“Tonight I’m going to the rodeo!” Guy Myhill announces triumphantly within seconds of my sitting down with him at SXSW earlier this year. It was a happy coincidence that for the writer/director of “The Goob” that just outside of town one of America’s biggest pro rodeos was setting it up camp as his feature debut was making its North American premiere in Austin.
“I don’t want the pig jumping. I want the bulls,” Myhill said nearly as fiercely as one imagines the animals will be that he’ll watch later in the evening, already decked out in a proper cowboy hat with only a British accent to give him away.
Even if he didn’t mention his immediate plans, Myhill’s desire to fully immerse himself in a culture is evident from “The Goob,” as is his ability to grab a bull by the horns, at least metaphorically. Set in the wilds of Norfolk, the driest county in England where stock car racing is one of the few diversions away from a depressed life where most turn to illegal activity to make their own fun, the character study of a young man named the Goob (Liam Walpole) shows him struggling to make his own way, seeing opportunity with a newly arrived woman (Hannah Spearritt) about his age who’s come to work with him in the fields but finding himself tied to doing what’s best for his mother (Sienna Guillory), who has taken up with one of the more successful stock car racers (Sean Harris) with a penchant for abusive behavior.
Walpole, a 19-year-old at the time of filming who was discovered by a casting agent walking home one night, has an intense glare about him in the grand tradition of angry young men such as Terence Stamp, Oliver Reed and Albert Finney that suggests as the Goob he’ll show up the bus driver who tells him on on his final day of school, “Have a good life if you can get out of this shithole.” But in Myhill’s film, there are no guarantees, as the director of documentaries making the transition to narratives prizes a certain obliqueness, particularly in how his characters are connected at first, only to get more specific in what they mean to one another as the film wears on. What he is less vague about, however, is summoning a sense of place, bringing the unique landscape of Norfolk to the fore, where getting by may not be easy, which is why getting on is so unusual. After the film’s premiere at SXSW, en route to a release in British cinemas this week, Myhill and Walpole spoke about capturing their home in all its glory and how the film was inspired.
Guy Myhill: I made a documentary for BBC Broadcast on the stock car scene, so after I made that, I knew this was a great starting point for a film. There’s a vibrancy to it. Just the sound levels, there’s this dirty roar I hadn’t seen in a film really. Metaphorically, these men just go around a track, so it symbolized a man being stuck, just going round and round and round on a loop and I started to weave in a narrative around that [with] the flip side of a younger man who gets away and escapes.
How did Liam get involved in the film? I’ve heard this was his first time as an actor.
Liam Walpole: Basically, I was just walking to the local takeaway in town and playing on my phone, walking across the road and I actually bumped into the casting lady. We got to talking and she took a couple of photos of me and said, “Would you be interested in auditioning for this film that’s shooting in Norfolk?” I was like, “Yeah, why not?” It’s not very often you have someone come up and ask you if you want to be in a film.
Guy, were you actually familiar with the area or if you have to integrate yourself into it?
Guy Myhill: I lived maybe sixteen miles, door to door, away. But basically, we’re from that region, so we know it. But it’s a really hard dialect to pull off unless you’re from that area, so everybody acting in the film across the board like Sean Harris, who’s just finishing “Mission Impossible 5” with Tom Cruise, and Sienna Guillory, Hannah Spearritt, who’s in this band S Club 7, are all from that neck of the woods. Throw in Liam, who actually grew up there, a couple of builder friends of mine and the composer Luke Abbott, who’s massive in Europe — he’s a Norfolk man and his sounds are always geared around that flat landscape.
For Liam, was it interesting being around veteran actors like Sienna Guillory or Sean Harris?
Liam Walpole: Surreal is the best way I could really explain it, to be honest. Just really, really strange. Nothing of what I’m used to.
There’s a tradition of English angry young man films that this fits nicely into and yet transcends it at the same time. Were you aware of that going in?
Guy Myhill: That’s funny you said transcends it because I think we tried to do that. We tried to put a bit of humor into it, genuinely, because my experience in life is even when I’m in a tough situation, often there’s a bit of humor that will break through.
One of my favorite things about the film is how you often pause the narrative for little moments whether it’s to watch the characters dancing or you’ll see them walk over coals for fun. Why was that important for you to show?
Guy Myhill: In terms of walking over the hot coals, it was just a moment of seeing people having a bit of courage, so it’s a subtle shift of narrative, but here is Goob watching some men walking barefoot over hot coals and in a minute, he’s going to have to confront a man and find a similar courage himself. In terms of dancing, I just wanted Hannah in a dance scene in an empty diner. There was something about that that made me laugh. But of course, there’s an exuberance to it that crystallizes that little trio’s relationship and, again, from a courage point of view within the fun and the bounce of that dance, Hannah finds the courage to go back to the man who she’s pulling away from and she and Elliot forge their relationship further. But I don’t see it as an indulgence. There’s purpose and method.
Was there a particularly crazy day during shooting?
Guy Myhill: The stock car stuff was stressful because you’re working with a real crowd and having to turn around [with] the curriculum of the race track itself, so you’re leaping around and dodging that. We didn’t have the budget to occupy the whole track, so to muscle in on a natural race in a day was tricky. We also had to put [Liam as the Goob] on a bike, I don’t know what the rules are in the States, but certainly in England, you’re not allowed on a bike without a helmet, so we’d have to ride around these backroads hoping that there were no enforcement people about. We were winging it a bit on all of that, but I feel the stars were in alignment with “The Goob.” Whatever little hurdles were put in front of us, we always managed through, often unexplained, and were able to navigate through them and move on.
“The Goob” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It is now playing in the UK.