Interview with Duncan Paveling: disability representation in mainstream fiction
Duncan Paveling is the award winning screenwriter of the 2016 film 'My Feral Heart', and founder of Dull Boy Pictures. I had the privilege of talking to him about disability representation in mainstream fiction as part of my MA in Creative Writing. He has kindly agreed to let me share that interview with you all. I found his insight into disability representation within the movie industry fascinating and enlightening. The interview took place 15th August 2019.
ADR: Duncan, thank you for so kindly agreeing to answer a few questions for me.
The focus of my MA is on that I consider there is an under-representation of disability within mainstream fiction. As someone on the inside of the creative industry, what are your thoughts on this? If you agree, why do you think this is the case and is it changing?
DP: I believe there has been and is a huge under-representation of disability. I do believe there are changes and movement in the right direction, although in a largely financially driven industry, there is still a reluctancy for stories representing 'true' disability to be supported. Historically we have seen many wonderful performances, playing disability, though very few actors (with disability) given the chance to play a character, that isn't about their disability, or within feeling like a token gesture. Stories with characters with disability (or ability) don't necessarily need to be about their challenges or disability, why can't we see an actor with a disability as a romantic, or action lead. I believe one of the significant issues is industry professionals being aware (or trained) in providing the appropriate environment, care and consideration to disability, to enable stories to be told. Also, writers do need to be writing these stories and originality encouraged.
ADR: There seems to be a real lack of minority representation within the film and TV industry, what difficulties did you face with getting this film made? Was there any reluctance within the industry? In your experience did having a lead character with downs syndrome affect the amount of interest in the project? i.e. funding, marketing, distribution.
DP: My Feral Heart was a micro-budget film, which allowed us freedom to make the film as we hoped and wished. The biggest issue we had was around distribution (which continues), distributors found it 'difficult to place' our film, due to our lead having Down syndrome, despite numerous awards and nominations for Steven alongside the likes of Michael Fassbender, Shia LeBeouf, Ewan McGregor and more. We had limited funds for all aspects of the production, which may well have hindered certain aspects, regardless of the subject matter. What I believe was disappointing, is that we hear so often corners of the industry encouraging stories of diversity, yet when one came along and was critically acclaimed, still people were not willing to support.
ADR: How did ‘My Feral heart’ come about? Was it your idea or were you asked to get involved? What experiences and previous knowledge did you have that made you the ‘right’ person to write my feral heart? And where there any concerns you had to consider in writing it? Where did the idea come from?
DP: My Feral Heart was an idea I took to Jane Gull (Director). It was an idea I'd had for some time, having fallen very much in love with a film called Le Huitieme Jour, a film that had a young actor (with Down Syndrome) in a lead role. it was 20 years old and no one had done anything like it since. Though for me it was never about disability. I've had significant experience working in the care industry, in a therapeutic role, in particular in the care of learning difficulties and special needs. What I was keen to do, was create a story, in which the similarities of people were highlighted and not the differences, certainly didn't wish to make a film about disability, but a film about a young man finding his way through grief. My thoughts were and continue to be, why does it matter that the lead character has Down syndrome? In my experience working with families in this area, I have been privileged to meet some of the kindest, funniest and enlightening people, that's what I wished to show.
ADR: What difficulties if any did you encounter whilst trying to portray a man with downs syndrome in your story. Did Steven Brandon have any input into the development of the character?
DP: Whilst we shot very much what was on the page, Jane and Steven worked extremely closely to define the character and the nuances. There are many moments (some of my favourites) that were due to their amazing collaboration and work, things that weren't necessarily on the page. There were things that we included on casting Steven, such as his Tattoo (which is real. On meeting Steven, he showed me both his tattoos, immediately we just had to write them in.)
ADR: Steven did an amazing job of portraying Luke in My Feral Heart, why do you think there are not more lead roles in movies and TV for people with downs syndrome?
DP: Simply, because people are not writing them, sad as it is to say, partly, I believe, because people may not feel confident they will be looked at, or get made.
AR: For many years I worked as a supported living worker helping disabled adults to live independently in their own homes. What became obvious to me was that a large portion of society was being under-represented on TV and in media, especially fiction. What do you think the implications of this are? And how has the feedback been from the disabled and care community since the release of My Feral Heart?
DP: It was vital we captured the reality and honesty of such a community, there's is such a lack of representation anyway, we certainly wanted to ensure when there was, we captured it respectfully, but honestly. Sadly, the implications for any underrepresented group, can lead to isolation, it's so important that people are seen as equals, that the differences aren't the focus, but the similarities are. It's vitally important that everyone is represented, though not for representations sake, but for honesty's sake. We live in a diverse world and most communities live side by side with little or no conflict, yet often representation of such is itself misrepresented, to evoke fear, anger and hate. As a writer I hope to engage people with stories of empathy, stories that are diverse and give understanding to others and ultimately bring us closer together, with less judgment.