Richard Lumsden chats about new movie Downhill

Actor-writer-composer Richard Lumsden (Sightseers, Sugar Rush) stars in the brilliant new British comedy Downhill, which hits the big screen on 30 May and is out on DVD from 16 June 2014.

So what’s Downhill about? Well, four old school friends meet up together for the first time in more than 20 years and decide to conquer Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.

Richard’s character Gordon also invites his film student son to document their adventure, but best laid plans lead straight to multiple mid-life crises.

Flicks And The City caught up with Richard to talk teen bands, freezing dips, and pub quizzes…

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 19.20.09How did you come on board Downhill?

My agent Theresa suggested me to Amelia who was casting the film. I read the script and fell in love with the story immediately. I also loved the sound of the project which required improvisation, long treks in the hills with rucksacks at the mercy of the British weather with no hair and make-up pampering. I was due to meet James and Benji (director & producer) for one of the other roles but told them it was Gordon who was in my bones.

I felt the meeting went well and couldn’t stop obsessing about the film which is usually a bad sign because those are the jobs that don’t go your way. I was recalled a month later – we worked on several scenes then Amelia and I improvised being two very drunk men (she was scarily good!). I then turned down some long-running tv work in the hope that Downhill might come in. A couple of weeks later it did.

What did you enjoy most about playing Gordon?

Aside from the nature of the shoot (I’m very happy in walking boots & weatherproofs), Gordon struck me as delightfully complex character, whose hopes and dreams have been dashed against the rocks. He’s trying to do everything right for his family while desperately covering up the cracks. He has issues with his own father who committed suicide when Gordon was a teenager, leaving Gordon to pick up the family pieces. Gordon’s career is not working out, disappointment is coursing through his veins and he’s on his way to a big crash & burn.

The walk is a temporary escape from from all that. His sense of humour has been battered by bad luck and he’s coming up to fifty… What’s not to love?! I’ve always believed you play your drama for laughs and keep your comedy straight so the audience doesn’t know what’s coming at them next. James and Benji said they wanted to make a film that would make you laugh one minute and break your heart the next. If I have my way, someday all films will be made like this.

How did you get under his skin to bring him so convincingly to life on screen?

I felt close to him the first moment I read the script. In preparation for a character I always like to write up a detailed character history; background, family, schooling, etc. I also felt it was important Gordon had subconsciously chosen to look like his dad – who would have died in the 1970s, hence his rather louche moustache & long hair. Gordon was a news cameraman, after a failed career as a documentary filmmaker, so I spent some time with a BBC news crew who kindly took me out to shoot news footage with them to get a flavour of his work – and read books written by the photo and documentary journalists Gordon would have admired, such as Don McCullin.

James had the idea that the four friends were in a band when they were at school, which broke up when Steve went a bit diva… I’d spent my teenage years in bands and dug out a load of demos, then recorded a number of songs in that style – as Sons of The Apocalypse. There’s several outtakes from the movie of the boys singing along some of their greatest hits (including Knock Knock Knock, and The Man With The Grotesque Face). Some of the tracks may well show up on the Downhill website at some point although we’re not planning an official album just yet. (Quite fancy a 30 year anniversary tour though) When it came to shooting I liked the idea Gordon would always feel uncomfortable in front of Luke’s camera – that he is not a natural performer, which is a tricky one to sell as the story requires him to spend a lot of time in front of it. Gordon’s hiking boots and trousers were my own – hence no blisters.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 19.35.56There’s obviously a lot of history to the relationship between these four guys. How did you go about getting the on-screen chemistry right?

The four of us didn’t really know each other prior to the first day of rehearsal. We’d all been through the same casting process and knew what the shoot would be like, so it’s fair to say we all knew what we were in for. Torben had created four very distinctive characters in the early drafts of the scripts. We then spent three weeks in rehearsal improvising together to create a common knowledge about the schooldays.

James would interview us on camera, and more details would emerge about the character’s histories, which Torben would then implement into the shooting script. Keith and I went for a walk, and Luke and I met in town to work on family history. By the time we started shooting we all had a good idea of the group’s dynamic. We shot mostly in chronological order as we made our way from coast to coast – shooting the scripted scene first, then several improvised versions to the same story beats, so the world became more and more vivid as we travelled further together.

Gordon says that his philosophy of life is that ‘if you really believe in something, you’ve got to persevere’. What would you say was your life philosophy?

I’ve caught myself muttering ‘I will not be denied’ on occasions in order to get myself though the times when it seems being denied is what happens. That’s pretty much the same isn’t it – only slightly more Gordon Gekko than Gordon Young.

There’s a scene where the friends go for a dip in a river. How cold was it in that water, and how did you prepare yourself for that scene?!

Not wishing to sound overtly macho (I’m not good at fast cars or general combat), but I’m certainly no wuss when it comes to getting into cold water. I love a bracing winter dip in a freezing Scottish loch. I worked on a movie last year which was shot in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. I formed the SaltySwimClub and tried to persuade as many of the cast and crew to take a communal morning dip in the Arctic every morning. By the end, most were in the gang. We’ve got a badge and everything. Getting into the river near Keld was baby feed and I don’t know what the fuss is about. The gorgeous Katie Lyons was also in like a shot, but then she runs up mountains carrying backpacks of rocks for fun.

What was it like filming in that part of the UK?

I’m from the Peak District in Derbyshire and I need to get a regular fix of hills, so setting off to work each day was bliss. I’d previously been up the Honister slate mine via ferrata rope-way before with a bunch of mates and I know bits of the Lake District, but it felt very special seeing the landscape change as we headed across the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. We stayed in some lovely pubs and B&Bs along the way. I’d like to say I was very disciplined and gave up alcohol for the length of the shoot, but most days ended with clean socks, a pint by the fireside and some Shiraz on the dining table. I’m now unable to drive up to Scotland without pointing out Wainwright’s footbridge that crosses the M6 at Shap.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 19.14.21What’s the most surprising or funny thing that happened during the shoot?

We’d arrived at the hotel in St Bees on the first night of the proper shoot. The locals were having a pub quiz and we were invited to make a team: which three of the crew and myself did – a formidable line-up with an amassed wealth of knowledge… There were eight teams in all. The questions were a little easy for us urban sophisticates. In hushed embarrassed tones and growing in confidence of certain victory, we muttered about how awkward it might look; London film crew, giving it large, winning the prizes off the locals. We came last.

What’s next for you, work-wise?

The Norwegian film Heart Of Lightness opens in Oslo the same week as Downhill – I’m hoping it will get a wider European release later in the summer. I recently finished filming in Yorkshire on a new BBC mystery thriller called Remember Me for broadcast later this year. Aside from that, I’ve just been commissioned to write my fifth radio play for the BBC so I’m desk-bound at the moment. I’m also working on several other scripts and composing music for a friend’s film; seven spinning plates, most of which have a habit of crashing down.

Downhill is in cinemas from 30 May, and available on DVD from 16 June 2014.