Karen Gillan is proud of her hometown of Inverness, Scotland. With a name derived from the Scottish Gaelic term for “The Mouth of the River Ness,” it is nestled amongst the Scottish Highlands and is considered one of the most idyllic places to live in the United Kingdom. Yet, once a surprise to the actress and filmmaker herself, it also has a sobering dark side since it also endures one of the highest suicide rates also in all of the UK… which is where Gillan’s instincts as a storyteller were drawn for her feature-length debut as a writer-director, The Party’s Just Beginning.
“That’s actually typically Scottish, to go really dark with it but still have a sense of pride,” Gillan muses during our interview before the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s funny, I think, we all possess this thing where we go like, ‘Scotland’s shit.’ But also, we love it so much.”
That love, and despair, comes through with a discernable amount of clarity and confidence in the finished film. Within a razor-sharp 91-minute running time, Gillan plays Liusaidh, a young woman who is dealing with her own form of PTSD after her best mate, a gay man named Alistair (Matthew Beard), committed suicide following a lifetime of abuse. Once an extrovert, Liusaidh alternates between an unspoken but palpable disdain for everyone around her to boozy nights out that always end in revelry, questionable choices of romantic partners, and chips. Always chips.
Again, it is a surprisingly focused film for a first-time filmmaker, but then that’s par for the course given that Gillan has spent many years on sets for film and television, both gargantuan in scope and intimate in scale. Indeed, in her own film, Gillan reunites with Lee Pace, who she co-starred alongside with in Guardians of the Galaxy, just one of the mega-franchises she is a staple of these days after Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle became Sony Pictures’ biggest box office hit ever. And of course along the way, she’s also worked on less bombastic critical darlings, including The Big Short and Oculus. We discuss how all of that prepared her for The Party’s Just Beginning, what she might be interested in directing in the future, be it another passion project about Comic-Con lifestyles or helming an actual franchise blockbuster herself, as well as what it was like going home for the holidays to shoot such a personal story. Plus, chips. Always chips.
This is a movie you’ve been thinking of for some years, so as the process evolved, did you always have a clear idea in your mind’s eye of what you wanted this to be?
Karen Gillan: Pretty much, yeah. I started writing the screenplay about six years ago, and you know I’ve been sort of playing around with it over the years until the point that I shot it. It kind of, a lot of it is still the same as it was when I first wrote it, and I can’t believe when I watched the film how visually close it is to what I had in my head. I storyboarded the whole film just for myself anyway, just so that I could sort of see it. Then I didn’t make my DP work from that because I wanted him to bring his own ideas to the table. But there are some moments that are just completely the same. I was really struck by that.
That’s impressive to hear. I know a lot of first time directors are always worried about capturing what’s in the mind’s eye on the screen.
Right, yeah. I think one of the parts of being a good director is hiring good people and then letting them do what they do.
Why why did you feel the need to tell the story, especially as your first feature?
Well, it actually goes back to the statistic that I read, that the suicide rates in the Highlands of Scotland are significantly higher among young men than the rest of Scotland. I just remember thinking, “This is really strange.” I grew up there, it’s idyllic, it’s such a beautiful place. It’s always been voted one of the best places to live in the UK. So I was like, why do we have this dark statistic looming over us? So the film is me just exploring that. I wanted to tell the story from somehow from my point of view, even though I hadn’t experienced it. So that’s why it’s from the point of view of a girl dealing with the loss of someone in her mid-20s.
When did you first read that statistic?
It was probably a couple years before I started writing it, so maybe like eight years ago or something. It just stuck with me, because it was such a strange contradiction almost.
When you were making this, I know you went home, you shot this in your hometown. But I know it was also the holiday season, so what was it like being home during that time and seeing everyone while making this story?
It was a really bizarre experience actually. First of all, I’d come off of three films back to back. I think I did like, Guardians of the Galaxy, this indie movie called All Creatures Here Below, and then Jumanji, and then went straight into this. So I was just like, “Oh my God.” I didn’t know what a normal life was anymore.
Then I went home, which is usually the time of year when I have a break. But we were literally shooting in between Christmas and New Year all around it. Some of the crew spent their Christmas Day with my family. But you know the funniest part was I was staying with my parents while we did it, so I would be this director at work, and be like calling the shots, being in this leadership position. Then I would come home and my mom would be like, “Bring your laundry down.” I’d be like, “I don’t have it.”
Did you still have to then direct the crew at Christmas? You know, “Bring the stockings right there.”
Yeah, just taking it into my personal life. “Right, you got the turkey?” [Laughs]
Last year we talked briefly about this movie, which I of course hadn’t seen. You said it was a different perspective on coming home, and you weren’t kidding about that.
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs]
But you’re clearly shining a light on this very important and overlooked issue, which I think most of the outside world doesn’t realize about some of the more idyllic parts of Scotland. But there’s a real sense of pride of place you’re bringing to the movie.
Oh definitely, I mean I love the place so much. I’m so happy that I grew up there. So you know, in a way you know, it focuses on a sort of darker story line, but it’s still a love letter to the place that I grew up. That’s actually typically Scottish, to go really dark with it but still have a sense of pride. It’s funny, I think, we all possess this thing where we go like, “Scotland’s shit.” But also, we love it so much.
Were there specific memories from growing up there that you wanted to incorporate into the film?
Yeah, I have so many happy memories growing up there. But you know, it’s funny because the happy memories maybe don’t look so happy in the movie. But you know, going out with my friends to bars, and drinking are happy memories for me. Then we would always end a night out at this chip shop eating chips. That’s where that ends. So, you know, whereas in the movie obviously I’ve made it darker and a form of self-harm, and she ends up with strangers in alleyways, and obviously that didn’t happen.
But so we filmed in the actual chip shop where me and my friends would eat chips. So it was a really surreal experience where I was seeing real places from my upbringing on the screen.
I was going to ask about it, because that was actually one of my favorite parts, but I was going to say French Fries, but yeah.
Oh yeah, yeah, fries, chips, yeah. [Laughs]
One of the other things that when we last spoke, you talked about feeling like that there’s an introverted side or isolated side to yourself that I don’t think we’ve seen a lot in your onscreen characters. So was this film about maybe bringing audiences in to explore that aspect you feel in yourself?
Yeah, there probably is an element of that. I mean it wasn’t a conscious decision to show people that side of myself. It was more me just telling story a little bit more from my point of view. I’m an only child and spent a lot of time on my own, and I’m extremely happy on my own, more than most people. I’ll go out for meals on my own, go to the cinema on my own. But this character was obviously dealing with something that I personally have not dealt with. So definitely there is an aspect of me in that character in terms of the introvertedness and isolation.
Just out of curiosity, as we’re here at Tribeca, are there any other movies you’re planning to see, alone or otherwise?
I want to see Mapplethorpe, because Matt Smith is in it!
Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet, I do want to see that.
Are you going see it?
I am going to see it.
I am going to try for different screening later in the week.
Yeah, I don’t know that I’m going to be able to make it, because we have an after party after my film, but I really want to see that one. So I’ll try.
Well as a Whovian, I hope you can work the reunion.
Yes, exactly. [Laughs]
Well one of the aspects I thought was really interesting was a subtle timeless quality. There’s Lee Pace, who’s an interloper, says his daughter wants a cell phone when she’s eight. Your character still using a landline, and your parents are listening in. Could you talk about that choice?
Yeah, I just don’t love seeing technology in films. It’s just a personal thing. I don’t want cell phones all over it. I mean if the story was about that and really required that, I would obviously put it in a film, but I didn’t want it. It was a personal taste thing. Also, I felt that it didn’t add to this kind of nice feeling of this could have happened at any time. I think that when you include technology it just instantly dates a movie.
So, in the future, you would always look to downplay technology?
It depends on the storyline. I mean I just have a personal thing against seeing text messages on screen. I’m like, “That’s so boring. They’re words.” We’ve come to see some visuals here… I mean there are some movies that have been shot entirely on iPhones that I love. Like Tangerine is a movie where that really worked. But you know it’s more like just physically seeing text messages and things, seeing the words.
So this is your first feature and it’s very intimate. Do you have already an idea for maybe another personal story or otherwise that you would like to tell onscreen?
Yeah, right now I’m adapting this short film I made called “Conventional” into a feature film, and it’s about an actress who was in a horror movie about 10 years ago. She’s on the convention circuit and she desperately wants to remain relevant in this world.
In the convention circuit?
Yeah, in the convention circuit, because even her career there is dwindling and she is trying to medicate herself with cosmetic surgery so it’s becoming too much.
Have you met people who inspired this?
It’s not based on anyone, it’s more like me—I’ve done conventions. I think it’s more using my imagination and tapping into my personal worst case scenario. Yeah, it’s not really based on anyone, that wouldn’t be fair to say. Also my experience of conventions has been nothing but amazing. I mean Doctor Who has the best fans in the world. So it’s not based on that either, and I hope that I can be respectful towards the fans in while portraying the convention world.
Speaking of fan culture, I really enjoyed seeing the reunion with Lee Pace in this so, I know this idea has been germinating for, I believe six years? So, on the set of Guardians 1 did you first say, I might be working on a movie?
You know, I didn’t think of it then actually. I don’t know maybe it was his role in the Accuser makeup that did it, I couldn’t quite visualize it. [Laughs] I mean, I wasn’t even at the point of even thinking about casting at that point. So you know the idea came when we were already in Glasgow, we were looking for someone to play the character, and I suddenly thought of him. I just picked up the phone and I was like, “You would be so amazing in this role, please tell me you’re free and you want to come to Scotland.” And he was like, “Yeah, okay.” I just couldn’t believe that it worked.
You’d have most people at “come to Scotland.”
I know! I’m learning that this is a popular destination.
Related to that I know Avengers is coming out next week, and I keep thinking of Marvel class photo of the first 10 years. Does this feel like a film release or is it almost like a graduation? A life milestone for you.
It does feel a little bit like a graduation. Yeah, and it sort of feels like—like that felt like a giant family portrait when we did that class photo. Because when I worked on Guardians, we really did become like a family, you know? Then we went into Avengers, and it was like we were meeting all of our cousins for the first time. It was amazing, I haven’t seen the movie, nor have I read the entire script. So I don’t know what to expect. I’m in the same position as everybody else. I don’t think anyone has seen the movie anywhere in the world until … and it’s happening on Monday for the first time. So we’re all just like, we can’t wait.
That’s a really interesting situation, so you haven’t read the whole script but you’ve also shot, I know, some of Avengers 4.
Yeah, we’ve finished all of it.
So, you’ll just be learning like the rest of us over the next few years how it all ends.
That’s exactly it, yeah. I think a couple of the actors, the main actors, got to read the full script. But also, the Russo Brothers wrote a fake script as well, to like throw people off-track. So even if they did read the full script, they don’t even know if it was the real script.
Everyone’s going to be in for a surprise.
I think so.
Also, I know Jumanji 2 has been confirmed. Have you talked to Dwayne or anyone else about going back to the jungle?
No, I haven’t yet. I keep on hounding people for information and I’m getting nowhere. So, I guess I just work in a career shrouded with secrecy. [Laughs]
How, personally, do you think Martha would react to waking up again as Ruby Roundhouse?
Martha? You know I think by the end of the film, she started to really embrace her video game persona. She started to find some enjoyment in being this kind of kick ass character. So I think she would be pretty happy to inhabit her again. I’m sure she would still be unhappy with the outfit though. [Laughs]
The more you branch off into being a film maker behind the camera, you’ve worked on the highest level blockbusters and you’ve done films like The Big Short, and Doctor Who television. Do you have any interest in maybe one day directing one of these bigger features?
Yeah, I would love to do that. I feel like I’ve just gathered so much information from working on these types of films. I’ve been in the environment for five years now, pretty consistently. So, that has just given me such a wealth of experience and knowledge that you know, a lot of directors are the most inexperienced people on a set, because everybody else is on-set more regularly. There is something about just being in the environment. You can really soak up how it all works. So therefore, I feel like I would love to put that knowledge to good use someday.
As people come in to this movie, what do you hope people take away from going to The Party’s Just Beginning?
I think, if I could start any conversations on the topic of suicide, I think that I would be happy with that. Just for people to discuss it a little bit more, shine a little bit of a light on the subject matter, and the issue. Also maybe chips, if they could just go and get some chips in Scotland that would be great.
Do you know if it was originally called chips first? Fries or chips?
Oh, well I’m going to say it’s probably chips, because the UK is older than America. And then crisps are what we call chips, and those were invented by Mr. Crisp. Fact.
Wow, I did not know any of that.
Oh yeah—No, it must be chips because Mr. Crisp had a chip shop, I think, and then he would take out all the actual chips and then the crispy ones would be left at the bottom. He called them crisps.
I think that is a great history lesson to end the interview on.
[Laughs] The most random thing ever.
Thank you so much for doing this.