Q&A: The cast of The Road Dance on the eve of Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere

Love and loss, birth and death, secrets and choices, rules and the breaking of them, all tied up in the landscape and culture of the Western Isles, fill the big screen this week in The Road Dance, premiering at The Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Hermione Corfield stars in The Road Dance, Richey Adam's feature film set in Lewis in the early 20th century, adapted from John MacKay's novel.

Adapted from the novel by Scottish broadcaster and writer John MacKay, the film is set in a crofting community on Lewis, where MacKay’s family originate, at the outbreak of First World War and centres on a community ceilidh held in the street, which sparks a series of life-changing events.

On the eve of the premiere, writer and director Richie Adams, Hermione Corfield (Kirsty), Morven Christie (Mairi), Mark Gatiss (Doctor Maclean), Will Fletcher (Murdo), Ali Whitney (Annie) and director of photography Petra Korner came together for a Q&A session to discuss the film.

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Q: IS THE FILM IS INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS?

A: RICHIE ADAMS, WRITER AND DIRECTOR

Yes, I was first presented the book by one of the producers and John MacKay’s novel is a wonderful story. I initially fell in love with the characters and the idyllic setting, the young love juxtaposed with war-torn times. Being an American, the setting, the terrain, everything was so foreign to anything I've seen and I was immediately captivated.

Q: HOW CLOSE TO THE ORIGINAL BOOK DID YOU STICK?

A: My task was to bring that story to life in another medium. With books you have the liberty to get into one’s mind, sometimes state what a character’s thinking, but film is a very visual medium so you have to communicate through emotion and what they're feeling and sometimes what they're saying or not saying, so I did take occasional liberties. I was really thankful when John read the screenplay and really liked it.

Q: HOW DID YOU RESEARCH IT?

A: Google is amazing! Crofting was the first thing I wanted to figure out. OK basically farming, but potato farming, what does that look like? I found YouTube videos showing people in Scotland doing traditional potato farming, and there is the right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. “Eyes up Kirsty,” is the first line of the film and eyes up is the correct way, eyes down is incorrect way, so within one word, you get it, Kirsty is elsewhere.

Also I leaned a lot on John's book. Then I just went into my mind as a lover of period films - I've watched them all - and wrote from the heart. The dialect coach who worked with Hermione said the dialogue was fairly accurate and Morven, being Scottish, helped me out with a few different ways someone might say something.

Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY SCOTTISH CONNECTION? A SCOTTISH GREAT-GRANNY?

A street ceilidh scene in The Road Dance, the film based on the book by John MacKay, set on Lewis during the First World War.

A: I have family way, way back from Scotland. My ancestors go back to Belgium, France, Scotland and England, and I'm also an avid golfer.

Q: WHAT ARE THE THEMES OF THE ROAD DANCE?

A: Ultimately we're all at some point confronted with adversity, and sometimes, as in Kirsty’s case, unthinkable tragedy. So for me the greatest theme is the ability for us as humans to overcome those adversities and ideally follow our dreams. Another theme is to lean on the support of your loved ones when you let them in.

Q: HERMIONE, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT KIRSTY'S JOURNEY IN THE FILM?

Hermione Corfield and Ali Whitney play sisters Kirsty and Annie in The Road Dance, set in the Outer Hebrides.

A: We first meet Kirsty as a child with her father and they have this beautiful bond. She's a dreamer, someone who is constantly looking outwards, with shots out to the sea and the dramatic landscape. She's always thinking bigger and with that setting, you really did feel the sense of her looking beyond and wanting something more than the community she's in.

The tragedy is that her dream is cut short because her options are made impossible. That is one of the key, and most heartbreaking themes, how this ability to dream and think bigger is crushed. You watch a woman whose options are limited from the start, being diminished, hiding a secret and carrying the burden of shame, her spirit being crushed by the actions of someone else.

Q: DID IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE KNOWING IT WAS BASED ON A REAL EVENTS?

A: Definitely. It carries a weight, knowing that this has actually happened to someone. You have a real desire to do it justice. And it’s also relevant today.

Q: ARE THERE ANY PARTS OF KIRSTY'S LIFE THAT YOU’D SWAP YOUR OWN FOR?

The simplicity of that life and sense of community is something that's been lost. As much as the community can be claustrophobic and suffocating at times, there is also a beauty in that support network.

Book author John MacKay and his two sons during filming.

Q: MURDO’S NICKNAME IS ‘BOOKS’, AND THE FILM REFERENCES STEVENSON, ROBERT FROST AND DICKENS’. IS THAT THE KEY TO HIS CHARACTER?

A: WILL: I think the key to Murdo’s character essentially is his optimism, and that’s seen in him bringing in this new exciting material [Robert Frost’s poetry] from overseas and sharing it with Kirsty. I read loads of books in preparation for the role.

Q: MORVEN, CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE CHARACTER OF MAIRI?

She is somebody who has been frozen, fossilised by grief, lost her joy and spontaneity, any sense of lightness and the grief of loss has become the fourth family member. What happens if you freeze everything up? How does it ever awaken? What really attracted me was that it DOES. When someone she loves is in distress, it snaps her out of it and suddenly she's this whole woman who's suffered immensely and loves immensely and is terrified to give it away in case she loses it again.

Q: DOES THE FILM SHOW A TRADITION OF WOMEN WHO WOMEN ARE VERY CAPABLE?

A: MORVEN

I think the women from those communities have always been hugely capable because they've been grafting outside since they were children, even once they have babies, they strap the baby on and go and cut down grass or whatever. That sense of multitasking capability is inbred, and it's still in the women there, crofting and sheep farming.

Q: WHAT DID YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT PLAYING MAIRI?

The development of the relationship with the girls because it's rare you get to have this journey. Their relationship is close right from the beginning, but Mairi’s in a little bubble of her own. She tries to pull them into it with the Bible once in a while or tell them what to do with the crop, but there's no softness, no connection, because she's afraid, and it was being able to explore the depth of that, all the way through to the ‘This is my life. This is my family. I will give them anything that they need’. But sure, it's fun to plant potatoes!

Q: ALI, YOU PLAY THE SISTER, ANNIE. CAN YOU TELL ME HOW YOU ESTABLISHED THAT RELATIONSHIP WITH KIRSTY/HERMIONE?

A: It wasn’t actually acting, I just loved Hermione, it was very easy to play!

Obviously I'm not Scottish so I did a lot of research and worked with the same dialect coach as Hermione and like Morven said, there's just this incredible strength that obviously originated, years ago but still is prevalent in Scottish women today. I really tried to embody this quiet strength because Annie is always present but doesn't have that much to say. She’s the quiet strength, the anchor of the family, the glue that holds the three of them together.

And I feel like our offstage bond really came through and helped, especially with some of the more challenging, emotional scenes. To feel supported by your co-stars and then go on screen, I felt like there was love and energy and support.

Q: PETRA, WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES OF FILMING ON LEWIS AND WHAT WERE YOU AIMING TO CAPTURE?

A: It turned out that the challenges actually ended up being such blessings because it was certainly the weather, the wind and the conditions, the short daylight hours and the elements. All of these things really contributed. The wind enhances the drama and everyone was so anchored with the location because it became part of the image.

I think it's a whole different story when you shoot in the original place. You really feel that authenticity. To have the luxury of being in a village that's a historical site, and to be able to film a large portion of the movie there, that's priceless.

Q: MARK, HOW WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF PLAYING DR MACLEAN?

The dancing was a great chance because I loathe all forms of movement - I was once ordered off the dance floor at a wedding at a ceilidh because I was so bad at it - and I was dreading doing it. Then on the day we had such a good laugh, we just went for it, me and Hermione, in the mud and the rain and the wind and it was quite a wild experience, and I ended up enjoying it the most of all the things in the film.

Q: WILL, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT MURDO’S JOURNEY IN THE FILM?

A: I think Murdo’s journey is one of growing up. He starts as a boy and by the end of the film he has gone through so much to get back. There is also a journey of love, of overcoming adversity, which I think is beautiful, and it's one of growth as well, going into the unknown and being hopeful about it.

Q: DO THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF THE PLOT MAKE MURDO A GOOD CHARACTER TO PLAY?

A: Yes. I think there are so many gear changes in the story which keeps the audience guessing. When I first started reading I thought it was going in one trajectory, then it changes.

Q: THE PROPS AND THE SETS ARE VERY CONVINCING, DID ANYBODY KEEP ANYTHING, A COSTUME OR PROP?

A: HERMIONE: I kept my cross necklace, but then we did have to get it back for reshoots, so I’m glad I knew where it was.

A: WILL: I get my army dog tags. And I took away loads and loads of black pudding back to the mainland. I discovered it out there, and I took so many I got stopped in customs.

A: MARK: I got Stanley Baxter’s toupee. I'm wearing Stanley Baxter’s toupee in the film, a great honor, and the make-up designer gave it to me at the end of the shoot, so that's a real treasure. Stanley’s is now going to be my go to professional hair piece.

Q: WHICH WAS THE HARDEST SCENE TO FILM.

A: MORVEN: There were lots of scenes that were really hard to film, but for completely different reasons. The road dance was really, really difficult because the weather changed constantly, so you’d shoot from one side and it was actually quite a nice evening, you shoot from the other and it was horizontal rain. How do you kind of keep the costumes dry and how do you make that work? So that was just logistically, really hard.

But then other scenes were difficult just because of the nature of them, like the birth scene for example. We've got a million angles and that's really hard work for Hermione - we shot that scene much all day over and over and over and over and over again.

There were loads of challenges from the point of view of like, we're trying to shoot a period film in a very short space of time, during COVID for not very much money and that is just really difficult to do anyway. And then you add into that all this other stuff like the weather and how many people there are, and how many costumes that involves and how many crew that involves and there were a lot of people working probably three times harder than they would on any other shoot, and bearing in mind they all work really hard anyway. It was a Herculean effort and it was amazing sitting down and watching it. It was like wow, we got it done, everyone really rallied and got this done.

Q: THERE’S A LOT OF MUSIC IN THE FILM, COULD SOMEBODY TALK ABOUT THAT?

A: RICHEY: Carlos Jose Alvarez is a dear friend, he's done the music on all my films, and very talented. We only had, I think maybe four weeks of prep and a week and a half before we were shooting and I realised I don't know what songs we're playing in the gathering, or the road dance, and that was some of the first material we shot.

So I call up Carlos and a day or two later gets back with a list of different songs that might make sense, period, accurate, and he had found someone on the Isle of Lewis, Keith Morrison, a music producer who said there was a guy by the name of Alasdair White who lives in New York but happens to be visiting his family in Lewis, and he's one of the preeminent Scottish fiddle players in the world [Alasdair White of the Battlefield Band and now Dàimh fame] and if we pick some songs he can lay them down like tomorrow before he flies home. So that's what we did.

It was so inspirational for all of us because we weren’t dancing to a clip track, but had the music. So I would say fate shone upon us very favorably in that regard. We were careful not to go too big with bagpipes and something that felt overly Scottish in theme so it’s simpler instrumentation, and it's very, very authentic.

Q: DID ANYBODY LEARN TO KNIT, THERE’S A LOT OF THAT IN THE FILM, OR COULD YOU ANYWAY?

A: MORVEN: We gave it a bit of a go, really slowly, but we were hiding our hands under the table because those people would be able to knit at a thousand miles an hour.

ALI: Not knitting but Hermione and I the day before the road dance, took it upon ourselves to learn a proper Scottische, some proper Scottish dancing, which was fun.

Q: WHAT WAS JOHN MACKAY’S REACTION TO THE FILM?

A: RICHEY: I hope he hasn’t seen it yet because my preference is for him to see it in the theatre with an audience. His boys are actually in the film and his eldest son plays the bagpipes in it. They were used in World War One and came back, his grandfather’s bagpipes and his son is a phenomenal player, so that’s pretty special too.

The Road Dance' is having its World Premiere on Tuesday 24 August at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021, https://www.edfilmfest.org.uk at Edinburgh Filmhouse, 88 Lothian Road, EH3 9BZ at 5.45pm. Also showing 25 August 3pm, and On Demand.

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The historic blackhouse village provided the ideal setting for filming.
Filming took place at the Garenin blackhouse on Lewis.
The Road Dance has its international premiere at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.
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