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Small moments: Get to know ‘Too Rough’ director Sean Lìonadh

Born in 1998, Sean Lìonadh is a filmmaker who has used the alchemy of film and poetry to share intimate work that has gained a huge online presence and left a notable social impact. His short film “TIME FOR LOVE” made for BBC, reached 16 million people online and won a Royal Television Society Award, led to a Ted talk and a book, as well inspiring an LGBT movement in Boston. “SILENCE” his first experimental short film made for the festival circuit, and premiered in Italy at Torino Film Festival 2020. “TOO ROUGH” is his first fiction short film.

What inspires you as a filmmaker?

To me, choices are at the heart of all the best stories. It’s the decisions we make, big and small, which shape us and sometimes, as a writer, you make a choice that just asks to be written into a film. At the end of Lynne Ramsay’s short film Gasman, the character of Lynne decides not to throw a rock at another young girl. Instead, she lets the rock fall onto the train track. This one little choice is such a momentous human moment that Ramsay was able to capture. It’s a small symbol for empathy that reminds me what cinema is all about. In Too Rough, Nick’s choice is to open up and let love in. This can be a hugely difficult choice for people who have grown up in a dysfunctional household – it takes huge courage to be vulnerable.

Where did the idea of Too Rough come from? 

Once I had to sneak a boyfriend out of the house. My stepdad was downstairs, pottering around and blocking the exit. My mind rushed through all of the ways I could get him out without being seen – I even considered making him jump from the window. There was an acute sense of stress that stuck with me, and I realized the limitation of two young men trapped in a bedroom could open up the possibility of telling a story that was both incredibly tense, and tender.

Why is telling this story so important to you, and why are you the best person to tell it? 

I started writing a story about a young man hiding his boyfriend from his family, and I ended up writing a story about a young man hiding his family from his boyfriend. I’ve seen closet stories before, but the shame we can have over our family background and our trauma – that’s what helped this story catch fire.  I watched my family fall apart because of alcoholism, I watched everyone suffer, and I even watched a social worker take orders from Jesus. All of these things helped me build an honest portrait of a dysfunctional family in this story, where domestic warfare is the norm, and intimacy is difficult. 

What was the most challenging or unusual part about making this film? 

My older brother is the only other person who shared the same childhood as me. We used to hide in our bedroom, hoping everything would get better one day and we would be safe. We know nearly everything about each other, but for some reason now, we rarely speak – or at least we didn’t, until he came to see the film. I went to get a beer as the credits rolled and I found him alone in the corridor. He was leaning against the wall weeping. I went to him, and he put his hands on my shoulders and said “it was perfect.” That was it. We didn’t have to say any more. Alone in that corridor, we shared a mutual recognition of what we had been through. The film allowed us, finally, to have that.

Tell us about your creative process? What is unique or unusual about it? 

I write a lot of poetry – I think it helps work out my ‘imagery’ muscle. Usually, I write about small moments like hearing the neighbor upstairs crying or realizing suddenly that all of my friends are in love and I am single. In the world of poetry, the neighbor’s tears begin to leak into my room and fill it up – and while my friends swim in the ocean of love, I’m alone on a submarine. Similar to film, poetry can show rather than tell, and it helps me gather a strong foundation of ideas and images to take into the screenplay.

You seem to be a versatile storyteller. Tell us about your background and what led you to become a filmmaker? 

The first film I made that anyone really cared about was Time for Love. I had experienced homophobia in the street, in the park, in the restaurant, and eventually, I’d had enough. I wanted people to know exactly what it felt like to be judged for trying to love my partner. I performed a poem and used film to bring the words to life. BBC Scotland published the poem, and within an hour it had one million views. I watched, in disbelief, as the view count reached 16 million, and the film made the news, as it pissed off a Bishop and he rallied hundreds of Catholics to try and have the film removed. I read comments saying that I had strange teeth, or should be shot dead. My own Godmother disowned me. But I also saw that I had touched the hearts of millions. So many people had been through the same thing in private, and never talked about it. Strangers came out to me online and told me they had no-one else to tell. They were afraid, and the film brought them hope. This was all that mattered to me. This is why I write. Storytelling connects us, and it helps us when we are in the dark. After making Time For Love, I saw what stories could do, and I never looked back.

Talk to us about the theme(s) of your film and how you would like the audience to receive and/or interpret its message?  

I think the themes of abuse have been challenging to audiences. Someone said to me “I’m not sure I liked your film. I haven’t been confronted with abuse like that.” “Lucky you!” I said. But I also had the opposite reaction. There’s a shot in the film that nearly everyone brings up to me, where Nick covers his little brother’s ears, and his boyfriend Charlie covers his ears. It’s like a domino effect of care. One viewer came up to me, crying, and said “I just wish I’d had someone to cover my ears.” I think the film deals a lot in how important it is for us to feel safe. I’ve written a lot, and even given a Ted talk on the effects of feeling endangered in your own skin, as a child, and as a queer person. Feeling unsafe in your body turns your whole life into a war. If someone hasn’t experienced that acutely, they may be disturbed by the film. I hope they are. Comfort can be a real enemy to progress. 

How has your short been received so far and what impact has it had in society and your career? 

The film’s reception has blown me away. We’ve entered over 50 festivals and won 19 awards. We’re nominated for a BAFTA Scotland Award and we now qualify for the Academy Awards. Because this film is personal to me, and reflects so much of my life, I feel as though I’ve taken my childhood house and filled it with a family all over the world. That’s the beauty of creating I think, you can tie people to you and remedy loneliness.

This story is inherently Scottish and I hope that the people in my country feel like it can put a little of them and their experiences on the world stage. 

So many doors have opened in my career since this film came out, and I feel that I can be trusted now to tell a good story. This is so important to me because I’ve been working on my first feature for such a long time, and for the first time I feel certain that it’s going to happen.

Tell us about your lead actors. What is special about them and why did you want to work with them? Tell us about collaborating with them.

Ruaridh’s self-tape audition wasn’t lit so well (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying) but there was something about his pained eyes in the half-darkness that made me immediately sure I had found Nick. Every department brought, in their own way, an element of claustrophobia to the film, and when it came to performance, Ruaridh was no exception. In the film, he seems trapped in his own body. Joshua, who plays Charlie, was the perfect yang to Ruaridh’s yin. Through Charlie, our eyes are opened to Nick’s reality, and Joshua played this evolution so authentically, while also managing to achieve a perfect Scottish accent – which I’m told is pretty difficult! 

Then of course, there was Oliver, who plays Nick’s autistic younger brother, Adam. This role was based on my little brother, who is a kind of beautiful grenade in any situation he finds himself in. Oliver beautifully portrayed Adam, the truth-teller, and the little brother who brings out Nick’s caring side. I wasn’t prepared, however, for Oliver to go through my phone’s browser history on set, however, and shout to the whole crew “What’s! And why does it say “hot men near you?!”

What’s next for you? Talk about your next project and where you’re at right now. 

My first feature is in development with Screen Scotland and the BFI Network via Short Circuit. It’s a psychological horror about two young men who evoke an entity by falling in love. I am unbelievably excited about it – I want to make something I’ve never seen before. The scale of the project will be bigger than anything I’ve done before, and there will be huge challenges – but we’re ready and we can’t wait to take them on.

What are you still looking for to achieve? What are your next personal goals/aspirations? 

All my favourite artists are world builders. Whether it’s through a film, an album or a book, each piece of work is a brick in a world to get lost in. I’d love to work in a similar way, and see which way this world goes… Art is a hiding place for so many, but it’s a hiding place that sends you back into the real world braver and kinder. If I can make the world braver and kinder, then I’ll be happy.

Trick question: do you think homophobia will ever be abolished? 

I think humanity is very slow at evolution, but very quick when it comes to devolution. We seem to forget very quickly how slippery a slope injustice is, and where it leads, and step back into the same old fears. There are forces at work that keep homophobia alive and well, and it’s not easy to compete with these. But we have to believe that compassion and empathy are a greater force, and even our most natural state. I think everyone wants to exist in a state of connection, and we just have to keep making the argument for why that is the best thing for us all.

What is the one question journalists never ask you but that you are dying to answer? Go for it!

If you could adapt any book into a film, which would it be?

I would pick Rememberings by Sinead O’Connor. I adore her. Despite being recently published, it’s one of my all-time favourite books. She is a perfect storm of passion, wit and fury, and it’s a memoir that I think could make an incredible film full of celtic rage and feminine power. Gods of film, please consider me!

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