Interview: Steph Green, director of ‘Run & Jump’

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Run and Jump centres on the vivacious Vanetia Casey (Maxine Peake), whose happy-go-lucky personality conceals the heartache of holding her family together after her young husband Conor suffers a rare, personality-altering stroke. When American neuropsychologist Dr. Ted Fielding (Will Forte) travels to Ireland to study Conor’s recovery, he finds himself irresistibly drawn into the Casey family, forging meaningful relationships with more than one of its members. Equal parts unconventional love story and intimate family portrait, Stacy Grouden caught up with award-winning filmmaker Steph Green (New Boy) to discuss her feature-length directorial debut and experience working in the Irish film industry.

Run & Jump was your first feature film [after Green’s Oscar-nominated short film New Boy]. What was it about this project that resonated with you, that attracted you to attach yourself as director?

The script really, which was written by Ailbhe (Keogan), it was her first screenplay and it’s just so realised in terms of the authenticity and her signature voice. It’s inspired by true events in her life, her father suffered a brain injury and she watched her family cope with humour and fortitude, particularly her mother. So the script drew me in.

I think also with your first feature you’re looking for something you can get made, it being a slightly smaller film which is very performance-based. It was a beautiful script, it would be really interesting to cast, and it’s a difficult subject matter realised in a really interesting way.

The tone is so well-balanced, which is no doubt informed by Ailbhe’s own experience of the impact of a brain injury on a family.

Absolutely. Although it’s not a true story, it is quite different from Ailbhe’s experience. Particularly Will Forte’s character, who was not a neuropsychologist in the first draft, and there was a lot of research done to develop that character, but he did a wonderful job.

You showed quite a bit of foresight in casting Forte in this film – as an actor better known for comedy, Run & Jump was his first big dramatic role. What led you to cast Forte as Ted Fielding?

I love casting. I think it’s truly an art in itself. You want to be able to bring something surprising to the screen in your casting choices, and I really enjoy that, when I see someone stretch or show a certain depth or a certain type of performance I’ve never seen before. So I did some research on who was around, in that age bracket, in the states, and I just had a feeling… And then it was great when Alexander Payne became interested in him (for Nebraska) because suddenly there was a lot more credence to my choice. I’m so happy for him, he’s extremely talented and he has a long way to go.

He is fantastic in this film. There’s one shot in particular, when Ted is watching a video he’s taken of Vanetia and Forte just closes his eyes, that is just breathtaking, there’s so much nuance in that reaction.

He has a lot of subtlety, that’s what I saw when I started looking into working with him. Then I met him and felt strongly that he could do it, he has that ability to believe in doing less. He’ll admit he struggled with it a bit in the beginning, but it was coming through on the screen from day one and we were all really happy with how it turned out.

I found the film to be very visually poetic – there are a lot of recurring motifs and colour patterns that work on multiple levels. Can you talk a little bit about the look of the film, how you used colour and space to tell this story?

This family is in a particularly dark moment of transition. It’s quite traumatic, the father figure has had a stroke, his personality has completely changed and they’re all trying to adjust to this stranger in the household. And then there’s another stranger in the household. So the colour palatte and the production design was the way to communicate what the family used to be. There weren’t going to be any flashbacks, the nostalgia had to be implied as opposed to represented visually.

I think that was the first thing I remember talking to everyone about, was that I wanted the space and the colour to feel like a more ideal utopia that at least Vanetia remembers her family being prior to the stroke. She’s very creative, the glue that holds her family together. She’s full of humour, she’s warm, so you go from there and think, what does that look like? What is her colour palette?

Also, we just started scouting, and we found a lot of yellows, and bright colours at the locations we wanted to use, in Dingle, and at the farmhouse we used happened to be yellow, so I think with a smaller film like this one you have to let the exploration dictate what you do, you can’t necessarily afford to repaint your key locations, so it’s a culmination of inspiration and sort of adjusting to where you are, and what you can do there.

Were there any other challenges to shooting in Kerry, or any other adjustments like that you had to make working on an Irish film on location, on a budget?

I loved shooting in Kerry, visually it’s so inspiring. The challenges with this film always just came down to time and resources. One thing that came up, there is a zoo sequence in the film – and there’s really no zoo in Kerry – so we invented it for the film. It’s the culmination of an aquatic centre, a bird sanctuary, Wicklow; you have to get creative and visually construct that space, working on a small budget, we couldn’t just fly out to a zoo, so we made one up.

A special screening of Run & Jump launched the Irish Heart Foundation’s National Stroke Awareness week recently, playing to an audience of stroke survivors and their families. What was that screening like for you?

It was really lovely. It was an important way to kick off, in a way, it’s the hardest crowd, they’ve really been through what we’re portraying. It seemed to resonate, which was really satisfying and kind of a relief – You want to feel that you’re accurately representing an experience that’s quite complex.

By all accounts, it went down well. It’s really well-balanced between exploring the aftermath and side-effects of a stroke and the personal, peripheral stories of the other characters.

I do think it’s unique and I hope that’s what draws people in, I think it’s very personal, and it’s exciting that it’s coming home to Ireland. It had a great little run of festivals in the US but it feels right now to be back where it belongs and I’m really looking forward to hearing the dialogue around it when it’s released.

Well congratulations on bringing it home. So what’s next, are you working on anything else at the moment? Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

I’ve optioned a kind of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, believe it or not, which. I’m working with the Irish Film Board again on another project with Ailbhe, just trying to get a few things on the boil. I’m also just reading a lot of scripts, trying to find great writing that inspires me. Having worked with Roddy [Doyle] on New Boy and then Ailbhe on this film, she’s hugely inspiring, I’m more than open to reading whatever comes my way, I have utter faith in Irish writing.

Do you think that the fact that this was Ailbhe’s first screenplay and your first directorial feature helped, or did it affect the way you approached this film at all?

I think it made me braver, in that I had this kind of… naïve bravery as I would call it – I wanted Will Forte and I wouldn’t shut up about it! Maybe on a second feature, you can become a little bit more cynical or a little more influenced by commercial forces. This being our first project, we had nothing to lose, in a way. Being more of a novice just kind of helps you go for it sometimes.

Run & Jump is released on May 2nd.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JH2yuajfBg

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