Interviews Movies SXSW

SXSW 2018: Interview with “Boundaries” Director Shana Feste, Lewis MacDougall and Yahya Abdul-Matteen

This year’s SXSW Film Festival brought a plethora of opportunities to check out some fantastic films on the rise including headliner film, “Boundaries.” The World Premiere was held this past Monday, March 12, 2018 at the Parmount Theatre here in sunny Austin, TX and reviews are already booming!

Directed by Shana Feste, “Boundaries” illustrates the cross-country adventures of character Laura (Vera Farmiga), her troubled son Henry (Lewis MacDougall), and her estranged, pot-dealing father Jack (Christopher Plummer). Other actors include Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Fonda, Kristen Schaal, Dolly Wells, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen.

We were lucky enough to meet up with Feste along with cast members MacDougall and Abdul-Mateen to discuss the film, premiere, and their time at SXSW.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Shana Feste, Lewis MacDougall
(L-R) Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Shana Feste, Lewis MacDougall | Photo by Leigh Kettle

To begin, Shana, what inspired this story? 

Shana: You know, my family inspired the story – my father. I wanted to write a film about my father and explore our very complicated relationship, and I wanted to really find my voice in film as a filmmaker again. So I knew I had to write something really personal, even though it was terrifying to do so, and I wanted to also change the genres that I’ve been working in, as I’ve been working a lot in romance and melodrama. I wanted to write something that was lighter but still had teeth, and it was important to me that I didn’t just make something that was kind of charming and forgettable, but really kind of tapped into something real – raw emotion. And for me, that was anger. Which is something that I’m not great at expressing, or really, I have a major resistance to anger. So having that as a major component of my film was intimidating, but I’m glad I did.

And for Yahya and Lewis, how did you get involved in this film?

Lewis:  I ended up getting asked to do an audition. And I remember I did one or two before I got a Skype call with Shana and the casting director. Really from there, it was just talking with them. And not even reading the whole script at that point, just reading the scenes I had to do, I was really attracted to the character. And when I got the whole script, I wanted to do it even more.

Yahya: I remember reading and getting the scenes for Serge and saying “Oh hey, this guy is a lot like my own self.” And I hadn’t really got the chance to play guys that I related to as much, that weren’t a stretch to lean into. And this guy had a really big heart. And I said, “I think I want to go and be a part of this.” And then I remember continuing on reading the script and you know, he only pops up at the beginning of the end, but I remember just digging through the rest of the script and not even going back to say, “Well, where I am?” I just remember just going through and saying, “Oh, this is funny. This is this is good, and I know I really, really like this.” And then I got a chance to get on a Skype call. We talked about the character, and I think we found some commonalities and I said, “If I have the opportunity, I’d love to come over and play.”

(L-R) Christopher Plummer and Lewis MacDougall in "Boundaries" | Photo courtesy of Sony Classics
(L-R) Christopher Plummer and Lewis MacDougall in “Boundaries” | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

That leads me into my next question for you two. What are those things that you feel like you can relate to with characters you play?

Yahya: I think my character has a really, really big heart and he’s a guy who sees the best in people. He’s optimistic and he’s willing to give something a shot. He’s also a guy who I believe was a little bit not completely sure of himself. He knows who he who he is and I think he has a very good grasp on his own life and identity, but he wants more. So I’m a bit like that. At the same time, I’m always trying to be where I am but tiptoe out and venture to see how I could grow my own social life and have my own personal things a little bit as well.

Lewis: Yeah, and with Henry… you know, I guess everybody’s been in a situation where they really feel like they don’t fit in. And so I can relate to him in some aspects like that. And also, the other little things – the fact that he’s very close to his mother and I’m close to my dad. I also think I have the same sort of humor as him. He’s a funny guy. Well, I don’t actually think that I’m that funny, but I do think we have the same sort of interests. He has a lot of differences with me as well, but I actually wanted to act different and wanted to play him because of that. That’s the great thing about acting. You can play people who are different than you.

And what was it like working with Shana for you two?

Lewis: Well it’s great. I mean, from the get go I remember talking to her and she just put me at ease. I really felt like I was aware that this was going to be a really enjoyable experience for me and that I was really going to have a good time. I remember her telling me that if I was ever feeling nervous or stressed out I could talk to her. She’s a very talented director, and I think she really got the best of everybody on this show.

Yahya: I think a really good director is one that, like you said, can put an actor at ease, and I think that’s what I felt. And a lot of that wasn’t on set. It was at lunch. You don’t often get to have a lunch, sitting around together talking and say “Hey come over here. So who are you? Where are you from?” Just talking about all of these interesting things that had nothing to do with what we were working on on set. Just a year prior to this I was walking the stage, I was in graduate school. And so this was very new trying to figure out how to be on set. So once I was put to ease, I saw how much she cared about the character and the story and let me be who I was. I didn’t really need much else.

Kristen Schaal and Vera Farmiga | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
(L-R) Kristen Schaal and Vera Farmiga | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

And Lewis, what was it like working with Vera and playing her son?

Lewis: I’ve watched her in “Bates Motel” and am a big fan of hers. We really got to know each other quite well. We didn’t actually have a rehearsal process, but it didn’t matter because off set I got to go to her house a couple times, quite a few times actually. And I got to know her son who is a bit younger than me, but I played soccer and Frisbee with him and then just got to know her and her entire family. Working with her, I learned a lot. She’s a very talented actress and I really enjoyed it.

Yahya: I had an experience with her that was like what athletes talk about, like Kobe Bryant’s teammates or Michael Jordan’s teammates when they talk about being on the court with them at the same time and they find themselves just watching. I’ve definitely found myself opposite her and just saying “Wow.” And then being like, “Oh no, you got to play too!” It’s something amazing that happens when you’re just watching someone who’s really, really talented.

So Shana, the last film that you directed was in 2014 and the industry has changed a lot since then. Can you talk about being a female director then and now and the differences you’ve experienced?

Shana: Well, I can’t wait to direct again so I can really see what it’s like now. Hopefully one day, I mean, being on every set except this one, people have always mistaken me for the wardrobe girl. God forbid I ever carry like a jacket or any item of clothing onto set or else people will direct me to the costume department, almost every time and sometimes my own crew. But I think what’s happening right now is exactly what should be happening. I think South by Southwest is leading the example and by not making an example out of it. I mean, we’re just kind of talking about it like, “Isn’t this amazing how many female directors there are?” It’s not like we’re shouting from the rooftops. This is what’s happening, it’s just an organic process, and these are the best films that were selected. And that’s really awesome. And it just makes sense. Why aren’t we hearing more stories from women? We’re half the population, or more of the population. Our stories are valid and they are engaging and they make a lot of money. And let’s bring more to the screen.

And can you talk about working with this cast, Lewis, Yahya, Christopher Plummer and Vera?

Shana: I think specifically with Lewis, he was definitely not who I should have cast. He was an actor from Scotland who was going to cost a lot of money and he needed a Visa. And he didn’t have an American accent. And there were a lot of really easy choices that would have made my producers’ lives a lot easier if I just chose the American boy. But once I saw his audition  and Skyped with him (the American boy) I was like, “There’s no way this kid is going to be in the film.” Because I knew, even when I wrote the film, I was like, “Oh man, I need to find the right kid to play Henry and this all kind of lives or dies on Henry’s performance. And if this kid strikes a false note it can either go kind of schlocky or silly.” When Lewis read, I just remembered being emotionally affected, and I thought “This is a dramatic actor.” He can do the drama,  and what was really important to me is that he could actually do the heavy lifting. And then the comedy came afterwards.

And then with Yahya, I think it was a little bit of an aspirational casting. When I’m a writer, I have the power to write happy endings for my characters. And here, Vera had this kind of amazing man right in front of her that she couldn’t really see because she wasn’t there yet. She didn’t really love herself enough to see him. And then she gets to see him at the end. And for me, Yahya is such a bright light. His megawatt smile combined with his acting chops – it’s just not something you see a lot, that combination. And so, I was so excited to get the opportunity. I remind Yahya, all the time, that he has to remember me when he becomes a big star. And Lewis as well. I’m going to be calling these guys, “Remember! Remember you owe me one.”

Yahya: No, I’ll call you five years from now and be like, “You got one of those jobs for me?”

Shana: No! I don’t think so.

So for all of you, how does it feel to bring this film to South by Southwest?

Yahya: It’s really, really cool. This is my first time here. I gather here that people, that the audience here really love filmmaking. I have another film here that is a completely different tone a completely different world. If anyone saw the two films they wouldn’t connect the dots. That’s really special to be able to come here on this large stage and in share contrasting roles. And it’s it’s a story feels good, and I think it’s going to do really, really well. I’m excited about seeing where it goes.

Lewis: Yeah for me, I saw the film for the first time yesterday and to see the audience’s reaction – people laughing, really engaging with and it enjoying it was special for me. And just like Yahya said, the audience here, it’s a nice thing that they really understand the films. I’m having a great time here in Austin.

Shana: It’s a really warm audience. Out of all the festivals, I’m terrified to go to Cannes because I just think it’s maybe not such a warm Texan, southern audience – I don’t know, I’m just taking a guess. And I went to grad school here, so it’s so nice for me to come back to Austin and actually show my film, as I was a film student here. It feels completely surreal to be back here.

And how did it feel to be in that audience at the premiere last night?

Shana: I think I was waiting for that first laugh like to just break the ice and be like “OK, it’s OK to laugh.” And I was terrified, so my wonderful publicist stepped in for me and watched the film for me because I was such a nervous wreck. And at one point she emailed me and said “The film is playing.” And I just exhaled and was like, “OK, now maybe I can eat my first bite of food in 20 hours. But I came in for the last bit, and I just felt the energy in the theater and it was really powerful, it’s not something you forget.

Yahya: Same. Everyone in the theater, they went along for the trip. They were right there with the highs and the lows. And I was right there too, and there was one moment where, I won’t give any spoilers, but one moment in the film where something happened and I said, “Oh!!” I covered my mouth and I was like, “Dude you’re in the movie, you know this.”

Lewis: Yeah, I was sitting behind you and could hear you when that happened, it was great.

Yahya: I had to laugh at myself. I was so excited to see what was going to happen next, even when I already knew what was going to happen next.

So Shana, you said you used to live here, but what about you guys? Is this your first time here? How’s it been?

Lewis: It’s been great! Everybody has been really nice and I’ve been recommended to try and get some of the local food. Hopefully I can before I leave.

Is there anything particular you’ve been wanting to try?

Shana: You guys have to try breakfast taco! Where should they go for a breakfast taco?

Oh man. So, even though it’s a chain, Torchy’s is always fantastic. Taco Deli is really great as well. And then I would highly recommend a food truck outside of Radio coffee called Vera Cruz. It’s little bit more off the beaten path, but it’s worth it for sure.

Yahya: What about BBQ? Any good ribs here?

So I have not been to Franklin’s because I hear it’s a two hour wait. So I haven’t tried it myself, but that’s what everybody raves about. And then there’s also Salt Lick, but that’s kind of a little bit further out. But honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong with any BBQ in Austin! 

Last question for all of you, what are you guys working on next?

Lewis: Yeah I’ve got a film coming out later this year, a small Irish film which I’m really proud of. I think it’ll do good and I’m looking forward to it coming out. It’s called “The Belly of the Whale.”

Shana: In a totally different direction, I optioned the life rights to Paradise Sorouri who is the first female rapper from Afghanistan. And I wrote her story into a musical. So that is something that I’m looking forward to bring to the big screen.

Yahya: I have a film called “First Match,” and that comes out on Netflix on March 30th. And then “Boundaries” of course, June 22nd. Very excited about that. And then going to end the year with “Aquaman,” and that’s going to be December 21st. Really excited about that one as well.

Thank you all for wonderful conversation and for letting us give you recommendations on ATX breakfast tacos and BBQ!

“Boundaries” will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in the United States on June 22, 2018. For more information on other films that headlined at the festival, be sure to check out our article “6 Films Headlining SXSW Film Festival” and stay tuned for more interviews, reviews, and recaps from SXSW 2018 here

Leigh is a native Texan gone temporary New Yorker and now proud Austinite. Passions include but are not limited to music (both as a spectator and dabbler), traveling & cultural adventures, film & television, true crime, design (of the fashion, interior, and graphic sorts), and photographing & writing about all the aforementioned. Self-acclaimed coffee connoisseur & wino, cat aficionado, book worm, and nature junkie.

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