Edwyn Collins: the possibilities are endless

Directing duo Edward Lovelace and James Hall share an exclusive clip revealing the intense struggle of the musician in the aftermath of a stroke

In 2005, Scottish musician Edwyn Collins suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke that left him only able to utter four phrases: “Yes”, “No”, “Grace Maxwell” (the name of his devoted wife), and “the possibilities are endless”. His long struggle to recover affected not just his musical ability but also his memory. Some semblance of his previous life has been movingly put together in the new film from rising British documentary makers Edward Lovelace and James Hall.

Lovelace and Hall – whose previous films include roadtrip music doc Werewolves Across America and shooting on the massively successful Katy Perry: Part of Me – worked painstakingly with the couple to assemble an impressionistic film that ranges from lyrical shots of the Collins’ beloved Helmsdale in the Scottish highlands, to reimaginings of their youthful London escapades, and features their son Will alongside Submarine actress Yasmin Paige. The results – beautifully soundtracked by a now musically active Collins – are remarkable. Unlocking his halting speech and ruminations to conjure an expansive, free-associative film that evidently helped liberate Edwyn Collins’ mind and allow audiences an intimate, interior perspective you can really feel as much as see and hear.

There are more diametrically opposed artists than Katy Perry and Edwyn Collins, but it’s fascinating to think you went from documenting one to the other.

Edward Lovelace: We were always into – and it’s also in our first film – people in the eye of the storm who have to figure their way through it. Right at the beginning of the Katy Perry process, we thought, has there ever been a film where you see all this world just from one person’s perspective? In a similar way with Edwyn, we could’ve told the whole Edwyn-to-Orange Juice-to-Girl Like You-to present day story, like on Wikipedia; or, we could try and get inside Edwyn’s head and let him tell it.

And given his condition, that’s a tough ask…

James Hall: Yes, but you also have the luxury of the ‘unreliable narrator’. That gave us the freedom to play with the images and suggest emotions and feelings. We’d heard Losing Sleep, the first album Edwyn released after his stroke and there seemed to be this harking back to nature and yearning for a simpler, more placid existence. It threw up these images of landscapes; that place that he was dreaming of when he was ill. 

Edward Lovelace: The question we asked ourselves was, "How do you recreate a memory?" But without gimmicks. We worked so hard with our cinematographer Richard Stewart, because obviously Helmsdale is this beautiful place but we wanted it to reflect the magical place in Edwyn’s head And when he finally watched it, he said to us, "You’ve given me my Helmsdale in my head." 

Wow, no higher compliment…

James Hall: It had to be something that was true to Edwyn and Grace. Our biggest goal is that they would watch it and feel that it represented in some way what they went through. 

The phrase he could say post-stroke “the possibilities are endless…” – it’s a perfect title for the film too – almost a mission statement.

James Hall: It seems like the most obvious statement, doesn’t it? It is the mantra of the film essentially. But for some reason we left (choosing) it to the last minute… 

Edwards Lovelace: And Grace took "Falling and Laughing" for her book – that was a good one… The fact that Edwyn could only say "Yes", "No", and that phrase makes you realize that behind that is a guy with a million things he wants to say. The fact that he came out with his first lyric, “I’m searching for the truth” – it’s like even amid all the haze and confusion, when he could barely speak, he was able to give out this statement of what his journey was. So that was inspiring.

“At the end of one interview asked, ‘Edwyn, how do you feel about love?’ He thought for ages, then delivered this line that we use at the end of the film: ‘Back then, before my stroke, love was lust. But nowadays, love is complex, love is true’” – Edward Lovelace

What was the interview process like?

James Hall: All audio interviews – we thought it was the best way to disarm it all. We wanted to get Edwyn on his own, to give him the space and time. When someone’s struggling for words, you naturally want to jump in and finish sentences. And we thought it would be interesting to remove all that and let Edwyn delve deep and try to figure it out himself.

Edward Lovelace: I remember (James) at the end of one interview asked, "Edwyn, how do you feel about love?" Which seemed like quite a bold thing to ask. He thought for ages, then delivered this line that we use at the end of the film: "Back then, before my stroke, love was lust. But nowadays, love is complex, love is true." And we went away and were like, if he’s able to say that, we need to figure out a way to unlock his brain and tell his own story in the most lyrical way.

How easy was it to convince Grace?

Edward Lovelace: Grace put a lot of trust in us, because we said we can’t have you in the room. After a few months she admitted that she’d been listening in – as any responsible wife would do! And she said, ‘You guys are asking things that no normal human being would ask. And you’re giving him so much time. This is part of his recovery."

James Hall: We did these interviews over about two and a half years and it’s amazing to hear the progression of his speech and his fluency. 

How did you get Will, Edwyn & Grace’s son, involved?

James Hall: Will would come in when we're in the edit. And the path he’s on is very similar to his dad, writing music and playing shows.

Edward Lovelace: We looked at archive (footage) from his Orange Juice days, but when Edwyn was talking about a feeling, that’s not what we needed. And Will looks so much like him, so we thought, wait a minute, we can probably shoot documentary recreations with Will and also it will be Edwyn watching his son… We said to Will, "This film is about your family, so for you to be in it… But you’re not playing your dad." And he said, "Yeah I’m up for it." 

And casting Yasmin Paige?

Edward Lovelace: We met lots of actresses who we were big fans of Edwyn’s work, but Yasmin was the first person not to think she was playing Grace. She was just fascinated about Edwyn and his story.

James Hall: We wanted someone to just be themselves – we didn’t want someone playing a role, sitting opposite Will and him thinking, "Well, she’s not being herself…" It was important to find someone we’d get on with and shoot these spontaneous moments.

In hindsight it seems obvious for Edwyn to write the film’s music – was it always the plan?

Edward Lovelace: We told Edwyn, "All your records are amazing, but with the music score, we need something you’ve never ever done before." And he said, "I’ve got something" and invited me and James into the studio. It was such a high-pressure moment, because what do you say to your hero if you don’t like it? And he played us this 12-minute piece...

James Hall: ...and suddenly you could see the film as a proper film. We were in the edit at the time and suddenly for this piece of music to create that tone and atmosphere – and he hadn’t even seen the footage at that time - it was brilliant. There’s an art to keeping something so simple and beautiful.

The Possibilities are Endless goes on UK tour from today. It's out in cinemas on 7 November