Sheila Hancock, veteran star of stage and screen, swapped treading the boards for the well-trodden path up Suilven (731m) in Sutherland, for a role in Simon Hunter's feature film Edie, due for UK cinema release on 25th May. The film follows Sheila as 83 year-old Edie, a widow who vows to fulfil a long-held dream to climb Suilven following the death of her controlling husband.
Refusing to spend the rest of her life in an old people's home - which her daughter tries to enforce - Edie buys a train ticket to the Scottish Highlands where she employs the help of a young outdoor enthusiast, Jonny (Kevin Guthrie), to help her on her way to the summit. Edie's stubborn determination proves that 'It's never too late' to achieve a goal, and Hancock's convincing portrayal of a range of emotions - fear, excitement, regret, relief and joy - draws the audience into her ambitious challenge, while themes of age and friendship are dealt with subtly against the backdrop of the stunning Scottish landscape.
Societal expectations of older people are brought to the fore and subverted. "Are you fishing?" a young woman presumes as Edie prepares to make a boat crossing to the foot of the mountain. "No, I'm going up there!" Edie says proudly. "Oh, OK. Wow!" the woman responds in surprise. Equally, though, over the course of the film Edie learns to accept help from others after 30 years of being a caregiver to her ill husband.
The film's release coincides with the start of a new phase of repair work on the path up Suilven from Glencanisp, which will carry on through the summer, with the £200,000 project expected to be completed in August. "We expect to welcome a lot of visitors onto Suilven this summer, so the work is taking place at a fortuitous time," Footpath Officer for the John Muir Trust, Chris Goodman commented.
We got in touch with director Simon Hunter to find out more about the film. Unfortunately we couldn't get hold of Sheila for comments, but speaking to The Herald, she summed up the experience as follows:
"It was glorious. I can never match it, quite honestly. We climbed that bloody mountain. The crew climbed it with cameras and sound equipment. We all felt profoundly involved in it, in a way that I never have in any other job."
Natalie: How did you come up with the story for the film?
Simon Hunter: I came up with the story for Edie after spending two years inside a small post production studio in Ealing directing a green screen visual effects movie. I swore to myself that I wanted to make a movie outside in the wilds. I had climbed Suilven many times with my Dad and was determined to make this movie. I wondered to myself, who would climb Suilven!?? I decided to make it the least likely person of all. A bitter and resentful old lady in her eighties.
How did you cast for the role of Edie? Was Sheila a first choice?
There was no one else. We needed someone who would climb the mountain for real but also be an actress of the very finest calibre. Sheila has been overlooked in my opinion; she is top draw. There is no one else like her. She climbed every single step that the story demanded and she was utterly amazing and spellbinding. It's the stand-out performance of her career. We camped out for three nights in a row. Camping wasn't really Sheila's thing…but never a word of complaint. No one in the crew ever complained when they had to carry Arri cameras and Zeiss master prime lenses (imagine four bricks!!) Why would anyone complain when Sheila was leading the way? Is there any other actress who would climb Suilven and deliver a world class performance?
Why Suilven of all mountains?
It's my favourite mountain. It's utterly captivating. I climbed it many times as a child and I just love it. It's childlike, it's prehistoric, it's one of the most incredible, magical places on earth. There was never a second option. I took my producer Mark Stothert up there on a location scout and he fell in love with it too. He was amazing because he backed my decision 100% and it was very, very hard from a shooting point of view. No internet, no 3G and miles from anywhere. Any sensible producer would say "Simon, shoot in Glencoe!" but Mark was as crazy as me and he just loved it. Boats, adders, camping out for three nights… he and the rest of the crew loved every minute of it. It's something we will never forget.
How did Sheila cope with the physicality of the shoot? How much walking did she actually undertake? Did she have to do any special fitness preparation before filming?
She did everything. Every single step. At the age of 83, nearly 84. What more can I say? She did Nordic walking to train and went on long walks in Richmond park, but we all know that that does not prepare you for Suilven. She would often ask me or producer Mark, "how hard is the climb? How steep is the ridge?" But what do you say to this? "It's fairly hard Sheila…" Fairly hard for me… a forty something year-old mountain climbing film director! The film is worth watching just to see the incredible feat that Sheila undertook.
How did you find filming in the outdoors - were the crew particularly outdoorsy people?
A mixture. But on the crew's day off - half of them went back up Suilven! I couldn't believe it and to be really honest was a little miffed…I mean, they didn't even take a camera with them! By the end they had completely fallen in love with the place and the shoot will have a special place in their hearts for years to come.
Were there any major epics during the shoot?
Not really, the epic thing was the climb, as none of us knew how long it would take to bring the entire twenty person crew and an 83 year-old actress up Suilven. We could so easily have had an accident, but luckily we didn't. Sheila had some fantastic mountain guides and they helped her and gave her huge encouragement. We wondered if everything would be a disaster when we first arrived in late April as the mountain was covered in snow... but soon the sun came out and we managed to get a few days of stunning weather. "Yes, it really was Scotland," I said at a film festival in the United States recently!
How did the local community embrace the filming? The film could lead to increased visitor numbers, and the landscape pressures they bring. Coincidentally, path restoration work is due to take place on Suilven this week. Were the potentially negative effects of the film's popularity on the landscape taken into consideration beforehand?
The local population were fantastic. Film crews are always a bit of a nightmare but everyone in Lochinver chipped in and helped. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to them. Honestly, we would not have a movie without them. My heart goes out to all of them. I think many people might be inspired to visit the area and help the tourist trade which is great. I am well aware of the appeal to help the path restoration and I am hoping we will be able to help in some way. It's always a hard balance; you want people to experience such a magical place but many visitors always take their toll on such a delicate landscape. I can't say much about this just now, but I believe we will be holding an event to help the restoration of the path.
Edie's daughter's attitude towards her in old age confines her to her house (and very nearly a care home), but her stubborn eagerness to go on her adventure shines through. Do you think we often expect too little of older people and in turn influence their own expectations of themselves?
I think we sometimes treat older people as somehow special and unable to cope and every person I know of a tender age hates this. We treated Sheila as one of us - one of the crew - and she absolutely loved that. That is Sheila all over, she is one of the people in the very best sense. She was no different to anyone else and this applied to her physical tasks of acting and climbing. It was a great lesson to all of us.
Edie describes herself as a 'wild child' in her youth, and seems to resent her life choices. Alongside the theme of age, the choice of a female lead is important. Did you consciously intend to highlight issues that might affect an elderly woman more so than a man (care duties, generational restrictions/expectations within marriage, perhaps even lower expectations from others and self?)
Yes absolutely - it was always going to be a woman; women are belittled more, taken less seriously and patronised more than men, even in 2018. I realise I am a man making the movie, but I hope the film speaks to a female audience on a different level. Whilst we hope partnership will be fulfilling and happy, often it isn't and marriage can be utterly suffocating for many, many women. This film is about escape, geographically and emotionally. A chance to be free in nature. A chance to contemplate our place in the natural world and how we are all just simply passing through.
Edie and Jonny make for an unusual partnership and don't always see eye to eye, but in the end all works out. What did you hope that the audience might learn from their friendship?
Two things. That old people have been through the same hopes and shattered dreams as those that anyone of twenty three will endure in their coming years. Secondly, that two people can bond at any age. Just because you are both thirty doesn't mean you will get along. Age gaps - even huge age gaps - are just numbers. Edie and Jonny in another life with different ages would be together. They are both free spirits separated only by age and life experience.
There are many stunning aerial shots in the film. How did you manage to get such decent weather in Scotland?!
Everyone asks me this when I travel around the world with Edie. The movie was filmed in Sutherland folks...in Sutherland...SCOTLAND! It really was! We had some excellent locals who kept a close eye on the weather. The idea of the producer Mark Stothert was that when the weather forecast gave us three clear days, we would drop whatever scenes we were filming, pack our rucksacks and head off to climb Suilven. Of course that is a chaotic way to work, but it gave us the most incredible light so it was all worth it. It was a great decision. We were also a little bit lucky, but it worked out for us. I desperately wanted to shoot as much of the film in the real location as possible. I think you can't fake that even though we had to move the Suileag bothy from one side of the mountain to the other! I hope people will forgive me… I so wanted to get a bothy in the movie. I hope I am loyal to the soul and spirit of the mountain even if we took a little artistic licence in a couple of places. We also start the journey in a slightly different place but it was visually spectacular and I just couldn't imagine anywhere better for Edie to start her big adventure. Other than that we tried to be as authentic as possible. We used a drone for many of the aerial shots, which was invaluable to us. I wanted to get a sense that the story and landscape was opening out as the movie progressed.
What do you hope people take away from the film? 'It's never too late' is the tagline.
Whatever your age it isn't too late. You don't have to be 83 like Sheila. If you are at college and you hate your degree, leave and do something else. We might well get another chance after this life, I don't know, but I certainly think it's best to assume we don't. I hope that the sheer majestic beauty of the natural world comes across to audiences around the world and viewers across the globe appreciate what an utterly extraordinary place Sutherland is. I've been lucky enough to travel to many, many places but my heart lives in the highlands and I hope I have managed to convey its magic to our audience. I do hope you all enjoy it.
Watch the trailer and behind the scenes below:
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