Fighting for survival: Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker on Journeyman

“I just felt that, for all the movies centred around boxing, nobody had really explored the theme of head injury.” 

Nikki Baughan
Updated:

Journeyman (2017)

Journeyman (2017)

“I didn’t want to make a topical film. I didn’t want to make a statement.” That’s perhaps a surprising admission to hear from any filmmaker, but then Paddy Considine has always made story a priority in everything he does. As an actor in myriad British films from A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) to The Death of Stalin (2017) and now as the writer-director of drama Journeyman — the follow-up to his acclaimed 2011 debut Tyrannosaur — Considine has rightly earned a reputation as a truly independent spirit.

And so it is that, although Journeyman’s pugilist protagonist Matty Burton, also played by Considine, is a world champion fighter preparing to defend his title in an epic showdown, it is defiantly not a boxing film. During that fight, Matty sustains a horrific brain injury that results in a complete change of personality; a seismic event that causes shockwaves through his life, and cracks in his otherwise solid marriage.

“I just felt that, for all the movies centred around boxing, nobody had really explored the theme of head injury,” says Considine, a long-time fan of the sport who spoke with brain trauma specialists and survivors in preparation for writing the screenplay. “I thought it would be interesting to explore what happens when the crowds have gone away, and it’s left to the family members to pick up the pieces. I wanted to make something that was more about somebody who loses their identity, almost, and has to learn to live with this new version of themselves.”

Journeyman (2017)

Journeyman (2017)

For Jodie Whittaker, who plays Matty’s wife Emma, this element was an immediate dramatic hook, even on the page. “It’s a family dynamic,” she says. “It’s about this couple with a very young child at a point where they could be about to start a really wonderful stage of their life, and this horrific injury changes that course. And it’s not rose tinted, either. Bits of it are really hopeful and wonderful, but some elements were dark, difficult and traumatising.”

Paddy Considine and DP Laurie Rose on the set of Journeyman (2017)

Paddy Considine and DP Laurie Rose on the set of Journeyman (2017)

Indeed, as Matty attempts to adjust to his new normal, relearning who he is and where he fits in to the world around him, his anger and frustration spill over into moments of aggression, particularly aimed at Emma and their baby daughter. It’s often difficult to watch but, for Considine, it was essential not to shy away from the difficult realities of such an injury.

“I think if you’re going to make a film about any subject matter like this, then it’s your duty to face the darker side of it,” he explains. “I was always checking my head to make sure that I wasn’t just using these situations for shock value. You could look at it and think that it was a little bit far-fetched. But having conversations with people who had lived with this kind of trauma, their experiences in some cases were far worse than Matt and Emma’s.”

For Whittaker too, the more challenging elements of the story were some of the most important. “I think Emma’s journey is really interesting,” she says, “because some decisions she makes, as an audience member you’re like ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ But that’s life, isn’t it. It’s not a glamorous version of this event, and it’s certainly not a sugar-coated one. You either throw yourself into a situation or you have to walk away.

“There were scenes that were really hard, the beginning or end of a certain sequence would really test you and push you, but that’s what you want when you go to work,” she continues. “It’s a very different role for me, even though I have played people who are in a traumatic scenario. But every single person is different, and it was about knowing the journey Emma would take. Paddy understood that, and helped steer me in the direction that the character should go in.”

Journeyman (2017)

Journeyman (2017)

For Considine, Emma was always as crucial a part of the story as Matty, and he was careful to ensure that, while the character is an essential source of support, she also remains authentically human, with her own frustrations and limits.

“There has to be moments of connection, moments of hope for her,” notes Considine. “Early on, we went to shoot a scene and, as Emma, Jodie was very nervous around Matty, like he was always doing something wrong. And I said, ‘No, treat him with curiosity, like you’ve got an alien in your house. Don’t let the circumstances of the injury rule the scene. If he says something funny, laugh at him.’ It was important to have those little moments, those little connections, and for her to find him amusing, to begin with, and then frustrating.

“Ultimately, I had to create the situation that was so dire for her that she had to pack her bags and leave,” continues Considine of a pivotal moment. “He had to lose her so that he has no choice but to face himself. And you’ve got to want her back as much as he wants her back. You’ve got to pine for her as much as he does; he’s fighting for her. My job as a filmmaker was to bring it all back to the light; ultimately, I just wanted to make a love story.”

Journeyman (2017)

Journeyman (2017)

Indeed, while Matty’s experiences may be desperate at times, Journeyman is shot through with genuine hope, a sense that the future can be bright, even if it’s not the one you were expecting. “That’s what good films are,” reflects Whittaker. “You’ve got to walk away with a feeling, you’ve got to be left with something. I think this, as a film, will be different for everybody. I see it as being hopeful, but someone else may watch it and think that it isn’t. It’s not that they have missed a moment, it’s just one of those films that can take people on different paths when they watch it.”

For Considine, the joy of bringing powerful narratives to an audience is what continues to drive him, both in front of and behind the camera. “Stories are the most important, burning stories, and support at grassroots level for getting new voices out into the world. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t lose stories like Journeyman, that aren’t afraid to be from the heart and very simple in their structure. There’s nothing wrong with a story that explains itself to you, and ends itself satisfactorily.

“The journey Matty goes on is ultimately one of acceptance, about identifying with what he used to be and coming to terms with what he is now,” explains Considine of the film’s universality. “I think that with any difficulties that people go through in life, at some point to find any comfort out of the discomfort you have to just accept your circumstances, and also accept that sometimes there is going to be suffering. And that’s a very human thing.”

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