect of the film would be the same as it was driven by the characters and their performances. Was that always the idea during scripting to keep that to the side and focus on the center?
Yes - I mean I focused it all on a documentary I made in 2007 called Beautiful Young Minds, so I felt that I understood that world where those boys where inhabited. I am not a mathematician - and I definitely do not understand maths! But that is partly what made them so fascinating to me, because I thought here are these boys that have this incredible ability that is way beyond us mere mortals if you like. They were like wizards you know, and everyone else is a muggle. I mean there is a line a bit like that in the film, but at the same time they found aspects of life quite difficult, some of the boys - not all of them - were being bullied partly because they had this gift, but distinguished them from their school mates. Well, say mates they were often quite alone. They were considered geeks, or freaks, or things that they were interested in their classmates would not be interested in.
Then also the beauty of being on the autistic spectrum is that they may find communication and relationships with their parents difficult. So they are often quite isolated. But then they came together in this group and initially they could flourish as there were kids like them and all they want to talk about is maths and they want to stay up all night doing maths, they were on the same level, the same ability. So that is something they have been craving and not had in their everyday lives. So it is not directly about maths, but I think the maths is also important, particularly for Nathan (Asa Butterfield) because it made sense to him, it had a logic to it. It is factual and he doesn't understand the emotional side. But it is not so much that he doesn't understand it, but he finds it quite painful. So his connections and feelings are painful ones, because of what happened to his father early in the film. So the feelings that he associates with emotion are negative ones, and they are illogical and do not make sense, he doesn't understand it. So he kind of shuts that part of him away and just throws himself into the maths and closes the door, particularly on the mother (Sally Hawkins).
You mentioned that you did not understand any of the maths in the film. Did any of the cast reading the script have complications? Was there a mathematician on board at this stage too?
Definitely, we had several mathematical consultants on the film. Now one of those was one of the original team-members of the IMO, but also in the documentary I made. He is not somebody who features very heavily in the documentary, but he is one of the original six that made it through to the Olympiad at that time. His name is Lee Chow, and because he was with us and was coaching our actors around the maths he was naturally with us and we needed an extra team-member for the film. So we cast him in the film as well! He is one of the team-members that goes to Cambridge and was one of the team of stage throwing his hat [in the air]. He went through the script in detail and made sure that every bit was accurate and actually came up with some of those mathematical problems that they had to solve and certainly lots of the language as well in conjunction with James Graham too, the writer.
met Asa Butterfeild last year, and he struck me as a well communicated individual. Did you have to give him any tips on how to do the performance? or was that all his own interpretation? Either way it was incredible.
Asa did a brilliant job, but firstly he met Daniel, who was the original character in Beautiful Young Minds, who was the inspiration for Nathan in X+Y. So he met him and again, Daniel is somebody who is incredibly shy and very introvert initially. He finds it very difficult to communicate. But actually if you sit down and spend some time talking to him and he relaxes and trusts you he is able to explains exactly what is going on in his head and why he finds it difficult. So that embrace was very important and it gave Asa a great sense of what it was like to live as Daniel. We also went to a school especially for kids who are on the spectrum and Asa met some other kids there and spoke to him as well. So he did his research…
Having done your documentary Beautiful Young Minds some years ago, was there any particular reason that you wanted to expand this story further?
It is partly because I thought this was a fascinating world and one that could be well adapted into a fiction. When I was approached by the UK Film Council as it was at that time, they had a new cinema fund which was about finding people from different backgrounds and bringing them into fiction, and they asked me if I had any ideas that I felt could be developed into a fictional drama or feature film. I had always felt that this was very rich territory and that I had an understanding of it, so that was the beginning of the platform.
How do you feel about the UK premiere which is taking place tonight?
I am very excited. The great thing is that it is home town, and we brought quite a few tickets ourselves. It is sold-out in both screenings which is great - we didn't buy that many! But then it means that Daniel, from my documentary that I mentioned is coming with twelve members of his family and obviously my family, actors and other people who worked on the film - plus an audience. It will be great to watch the film with an audience. It actually had its world premiere in Toronto, so that was the first time that I had saw it with an audience, but this feels very different and very special. I am super glad that it is here in London.
How was the reception in Toronto? As it was quite a teary film, was there somebody standing at the exits with a box of tissues?
It was great actually. Toronto are known for being a generous crowd, so it was a great festival to premiere at and I was quite nervous as you can imagine. I arrived at the cinema and it was tipping down and I mean absolutely torrential rain. I arrived and could not see anyone outside the cinema. I said to the bloke who I was with that - ‘Nobody has shown up, the rain has put them off’. But he said 'No, you need to look around the block that is where the queue starts'... There was this huge queue. When I saw that I relaxed in a way and just felt that people were in such good spirits and they are so hospitable. They reacted really well to the film. It was such a pleasure as a director to see your film adherent with this new soundtrack of noises that the audience made. They make a lot of noise in Toronto, they laugh, they gasp and ‘ooh’ and they ‘aww’ - so to hear that symphony come with the film was great.
X+Y is released in UK cinemas from March 15th 2015.
Our review of X+Y can be found here.