Karen Gillan on The Party's Just Beginning, her 'twisted love letter' to Scotland's grim secret
Tucked away beneath the rolling hills and picturesque castles of Inverness, Scotland lies a grim reality at odds with the region’s idyllic charm: according to rising suicide statistics, an area resident takes their own life once every 10 days. It’s an ugly truth actress-director (and Scottish native) Karen Gillan wants to put right under audiences’ noses in her directorial debut The Party’s Just Beginning.
Gillan — perhaps best known for her work in front of the camera in big-budget studio tentpoles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — began work on the script roughly six years ago. Since then, now that she’s had time to “edit out all of those cringe-worthy philosophical rantings” penned in her early twenties, the project broods with haunting, authentic intensity as it explores one woman’s downward spiral on the road to acceptance after her young, transgender friend unexpectedly leaps in front of a train to escape the plights of life. Gillan gives an arresting, emotionally raw performance as the lead character Liusaidh, a reckless 24-year-old who copes with her companion’s death with boozy benders, sex-fueled rangers, and french fry binges. Plagued by visions of her former companion’s final moments, Liusaidh embarks on a quest for solace against the looming shadow of grief — a journey that could either bring her to the brink of death or an empathetic epiphany.
In anticipation of the film’s international premiere Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival, Gillan chatted with EW about writing, starring in, and directing the film as one of the most assured directorial debuts in recent memory, treading carefully over sensitive social terrain, and why showing the underbelly of her underrepresented homeland is still a prideful venture. Read on for the full interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you researched a lot about Scotland’s suicide rates before making this movie. Why did it speak to you so much that you wanted to tell a story about it?
KAREN GILLAN: It’s not something that I’ve ever dealt with personally, so I had to lean heavily on research and imagination. It’s an interesting statistic for me because I grew up in that part of the world, and it’s so picturesque, idyllic, and beautiful, but it has this sad statistic looming over it. I’d heard it years before writing the script, and it stuck with me.
How long did you spend honing the script?
I wrote it six years ago… I reworked it over the next few years, trying to make it better. I was pretty young when I [first] wrote it, so I knew that I had to edit out all of those cringe-worthy philosophical rantings… I was trying to make it a better film. Thank God I didn’t make it a moment sooner… [Earlier] it felt like when you decorate your house before you’re 25, and then by the time you approach 30, you’re filled with regret. I kind of had that feeling towards it. The overall story is the same, there was just a lot of picking out pieces of dialogue and replacing them.
Now that it’s out there, what do you hope the film communicates to people?
The message is interesting for me because I wrote the film, but then I watched it and got a slightly different message from it. I didn’t watch it for months [after that], and then reawatched it again and almost found a new message… that’s the way I’d prefer it. Ultimately what I think is most important is the message that the audience takes from it. It’s going to be maybe slightly different each time. That matters more to me than the message I intended. Personally, the message would be to tell the story of a person who’s left behind [after a suicide], who’s left with feelings of resentment of how the person could commit such a selfish act and maybe come to an understanding of where that person was when they were in that position. And maybe [understanding] that’s what they needed to do…
Liusaidh deals with her friend’s death in very choice ways. Especially eating the french fries — I mean chips, I forgot you guys call them chips — and drinking heavily to cope.
In Inverness, a typical night out does end with chips going into your face, so that’s a very typical thing. We shot the film at the chip shop where I used to go after a night out. I think in this recurring sequence of events, it’s all just slightly harmful to her. She’s pouring alcohol into her body, and then she’s excessively shoving food into her face and having mindless sex with strangers. It all leads to this recurring image that she can’t shake [of seeing her friend dying]. It’s all a sequence of self-harm.
Is this a way to show the world an underrepresented region we don’t often get to see in cinema, almost with a sense of pride since you’re from the area?
Yeah, 100 percent! It’s my twisted love letter to the place. I’m incredibly proud of where I come from and it’s such a beautiful place that I think that deserves to be captured on a cinema screen… I’m interested in showing the beauty but also the darker side of it as well.
Representation doesn’t always have to be showing something in a positive light, right? Why is it important as an artist to show the ugly truths?
I think we need variety. People respond to different things. There’s no part of me that would be able to make a film that just sweetness and positivity. I wouldn’t know how to do that. I’m just not interested in stories like that. I have a taste that leans more toward the darker side of things. Life has light in shades, it varies all the time. You have good days and bad days, and it’s good to represent all of that in the films that we watch.
Do you feel that you had to approach subjects of suicide, depression, and being transgender with a certain sensitivity, though? Especially since they’re more prominent in films now than they were, say, 10 or 20 years ago.
Yeah, I definitely wanted to treat the subject matter with respect and sensitivity. I’ve seen suicide represented in cinema before but not that much, it’s still fairly unchartered territory and definitely from this perspective, within this film, I wanted to show what it’s like for a person who’s left behind afterwards.
Since you’re dealing with subjects as weighty as this, do you think adhering to sensitivity can curb your style as an artist?
That’s an interesting question. I’d rather just make sure that I’m treating the subject matter with respect rather than placing my artistic vision above that in any way. My priority is to treat people with respect first. That’s the most important thing to me. You do want to maintain your integrity as an artist as well, however, I guess it’s where your priorities are. I think there’s a way to achieve both.
Do you think you’ve done that here?
I hope so. I didn’t have to sacrifice my vision for the film. I love the way the whole thing rips and the way it’s told. Visually it’s scary how close it is to the way I imagined it.
I’ve done a few interviews with actresses who’ve transitioned to being directors, and some of them have said that male actors get more of a pass when transitioning to directing. Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood are still cranking out successful movies, but Barbra Streisand and Angelina Jolie haven’t really been given the same credit as the men. Were you apprehensive about making the transition for those reasons, or is this an exciting time to be an actress becoming a director?
I didn’t feel caution at all about making that transition due to my gender. I feel like women are underrepresented in the fimmaking world, and maybe I would’ve done this sooner had I grown up with more examples of female filmmakers. Growing up, I thought directing was man’s job, and that’s so strange to me now. I’d never seen a woman in that kind of leadership position in the film world, so I didn’t consider it. I wasn’t thinking that I couldn’t do it, it just didn’t cross my mind. That’s happening a lot, and maybe that’s why we don’t have as many female filmmakers. The more females do it, the more females will do it [in the future]. We’re in a time of change right now. We’re still underrepresented massively, however, things are starting to change. So it’s quite an exciting time to be working in this industry!