Friday, September 15, 2006

Starter for Ten

Here's your starter question for ten points; what movie at the festival is a fond look back at those days when you were just starting university or college, and everything was new and awkward and different and exciting? The answer? Starter for Ten, based on the novel of the same name by David Nicholls, who also wrote the screenplay.

It's the 80's in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, and Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) comes from a modest working class background, living with his widowed mum by the seaside, and hanging out with his two best mates, Spencer and Tone. But Brian leaves all the behind when he is accepted into the University of Bristol to study English literature.

At a party his first night there, he meets the intriguing Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who is out to save the world by protesting for various causes. However, Brian's eye is soon diverted by Alice (Alice Eve), whom he meets at a sign up for "University Challenge". University Challenge is a real-life quiz show, similar to Reach for the Top as some Canadians might remember, and one of Brian's fondest memories is of watching the show with his dad, who tells him that knowledge is power and that knowing the answers to things will take him far. But Brian will soon find that sometimes knowing what questions to ask is just as important.

Set to a great 80's soundtrack, Starter for Ten is a well put-together film that made me nostalgic for my university days, although the 80's in the film looked a lot more retro than I remember. It's a fun, entertaining movie with a bit of drama thrown in for good measure, and McAvoy, Hall, and Eve all play well off of each other.

Director Tom Vaughan and actors James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, and Dominic Cooper were in attendance and did a Q&A after the film:

  • Toronto is the world premiere of the movie.
  • Vaughan pointed out that "starter for ten" is a catch phrase in University Challenge that refers to a team's starting question for ten points.
  • On getting the rights for the soundtrack; Vaughan said that when editing the film, he just put his favourite songs against it, expecting he'd have to take them out later and replace them with some fake 80's music. After the film was finished, everyone wanted to keep the soundtrack as is. Robert Smith from The Cure had loved the book and had seen an early cut of the film, so he helped to get The Cure tracks cleared, which then made it easier for everything else. He helped to get a really good deal, but it was still very expensive to clear all the music.
  • When asked about what scene he found most difficult, James McAvoy initially said that there wasn't one because the whole script flowed well. On reflection, however, he did say the scene with himself and Alice Eve in the restaurant, where he tells her about his father, was hard, because he had to remember that the scene was sad, and that his character was sad because it was a sad scene, and not that his character was personally sad.
  • Vaughan added that a scene with actor Charles Dance being naked was the most difficult for him, joking that it was because he had a great body that made everyone else feel inadequate. It was added that actress Lindsay Duncan covered up, but Dance went the whole hog and was in no hurry to cover up even after calling cut.
  • On why the film was set in the 80's: Vaughan agreed that the story was pretty universal and could be set in a different time or place, but one reason was that author David Nicholls lived through the 80's and based the book on his experiences, and both Nicholls and Vaughan were students in the 80's, and it was a world they knew. Vaughan added that the 80's are just long enough ago to have some perspective on it, giving a little bit of distance but still being close enough in time to still be relevant and seem like a modern movie.
  • Someone asked how difficult it was for McAvoy to move between filming the three movies he has showing at this year's festival: Starter for Ten, Penelope, and The Last King of Scotland. He joked they were the collective work of his life; he did The Last King first, then Starter for Ten, and finally Penelope. Each took about 2 to 2-1/2 months to shoot, about 6 or 7 months total, and the longest gap between any of them was about a week. It was intense, but an incredibly rewarding time. He felt he came along as an actor because of being on the set that long and the different type of roles.
  • Someone asked Rebecca Hall why her character forgives McAvoy in the film, and would she do so in real life? Her answer to both was yes, mainly because he's so charming.
  • Bamber Gascogine, the original host of University Challenge who is portrayed in the film, hasn't seen the film yet, but he was a fan of the book and knew of the script. Vaughan hopes he'll be supportive.
  • A woman in the audience asked Vaughan why he featured Cambridge over Oxford in the film. Vaughan replied that it was that way in the book.
  • Someone remarked that Alice Eve looks remarkably like a young Joanna Lumley. Vaughan said that there is no relation, that she is the daughter of veteran British film and TV actor Trevor Eve.
  • On the questions in the film, Vaughan replied that David must have written them and they were typical University Challenge type questions, but then someone added in the Vaughan had to come up with them by plowing through encyclopedias before shooting.
  • On the transition from stage to screen for Dominic Cooper. He mentioned it wasn't a big change other than he doesn't have to project as much. He added that Starter for Ten was a great film and a great cast to do that transition on.


Hey! Cool blog. I just found it by Googling for some info. I'm the one who asked James the question about what was his most difficult scene.

Great piece!

My experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Note this blog is not affiliated with the Toronto International Film Festival Group or the festival itself.
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