It’s a familiar struggle for children to face the reality when their parents become dependent, especially after their death of a spouse. But for children of parents struggling with chronic and debilitating diseases, the reality can come much soon and harsher. Kathleen Hepburn has had to consider this challenge since being faced with her mother’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s’ disease. And this reality inspired her feature film debut Never Steady, Never Still. The Canadian film tells the story of Judy (Shirley Henderson), who lives in a small, rural town and finds herself alone when her husband of more than 20 years dies suddenly. As Judy struggles to care for herself in isolation, her son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) works on the oil fields, not yet sure how to come of age. Hepburn’s intimate family story is told with a quiet, poetic touch, cinematically depicting the two characters’ solitude through the landscape’s lonely beauty.
Lesley Coffin: Before directing the film you made a short film which was also called Never Steady, Never Still. What was the process of adapting that work into the feature?
Kathleen Hepburn: It started in the opposite direction. I started with a feature script, but my desire to get something started and direct lead me to making it first as a short. It gave me a chance however to really try somethings out and experiment with the characters. It was a bit of a backwards process. But the initial idea came from just trying to deal with some questions I had about my family and my mother’s struggle with Parkinson’s. And how her illness affected our relationship, because she was diagnosed when I was quite young. So I wanted to explore the long term effects that kind of illness has on families and children, when a parent needs to be cared for. It was also heavily inspired by this northern, rural town in B.C., I spent a lot of time there when I was growing up and was struck by the beauty that exists in a town like this but also how unique the relationships are there. It’s so isolated and quite.
Lesley Coffin: You said the short gave you an opportunity to try things out before making a feature. How did things change during the transition from short to feature filmmaking?
Kathleen Hepburn: One of the biggest challenges I had in this was to avoid redoing something I did in the short. So I actually wrote entirely new scenes for the short and only one scene appears in both the short and the feature film. And of course I had different actors. Other than that, I was focused just on how to capture the tone I wanted in both films. But it was definitely a challenge to create new material within this world I’d created but hadn’t filmed yet.
Lesley Coffin: I assume the town you filmed in hasn’t had a lot of film crews. Considering how isolated it is and the snow you were filming in, what were some of the challenges of making the movie there?
Kathleen Hepburn: It was definitely difficult in the snow. It wasn’t that hard when the weather was good. The town only has a population of about 2,000 people, so once we were there people were either really happy to have us there or not happy about it at all. But the people who were happy to have us there were so happy about us being there and really helped us out. We didn’t have running water or heat in the location, it was just a wood stove and we brought water in. We didn’t even have a toilet. And the community came together and really helped us make it work. I think they thought it was nice to have something so different. We didn’t have any problems with the cameras, because cameras are so hardy. The oil fields were trickier because we struggled to even get access to film there due to the liability issues. But we had a local videographer who shoots aerial photography there and he got us action.
Lesley Coffin: Jamie is really torn between starting his life as an independent adult and taking on the role of caregiver. Did you or were you experiencing the same crisis?
Kathleen Hepburn: My experience was a little different because my father’s still alive. I didn’t have the kind of choice he had to make the film, but it did affect some of the choices I made regarding where I live and how far I wanted to be from home. But the character’s choice is much harder in the film and the character’s much younger, so he hasn’t fully realized how much assistance his mother needs. He doesn’t grasp how difficult things are until he leaves and comes back because the disease progresses gradually. And he always had his father there to take care of her.
Lesley Coffin: What motivated you make the character a son, rather than a daughter?
Kathleen Hepburn: I needed some separation from the character and making that character a boy helped me to do that. It gave me some distance to make decisions about this character’s specific world.
Lesley Coffin: Was he based on anyone specific?
Kathleen Hepburn: His character was inspired quite a bit by a book of poetry by a writer who spent quite a bit of time working in the oil fields as a teenager. And he wrote a beautiful book of poetry which talks about that experience in a very beautiful, cinematic way. So a lot of his emotional experiences I drew from that book.
Lesley Coffin: How did you come to cast Shirley Henderson the role?
Kathleen Hepburn: Initially we were looking for an older actress for that role. But we saw her in South Cliff, the Netflix series where she played a grieving mother. And she’s so phenomenal in that series and I was looking for a woman with a petite figure who could play the character as someone who was very fragile on the outside but very strong on the inside. I wanted an actress who could play the character with an incredible amount of inner strength. And she was the first person we reached out to and she reacted extremely well to the role when she read it.
Lesley Coffin: What kind of research and body work did she do to play the role?
Kathleen Hepburn: She did a lot of research on her own, studying people with the disease. And she worked with my mother because it gave her the opportunity to see the specific symptoms and talk in depth about some of the experiences I’d written about. And Shirley did a lot of body work to get the movement into her body so she didn’t have to think about it and focus on the character.
Lesley Coffin: In the film there are scenes in a support group for people with Parkinson’s. Did you find a real support group to film or did you have to hire actors?
Kathleen Hepburn: It was kind of split. Most of the people in that scene are from my mother’s support group. My mother’s actually in that scene. But the woman who gives that long speech is an actress. Just because a lot of the people at that age have difficulty with memorization and speech. But it was my mom’s vocal support therapy group.
Lesley Coffin: What was it like to be there with your mother, making this movie that’s inspired by her and your experiences?
Kathleen Hepburn: It was certainly emotional for both of us. I was trying to put on screen what I thought she was feeling. And she was really moved by the final product. I think it really capture something you can never really say or put into words. The thesis of the film is kind of about the things you can’t put into words and fear we have of not being there for the people we love. I think that was more important than depicting the physical side of the disease, I needed to show what the disease can do to relationships.
Lesley Coffin: In the film, the son only has one friend and doesn’t talk about his emotions. Seeing that support group made me think of how we often we forget to reach out to the caregivers. What aspect of that issue did you want to explore in this film?
Kathleen Hepburn: Well, we’re specifically talking about people with chronic disease and debilitating illnesses. There’s just a lack of conversation in general about the needs of caregivers, and in smaller communities, a lack of resources for them to go to. But he’s also going through something universal. It’s rare to find someone that understands you or someone you can confide in. He’s a kid growing up in a small town and probably has never met that person he can connect with. And this younger girl who comes along is his first look at real-friendship and the pleasure of sexuality.
Lesley Coffin: It’s very clear that the landscape is very harsh but also beautiful in its stillness and isolation. What visual choices did you make early on about how to depict life in this kind of community?
Kathleen Hepburn: I wanted to kind of magnify her isolation. I think if she actually lived in that specific town she’d have more interaction with her neighbors, but there are people who are living in that kind of isolation. But I wanted to use the landscape to show the precariousness nature of her situation. Her day to day activities are now riskier because she’s alone. At any moment she could slip and fall and she’d be all alone. Nature can be dangerous and it’s all around her.
Lesley Coffin: Have you had an opportunity to screen the film with individuals going through this kind of illness or family members?
Kathleen Hepburn: I know it’s a really difficult film to watch for people with the disease or are close with someone. I’ve had audiences with children of parents with Parkinson’s. And that’s the situation which I’m closest to and I think they feel well represented. I know it’s a challenge for people who’ve just been diagnosed, because they get scared seeing what could be their future. But I had one fellow, when I showed it at Palm Springs, and a fellow who lives with a joint disorder that has similarities to Parkinson’s. And he said it really represented his desire for independence. Judy represents that struggle and he found her to be really relatable.
© Lesley Coffin (6/22/18) FF2 Media
Photos courtesy of Christie Street Creative, Experimental Forest Films