Toby Macdonald

Toby Macdonald on Old Boys

As his boarding-school resetting of Cyrano de Bergerac is released in UK cinemas, BAFTA-nominated director Toby Macdonald discusses the process of bringing his feature debut to the big screen...


What was the initial creative spark for Old Boys?

Me and Luke Morris, the producer, we wanted to tell a story that explained why English men were so bad with women. And the writer that we were working with, Luke Ponte, had the idea of one girl in an all-boys boarding school, and that was the initial, tiny idea, and we worked on it for a while. The thing that we tried to do, all of us who were working on the script, was teach ourselves screenwriting. We’d taken that approach to the shorts, where we’d used them as a way to learn, and we slightly fell into the screenwriting hole for a few years. It took us a while to get it right. It’s perhaps the most difficult of all the crafts related to filmmaking.

How did you eventually crack it?

It was when Freddy Syborn got involved, and we started to find the joy of Amberson’s relationship with Agnes, and Agnes’s voice in the story as well. That was when it came to life.

What would you say is the hardest part of the filmmaking process?

I think the final few weeks of financing are really complicated, but we were lucky to have Film4 involved in that. But probably the hardest thing - apart from filming Streamers in a freezing river - was finding the tone. That’s the thing that we were really obsessed with, that tone, and the particular nature of the tone that we’re after. The accessible oddness of it. That took a long, long time, and we tested everyone’s patience.

How did you come to discover that tone, and communicate it on set to the cast and crew?

There are various components to it, but it starts with how scenes are played, and the quality of the interactions between characters. That was the thing that we knew that we had, and then it was about trying to wrap everything else around that. But when we began, the relationship between Pauline Etienne and Alex Lawther was exceptional, and that informed the film. We began to understand much more what the film was, based on their scenes together. 

What film made you want to become a filmmaker?

Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, for every reason that there possibly is. I saw that when I was young and that was the film that kicked it all off. But it’s also a film about making things, and the pleasures and pain of love. All of their films have that sense of the English imagination, and I love them.