One of the biggest sleeper hits of the Toronto International Film Festival this September was the British coming-of-age drama X + Y. In the film, Asa Butterfield plays Nathan Ellis, an autistic teen hoping to land a berth in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Co-starring Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and newcomer Jo Yang as Zhang Mei, a Chinese girl who befriends Nathan, the film received accolades and much enthusiasm from its opening night crowd.
Earlier this week, I had the chance to sat down with director Morgan Matthews and the two young stars of X + Y during TIFF to discuss their new film. They spoke about the young man who inspired Asa’s character, shooting in Taipei and, ahem, eating stinky tofu.
Check it out below and enjoy!
What drove you make a documentary about the Math Olympiad in the first place? How did that turn into a feature film?
Morgan Matthews: I was making a documentary about the world taxidermy championships. It was an interesting film and it went down quite well and was up for awards, things like that. I was making it for the BBC at the time. They were interested in me doing some more films about what you might call niche competitions. And we started exploring a number of options and started making actually a few films about some interesting competitions.
Then a producer I was working with came across the International Mathematical Olympiad. And I thought there might not be room for another [film]. Then, I went to see and meet the UK team, the boys who were then going on to compete at the Olympiad. I thought that tbey were such an interesting, extraordinary bunch of individuals who had these incredible talents. Some of them in the group were facing challenges. Several of the kids that we followed were on the autistic spectrum and they found aspects of life difficult.
So it was a really interesting time in their lives and a fascinating story. We were very lucky to be with them during that time. Further down the line, when I started thinking about moving into fiction and drama, I had a discussion with the UK Film Council. They asked me if there was anything that I had came across that could translate into a drama. And I had always felt that this world of the International Mathematical Olympiad and these fascinating characters that inhabit that world would be a great subject for a feature film. Five years later, here we are.
It was a five-year process?
Morgan Matthews: Five years, from the original proposal to the script to the shooting to Toronto.
Asa, how did you join the film?
Asa Butterfield: I first read the script quite a while before we started filming, before we even got all of the financing together, I think. I loved the script. I always think that trying to push yourself as an actor in a direction that you’ve never been before, developing characters which are more difficult to get into the head of, or are more interesting and further away from yourself, is always a challenge. But, you want to take up that challenge and try your best. When I first met with Morgan, I had watched that documentary as well and seeing the background to the story and how much Morgan knew about it… as Rafe [Spall] often says, you know that you’re in good hands because [Morgan] is so confident and knows so much about it, that you can’t go wrong, really.
Morgan Matthews: Well, you probably could go wrong. But it didn’t go wrong, thankfully. And Asa was wonderful at inhabiting this character. Nathan is somebody who doesn’t necessarily communicate that well, he doesn’t say that much. He’s quite introverted. But what Asa does is he creates someone who you can still empathize with. He’s not cold, although outwardly sometimes he is cold to people that he’s talking to, particularly his mother [played by Sally Hawkins]. He finds it quite difficult to have an emotional relationship with his mother. He’s quite brittle with her. We still identify with him, we still empathize with him, and that’s a great strength that Asa has.
Then the trick of the film is how you get inside the mind of this character, who is so withdrawn and reclusive. You bring us into his visual point-of-view and how he looks at colours, and there are patterns within his scene. You situate us there. How did you come up with that?
Asa Butterfield: Before we starting filming, I did a lot of research for background. The documentary was a massive help. Daniel, who my character is loosely based off of… watching the documentary, you get an insight into what’s going on. And I got to meet him and talk to him and really learn about what’s going on inside his head, and how that manifests both physically and mentally. So developing that and bringing it to the character and talking with Morgan to develop Nathan was an amazing experience. I learned a lot. We all did.
Morgan Matthews: What Daniel told us was that he finds ordinary communication very difficult, because he doesn’t understand or know what to do with his face. He doesn’t really know how to read other people’s facial expressions. He doesn’t know what to say – what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate. It means that he just clams up and finds the experience of basic communication quite traumatic. Then, he discovered Chinese culture and he was particularly taken with it.
Firstly, he believes that they embrace mathematics in a way that perhaps we don’t in the UK. They celebrate it. The people who are great mathematicians are heroes. The young kids on the mathematical Olympiad squad are called “kids” because they’re very good at math. In England, they could be treated badly, as geeks or freaks.
He started embracing Chinese culture and he taught himself Mandarin – this is Daniel, the original kid in the documentary. He taught himself Mandarin in three months and then he went to China and he came back with a Chinese girlfriend. He said that when he was in China, when he learned Chinese, he not only learned the language but the facial communication that went with that, what people were doing with their hands, what they were doing with their faces. He learned that in conjunction with the language. He felt much more comfortable communicating in Mandarin than he did in English. When he was in China, he felt like he wasn’t weird. He thought that Chinese people thought that all Westerners are weird.
Jo Yang: It’s true, though.
Morgan Matthews: [laughs] We’re aware. So he wasn’t weirder than anyone else. He felt immediately comfortable. Jo’s character, Zhang Mei, is like the catalyst that allows Nathan to come out of his shell and to externalize some of the feelings that he has shut away. It’s not that he doesn’t feel things or can’t feel things. He just has difficulty in expressing those feelings and sharing them. Sometimes, it’s painful for him to be in the real world.