The Movie Waffler Interview - THE RUNAWAYS Writer/Director Richard Heap | The Movie Waffler

Interview - THE RUNAWAYS Writer/Director Richard Heap

the runaways
Writer/director Richard Heap discusses his Yorkshire set drama.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

After the death of their father, three runaway children and their two donkeys embark on a journey across the North York Moors, in a search for their estranged mother. Richard Heap's The Runaways is an atmospheric and uplifting celebration of childhood and family.

the runaways poster

Hello Richard! Congratulations on producing one of the most unique and unusual films of the year! To start, would you like to tell us a little bit about The Runaways and the sort of audience you hope it will reach, please. When I was watching it, I was thinking that thoughtful, clever children would get a lot out of it. The adult world is unknowable and fragile in the film, whereas the fortitude and belief in themselves which the children have is far more robust. Do you think that adults and kids could view this film differently? 

The movie has really hit home emotionally with mothers and teenage girls. I think naturally people view anything from their own life experience so kids will hopefully catch on to the adventure side of it and I think adults will see it a little like you have i.e. the impact the bigger world has had on these youngsters' lives.

I showed a 20 minute run of the film to my 12 year old boy during the edit and he really laughed during the bit when the boy is distracting the railway guard so the other two can get the donkeys on the train, principally when he twigged what was going on in the background as Ben and the guard were talking. It made me realise that for that moment my boy was probably on the station platform himself, inside the action, and it felt magical for me to see that level of engagement. So yes I hope that kids might come out of the film wanting to go in the countryside and build dens and fires.

I really enjoy how the ensemble cast work together (the scenes in the pubs are especially authentic). My friends and I are HUGE fans of Mark Addy (he will always be my Fred Flintstone). In fact, we affectionately refer to him as ‘Mark Addy is the Daddy’, so just imagine how chuffed I was to see Mark Addy actually playing a daddy! What was it like working with Mr. Addy and also the great Tara Fitzgerald?

I love Mark too and given we do a Janet Leigh on him, it was great to have an actor who came with a bit of known personality/baggage as the loveable rogue. It meant the audience know where they are with him right from the off. He has something that is indefinable that you are sucked in to wondering what he is thinking. I think that’s what all great actors have, you look at them (or rather their character on screen) and wonder about their interiority. So really as a director you just let them do their stuff.

The bit with Mark and Macy (playing the little Polly) at the gate has to be one of the standout moments of the film. On paper it seems like nothing but in the hands of those two it is transcendental, full of warmth and love.

Tara was different. I think the character of the mother was difficult to play right. I had doubts about it until I saw a rough cut when again you feel that Tara has brought a great interiority to the part. She has made the mother somewhat unreadable, that she is unsure even of herself, so that her irrational actions seem to ring true. I think Tara said that of the character. That when she is on stage performing with the band she knows who she is, because it is a role that has limits and structure, but outside of that she doesn’t know herself so well.

Finally, I’m really glad you like the pub scenes. That was a very challenging day. There are five different songs in the pub and Mark Addy, who really is the focal point for those scenes, had only met the band about an hour before we were on set, learning the songs on the spot. And the band itself was a bit of a disparate bunch too. Nick Hall and Michelle Plum, who chose the songs and lead them are from Bradford while everyone else was local to Whitby, except, and here’s a nice bit of trivia, the guy on the drum that was Molly’s brother.

That said, the musicians were so good they brought their own energy and once we’d got going the atmosphere built throughout the day until it felt real and the final scene (where Molly drifts back to the pub when they are round the camp fire) felt authentically emotional. We were shooting in Whitby’s Elsenor Pub and they have a folk night every Tuesday and I’d seen the song, 'Farewell to the Gold', performed as a collective and found it very moving. I knew to have that at the end of the film would be killer and I made a huge effort to track down the writer (a New Zealander now living in the Lakes) to get permission to use it.

In The Runaways a trio of children absquatulate with a couple of donkeys as unlikely travel partners. Watching the donkeys I was reminded of Jill Bough’s essay 'The Mirror Has Two Faces: Contradictory Reflections of Donkeys in Western Literature from Lucius to Balthazar', in which she argues that, "The opposing representations of donkeys are significant because they illustrate the deep contradictions within the very foundations of western society: the Greco-Roman philosophy and the Jewish/Christian ideology which underpins it. The writings of Homer, Aesop and Apuleius, for example, have been instrumental in representations of donkeys as servile, stubborn and stupid, while biblical imagery has been influential in presenting donkeys as symbols of humility and peace, suffering and service." I was wondering where you saw the donkeys in The Runaways fitting in on Bough’s cultural scale?

Donkeys are obviously seen as beasts of burden, but for me the donkeys could be symbolic of the children’s own burden, that of a home life that is troubled. For me the story really is the eldest daughter, who has borne the brunt of bringing up her younger sibling and resented it, letting go of the resentment of her dealt hand and starting to see the future afresh. So when in the very last scene the three children are walking out of the woods into the light, she starts to talk about it being time to put the donkeys out to pasture. She is starting to leave behind a past that she has been carrying around like a millstone. The donkeys for me reflect her past.

At the same time I also feel that the children wouldn’t have been able to take the journey without the donkeys for company. They are pacifiers to some degree, therapy even. It allows moments for the children to come out of themselves. If you notice you will see each of the children have a quiet moment with the donkeys alone. Ben after the death, Polly after the train in the rain (the moment where she says "I love you") and again Angie when she asks the donkey whether he wants to look after the other.

Without wishing to give too much away, I was struck by the unpredictable nature of The Runaways. The film is at once whimsical but also deeply dark. However, it is always convincing, and always works. Could you explain your approach towards such shifting tonal layers?

I have two children myself and I was always struck by how little they harboured resentment. If they were a pain in the arse of an evening and things had blown up, in the morning it was as if nothing had happened but for you as an adult, you carried such things for longer. So I felt at least with the children, forgiveness of the others had to be very close to the surface. Obviously I’ve also been around how my own children relate to one another. They are funny and are always entertaining and being playful with one another. So again I wanted moments like that. So that first morning after they escape Whitby and are talking about boogies and worms, it may seem like completely random talk but for me the ease of the conversation is what makes it work, and that ease makes for warmth and charm.

There are a few quite stark shifts in to darkness but I believe that the acting is what makes it work. The actors never drop into tropes. They are never playing it for themselves, they are playing it with the other character on screen or at least the moment they are in. I love the bit after the club scene where Angie (Molly Windsor) is leant against the door talking to her mother (Tara Fitzgerald). They are in two different places. Angie is full of hope and her mother is full of despair (self-loathing even). But they are projecting those things on to the other and that’s what makes it so special. It’s nothing to do with me as a director really, just stellar acting.

I really enjoyed The Runaways and said as much in my review. But now it’s over to you: in your own words, why should The Movie Waffler readers take a chance on The Runaways?

When I was pitching The Runaways no one believed there was an audience for live action family films. They said there was no way to compete with the Disney/animation juggernaut. We’ve had numerous preview screenings and I have felt the audience really connect deeply with our film. If people want to have an alternative to Cloudy with Meatballs 2 then this is a chance to show it!

The Runaways is in UK cinemas January 10th.