Kim Farrant’s Strangerland is a visually striking feature debut set in the Australian outback that follows a family in crisis following the disappearance of their two children. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has its Australian premiere in competition at the Sydney Film Festival tonight.
I read that it took you twelve years to make Strangerland.
Thirteen? That’s real determination to get a story made. What kept you going?
What kept me going was a love of the themes that we were exploring, you know, how we cope in times of crisis, secrets and lies within a family, you know, the kind of all-powerful force of female sexuality like nature. So, and also, I just loved the script and believed in the story and felt that just because it was difficult for people to stomach it, cause it’s confronting, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be made. You know, and films like Dallas Buyers Club, that film took 20 years to make, from the time of inception to the time it was out of the screen. And that’s one of my most favourite films, it’s an incredible film. So it’s just a matter of, you know, I’m pretty determined and resilient and just kept going and kept loving the script.
Because Strangerland took so long to make, how did you go about funding it? I saw in the credits that there’s Screen NSW funding but also you have Irish funding, which initially seems strange because there doesn’t seem to be any Irish elements in the film, no actors for instance.
Yeah, so I met an Irish producer when I was over in Ireland with a short film I had made and he read the script and loved it and gave it to the Irish Film Board and suddenly they wanted to invest money into it and so I had money being offered to me, and then we got Screen NSW money and Wild Bunch, who is the international sales, and then World View Entertainment put in money, from America, and then Screen Australia. So it was a mixture, kind of a plethora of countries and investors.
Do you think that this is the only way to get films like Strangerland made? Films about a confronting subject that no particular producer or national financing body is willing to put their full weight behind it, so you need to shop around?
I mean film financing is so different in every country but definitely in this country, I think it helped us have money coming from other sources, other countries, other, you know, private investors as well as other funding bodies. That was the way to go.
How did you go about transitioning from documentary to feature fiction filmmaking? I know you did a few episodes of Rush and you made some shorts but did you find it to be a big leap to making Strangerland?
So when I trained as a filmmaker I studied documentary as well as drama, and then when I left film school, when I left AFTRS, I made a feature doc called Naked On The Inside and I’d made some half-hour docs as well. The transition, for me, was beautiful and seamless because I’d already done some short dramas and then I did work on television with Rush. But the thing about making documentaries is that you are, by the very nature of ‘it’s real life and it’s happening right in front of you, right now’, you’re forced to be in the moment, you’re forced to think on your feet and you’re forced to live the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen, and that is, at the same time, the great thrill and excitement. So, with Strangerland what I did was, you know, I prepared within an inch of my life and then I let that go on set. And on set, I knew that I had all that knowledge, I knew what I wanted, I knew we could shoot it like this, shoot it like that, and what it allowed me, through my documentary training, was to be open to what was happening right in front of me and to adapt in the moment and therefore be able to capture the electricity of the performances, combined with the setting, combined with, you know, the weather, whatever was going on, to create this very alive reality. And the other thing about documentary that’s really informed me is that it’s become like a truth barometer for the performances in drama, because once you’ve made films with real people it’s very hard to accept anything but that level of depth of intimacy.
I noticed that in Strangerland you’ve mined some of the themes of your documentaries – you’ve got Secret Side of Me, which is about kids being unable to reveal their true selves, which definitely comes up in Strangerland with Lily’s diary, and you’ve got Naked on the Inside, about the human body, which seems to appear in the way you shoot Nicole Kidman, particularly in the scene where she dresses up as her daughter, the way the camera moves around her body, it seems like, with this script, you’ve been able to take elements from projects in the past and re-purpose them in a really interesting way.
Yes, definitely there are re-occurring themes for me, as a filmmaker, that I’m interested in, as an artist I want to talk about truth, I want to explore the hidden, the kind of, the parts of ourselves that we deem unforgivable, unlovable and the secrets and lies within families and these were all themes that, yes, I’ve drawn upon before in my previous dramas and documentaries and I was very interested in the body and the sexual objectification of the body and the kind of, the way we see the body, often still through the male gaze. So, that was definitely a kind of further expansion into that from Naked on the Inside and the way I shot the body in that to Strangerland and the female sexuality and how it’s represented.
On female sexuality, one of the things you do in the film that I found interesting is that the crux of the film, or at least the focus, is on the expression of female sexuality, especially in teenagers, and, sort of, male insecurity and the patriarchal figure being afraid of female sexuality and I think the way you’ve structured the film, or set it up, is somewhat ingenious in that the reason they are out here in the middle of nowhere is because of male sexual insecurity and that even bringing them out here and isolating the women in the family, a substantive act of control, is eventually powerless in the end. Was this the impetus for the film’s setting?
Well, precisely what you’re saying. I think female sexuality, throughout the history of time, has been something that many members of society and, you know, back in the times when they would burn midwives, “witches”, at the stake, you know, because they were intuitive, because they were deeply feeling, because they were emotional, because they were sexual, and they would be burned alive, female sexuality has been threatening to people and you know, particularly, I would say, to some men and for that reason it’s been, you know, oppressed for thousands of centuries, and so I’m kind of interested in shining a light on that and looking at why it’s so threatening and you know, the kind of voracious nature of female desire and how, if you combine a woman who’s in her power and you combine that her being connected to her sexuality, you know, woah, that can be terrifying. As much as it’s alluring it can also be terrifying and I feel like, for some men, they can feel like they might lose themselves in a woman, if she’s that powerful and sexually alive and energetic.
Well you spend a lot of the film dealing with characters who can’t grapple with female sexuality, so a lot of the film is spent with the mother and father characters dealing with grief in abstract ways, or lashing out because they can’t control and they can’t understand. I think something that you did that’s really interesting is that you had that plotline, but also had Hugo Weaving’s arc, which fleshes out the town and makes it feel like a real place. So you have this ongoing nightmare on one hand and then this real investigation happening on the other and that sort of back and forth between realism and nightmare, it’s rare. Weirdly there’s another film at the festival this year that does exactly that and it’s also a story about a missing child.
Oh really? What film?
Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise. Set in the streets of Mumbai about a detective whose kid goes missing, that also cuts between his nightmarish grief and then the plotline of another character, whose story is focused on realism. It’s interesting to see two films in the same festival use that device, very different films tonally, mind you. I think Hugo Weaving’s performance in his arc is just incredible, the subtlety he brings to the role. How did you manage to get that cast together?
So Hugo came on board really early, around the first draft. He and I had worked together on one of my first shorts and he also read and loved the script and it was a brilliant script, penned by Fiona Seres originally. And so I think then with having Hugo on board, that kind of elevated the project to a certain level and then Hugo’s agent read the script in the States and then said to Nicole, “you know, you should read this script, it’s amazing and it’s such an incredible female role and then she read it overnight and loved it and then I got a call saying “Nicole wants to do the movie” and I was like “wow, yay!” So then I met her and it all kind of rolled on from there.
You say the script was “originally” written by Fiona Seres?
So Fiona Seres originally wrote the story and then the script but then we had another write come on board, Michael Kinirons, an Irish writer, and he was great and he also kind of fleshed out some of the Aboriginal storyline, and you know, other elements in the script. It was a combination.
I also want to ask about the production design of the film. The way you shot rooms in houses, the difference between Hugo Weaving’s character’s room, which is bare walls, plain and then just the room of Lily, the daughter, where there’s just everything on the walls, there are photos of her everywhere and I think you and your cinematographer have been able to capture this sense of character as room, the distinction between the vast landscaped of the outback and a room that exists as reflection of personality. Was that a clear focus for you in filming?
Absolutely, Melinda Doring, who is the production designer, an incredibly intuitive woman, we all started from “let’s talk about character, let’s talk about who the character Hugo plays is”, the cop, and he was basically someone who had stripped his life of everything that reminded him of his past and that his life was very empty in a way, his inner life, and there was a loneliness to him and a kind of, of someone just functioning, you know, rather than someone thriving, so that was them, you know, “how do we explore and address that within the design?”, and Melinda was great in coming up with ways, through the colour palette, so through the textures, through, you now, the class, in terms of where he was, where he sat within the class, and then in contrast to that, the character of Lily, her room is – and it was very deliberate – the rest of the house of the parents is very monochrome and the colours are more like autumn palette where it’s like things are faded and more muted whereas Lily’s room is full of like pastels and bright sparkles and colour and light and full of opportunity and hope and all of her drawings and her dreams and her inner life was on the walls and he kind of aspirations and her sexuality and kind of the whole kind of obsession with self was particularly – I’d say with everyone, with selfies – but particularly with teenagers, where they’re constantly photographing themselves, kind of with a ‘I exist’ connotation So I think the combination of that, Melinda’s design and also the way P.J. [Dillon, cinematographer] lit things and allowed things to really go into darkness where necessary.
Well their house really does feel almost like a bunker, that’s designed to keep out the dust, keep out everything but it’s only her room – because we don’t spend that much time in her brother’s room – that sense of this is where the life is, it’s almost tying into what you said earlier about nature, it’s that there’s life in this house and it happens to be —
In that room. Yeah, and while the parents and in a more shut-down place, she, in her relationships, she’s kind of the connection to the outside world, she’s the connection to the kind of life-force energy and that sense of sexuality.
You also have a heap of helicopter shots which, on the face of it, are just landscape establishing shots but I thought it was quite clever that you had these shots happen early on, then a third of the way in, and then eventually you had this helicopter, when they do the search, so these shots become point-of-view shots, but that then doesn’t explain everything prior. There’s this implication that there’s something watching over this land, which of course comes up later in dialogue. Was that very deliberate, to kind of plant that Australian identity on this narrative through landscape?
Absolutely. I mean, you know obviously children go missing in all parts of the world but in this country, for us at least, it was important that we recognised that this was a white family, and he was English, and they were the colonials once, just like their forefathers they came to this land, they didn’t really listen to it, you know, and in this case, they’re frightened of the land and I think that echoes in the years of white anxiety about the bush, the Australian desert. Colonials came here, took the land from the original owners, the Aboriginal people, they pillaged it and then these white children would go wandering off into the desert, they’d go missing. There is a long legend in Australian history of white kids going missing in the Australian desert and the whites felt, the colonials felt, like the land was punishing them because they had come and taken the land from the Aboriginal people. So we wanted to echo that in this country and through the myth of the great Rainbow Serpent and we see, I mean you can see it in the landscape, you can see why they called it the great Rainbow Serpent, because it’s like this undulating force that created the rivers and the mountains. So, that the couple were also feeling the years of their forefathers and their own guilt and what we did as white folks, but that was then making them frightened of the land, the land was punishing them. So absolutely, it was crucial that it was Australian, that it was an Australian story that we were telling.
Yeah it definitely felt almost, I didn’t know about that myth but it seemed like almost a rejoinder to the stolen generation, there was that sense – there are two white kids who have gone missing, and it’s not karmic, well, it’s something like that —
(Laughs) Definitely there’s some karmic stuff going on there, well at least that’s what we were implying.
How did you shoot the dust storm sequence in the film because that was really striking?
Oh, thank you. So the dust storm was a combination of shooting all of the foreground action, of the couple coming out of the car and everything, that was all shot in camera using special effects – massive wind turbines, truckloads of dust coming out of backpacks and then these wind turbines blowing that and plus billowing smoke and, you know, amazing lighting by P.J. Dillon, and then the post production, which was done by Iloura, was all of the background stuff and the massive dust storm coming down the main street of the town.
Interesting. Well thank you very much for speaking to us.
Kim Farrant’s Strangerland has its Australian premiere tonight at 6.30pm at the State Theatre. It also screens three times tomorrow; 11.30am at the State Theatre, 7.30pm at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, and 8.30pm at the Hayden Orpheum Cremorne .