Emrhys Cooper is a British actor and filmmaker. Probably best known for his lead role as Alistair in the Emmy nominated drama series Vanity (2015), he’s recently taken his first steps into directing with the dramady The Shuroo Retreat. Emrhys co-wrote the script with his partner, Irish actor and producer, Donal Brophy (Clodagh, 2021).
The plot of The Shuroo Retreat (The Shuroo Method in America) follows a young NYC based freelance magazine writer. Frustrated with the pressures of a failing publishing world and a less than promising romantic life, she becomes infatuated by a wildly charismatic self-help guru. It sends her on a journey of self improvement with catastrophic consequences.
Where did this idea to explore charlatan gurus come from?
The inspiration behind the film comes from Cooper’s own childhood: “I grew up in Devon and my parents unfortunately fell victim to some quite evil type gurus. Holistic types. And I felt kind of like I couldn’t do anything at the time; growing up, I felt quite helpless to the situation. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that my childhood was a little quirky and I wanted to turn it into something fun, but hopefully a bit of a cautionary tale too.”
Speaking of when these charlatan gurus started entering his life, the director recalled: “I remember from about five or six years old, strange people coming in and out of our lives, to when I left home at sixteen. I’ll give you one quick story: my mother has a kind of fear of doctors. As a little girl, she was going back and forth to Singapore and had some injections that got her very sick. She’s always been fearful of going to the doctors, so she sought other remedies. One time this doctor who claimed to have cured AIDS in Africa said he could cure her from her high blood pressure. Unfortunately, she came off the prescription due to his advice and had a heart attack. It was pretty scary for me.” Suddenly, ‘quirky’ seems like a bit of an understatement.
Donal tells me that although he is “fascinated by Emrhys’s story” he can’t help but “cringe whenever he [Emrhys] says that someone told his parents that he cured AIDs in Africa because that just sounds like some strange Adult Swim cartoon.”
Cooper continues: “It’s interesting in the age of mass social media and with almost the whole population being gaslit by politicians, I wanted to explore that element: how vulnerable people are, and the danger and damage that can be done when people are led down this garden path by people who just aren’t qualified and don’t know what they are doing.”
“He was on Hollywood boulevard with a bathtub baptising people.”
Co-writer Brophy also stars in the film as the eponymous Shuroo. Speaking of his inspiration behind the character, Brophy talks about the surprising cultural adjustment he had when moving from New York to Los Angeles: “I lived in New York for twenty years where people are almost European. It’s very serious. Everyone is very sarcastic [with their] sense of humour, deadpan. People here have a very different sense of humour on the west coast. When I came out here, I realised everyone was into crystals and reiki and all of this New Age stuff – which, by the way, I think is fantastic – but you would definitely see people that had come out here and were taking advantage of this environment.”
He gives an absurd anecdote about coming across a Christian preacher (Justin Bieber’s guru, I am told) while out and about in Hollywood together:
“He was on Hollywood boulevard with a bathtub baptising people. Playing Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Everyone was very cool. He took himself very seriously. All this kind of stuff, I just couldn’t believe it coming from Ireland, or coming from the UK, it was something you would see in a movie. So, I was kind of inspired by them.” His guru character – the Shuroo guru – is this somewhat incongruous Irish rogue. Not someone you would expect to be a spiritual leader, but certainly someone I could see baptising people in bathtub on his spiritual retreat.
How did you find co-writing the script?
Cooper tells me that the writing process and on-set filming went smoothly between the two: “During filming, we became a unit which was great because there are so many fires you have to put out.”
However, for a variety of reasons, postproduction saw tension form between the two and a “few hard words” exchanged. Donal is candid: “To be honest with you, it was more an amalgamation of not just the movie but the circumstance. We wrapped up the movie in 2019 and I went on tour with a play actually. And when Covid came and we moved to Los Angeles and locked down, that’s when we started editing the movie. It was a very stressful time all around and Emrhys was very busy. And he was a little more experienced than I was at production and post-production, and he unfortunately was very busy. I was trying to help but I didn’t really know so it was a little –”
Emrhys chimes in, “Just admit it, you didn’t know what you were doing.” We all laugh and it’s clear that whatever tension was felt between the two during postproduction has long since passed.
You can tell that they’ve learnt a lot from each other during their time working on the film. Emrhys calls the whole experience “therapeutic” because “I got to share a lot about my life with Donal that I wouldn’t necessarily have shared, and it was quite a cathartic experience. After certain scenes we would get emotional; some of the stuff was quite you know…” He trails off. Needless to say, it’s still not an easy topic to discuss. He reveals how most of his childhood memories had “been locked away in a cell.” But that being able to “share it with a loved one and us turning those traumatic experiences into something quite beautiful was really an amazing experience.” It’s evident that the film may not have been possible without the trust and support that Donal and Emrhys share.
Was it always your plan to direct it yourself or did you consider other directors along the process?
“I’d say that although I never went to film school, my life has been a bit of a film school”
Although Cooper has previously directed a short film (Trophy Boy, 2018), The Shuroo Retreat is his feature length directorial debut. As it turns out, it was always his plan to direct:
“When I came up with the idea and we developed it, I really felt that this was a story that I was passionate to tell so it was always the movie I wanted to direct. There were times when we were worried about getting finance on our first picture. But I’d done a short film called Trophy Boy, which was well received the year before. That’s when I caught the bug for directing.
I’m a very inquisitive person and I’ve always been fascinated by other departments: what the director is doing, where the cameras are going. I’d say that although I never went to film school, my life has been a bit of a film school. Learning about human beings, I’m fascinated by stories and people. I think that I’m inquisitive to shine a light on areas of life that people could learn from. And I felt that I could do that from my own personal experience in this subject matter. But it was very hard I’m not going to lie. It was the hardest experience of my career making this movie: dealing with all the personalities; so many things went wrong.; and not necessarily knowing what each department was supposed to be doing. I had to quickly learn on the job.”
There are a lot of producers attached to this project. Did everyone gel?
On IMDb I count thirteen producers. That’s a lot. Brophy answers first: “The indie world is very different from shooting a movie in a studio system or TV show for a streaming platform. We really had to piece this whole thing together ourselves and there were certain fairy godfathers and fairy godmothers along the way. But it’s interesting when you’re on location in a remote place in the Catskills and you’ve got like a bunch of actors, and producers, and wardrobe, and crew everyday there. The first week with everybody was like a utopia and then suddenly gradually it starts to deflate. It gets hot, there’s flies in the dressing room. Producers are MIA.
“To be honest with you, Emrhys and I kept our heads down and we really just tried to stay above the fray and become our own producers towards the end. We had some amazing executive producers: Zachary Quinto and Jamie Moss who were these amazing oracles and kind of beautiful influences and energy for us to tap into during the process when everything’s got a little stressful.”
Cooper goes next: “There’s different types of producers. There are creative producers; there are financial producers; then there are on set producers. There’s lots of different types of roles. Knowing what I know now I might not have as many producers if I’m honest. Sometimes it’s better to have one that’s very experienced. We also had an amazing cinematographer [Benjamin J Murray] who was a producer, but he was having to be a cinematographer as well. And he is an amazing producer but the fact that he had that huge workload meant he didn’t have enough time to necessarily do it as well. And the same for me. I could have produced more but I was having to act and direct.”
In Emrhys’s own words, “it was like wearing many hats.” I asked if he would ever choose to direct and act in the same film again. His answer was clear: “No way. It was like all day, every day. It was difficult because you have no time. Maybe if you’re doing a fifty-million-dollar movie but it’s hard to direct someone else when you’re actually in the scene with them. You’re seeing it completely differently; you could feel it one way, but it will look and read slightly differently. Luckily, I had Donal [Brophy] and Lynn [Mancinelli] – one of my other producers – on the monitor the whole time when I was in the scene, but I just didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t give myself fully to the role and to directing because I was always running from A to B. So next time around, I just want to direct or just act. I definitely want to do both again but not together.” Seems fair enough to me.
Comedy can be a hard genre to sell. Why do you think this film has done so well?
The film is not just a cautionary tale against charlatan gurus, nor does it fit neatly into the genre of comedy. Donal tells me that one reason he thinks the film has done well is because “it also has some very heart-breaking moments. You can really relate to the character of Parker. One of the things that we are very proud of, and that we’ve been told, is that we wrote a very nuanced three-dimensional female lead character. She’s of a certain age and has a difficult time juggling her family life and her work life. And is basically exhausted trying to be everything to everyone.”
Fiona Dourif, who plays Parker Schafer in the film, undoubtably did an excellent job. She’s believable as a woman struggling to hold everything together but avoids falling into the ‘Fleabag trap’ – that Messy Millennial Woman motif which was popularised on the back of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s success as Fleabag and now dominates British TV dramedies (think I Hate Suzie , I May Destroy You , and Mood ). This (fast-becoming) tired trope gives us a female protagonist with a chaotic and reckless life and minimal sense of purpose. While Parker’s life in New York plays into this trope, her self-destructive behaviour is never glorified, and the majority of the plot focuses instead on her journey of self-improvement. Albeit, she may not have chosen the best mentor for her journey. Hopefully, this journalist’s career never takes a nosedive like Parker’s but if it does, I want Emrhys and Donal to write my story.
The Shuroo Retreat is available from Monday 25th July on paying streaming platforms in the UK.