Bypass: ‘Imagine a parallel universe where you had none of your opportunities’

Rising star George MacKay and second-time director Duane Hopkins discuss the genesis of their powerful new drama Bypass, a coming-of-age story set in the margins of a broken Britain.

Simran Hans

Bypass (2014)

Bypass (2014)

“All we have to do is really strip away you, and we’ll discover Tim.”
– Duane Hopkins on creating Bypass

Duane Hopkins grew up working class. In his acclaimed drama Better Things (2007), the writer and director shone a light on youth, community and working-class identity; in Bypass (2014), similar themes are revisited differently. Bypass follows Tim (George MacKay), a well-meaning teenager whose complicated family life leads him to trouble – with the police, with his health, and, perhaps inevitably, with girls.

The character of Tim was inspired by a year’s worth of research that included many visits to Coventry’s Tile Hill, a housing estate that once pivoted around a manufacturing plant. “When these plants began to close, the estates remained,” says Hopkins. In the span of one or two generations, steady work – and steady income – faltered; with no industry to supplant them, communities crumbled. While visiting estates like Tile Hill, Hopkins observed that the kind of working-class community that he’d grown up in “didn’t quite exist in the same way”.

Bypass (2014)

Bypass (2014)

Speaking of his own upbringing, Hopkins remembers going to the pub with his father at the age of 12, overhearing conversations that would be “political” and “quite intellectual,” providing insights from “guys who left school at 15 or 16, but who still continued to really educate themselves”. Hopkins reminisces about men from his grandfather’s generation who would keep the same job for their entire lives, all the while remaining friends, drinking in the same places, being best men at one another’s weddings and maintaining “a real continuity” of friendships, of their masculinity and how they saw themselves. It is this loss of both community and continuity that Bypass is interested in.

At a moment of extreme social and political apathy, Bypass’s bleak vision of Britain feels particularly prescient. “There were political movements which grew out of the intellectual life of the working class,” says Hopkins. “I don’t really see what that’s been replaced with.” Rendering the “history and possible future” of this immediate contemporary crisis “cinematic” is Hopkins’s self-described goal.

Speaking to young people in Tile Hill, “the most upsetting thing that you see is the distinct lack of – or use of – potential”. The stories that emerged from Hopkins’s visit seem to follow a pattern; teenagers who came from fractured families didn’t do well at school and subsequently “started to create a different way of surviving”. It is this resilience that fascinates Hopkins, who maintains that while these “kids are really smart… they don’t have any real structure to their lives, so they have to invent something else”.

Bypass (2014)

Bypass (2014)

Hopkins describes his approach to inventing the character of Tim, a smart kid who lacks a stable home life, as a collaborative process with lead actor MacKay. Although Hopkins has worked predominantly with non-actors, MacKay insists: “He was also interested in the process of working with actors, and so he wanted to ‘work’ the scenes all the time, and really mine them as much as he could for all the different ways of doing it.” At 23 years old, BAFTA Rising Star nominee MacKay claims he wants to learn as much as he can, enthusing about Hopkins’s dedication to locating the grace-note nuances of performance. MacKay’s subtle performance is indeed quite extraordinary, bringing a quietly visceral sense of vulnerability to the introverted Tim. Bypass sees Tim grapple with a mysterious illness, which manifests in disturbing ways. One particular scene sees Tim suffer a frighteningly real epileptic seizure, which MacKay describes as taking “a fair few” long takes to get right, recalling the generosity of crew members like cinematographer David Procter who allowed him to fit on film for a full 15 minutes. When asked about the graphic nature of this particular scene, MacKay says he is “glad it’s affecting because I think that [in the trajectory of what] the illness represents” it signals “a spike within that journey”.

Hopkins cites “a moral compass”, “a humbleness”, “a humility, “a talent” and “an ability to take on responsibility” as the characteristics that MacKay shares with his fictional counterpart. In order to get MacKay into Tim’s headspace, Hopkins gave him a pep talk of sorts: “Really, Tim is you. If you can imagine a parallel universe where you had none of the opportunities that you had, but you still had the same morality, the same [moral] compass within you, the same norms and values; that’s essentially you. So, all we have to do is really strip away you, and we’ll discover Tim.”

Bypass (2014)

Bypass (2014)

MacKay too brings up this interior discovery, saying that he “was really thrilled and surprised” by how easy he found it to feel emotional about “Tim’s story as Tim”. “It’s like hearing a story about a close friend of yours; you kind of feel all the more because you know that person, how they would react. That sometimes made it difficult emotionally, but that’s our job.”

Bypass occasionally avoids answers, eschewing the exposition of complicated backstories and evading easy categorisation. Some may find themselves frustrated that Tim’s illness goes undiagnosed by narrative standards, although MacKay embraces the script’s medical ambiguity. “At first I wanted to know specifically what his illness was, and to therefore be true to that… But it was Alessandro [Bertolazzi, the film’s makeup artist] who said ‘I see the rash as Tim’s illness being a metaphor for his situation, and his psyche… and him being broken down by everything he’s got to go through.’ [I thought] Wow! That’s amazing.”

Perhaps though, this ambiguity is Hopkins’s aim; he is “quite happy for [the backstory] to exist between me and the actor. I always write the images in the story that I want to see, and it’s always about ‘How do we make this authentic?’” MacKay says that he and Hopkins “didn’t set out a chronological biography” for Tim, but instead thought about “the resentments and losses that [the characters] feel, and why it is they feel that”.

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