Written and directed by Shelagh McLeod, Astronaut tells the story of Angus (Richard Dreyfuss), a lonely widower who feels like his life seems over when he moves into a retirement home. Feeling worthless and alone, Angus’s enthusiasm is reignited when a competition is announced for a seat on the first commercial flight to space. Despite the fact that he’s well beyond the age range, Angus enters the competition and must battle against prejudice, his own failing health and time to win the ticket and take the trip of his dreams. Though the story contains elements of fantasy, McLeod insists that the seed for her film began firmly grounded in her own experience with the elderly.
“My mom died in a nursing home in England a few years back. I loved my mom and I used to visit her almost every day,” she recalls. “In the nursing home gardens, there was an old man sitting in a wheelchair who was always staring up at the sky and he would literally never come in. He would be out there for all hours. One day, I went and sat next to them and said, “What is it that you’re looking for up there? What do you want?” And he said, “Another go”. I was very moved by that. I started thinking about what he wanted in his life, that he hadn’t achieved, what dreams that he had, what was on his bucket list… I realized that, for these men and women who were in the nursing home, that was really going to be their last place. I felt quite guilty putting my mom in a nursing home. She was a pretty feisty woman but she said it was fine and that’s what we did. I had this terrible sort of yearning in me to write something about this elderly man. I feel pretty passionately that the elderly are marginalized and very overlooked in society. I think that they should have a very important voice and be heard.”
Asked what she feels the gentleman was trying to communicate with his simple plea, McLeod states that she thinks he meant that he wanted another opportunity to make a difference.
“I think what that old guy was trying to say is that [he] wants to be back in the game.,” she believes. “I don’t mean that he wants to run off to space, but I think he was looking back on his life and his dreams [which] were literally vanishing like dust in front of him. This is in my head and, if I had been braver, I would have said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I wanted to collect them up and go on an adventure with them because we all know as human beings that you can feel really down about something but it just takes one to two instances to suddenly change that mindset and say things aren’t so bad. That’s what we wanted to do with Astronaut. We know that this film is not an edgy, hardcore examination of old age. We know it’s a slight fairytale with magical realism in it and (we hope) with an element of glee. We wanted the audience to come out feeling a little bit uplifted and that things could be possible. I think that that maybe ‘another go’ means, ‘Don’t forget me. Let what I want to say and what I want to do matter as much as a 20-year-old.’”
With this in mind, McLeod argues that there is a dismissiveness towards the elderly in our culture that seems to negate the value that they offer to the next generation. In essence, as a result of our own impatience, she thinks that we tend to pass over all that they can pass on.
“We live in London but we go to Spain a lot and I’ve noticed that the elderly [there], go out as far as they can walk,” she points out. “No matter what age they are, they sit in the promenade, walk down the street for coffee, and they go out for evening. They’re more present. I noticed that, in London, it’s just a fast, fast world. I include myself in this by the way, I’m no saint. I just think we’re impatient. We’re impatient for things. We’re impatient for life. We’re impatient to move on. We’re impatient for our ambitions to be realized. I think that the nurturing that an elder can give to a younger person or to society is actually something that we’re really missing a trick here. I know that I was a typically troubled 20-year-old. It’s a funny age… But just to have an elder saying, “Listen, this is going to be okay because this is how it was for me” is something that I think we can transcend the generations and give hope and guidance to us. I think that would be great to see. I think it’s just our own impatience of what do we do with older people.”
In order to change the manner that our culture views the elderly, McLeod contests that it begins with people remembering the value that they bring as well as potentially serving as their advocate as well.
“I think… it comes from us not forgetting, caring and it comes from us shouting,” she begins. “We have to shout at to the government. I live in the UK and to try and get a parent or a grandparent into a good nursing home was a battle. It was so expensive. I use my own experience in the film but I wanted to do it with a light touch because I didn’t want to be banging over [the audience’s] head. I wanted it to be placed in a sort of fairly delicate way but it was there. I’ve got lots of friends of mine with parents of that age and they ask me the journey what do we do? because it’s so confusing. Imagine trying to do that as an old person. Imagine not knowing how to cope with technology.”
“My brother worked in a bank, so years and he said that, when the millennium happened, they called all the old guys in from retirement because they thought they was going to be a computer crash. They were just uncertain. These old guys were the only ones that knew how to fix the machine because they were the ones that have programmed them in first place. It’s just an example of how valuable an elder can be in society still.”
Though the film features an incredibly talented cast, it’s star Richard Dreyfuss that shines most brightly. As Angus, Dreyfuss sparkles with humility and vibrancy within the film. Knowing the incredible talent they had acquired when he accepted the role, McLeod beams about her lead actor, arguing that his brilliance extends offscreen as well.
“I think he should be working [more]. It’s through his own choice and he chooses his projects carefully, as he should. He’s earned accolades and we were just so lucky to get him. Really. We almost fell off our chair when he said yes. [laughs] I think Jessica Adams, my really clever young producer, and I were in a state of shock for about a week. He’s a brilliant, brilliant human being and he’s a wonderful actor. He just rose to the challenge. He said to me that the script is full of melancholy. And I said to him that ‘The point is that [Angus] has that journey. He goes from being depressed and looking… through the wrong lens because that’s the way society is generated. We think ‘They’re old. They’re done. They’re history. They can’t drive anymore.’ Then, the walls close in. But he gets this second wind of a dream that [he’s] wanted all [his] life and [he’s] got to go after it.’ [Dreyfuss] just bought such life to Angus, and such humanity and a warmth to him.”
Given his dreams to reach the stars, Angus is a man of vitality whose greatest passion is to matter, despite his ageing body. Discussing what she supposes he would want his legacy to be, McLeod reasons that it would likely have to do with others being willing to listen to the voices of the elderly.
Says McLeod, “I think he probably would have wanted in his way to have felt that he’s left some worth behind. That his saving the day for the space plane was something of value and that he would have perhaps left some traces of hope with the remaining residents of the nursing home. I think his fight to go becomes a fight to get these space guys to listen. I suppose his legacy would be to say, ‘Don’t forget us. Listen to us because you think we’re all good but we know the problems. We know what can happen and you’re not listening to us. So maybe his legacy would be, ‘Please listen to us.’”
Astronaut launches into theatres and VOD on Friday, July 26th, 2019.
For full audio of our interview with Shelagh McLeod, click here.