Today: May 23, 2024

Karen Guthrie: The Closer We Get

Out now in UK cinemas, The Closer We Get is a beautiful, life-affirming documentary about a Scottish family. Sam Love spoke to director and writer Karen Guthrie about making the film, the education and outreach project alongside it, and the ‘messy brilliance of family life’.

How did the project start? What were the initial intentions?
To begin with, I had an idea for a kind of a funny, investigative and personal documentary with my mother as co-pilot. And it would still be about my dad, but while he was still in the room, as it were, and he wouldn’t talk about the part of his life that we had been hidden from. We thought that, for example, we would travel to Africa and meet the people he had lived and worked with over there. So I almost had this idea for a poignant documentary about two women investigating this man who was close to them. It would’ve been funny, I think, but also quite a sad film.

I hardly imagined what happened would happen. When I made that first interview with my mother that is actually in the film, it only took place three weeks before her stroke. It was a very investigative interview. I just thought “I’ll shoot this while I’m here with my camera as a start”. I got a very long, powerful interview and then I just thought “okay, no rush” and put that in the drawer for a while but then of course everything changed. Her stroke happened, and it was quite a few years until we picked up again. I couldn’t even watch that tape until about a year after her stroke. I couldn’t bear to see it. But then when I did watch it, I thought “this is really an amazing interview”. Even if my mum was still well, I would still find this a powerful interview. So I had that, and then I didn’t show it to anyone. Even my siblings. But I thought I’ll just mention it to my mum again and I did, and that was when she said “let’s get on with it”.

Were the rest of the family involved from the beginning or was it just you and your mum?
At the start, just my father had to be involved. He could not have been in the film without consenting, so I did formerly tell him I was going to start. I told him we didn’t know when we were going to finish but we were going to start filming.

You all acted so naturally around the camera. Did you almost forget it was there?
In a funny way, because I was always the one holding the camera, sketchbook or pen, there was a sort of invisibility for me and people didn’t get that alarmed when I got a camera out. I don’t think you forget, though, because when you’re working with the sound and the picture like I was when making the film, it’s quite stressful doing both of those things yourself. I shot an enormous amount of material – the film is 88 minutes long, and I shot for about 88 days. So every day has about a minute of material in the film. I had tremendous volumes of amazing stuff – lots of stuff that didn’t have anything in it almost, because I would switch the camera on and then have to go and answer the door and my mum would follow me! So there was sometimes nothing to see on any of the footage.

When it’s released on DVD, will a lot of this extra footage be available?
Yeah. We’ve already cut a handful of extras – because we’re doing this education and outreach project alongside the film. It’s a stroke-related and caring-related outreach project through workshops with Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, so we’ve cut about half a dozen scenes specifically for these workshops and we’ve also cut the same amount of scenes that we just loved and we had to take out of the film due to time. So we’re going to put some of those on the DVD and online as time goes on because they’re so gorgeous.

Obviously making the film is a very personal project. Was it hard for you to confront certain parts of the past?
Yeah. I mean I wasn’t angry anymore which I think is the reason the film turned out as it did. It’s been many years since the news about Campbell, his other son, and all the screaming matches in the house. So I felt we’d all accepted the situation. To go back and re-examine all the emotional fallout wasn’t so difficult because I felt much less angry and just wanted to hear his side of things, because I’ve never done that. I began from a position of “here is a man who has returned”, and in some ways I think he has remained a penitent man until the end of Ann’s life. I was coloured by the fact that in this point in his life he was trying to do the right thing, but equally the film has to show what kind of man he was at a younger age and what kind of parent he was. And that’s why we see so much of Campbell’s failure to launch in a way because I want to show you as a viewer what he was like as a parent to us, because we can’t see that anymore. I wanted to show him in 360 degrees, but as a film character he had to be interesting and to a certain extent attractive. There was no point showing him as a demonised man we were all against. I just wanted to illustrate who he was.

Has he seen the finished film? What does he think of it?
He’s proud of it. He watched it privately with me first on a laptop, and he didn’t say very much at that point. But then he came to the Edinburgh Film Festival which was the first time he’d watched it in a room full of strangers and he was very moved, and even managed to answer some questions from the audience, which he answered brilliantly. And it can’t be easy to see yourself with all your flaws like that, but he’s come to several screenings and is very proud of the film’s success and always gets in touch when he sees the film in the press or anything. It’s quite something! I know a lot of filmmakers who have a great deal of problems with consent with various people they’ve filmed who aren’t happy with the cut, and want to rewrite their story on film as it were. I hear about that all the time. And I always tell these people if they want an example of someone who has lots of reasons to feel vulnerable and exposed by a film that hasn’t been like that; then it’s my father. Something about him wanted to be on film. He wanted the record set and to do that he realised he’d have to take some flak as well.

Are your siblings proud of it as well?
Yeah, they are. My sister especially because she works with a family charity in Scotland, so she’s really interested in the work the film is doing, talking about family resilience and how hard it is to remain together. They’re proud of it on a personal level because we all feel so lucky to have this record of that time in my mother’s life. It should’ve been the saddest time but I think for all of us it was one of the happiest times of our lives. I know it sounds a strange thing to say. For me I really wanted to spread the revelation that being a carer within a family isn’t a sacrifice. It can actually be an amazing gift and even quite evangelical. It was exhausting and sad, but an incredible privilege.

So what’s next for you?
I haven’t got any major film on the cards at the moment. I’m having a quiet winter touring with the film and doing masses of Q&As, then releasing it next year on DVD and VOD.

And finally, do you have any advice for any budding filmmakers?
I would say imagine the most amount of money and time you want to spend, or are prepared to spend. Then triple that. And decide if you still want to do it. And if you do, then you should absolutely go for it. Because it’s in you, and you can do it. But my advice would be to massively overestimate the resources you need, personally and professionally. And then you’ll be fine.

THE CLOSER WE GET is in UK cinemas now

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