Supernova director Harry McQueen on ‘quietly revolutionary’ gay romance and casting with ‘integrity’

Supernova Harry Macqueen

When Supernova writer and director Harry Macqueen set out to make a film about a life thrown into disarray by a dementia diagnosis, he decided early on he wanted it to focus on a gay couple.

The result is the emotionally searing Supernova, which stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as Sam and Tusker, a couple in later middle age. The film follows the men as they embark on a road trip after Tusker is diagnosed with dementia to explore some of the places and relationships that brought them together many years before. In some respects, it’s a standard road movie – but it’s also a heady love story with masterful performances from Firth and Tucci at its core.

There were “a number of reasons” Macqueen settled on telling the story of a gay couple dealing with a dementia diagnosis, he explains.

“Over and above the dementia side of it, I just think I hadn’t seen that many films that deal with love at this age – same-sex, romantic love, mature love,” Macqueen tells PinkNews. “I hadn’t seen that a lot on screen and I was asking myself why that was whilst I was making the film. But also because when I first decided that I was going to try and make a film about it, I knew it was going to be about a couple, and all of the people I had met along the way had been heterosexual couples of this kind of age. And so my natural impulse was to start writing that relationship again.”

Macqueen stopped himself early on and questioned why he was naturally gravitating towards creating a film about a heterosexual couple. “It occurred to me that what I was writing was a universal story – it’s about love, loss, compassion, empathy, trust, and all of that stuff, and that of course is not owned by any gender or sexual orientation. So all of those things combined made me want to make a film about same-sex love. 

“Also, I think cinema and stories are important, and I think as a filmmaker you always want to inspire and educate at the same time. So if this kind of representation could do those things, I was really up for the challenge of making that work.”

Going into Supernova, Macqueen was keenly aware of the dearth of stories about LGBT+ people in middle-age. Queer cinema has a long history of over reliance on coming-out narratives. Those stories are “really important,” Macqueen says, but LGBT+ audiences need more. 

“It means the sexuality of the characters informs the narrative, and I didn’t want that to happen in my film really,” Macqueen says. “Of course it informs the characters in every way – their lived experience is different from people that are straight and that age. So you weave it into the character, but it’s not involved in the plot. It’s not mentioned, it’s never even part of anyone’s conversation. And I think that in its own way is quietly revolutionary, I would say, humbly.”

Supernova Harry Macqueen

Harry Macqueen (L) with Colin Firth. (Provided)

Supernova has won acclaim from critics, but it has also proven controversial in some territories for its exploration of same-sex love. The film found itself at the centre of a media storm in April when it emerged that censors in Russia were trying to cut some scenes from the film.

“I just don’t think those things should happen,” Macqueen says. “I mean, there’s good reason for some things to be censored, of course, but for a film like this to be censored because of the fact that the two people lying in bed are the same sex was not something I or the other producers were willing to put up with for a second. 

“Also, it was done without our knowledge. It was difficult for the distributors in Russia, they were put under a lot of pressure seemingly, but you’ve got to stick to your guns. Different cultures have different values, and it’s a complex conversation to talk from one perspective and try and throw your own opinions at someone else’s lived experience and all that kind of stuff. But you also just have to respect the work, so if a person or a territory doesn’t want to respect that, then I think they shouldn’t be watching the film in the first place in a way.”

Luckily, the sorry affair ended in a good place. Macqueen intervened and demanded that the film be played in its entirety. Ultimately, Supernova was shown uncut in the biggest cinema in Moscow.

“That, I think, is kind of amazing really. I don’t think that happens very often in Russia that a big western film will come over with that kind of representation and sell out the biggest cinema in Moscow city centre.”

I think Colin and Stanley were the best people for these roles. That’s just a certainty for me.

Supernova has also faced backlash from some LGBT+ people over its casting of two straight actors in gay roles. That conversation is, Macqueen admits, “an incredibly important one” – but he’s comfortable with the choices he made.

“I think the reason we’re still having that conversation is because I don’t think there’s really any defined answer as to what the conclusion to it is,” Macqueen says of the ongoing debate. “I think the really important thing for a project, as a filmmaker, is that my door is as open as it possibly can be to everyone, and that extends not just to actors, but to everyone working on the film. And I think that’s your duty as a creator of a project.

“I think Colin and Stanley were the best people for these roles. That’s just a certainty for me. It’s allowed the film to go to places that it wouldn’t normally have gone to, and I think that alone is incredibly important.

“Obviously they’ve drawn on a 20-year relationship to make it – I don’t think any other acting duo could have done that. But I think ultimately it comes down to the integrity of the project. Is the project treating the subject matter and the characters with integrity and empathy and is it being compassionate to its subject matter? And I think this is. I really believe that it is, that all of us making it treated it right from the start like that. So I think it’s project to project, really, and I think integrity is the main thing.”

Harry Macqueen spent two years researching dementia to create Supernova

Supernova might be a queer film, but it’s also, at its core, a story about dementia and the heartbreak that comes with the realisation that time is finite. Macqueen worked with researchers at University College London (UCL) to make sure that his depiction of the condition was accurate and considerate. He ultimately spent more than two years researching dementia before he even started writing the screenplay.

“Dementia is surprising and terrifying and kind of inspiring, and I think living with dementia is a very interesting, specific thing in itself,” he explains. “How you engage with life when you know that you have a diagnosis like this – how you change your life to accommodate someone that is getting progressively more ill – is really inspiring and thought-provoking, and made me want to write a film about it.

“The thing for me then was to step a little bit back from it and to try and use the atmosphere of what I’d experienced spending all that time with people and translate that into an original piece of work. I didn’t want to write anything that was directly based on anyone I’d met or any situation. It was more a collection of lots of information and lots of experience.”

Through his research, Macqueen decided that Tusker should have posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) rather than a standard Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He wanted to make sure that his depiction was specific as he was all too aware that most films about dementia deal in “broad brushstrokes”.

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in Supernova.

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in Supernova. (Provided)

“PCA is a very interesting type of dementia because it affects the posterior of your brain, the back of your brain, so it affects your speech, your writing, your reading, your capacity to understand and to write, and it affects your eyesight,” Macqueen explains.

“But it does those things before it affects your memory, so with PCA you can then have a character that is, to all intents and purposes, still lucid and still has agency over their thoughts and their feelings whilst deteriorating in different ways. That’s interesting for a piece of drama, I think, especially if the piece of drama is also talking about end of life choices and the sort of dignity with which we end our lives or don’t end our lives. I think if you have a character that has some agency over that, it helps with that conversation.”

Supernova draws attention to the ongoing debate surrounding end-of-life choices in a potent, heartbreaking way. Today, in the UK, people with terminal illnesses who want to die on their own terms are still not legally allowed to do so – they must travel abroad to receive the treatment they need. Macqueen was eager to centre that discussion in his film.

“It’s something that I’m massively passionate about, and the bridging of dementia with end of life choices is one of the main reasons that I wanted to make the film in the first place,” Macqueen says. 

“I think it’s an inspiring debate and I think it’s one that we need to keep having in this country. It’s no one’s job to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do with their lives, or indeed with the end of their lives, but I would personally say that we aren’t in a position in this country at the moment where we are allowing people a dignified choice of how they live or how they don’t live at the end of their lives.

“I think that’s a real shame in a modern democracy, and I think we need to be doing something about that right now – and in fact we are. The film is part of that dialogue, and a lot of people are doing great work in parliament at the moment to make that conversation happen in a more structured way.”

Macqueen met people while researching Supernova “who are no longer with us” – some of them travelled to countries where assisted dying is legal. 

“I think the united thing in all of those people’s experience was how much of a shame it was that they were having to do that, to make that choice, or to do what they wanted to do in secret,” Macqueen says. “That doesn’t have to be the way it is, and it doesn’t have to be the situation people find themselves in. I think it’s a really important debate and one I hope we have as a community really soon.”

Supernova is released in UK cinemas on 25 June.