Many nonfiction filmmakers have turned to fiction filmmaking, but it’s rare if not unheard of for them to adapt their own documentary into a narrative feature. That’s the case with Morgan Matthews. The British director makes his fiction film debut with “A Brilliant Young Mind,” based on his 2007 documentary “Beautiful Young Minds,” which tracked the selection process and training of a young British team competing for the International Mathematical Olympiad.
“A Brilliant Young Mind,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September under the title “X+Y,” focuses primarily on Nathan, one brilliant young man on the autism spectrum, whose character was inspired by Daniel Lightwing, a subject in the initial documentary.
After over a decade of making documentaries, Matthews, who is the founder of nonfiction production company Minnow Films, had little trouble shifting his focus to fiction with “A Brilliant Young Mind.” The understated drama boasts excellent performances from Asa Butterfield as Nathan, Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s mother and Rafe Spall as Nathan’s math coach.
Indiewire recently chatted by phone with Matthews about making the transition from non-fiction to fiction.
How did you end up adapting “Beautiful Young Minds” into a narrative feature? Did someone approach you about developing it into a narrative film or was that your idea?
It was my idea, but it was probably about a year after making “Beautiful Young Minds,” maybe a little longer. But, I started having discussions with the UK Film Council, as it was then, it no longer exists. But, at that time, the UK Film Council had a small fund to support first-time filmmakers, and they wondered whether I was interested in pursuing a narrative feature and if I had any ideas.
I’d always felt that “Beautiful Young Minds” had the potential to be adapted because the world that I found while making that documentary was so rich and the characters were so wonderful. There was a natural journey that they went on, but I felt that that journey could be expanded on and, although the documentary and documentaries in general, allows great intimacy, I still felt that there were moments that I couldn’t be there for, and there were things that I knew that I couldn’t represent and capture on film.
Also, one of the main attractions of going into narrative feature films was that we could be creative. That was very appealing to me, because as much as I love documentaries and it’s real, and it’s truthful, and all of those things, sometimes you want to exist beyond the parameters of the truth, and to be creative with the story.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting the documentary into a fictional feature? I know the documentary focused more on the whole team as opposed to just one character.
That is true, there’s definitely more of a sense of an ensemble in the documentary…but, for me, Daniel’s story was the one which stood out, so strongly, and partly because it was a real, emotional journey for him as well. He did fall in love, and he did teach himself Mandarin in three months, and he did go to China, and he did come back with a Chinese girlfriend and he trained with the Chinese team and married this girl when he was 18. So, it was an extraordinary story in real life.
It’s about finding the extraordinary within the ordinary, if that makes sense. That’s always been appealing to me about documentaries, if you like ordinary people doing extraordinary things or saying extraordinary things, and I felt that Daniel was one of those people. On one level he’s an ordinary kid, and on another, he’s really quite extraordinary on this journey that he goes on, although it doesn’t change the world, it changes the world for him. And there are aspects of that journey that we can all identify with.
Daniel was on the autistic spectrum, but for me, a lot of the challenges that he faces, and a lot of the experiences that he has mirror experiences that we all go through to a certain degree. We’ve all felt isolated at some time, we’ve all felt lonely or we felt like we haven’t fitted in, or fallen in love and had our hearts broken, all those things. We’ve had to come to terms with loss and grief when it doesn’t make sense. All of these experiences are things that I hope people can identify with.
But, in terms of the challenges, I think for me it was clear that Daniel’s story was the story to focus on. There was never really any question in my mind about that. I didn’t really find it to be challenging in terms of how to separate the feature from the documentary, partly because I never actually wanted to remake the documentary. I didn’t see any great purpose in remaking the documentary as a feature.
How did you prepare for that, in terms of working with actors? Did you ask other directors for advice, did you read any books or did you just go with your basic instincts?
It’s a number of things. I think, firstly, there are a lot of similarities in working with actors, compared to working with real people, if you like, in documentaries. When you’re making a documentary, you’re firstly establishing trust, and a way of working, and creating an environment within which that person feels comfortable and able to deliver a performance, because that’s what’s happening in documentaries. Not necessarily knowingly, you’re eliciting a performance, or you’re creating an environment where that person feels comfortable in opening up or sharing something that they wouldn’t have otherwise shared, or they’re relaxed enough to be able to talk to you in an uninhibited way. They’ll allow you into their space, into their world, into their environment in a way which feels incredibly intimate. So, I think creating those conditions and working with people in that way felt, in the end, very similar to me to working with actors.
And what would you say are some of the key attributes to a successful documentary director compared to a narrative director, and how much did those traits overlap?
I think I’m always looking for truth and authenticity, and I need to believe something and I brought that with me into the feature film. It doesn’t matter, we could be making a sci-fi film, we could have been making something that was completely far out in terms of the subject, or literally out of this world, but we still need to believe in it and I still need to believe in those performances and those relationships and those situations. So I’m always looking for authenticity. I also think that being a documentary maker, or coming from that background, caring about the people who are in the films that I’ve made, is something that is very important to me and something that happens naturally when you spend a lot of time with somebody.
But the main difference is scale and structure – going from making films in a very intimate way with a very small crew, that I was often self shooting and maybe had one or two other people with me, to full-blown feature film crews. Although it’s a relatively small film, for me, the set-up in terms of the scale and the crew was enormous. And the structure, I’m used to working in a documentary where if I want to shoot all night, I’ll shoot all night. If I want to change plans, if I want to do something differently, that’s all fine. Whereas, within the structure of a feature film shoot, there are very strict parameters, working within those parameters is a challenge.
The biggest challenge for me was time. Just the clock ticking away, you have to wrap at a certain time, and we always did.
How many days did you have to shoot?
We had six weeks, and it’s not the smallest amount of time. I’m aware that people shoot for less, so it could have been worse, but we had quite a lot to do in that time. Being against the clock every day was a new experience, and having to figure that in to everything, and also when you wrap, you wrap. That’s it. There’s no kind of, “Oh but we can go for an extra hour.” In documentaries, some of the best scenes that I’ve shot have been by just staying. When you would pack up and be just about ready to go home and then somebody starts talking and you’re like, “Okay, this is really interesting, get the camera back out.” And that’s when you get the really incredible stuff. Whereas, in [narrative] film, it’s all structured.
There were many similarities and the one thing that I don’t think people always recognize is that documentary is all about casting. Of course, when people talk about narrative, it’s all about casting or you know, you’ve got to get the casting right. But documentary is, too and you can’t make a good documentary without fantastic characters.
READ MORE: 9 Documentary Filmmakers Who Made the Leap to Narratives (or Vice Versa)