A Brilliant Young Mind
by director Morgan Matthews
The journey to make A Brilliant Young Mind, my first feature film, began over eight years ago when I was introduced to the world of competitive mathematics whilst making a documentary following a group of extraordinary young British students on their way towards the International Mathematical Olympiad—a fantastic competition that attracts the brightest young mathematical brains from over 100 countries around the world. I was immediately taken with the wonderful characters I met, who were all competing for medals at the Olympiad, and one of those young prodigies, Daniel Lightwing, became the inspiration for Nathan, our lead boy in A Brilliant Young Mind—played by Asa Butterfield of Hugo and Ender’s Game fame.
Whilst adapting the story, I never saw a great deal of purpose in simply re-making my documentary Beautiful Young Minds, but whilst we took significant creative license, many of the elements of Nathan’s character remain true to Daniel’s. When I first met Daniel, he was an incredibly shy young man, who had recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), and had also been bullied at school for being different and ‘weird.’ Retreating from the world around him, Daniel found refuge in mathematics and also became obsessed with Chinese culture—teaching himself fluent Mandarin in less than three months. Emboldened by his new interest, he travelled to Beijing to train with the Chinese Mathematical Olympiad team—who are consistently the best in the world at the competition. Daniel aspired to what the young Chinese mathematicians were capable of and identified with Chinese culture in a way that he didn’t with his experience of life in England. In China, the young mathematicians were celebrated as stars—they were cool—whereas in England, Daniel had been ostracized and called a geek for his passion. It was also in China that Daniel fell in love for the first time.
For me, it was quite wonderful to see this brilliant, complex and sometimes troubled young man blossom with newfound confidence, and to witness what became a profound journey for him. So, with these foundations in the real world, I set out to develop the story into a feature film and teamed up with the wonderfully talented young writer James Graham, who at that time was emerging in theatre with some superb and original work. Putting a budget together for a film with a first time director at the helm is never easy, but with support from the British Film Institute and BBC Films, we eventually got to the stage where we were ready to shoot.
Making the transition from documentaries where I had been used to working in an intimate way with a small crew to making a feature film on much bigger scale was significant, but there are so many aspects of the film making process that are fundamentally the same. Ultimately both documentary and drama tell a story and use the same means to do it. Coming from a documentary background, I also understood the need for great casting, and whilst this is not something that everyone associates with documentary making, it is undoubtedly true that one cannot make a great documentary without great characters. With such a strong script from James, we were able to assemble a superb cast that included both established stars, such as the outstanding Sally Hawkins (Oscar nominated for her role in Blue Jasmine), as well as many exciting young actors who are undoubtedly stars of the future.
Whilst many of the themes of the film relate to Nathan’s condition and the fact he is on the spectrum, most of us will experience moments in our lives where we don’t fit in, or where we feel lonely or isolated. And whilst on the surface A Brilliant Young Mind is the story of an autistic teenager on his way towards a mathematics competition, this is really a film about a boy coming to terms with a tragedy in his early life, whilst learning what it means to love again.