Dan Thorburn We chat to the director of Trucker's Atlas

Director Dan Thorburn discusses his story of male camaraderie, emotional repression and compassion.

Trucker's Atlas begins with a telling tableau. We are in the countryside: a power line rises in the foreground; the quiet is broken by the squawks of birds and the squeak of a ladder as Mike climbs into view. In the bottom right of the frame, the artificial yellow of a "Danger of death" warning sign catches our eye.

This is our introduction to the world of Mike and Rob - two taciturn electrical linemen - and, already hiding in plain sight, is a hint towards the quiet devastation that will be wrought on their relationship in the following minutes. It's a suitably low-key initiation into a film where emotional repression is rife and the unspoken hangs heavy in the air. Where minimalist storytelling and serene locations can't help but betray the hidden conflict between our protagonist - where warning signs are glimpsed just beneath the surface or, in this case, in our peripheral vision.

The film, one of the first funded by Film Hub North in association with BFI NETWORK, enjoyed a festival run throughout 2019, including berths at London Short Film Festival and Aesthetica Short Film Festival among others. And now, following a launch that coincided with Time to Talk Day on 6 February 2020, this study of emotional toxicity, bereavement and fraternity is available to watch online

We caught up with director Dan Thorburn to chat about the message behind Trucker's Atlas and his methods for bringing them to the big screen. In our interview below, he shares stories on being pushed to take creative chances after working on commercial shoots, finding ideal actors in the pub and his unexpected experiences of working with (fake) animals.

Tell us about yourself and your work

I'm Dan Thorburn and I'm the director of Trucker's Atlas. My interest in working with film as a medium began while I was studying fine art and painting at Central Saint Martins in London. I started making artist film and using it to influence my painting, but as time went on I realised I was more interested in the film prep work than the final piece. I moved back to Manchester and started a film course at Manchester School of Art where I began to marry my love of storytelling with my film work.

Where did the idea for Trucker's Atlas come from, and how did it develop?

The idea for Trucker's Atlas was born out of a conversation with my co-writer Jack Sherratt. I was on my way back from working on a dog food commercial and, after talking to the director, I knew that I had to start pushing to get back into narrative drama. Jack and I had only recently left university and we made a decision that we had to keep writing and making films to keep our skills sharp.

We discussed writing about real people and about real issues that we see every day and the one that stuck with us was how men talk about emotions, or don't talk about them. We spoke about friendships and working relationships and human connections, and then eventually about literal connections - electrical and telephone. And from that came a vague plot of what is now Trucker's Atlas.

There's no dialogue for the first four and a half minutes - can you tell us about the creative reasoning behind that choice?

The lack of dialogue was a conscious decision that we made early on. We wanted the audience to understand what it is like to work with the same person, on the road, day in day out for years; to see each other's life play out before one another, and to eventually run out of things to say. We wanted these guys to come across as a machine - an efficient power line repairing machine that has suddenly encountered a problem, and neither of them want to address it.

I feel like the silent half of the film not only helps characterise these two men, but also creates tension. As every movement around the forest and up and down the ladder cuts through the silence, the audience are hopefully left anxious to see these men verbally interact with each other. It's a way of keeping them hooked to the story.

On the page, I was worried initially that actors may struggle to believe how important these minutes of the film were, and that I might not be able to convey the emotions I wanted to come through just via mundane activity. But once the script was finished and other pieces of production began to come together, I started to see how the film would play out in my head.

It's a two-hander, so finding the right actors to carry the film is key. What was is like working with Neil and Kris?

Casting is always difficult, and for this film I went into the process knowing exactly what I wanted. This was set to make our producer Sarah Palmer's job very tough. We were, however, blessed with a huge stroke of luck in finding two wonderful, Northern actors who felt passionate about the project.

We happened across Neil Bell in a pub in Manchester and after a few beers convinced him that we were not only big fans of Dead Man's Shoes, but also filmmakers with a current project that he would be perfect for. We were then lucky enough to have a meeting set up with Kris as our DOP Max Graham had gotten to know him while working as a grip on Sorry We Missed You. It really only took an initial meeting with both of these men to know they were exactly right for the parts of Mike and Rob.

They were both fantastic to work with. And having such professionals on set only made my job easier. Any worries of mine were set aside minutes into the rehearsal - once we had finished arguing about football and started talking about the messages behind the film. They both felt very strongly about the issues that men face emotionally: the perceived need to repress emotions and the stigma around talking about feelings. When your cast understand your motivations from the get go, then you are always going to be heading in the right direction.

Locations play a big role in the film - can you tell us more about them?

I love the location where we shot this film. It couldn't have been any closer to what I was imagining throughout the whole process of creating the story. I was very interested in cultivating a transatlantic look to the film in the hope that it would allow it to transpose easily for a North American audience. This is an aesthetic that I have always been drawn to - hence the denim overalls, metal toolboxes and large pine trees. This large and expansive location also helped me to portray these two big, strong working men as small, alone and vulnerable. Just as the power line cuts through the natural beauty of the forest, the men's lack of emotional communication cuts through them and cuts them off from the world.

In terms of the shoot itself, we couldn't have been any luckier. The mid-February weather held dry and the nearby reservoir acted as a giant reflector, which made any outdoor lighting redundant. The crew were so driven too - and that made the location a pleasure to be on. Never have I seen so many ingenious ways of carrying camera and grip gear as I did on the one-mile stretch between the car park and the power lines. They all deserve way more credit than I do for making this happen.

There's some practical effects in the film - what was it like working in that area?

Practical effects are not something I have worked with before, or something I imagined working with so early on in my career. However, when the trapped fox scene was first suggested by Jack, I loved it. It thought it acted as the perfect spark to the emotional powder keg between Rob and Mike. 

It was a difficult scene to direct, as the fox needed to look realistic and convincing - both for the audience and to allow Kris to have an emotional reaction it. Credit to our fantastic production designer, Jennifer Muellenbach, for not only creating such a realistic looking fox but for operating it during filming. That gave Kris something to act against and lead to a very palpable performance in the scene.

What was it like bringing the film to audiences?

Trucker’s Atlas was created to help show that it is okay to talk about emotions and that not doing so can lead to some explosive and unhealthy situations. For it to have screened around the UK and North America makes me feel that we may have succeeded in helping someone. The team behind the film are so proud and excited to have been screened at so many important festivals, and owe so much to the fantastic programmers behind them.

The one piece of feedback that I've heard time and time again at festivals is: “I know a man like that, and I wish they’d seen this.” That, for me, confirms that this was the correct film to make. Emotional repression in men is something that will continue to be an issue until outdated perceptions of masculinity are dealt with.

What's next for you?

I'm currently working on a new project - again written by myself and Jack. It continues to focus on masculinity, but also moves to push ideas of displacement, generational gaps and rural poverty into the public eye. Sarah, the film's producer is in contact with BFI NETWORK and Film Hub North about funding the film and we hope to get it off the ground in the coming months. Besides that, we are still focusing on getting Trucker’s Atlas out to as many people as possible and can’t wait to hear what they think about it.

Trucker's Atlas was funded by Film Hub North in association with BFI NETWORK and is available to view on Vimeo.