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Macdonald on the gay love story, Beautiful Thing

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

Before it started its commercial run, Beautiful Thing, a delightfully joyous gay love story from Great Britain, traveled the film festival circuit. When it got to Boston early last month, its first-time director, Hettie Macdonald, came along with it, and talked with local television, radio, and newspaper reporters about her project. By the time she and I got together late on a weekday afternoon, I had already interviewed two other filmmakers, and she had lost count of how many encounters with media people she had had. So we were both a little worn out as we started our conversation, but were soon perked up by our mutual enthusiasm for her movie.

When asked how she first got interested in the story, she reminded me that it had started out as a play, by a 24-year-old gay writer. "The owner of the theatre was our matchmaker, introducing Jonathan [Harvey] and I soon after he had written it." Harvey had written the play because "when he was growing up in Liverpool, he never saw his experience represented anywhere on the telly or in the cinema. The only images of being gay were either Merchant/Ivory school - very posh - or if you did find a working class gay character, they usually got thrown out of their home, went into prostitution, and died or whatever. He wanted to write a working class gay love story with a happy ending."

"He also wanted to address the inequality in Britain on the age of consent. At the time of writing you had to be 21 to have sex if you were gay, but you could do it at16 if you were straight. They've now narrowed it to 18, which is still ridiculous. So he deliberately made his characters 16, to try to stir things up a little bit."

The two boys, Jamie and Ste, fill the center of the story, but Jamie's mother is easily the most interesting character. "It's an extraordinary part - when you think that Jonathan was just 24 when he wrote such a part for a woman, so complex. I love that mixture of toughness and grittiness, and yet there's huge compassion and warmth as well. And the wit. He's rather like her." Linda Henry played the role on stage, and Macdonald was thrilled that she was available for the film.

With extensive theatrical experience already, Macdonald was asked to bring the story to the stage. After its initial award-winning success, Britain's Channel Four approached Harvey with the idea of making a television movie of Beautiful Thing, and it was soon apparent that Macdonald should also direct that. "Adapting the play for the screen was a steep learning curve for me. I had to start thinking in images, telling the story with what you see rather than with what you hear." And she also had more difficult casting decisions to make.

"We looked at 60 or 70 boys before we found two of the right age who could deal with the emotional demands of the story. The two boys [Glen Berry and Scott Neal] and Tamika [Empson, who plays the Mama Cass loving Leah, a friend of Jamie's] were all together in this sort of theater club, this sort of workshop thing - it's quite well known in London, the Anna Scher Theater School. She takes kids from about 11 up to 20 or so They have one or two sessions a week and they do improvising and communications skills. She's good at training them up and taking it seriously. They all work quite a lot on television."

"It made a big difference that they all had history together - it gave them confidence on the set. And their natural intimacy fed through in subtle ways into their characters, so you can believe that these kids have lived there for 15 years next door to each other."

After the labor of adaptation, Macdonald entered another unknown world, that of the film director. "I had the most amazing crew, generous and supportive, really into the project, and not at all fazed by having someone directing who had never been on a set before. The totally respected everything I said, even if it was complete nonsense. The taught me how to do it and didn't take over - they let me make my mistakes. It was a fascinating process."

"And filmmaking is one thing, but then you get to editing and dubbing, with all of these seriously talented people who are so good at what they do, all of them pooling their expertise to make this new film. I loved that the palate you have to work with to tell your story in film is much bigger. In the theater, you're more restricted, and that's good, because it means you have to think up tricks and use your imagination. But I enjoyed having more ways I could tell my story. To be able to do close-ups and get inside someone's head, or to look at a whole block of flats - that sort of range is not available in the theater."

Asked about her inspirations and models, Macdonald cites Australian films like Muriel's Wedding. "It and other Australian films are great at getting a balance between drama and comedy, the way they use the music and such. Britain tends, when it does its social realism stuff, to get heavy sometimes. For example, Ken Loach, who I think is brilliant, but he does it very seriously, and a lot of his movies are very bleak and depressing, a true picture of what's happening in our country."

"This piece isn't like that. Jonathan is dealing with social reality, but in a very quirky way. There's a lot of joy in his writing. The decor is brightened, but only subtly, because you still have to believe that these are real people and real lives. We needed to hang on to grittiness. It came down to little details like choosing to make the school uniforms red and not grey, choosing to decorate the flat with bright wallpaper rather than shitty stuff. Choosing to film some scenes by the lake, instead of some more sterile part of the environment. All these things together tend to heighten and brighten the realism."

Macdonald is already at work on another project - bringing Patricia Highsmith's only lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, to the screen. Beautiful Thing opens today at the Kendall Square Cinema.