X+Y director Morgan Matthews – why I’ve turned to fiction

All of Morgan Matthews’ work to date has been guided by his love for ‘making small stories into big ones’, and for his first fiction feature he’s returned to the subject of brilliant young maths prodigies.

11 March 2015

By Joseph Walsh

Morgan Matthews © Paul Marc Mitchell

Morgan Matthews is already a recognised filmmaker whose television documentaries – including The Fallen, Beautiful Young Minds and Scenes from a Teenage Killing – have garnered awards from BAFTA, the Royal Television Society, the Grierson Trust and also the Sheffield Documentary Festival.

His first fiction feature film, X+Y, is inspired by Beautiful Young Minds, a feature-length documentary he made in 2007, which followed a group of teenagers through the training and selection process of the International Mathematical Olympiad. “It’s a reinvention in a way,” says Matthews. “I used the world that I got to know as an inspiration, because I didn’t see much purpose in just remaking a documentary. Although the characters and some of the themes – in terms of the narrative and the back story – are recognisable from the documentary, there’s an enormous amount that we’ve made up.”

From an early age, Matthews was interested in and cared about stories concerning ordinary people who were often in dramatic, or difficult, situations. Growing up in the Midlands and subsequently moving to Bristol, he was brought up in a home where he says he “became very aware of politics and social issues”, through his mother who was a community worker, and his stepfather, who worked with children who’d been excluded from school.

Paul Hamann’s 1988 documentary Fourteen Days in May, which focused on the final days in the lead-up to the execution of Edward Johnson, who was convicted of murder but insisted that he was innocent, had a profound effect on Matthews as a boy. “I could not believe that he was being put to death in the modern world. It just seemed utterly inhuman. Fundamentally, while watching this documentary I realised that I cared deeply for Edward Johnson and his family, and I came away knowing that the death penalty was wrong. So if I wanted to make people care about an issue, I had to make them [the audience] care about the people who were affected by that issue first.”

X+Y (2014)

Matthews became a father when he was 15 years old, an experience that contributed to what he hopes is “a non-judgmental approach when it comes to telling the stories of people who might otherwise be seen in a one-dimensional or stereotypical way”. His interest in photography was also beginning to take root, a passion that was the first step on his journey to becoming a filmmaker. He began experimenting by capturing the local characters of Bristol on his still camera but soon knew that he wanted to marry his passion for photography with his love of storytelling.

“I wanted to move to London and study film. I was very naive and didn’t think I could get onto a film course, but I turned in my portfolio of photographs and some ideas.” This portfolio earned him a place at what was then the London College of Printing (LCP) and it was here that he was able to begin working with the moving image and find his form. He described his graduation film as “an experimental hybrid of drama and documentary shot on black-and-white 16mm where the viewer wasn’t sure who was ‘real’ and who was an actor”.

While still studying at the LCP, Matthews found unpaid work experience with Diverse Productions at the age of 20, starting as a researcher on an episode of Secret Lives about Jeremy Thorpe (the former politician who was forced to resign as the Liberal Party leader in 1976 after he was accused of having a homosexual affair). From here, Matthews moved on to working on Channel 4’s Cutting Edge. It was also a period that coincided with the birth of the docu-soap, an arena in which he would thrive. “My first paid job in TV was working on a pilot for Paddington Green for Lion Television, which was eventually commissioned for 30-episodes, playing at 9pm on BBC1.” Only a year after leaving college, he was directing, shooting and cutting episodes of this popular series.

Director Morgan Matthews with actor Asa Butterfield on location for X+Y (2014)

Through independent documentary company Century Films, Morgan made the 90-minute documentary Care House about a care home for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour. “Although it wasn’t my first standalone piece, it was the first film that I felt was made in the style I wanted to make it, and it had a profound effect on me,” reflects Matthews. “I fell in love with this place full of amazing characters, warmth and incredible stories, and found myself practically living there – filming over Christmas. Again, I felt that if I cared about the people in my film, then an audience could too.”

In 2007, he set up his own production company, Minnow Films, essentially giving him more control over the films that he was making. “It got to the point where people were asking me what I wanted to make a film about next.” Matthews says he wanted to use this situation wisely: “I realised I was in a privileged position and therefore I should be using it to tackle bigger, socially important issues.”

This drive and passion came through with his highly acclaimed work The Fallen. A three-hour documentary which showed on BBC2 shortly after Remembrance Day in 2008, it chronicled every single British service person to die in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he turned his camera towards street violence, with Scenes from a Teenage Killing, a two-hour documentary exploring the tragic stories of every teenager who was murdered in the UK in 2009.

“I love making documentaries, but fiction is a new and exciting chapter for me, “ says Matthews of his new film. “The beauty of documentary is that you don’t necessarily know exactly what is going to happen. Whereas with fiction there is more freedom with the story and more control, allowing you to take the story wherever you want it to go.”

X+Y (2014)

For Matthews the transition has been relatively smooth thanks to his filmmaking experience. He knew the writer James Graham (then a young talent emerging in theatre), having been impressed by his early plays such as The Whiskey Taster. Now James is one of the most sought after writers in the UK, having experienced great success with This House at the National Theatre. He has recently worked with Harvey Weinstein on adapting Finding Neverland as a Broadway musical and is set to work with Paul Greengrass on his feature 1984.

The director has also brought together an impressive cast of British talent that includes Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan and rising star Asa Butterfield. “The parallels with documentary and fiction are many, but particularly when it comes to casting. As much as good casting is imperative in fiction, it is also essential in documentary – whether you are interested in a particular subject and speak to hundreds of people in order to cast a documentary or whether you come across an amazing character with an amazing story. It’s all about the casting. Documentary is as much about character and narrative as fiction. Making small stories into big ones is really important to me, but I’m also interested, as I was in documentary, in finding the heart and soul in big stories and bringing them to an audience in a fashion that I hope will make them care.”

What does he want audiences to take away from X+Y?

“I want them to be moved by it. There’s no point in making a film that doesn’t move you in some way. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to be in tears – these aren’t always extreme situations, they’re often everyday problems we all struggle with. I also hope it’s fun. I think there’s some levity, some laughs – I hope I’ve got that balance right. Ultimately you make a movie because you want people to see it and to enjoy it.”

X+Y was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

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