‘I am not interested in telling miserabilist stories,’ says Tom Harper, relaxing with a coffee during a break from colour grading. It’s a bold statement given that, in his own words, his first feature film The Scouting Book for Boys is about how ‘each man hurts the thing he loves’. It’s bolder still considering that the two short films that helped make his name, while not bleak in a kitchen sink fashion, feature the estates, CCTV and inner-city deprivation.
Cubs (2006) is a pacy, hand-held depiction of a young teenage boy getting initiated into a gang of hoodie-wearing urban fox hunters. It gleaned a BAFTA nomination, but to this day attracts messages from internet viewers who love animals and hate the film, perhaps failing to grasp the subtle themes of class prejudice and peer pressure.
The opening shot of Cherries (2007) is of a school surrounded by grey sky, impossibly high fences and overarching CCTV towers. Within the school, teenage pupils expecting a normal class gradually realise they are being drafted to fight in the Iraq war.
Both films seemingly fit into the school of British cinema represented by Noel Clarke, Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold. In fact, Clarke is working on a feature-length version of Cherries, Scouting Book‘s lead character is played by Meadows’s protégé Thomas Turgoose, and Arnold’s Red Road cinematographer Robbie Ryan is director of photography.
But though he admires them, Harper believes he does something different from his British peers. ‘I have a love/hate relationship with British film. I really like the majority of it and we have had a great year. But I think too much of what we do is a bit depressing. There are certainly depressing elements in Scouting Book but I hope there’s a bit of magic there as well,’ he says.
This magic comes from the chemistry between the two teenage leads David and Emily, played by Turgoose and newcomer Holly Grainger, and the sun-tinged setting of a caravan park in the Norfolk country to which they run away and set up home – surviving with the help of David’s trusty Scouting Book For Boys (the use of which was approved by the Scouting Association, Harper notes).
‘It eventually is a tragedy,’ continues Harper, ‘but it gets there via a love story and a magical summer holiday. We were really lucky as we filmed in October last year and it was just glorious. I really wanted it to feel poetic and nostalgic rather than grey and bleak – I find that much less interesting.’
Filming in October was not the only requirement brought on by the Â£1 million budget. Holiday-makers doubled as extras, accommodation was in caravans, and Steven MacKintosh had to replace Tony Curran, who pulled out as cameras were about to roll after being offered a more lucrative part abroad.
However, budget did stretch to 35mm cameras, which give Scouting Book, filmed mainly outside, the bright nostalgic feel of celluloid. Combined with its painterly aesthetic, Scouting Book signals a departure in style from Harper’s shorts. ‘Both Cubs and Cherries were hand-held and aggressive whereas this has a bit of that but it is much more composed and graphic. It’s a different approach to telling a story,’ Harper states.
And while Scouting Book also shows a leap in setting from the urban environment, and the fences, walls and barbed wire prevalent in the two shorts, its coming-of-age story reveals a commitment to teenage characters. Aged just 30 himself, and with boyish good looks that wouldn’t look out of place in a sixth form common room, does Harper think his subject matter might change as he grows older? ‘I don’t know,’ he says, slowing down. ‘I keep saying I’ll move away from films about teenagers, but I keep on finding them interesting. It’s a turbulent time in people’s lives and it’s the time you make these massive decisions, and I’m drawn to that, but I think at some point I’ll tell other stories as well.’
It seems appropriate that 18-year-old Turgoose has been cast as the film’s lead, since he has effectively come of age on the screens of UK cinemas. Picked up from a youth club near Grimsby, Turgoose demanded a fiver from casting agents to audition for Meadows’s This Is England and answered ‘no’ when they asked him if he would like to be an actor. ‘Clearly he never entertained the thought of being an actor,’ laughs Harper, who refers to him affectionately as ‘Tommo’, ‘ but somewhere along the way he’s made that conscious decision to take it seriously and put hard work into it. That’s what will make him stand out. And of course the fact that he’s fucking good! Really, really, really good.’
Turgoose’s performance is central to the film. ‘This is very much a one-boy story,’ Harper explains. ‘It’s important the audience stays with the main character even though he does some things that aren’t very nice. Tommo’s got such a wonderful, likeable quality I think he’d have to do something really vile for people not to like him. He starts a scene and ends a scene and you will watch his face for 90 minutes. That’s a really tall order but he is exceptionally good.’
The film was produced by Celador, the company behind Slumdog Millionaire, so that Harper now stands in the Oscar-shaped shadow cast by Danny Boyle’s big hit. If he finds this daunting, he hides it well. ‘The film will live or die on its own merit but because the producers have that much more clout and influence, it will be seen by more people, and that’s a good thing. It’s so nice that a really good film with British money is doing so well, and that most of the money is coming back to the UK so Celador can make more films,’ he says.
And if that can’t encourage some more magical British films then nothing can.