Shelagh McLeod: Blasting Off

May 11, 2020
The writer/director of Astronaut discusses her mid-life transition behind the camera, working with Richard Dreyfuss and how her film reflects the times that we live in through its focus on the elderly.

“It is about cherishing the elderly and listening to them because they’ve got worth,” says Shelagh McLeod on the phone from the UK, when I comment that watching Astronaut made me think about the current danger that our elderly are in due to COVID. “I think it’s a marginalised section of society. They get shuffled away and it makes me quite angry to be honest because it was so tough for us to get my mother into a decent nursing home. It is so expensive. And suddenly our government over here has woken up to the fact that old people are dying like flies from COVID and the poor nursing home staff go there and back… They’re understaffed, they’re underpaid, something’s got to give. There’s got to be more money spent on looking after the elderly, who have given us so much in their life.”

Interestingly, it was her visits to her mother’s nursing home that inspired Astronaut, both in terms of motivation and theme.

“I kept saying, ‘Mum, I want to direct’,” says Shelagh about her interactions with her mum at the nursing home. “She said, ‘You’ve been saying this for ages, for years. So, go and do it. Go back to school. Do what you have to do. Just do it’. And I think that was a turning point for me.”

Shelagh McLeod had acted since a very young age, “and in my mid-thirties, I knew I wanted to direct, but I didn’t have the confidence to do it,” she says today. “In my awfully long career, I have worked with four or five female directors. And I directed a tech commercial in my thirties, and then got really busy as an actor, which was great, but I still always want direct. And then in my forties, I decided to go back to university, I got three degrees and one of them was in film and the other one was in writing. And then I did my masters in creative writing and I started making short films and just knew that I wanted to be behind the camera.”

It was during one of her regular visits to her mother’s nursing home that she noticed a man sitting outside in a wheelchair staring up at the sky. “My mum was pretty ill by then and in the nursing home garden there was this old guy in a wheelchair who would be out there for hours and hours and he never wanted to come in. And one day I gathered up my courage and sat next to him. He was always looking up, he’d never take his eyes off the sky. And I said to him, ‘What is it that you’re looking for up there? What do you want?’ And he said, ‘To go.’ And I found it incredibly moving.

“My dad died when he was 51 and he’d always wanted to go to space. And my dad had been kind of frustrated in the way his life turned out with his career achievements and swore to us he’d always wanted to go. I wrote it really for my dad in a funny way. But I also wrote it for this old guy I met in the nursing home.”

Astronaut took 7 years to get to the screen, which was fast-tracked once Telefilm Canada came on board, and Richard Dreyfuss signed on to play lead character Angus.

Was the first time director nervous about working with the Oscar winning star of classics such as Jaws, Down & Out in Beverly Hills, Stakeout and Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

“Having worked with many directors in my career, I noticed that the directors I liked were those on the floor with the actors, and didn’t talk through a microphone or sat behind a monitor and say, ‘Turn this way.’ They came down and listened to us as actors. So, I did a lot of listening and it was a lot of fun working with Richard. He’s very mischievous and I’ve got a bit of a mischievous way too.”

Did the 71-year-old actor protest about playing a character that is older than him? “No, God, no,” she laughs. “He’s not a vain actor. He played the role and not the star. One of the feedbacks from the test screenings was when somebody said, ‘Oh I wanted more Richard Dreyfuss.’ And I thought, ‘Good, we’ve done a good job for him.’ Because Richard was playing Angus, he’s not playing Richard. He embraced it 100% and was brilliant in it. He’s a superb actor.”

Astronaut is available now on Digital.

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