Duncan Paveling makes his feature screenwriting debut with My Feral Heart, a portrait of Luke (Steven Brandon), a man with Down’s syndrome who has been the sole carer for his elderly mother for some time. When she dies, he is sent to the a rural care home where he forms an unorthodox friendship with a young man doing community service in the park next door. Features Editor James T Harding caught up with Duncan as the film made its UK premiere at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
I wanted to create a story that was less about his disability and more about his ability
A striking thing about the film is that it never once uses the word ‘Down’s.’
Yes, that was always our intention from the very beginning. When we wrote the original synopsis and log lines we left out the Down's syndrome reference. In the script itself, we introduce Luke as a young man with Down's syndrome, on the page, and as you say it isn't referenced at all. I wanted to create a story that was less about his disability and more about his ability.
In terms of film, it's very rare to see Down's representation. We have a history of wonderful performances by able-bodied actors playing disability and they've done a fantastic job but there are some roles which I believe could have been played by someone with that disability, given that chance, if someone took a risk. We wanted to give someone the opportunity to celebrate their ability.
How much research was needed to portray Luke accurately?
I've done a lot of work through my life with people with learning difficulties and special needs, voluntary and paid. I am a trained therapist as well, so I do a lot of work with individuals and families. I've met some incredible people who have influenced a lot the way I view the world.
The more social-realist elements of the film have come from real-life experiences. Even some of the dialogue.
What general advice would you have for other writers who wish to include minority groups in their work?
You have to be honest. In On Writing, Steven King says that if a character would say something, then let them say it. Even if its offensive. Because that's where the characters speak, and that's where you bring truth and honesty to it. That has really stuck with me.
There's a moment in the film where Luke finds a porn magazine in the barn. He puts himself in a vulnerable position. But essentially, he's a young man. Why wouldn't he pick up those magazines? That's the honesty. He's no different to anybody else.
Luke is so unhappy when his routine of caring for this mother is disrupted, and in a way the rest of the film is about him bringing elements of that — his care for the people around him — into his life. But there’s also a more pervading sense of routine to the other elements: the care-home timetable, the fox hunt, Pete’s cups of tea and Eve’s preoccupation with coats.
I was particularly aware of the authenticity of the routines in terms of the characters, particularly Luke's character and those in the home because of my experience of working in those environments. Most people have routine and structure to their life, but particularly in that environment, with people with special needs, routine is vitally important.
But it's important to everybody and I think that's the key. It's the reason why we set up home and have our things around us, isn't it? Routine shows the connections and similarities between everybody.
Did you shoot anything which got cut?
There's a scene that we didn't use in the film where Pete confronts his father at the stables before a hunt. It was a big emotional scene and it took a lot of organisation. There were animals and all sorts. It's a beautiful scene, and it looks stunning, and the performances were great. But it didn't make the final film.
I remember apologising to Jane [Gull, director] afterwards. It just didn't work. It felt like we were telling the same thing again, doubling up when we didn't need to. That's something that Jane picked up on at script stage, but, because she's just too lovely, she went with it.
What changed the most during the rewriting process?
In the first draft, the film was from Pete's perspective, telling the story of Luke and how he changed Pete’s life. We put a line through it about half of it, that first draft. Not because we didn't like it but because it wasn't quite the story we wanted to tell. We wanted it to be Luke's point of view.
Jane laughed at the end of that meeting. She said, 'I've never sat with a writer who would so willingly put lines through their stuff.’
I said, 'It's because one, I trust you, you're the director. And two, I know you're right, because I was questioning those things too.'
But the first draft has got to be like that.
My Feral Heart is online at www.myferalheart.co.uk and you can follow them on Twitter @My_Feral_Heart and Duncan @Bostondunk