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Filming on a Tiny Remote Island and Hoping for Storms: Nora Fingscheidt on Her Saoirse Ronan-Starring Sundance Alcoholism Drama, The Outrun

A young woman played by actress Saoirse Ronan with orange hair wearing a black hoodie standing against the seaSaoirse Ronan in The Outrun

When writer-director Nora Fingscheidt first encountered Amy Liptrot’s 2016 memoir, The Outrun, and read the story of Liptrot’s journey through alcoholism and her eventual healing on a remote Scottish island, she was living in Los Angeles and feeling somewhat disoriented. “I was a bit lost in this gargantuan city,” she tells Filmmaker recently in Park City, where her film, The Outrun, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “I missed Europe a lot. Reading this brutally honest story taking place at the edge of the world, on this tiny remote island, created a big longing in me to go and film there.”

So she did just that with her formally ambitious screen adaptation (co-written by Liptrot), ultimately telling a story of the destructive nature of addiction that ends on a positive note about hope and healing. Knowing that Saoirse Ronan would play the lead (in addition to starring, Ronan is also a producer under her new Arcade Pictures company), was a major draw for the filmmaker. “Half of the film takes place with just her on this tiny island, so you need an actress who would be able to carry it,” she reflects. “And who could be better than Saoirse?”

This is Fingscheidt’s first time premiering a movie at Sundance, and both she and Ronan are receiving abundant praise. “It’s a dream come true,” she says about the experience. “Sundance is buzzing with this creative energy, with cinephiles and film lovers everywhere. And it’s very inspiring to meet both experienced and young directors.”

Below, Fingscheidt discusses her intentions with the adventurous structure of The Outrun, working with Ronan and how she had to adapt to the demands of nature in shooting her film.

Filmmaker: This is Ronan’s first producing credit. Do you know why she wanted to especially assume this role for this project?

Fingscheidt: As far as I can tell from the interviews that we did together, she wanted to explore producing to have more of an impact and influence about the storytelling choices and [their] development. Be more on the creative side and have influence on HoDs [heads of department]. She has worked with so many people over the years now. She was a wonderful creative partner to work with from the very beginning until the final mix. She’s very clear in her opinions about the role, but then she allows for a lot of freedom. I felt very supported to find my own voice in this.

Filmmaker: Because addiction is a sensitive subject matter and in this case, it’s your co-writer Amy Liptrot’s real life, I am wondering what sort of responsibility you felt in telling this true story. How did you collaborate with her on the page and elsewhere? How did you approach her story?

Fingscheidt: It’s a very challenging book to translate into a film because it is so personal and internal; much of it is about memory. But what makes it so beautiful is Amy’s thought process about the world. And I thought the film needed to be really nerdy in a way [especially when it came to her environmental pursuits]. So I pitched this approach to both Amy and our producers. And then I went into solitude with the book by myself for a couple of months actually. I color-coded every page in different areas. There is childhood, music, London, Orkney, sound elements, facts about the world… And then I went through it again and put all the little moments that I thought have to be in the film on different cards and arranged them. Then I wrote a treatment.

And from that moment on, we started to collaborate really closely. Amy read every version, and we spent hours on Zoom. She isn’t a celebrity who’s used to having their life portrayed. And her parents are there in the story. So I felt that I had to include her and protect her at the same time. Every decision that we made for the adaptation in changing, fictionalizing or dramatizing things, we made together. One of the first things we did is change her name to have a healthy creative distance. Amy suggested Rona, which is the name of a Scottish island. Saoirse loved it—it’s almost like Ronan. And it also has Nora in it. And it is the island behind the horizon when Amy was sitting on the outrun. So the character name was a mixture of the three of us.

Filmmaker: Did Saoirse spend time with Amy in crafting her performance, or did she approach it more freely to not do an impersonation?

Fingscheidt: Very early on she asked me, “Do you want me to sound like Amy?” Because Saoirse is Irish, we knew she would have to take on another accent. And we said, please don’t try and sound like Amy. Find your own voice, your own interpretation of Rona. That gave her a lot of liberty. She is a very physical actor, so she took quite a while preparing with a London choreographer, Wayne McGregor, whom she has worked with before. They worked a lot on how Rona moves: when she’s with her parents, when she’s happy-drunk or messy-drunk or trying to hide it; when she’s in a good mood or when she loses control. She also worked with a dialogue coach to get into this talk process. That physicality, the voice, and then the experiences like helping deliver lambs on the farm that we did at the pre-shoot helped her get into the bones and guts of Rona’s character.

I found her so natural that I really just had fun watching her. And I asked her to work freely with language. The script that I had written was mostly in indirect speech. She asked me at one point, “When are you writing dialogue?” And I said I’m not intending to, because if I write dialogue in English, every character is going to sound the same since I’m not a native speaker. And so we found the right tone for each character during rehearsals, and it was wonderful. And I think she really enjoyed that.

Filmmaker: I’m glad that you mentioned the lamb scene. Saoirse looks like a pro in it. How did she train for that?

Fingscheidt: She had just come from Australia for our pre-shoot where she had been shooting another film, and she wasn’t in the role yet. And she was really thrown into this sort of documentary shoot where we worked closely with a farmer called Kyle. He was 23, navigating three different farms. He coached her, I think for five days. We were all there, waiting for lambs to be born. And she had to look like she’s been doing that her whole life. It took us seven lamb births until we got the one where she looks like a pro. It was fantastic because it helped her prepare for the character. And when lambs are born, it’s gory, it’s bloody, [sometimes] they die, you know? It’s not just cute and romantic. It is very hard work. And that she could take that with her was a blessing.

Filmmaker: I want to talk about the meticulous editing of this movie—you can see the intention behind all your choices. There is a very purposeful chaos to it that throws you off in its speed sometimes, and then slows down again. It felt like you were mirroring the experience of the character across London, Orkney and those nerdy segments that you mentioned.

Fingscheidt: Our editor, Stephan Bechinger, whom I’ve been working with since we both went to film school, is one of the most amazing editors I know. I’m very blessed that he was the one arranging this infinite chaos of wonderful options. The three layers—the Orkney layer, the London layer and the nerd layer—were already intertwined in the script. But as we tried to put it into script order, it didn’t work as we thought, which is what always happens. It was so vital to not lose Rona’s journey: if you spend too much time in London, it gets you away from Orkney. If you spend too much time with her in rehab, you lose the connection with her and her boyfriend. It was a delicate balancing act to find a story that makes sense, but still leads you through it emotionally more than logically.

In the first half of the film, you’re really thrown from A to B to the nerd layer, and it takes a bit to get into the film and orient yourself, while she is also completely without orientation. And then when she comes to Papay, things slow down and find their order, and you spend more time in one narrative. We end in a way of clarity. And her changing hair colors [were there to] help you navigate where you are. But having said that, you can also watch the film from an emotional standpoint and not think about [the timeline].

Filmmaker: It sounds like you found the rhythm and structure of the film both on the page and in edit equally.

Fingscheidt: Absolutely. It took us eight months until everything was at the place where we thought we can’t change it anymore.

Filmmaker: What were some of the unique challenges of shooting at Orkney, across these majestic and windswept landscapes and harsh elements?

Fingscheidt: It is quite an experience to film on a tiny remote island and get the team and equipment there, and then hope for storms. But not too many storms, because then you can’t go near the cliffs—it’s too risky. We knew that nature would be a character in the film, so it was always clear that we had to adapt the shooting schedule to nature’s requirements. We went three or four times to shoot on Orkney. There was a pre-shoot during the lambing season—the lambs were only born in April. Then we had to go back to film the nesting birds—they nest only in June. And the main shoot was in September when the seals are still around before they go and breed. And  then come back in winter for a few pickups of snow. When we were on Papay, we had different versions of, “Will it rain tomorrow? Is there a storm or is it sunny? Depending on how the weather is, we would shoot different things. So everybody had to be on their toes all the time.

Filmmaker: You have different visual aesthetics throughout. There is a documentarian sensibility almost to what you call the nerd layer. And sound is an important layer too—you hear the harshness of everything at times, from her addition to the nature sounds.

Fingscheidt: Yeah, we shot on two different cameras with our wonderful DP, Yunus Roy Imer. We had a documentary camera and then the main camera. We shot on ARRI ALEXA for the main story. And then for the nerd layers, we used archive footage, cell phone footage, animation, everything.

As for sound, I have worked with this sound design team as well as the composers across many projects now. We usually start with a concept for sound during the writing of the script, because otherwise it can too easily become random. And sound is so important in a film like this, where you have to go with her through this experience of delirium that is destructive. And then we also have this extreme, very loud nature experience when you’re on a cliff in Orkney. And then there are the beautiful bird sounds. So we played a lot with nature sounds and then the city sounds to counter it. The music also uses a lot of natural elements like wind tubes; old instruments that have been on Orkney for centuries.

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