SxSW 2021 Interview – THE LOST SONS director Ursula MacFarlane

THE LOST SONS is a stranger than fiction story, almost a fairy tale, a film about identity, belonging, family, and secrets.  It begins in 1960s Chicago with the shocking kidnapping of a day-old baby, taken from his mother’s arms by a woman disguised as a nurse.  Despite a massive manhunt, the trail runs cold and the broken hearted parents return to their lives.15 months later, a toddler is found abandoned on a busy street in Newark, New Jersey.  While he is being fostered, the Chicago and Newark police start to wonder if he could be the kidnapped child.  The parents fly in from Chicago to meet him, and when she walks into the room, the mother cries out, “That’s my baby!”  The little boy returns to Chicago with his parents.  A happy ending to this tale, you would think.  But was it the truth?

Having its World Premiere in the Documentary Spotlight section at SxSW Online, we talk with Ursula MacFarlane here with the movie THE LOST SONS! 

Great to have you at SxSW! So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

I started out in a trailer on the grounds of Britain’s National Film and Television School, helping out a producer who was making her graduation film.  That’s where I caught the filmmaking bug and, even though I couldn’t afford to study at the School, I soon got into the industry as an assistant to the boss of an indie production company in London.  From there I progressed to research, producer and then director.  I have an eclectic body of work spanning art, music, dance, verité and retrospective storytelling, but I think what characterises my work is my focus on so-called ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations and challenges.  My documentaries include BREAKING UP WITH THE JONESES, a film about a couple going through a divorce; ONE DEADLY WEEKEND IN AMERICA, a film about young lives cut short by gun violence over one summer weekend; CHARLIE HEBDO: THREE DAYS THAT SHOOK PARIS, about the terror attacks, and the Sundance documentary UNTOUCHABLE, about the survivors of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse.

Quite a profile! How did THE LOST SONS come together?

I got a call from Liesel Evans, executive producer at Raw in London.  They had made Three Identical Strangers a couple of years earlier, and she wanted me to look at a new story they were developing, the astonishing story of Paul Fronczak.  I looked at some tape of Paul and I was immediately in!  An incredible story, a charismatic protagonist, the filmmaking challenge of dealing with many twists and turns, and different emotions – it was a filmmaker’s dream.  Courtney Sexton at CNN Films came in on the project and her team have been incredible partners throughout the filmmaking process.  Finding contributors from the 1960s was a real challenge as so many are no longer with us, but our producer Gagan Rehill did an amazing job tracking down nurses and detectives who still were so moved by what they witnessed all those years ago.  Persuading family members to go on camera took much longer, and in fact the hiatus enforced on us by the pandemic actually helped us, giving us more time to nurture those relationships and gain their trust.  Shooting took place in Las Vegas, visually a gift, Atlantic City, Newark and Chicago, with a few stops along the way to meet other family members.  Most of the editing was completed before lockdown, but at that point we didn’t have an ending, nor had we shot the narrative elements of the film, and were on pause for a while, like most of the rest of the world.  In the end we managed to shoot the drama remotely, in South Africa, and Gagan and I got a special dispensation to travel to Chicago in October 2020, to complete our ending.  We resumed the last few weeks of editing remotely, recorded the score in person in December and in January 2021 I was able to attend post-production in person, which was such a thrill and so creatively satisfying after all this time apart from my team.

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

I can’t take a film on unless I’m passionate about the story, and it’s that passion that keeps me going and drives me.  How can I best tell this story?  How can I find out the truth of what really happened, and express that on film?  My mind is whirring and the film often seeps into my dreams.  I think about it on the bus and in the bath.  And then of course, I’m driven by the camaraderie and creative passion of my team – there is no better way to spend a day than with people who inspire you and make you laugh.  And of course, the biggest thing that drives me is my beautiful family, my most enthusiastic cheerleaders, the team I return home to, who support me, look after me when things aren’t going well, and don’t let me take myself too seriously.

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was finding an ending!  And obviously I’m not going to tell you what it is.  And when we did finally shoot the ending, it was as emotionally satisfying as I had hoped and dreamed it could be

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made technically. 

The film is really a road trip, so I knew that I wanted to create an epic feel as we crossed the country to capture Paul’s journey.  Most of the film was quite considered, as I wanted it to feel as cinematic as possible within our time and budget constraints.  To create that sustained, fluid feel we used a Steadicam and Ronin for many of our exterior shots, and for the narrative sections.  We shot on both the Arrri Amira and the Alexa Mini, both cameras I love, with classic vintage Zeiss Superspeed T1.0 lenses.  We developed a colour palette which encompassed the red/orange tones of Las Vegas’s neon, and the surrounding desert’s rocks.  The rich colours were also echoed in Atlantic City, a slightly more dilapidated version of Vegas, and in the autumnal leaves of the Midwest, whereas in Chicago, scene of the kidnapping, we used a more muted palette. Because of scheduling clashes, this film actually had five DoPs!  Which would normally be a bit of a nightmare in terms of consistency in style and tone, but everyone mucked in and worked closely together to match the visual language, and it worked!

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?

The thrill of seeing it go out, albeit on the TV in my living room, with my family and me and a nice bottle of wine.  And then going online and getting into the chat room, hearing how people felt about it and having a discussion. And I would be lying if I said I was going to ignore the reviews; of course I’m intrigued to find out what people think!

Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?

I think it’s incredible that the whole industry has pivoted to make these virtual festivals possible.  And in many ways it opened up the whole process, democratising it, allowing more people to watch premieres, more discussion around the country.  There’s no doubt we’ll be watching more movies online in the future.  But I also cannot wait to get back into the cinema and once more experience that incredible collective feeling of being in a darkened room together, ready to dream and lose ourselves.  We need to support the cinema when this is over.  We can’t let it die.

Where is the movie going next? More festivals or a selective release?

We’ve only just completed the film so it’s just begun its festival journey.  We hope there will be more after SXSW.  And CNN Films will put the film out on the CNN network, probably later in the year.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

Work hard, be passionate, be curious and be true to yourself.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Without a doubt, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN at Sheffield DocFest.  

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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