Simon Stone’s The Daughter had its world premiere in Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition last week. Imogen Gardam spoke to Stone about adapting his own work, spontaneity in performance and the filmmaking process.
What is that app?
It’s Voice Memo.
Is that what it looks like? We recorded one of the last pieces of dialogue on the final day of the mix of me just doing a line of a random person that Paul (Schneider) – Christian – runs into, you know when he runs into a guy after saying “Go fuck yourself” to the bartender, he knocks into a guy and then turns around and goes “How’s your night?” and the guy goes “Hey”.
That was you?
That was me, into one of those, on the final day of the mix.
You were saying at the premiere that you had a swap a shot at the last minute?
No. Yes. Kind of. There were inserts that we kind of kept playing with – there was just this annoying thing with clearing the footage on the television in the pub, which was just this cutaway shot of course, which was just to this TV that has sport going on it. So that was kind of finalised on the Saturday before. And plate shots and composite stuff that we were looking at.
As far as I know you didn’t directly adapt your Wild Duck, you went back to Ibsen the film. Was that a conscious decision to do a film separate to the play?
Of course there was the memory of what I had done in my play. It’s not like I looked at the play I had written, it’s in my DNA by this point having directed it so many times in various different parts of the world. But it was there and it was just going to be there. I’d looked at the original play again but that also wasn’t really needing too much attention because essentially my job was to invent a world for the basic dramatic arc to take place in. So the job was really finding an environment, that was the main thing that I realised. The starting point of a play is figuring out backstory, and what people say to each other. The starting point of a film is where it takes place. That’s really what you have to start with.
So you go from this glass box on an empty stage to this incredibly verdant, beautiful setting. How did you pick where you wanted to set it?
I was actually tossing up a lot of different things, places – there was a version that was going to take place in a city. And I thought that that could be really interesting. And I kind of just kept toying with these various different things and then I realised that one of the strengths of the film needed to be how physical landscape reflected the emotional landscape, and the ability to not have this story – which is essentially a melodrama, which is about the revelations of secrets, it’s not anything new abut the subject matter of the film at all, it’s been in a million soaps, it’s been in a million films. It’s not the value of the film. The value of the film needed to be how you watched these events unfold in a particular environment with a group of particular characters that are bound to each other in some inextricable way. And so I started searching for a landscape and for an environment where the meta themes, the macro themes, reflected the micro themes. The idea of the end of days of an industry that has kind of eaten itself up and therefore can’t exist anymore, and the reckoning that that represents, especially in Australian culture where we’ve borrowed this industrial dream from America and Europe that doesn’t really belong to us. And certainly the raw materials that we have at our disposal don’t need to be transported as foreign species to be planted in the ground. We’ve discovered that now. The relationship between artifice and truth and the desolation of a landscape that is aesthetically incredibly appealing but is a lie in Australia, and the actual core themes of the film itself – the relationship between those two things and how they reflect each other is really interesting.
So once I could start riffing on those particular things then I knew that it was the right kind of environment to be making the film in. And then the challenge was finding that place. I thought I was writing it for Tasmania or New Zealand, and then Screen NSW was such an amazing support and they asked us to look for a place in New South Wales. “You should be able to find one”. We had an amazing locations manager who didn’t end up doing the locations on the film proper, Colin McDougall, who took us to Tumut. And it was not that far way from where we shot Jindabyne, when I acted in that, it was like an hour away on the other side of various lakes and mountains. And I went, “this is exactly what I had imagined”. Everything in that film is within 60 kilometres of itself – apart from the mansion, which was in Camden. But everything I had written into this script hoping in some way we’d be able to cobble together these various different locations – because it’s also a riff on all sort of cultural memes that exist in America: the death of industry, the tension with the modern world and the natural landscape which reflects Scandinavia and the source material. And I knew that those places existed but I wasn’t quite aware that there are specifically places in Australia where very Australian human beings are living this other life.
And that is Australia, as well. Australia is a series of aesthetically incredibly different locations where people who are very similar to people who work on cane plantations or are working in the Snowy Mountains or in the red dirt of the Barossa Valley or in the middle of the Nullabor – they’re all people who, if you got them in a pub together, would essentially be the same kind of human being. And yet they’re tens of thousands of kilometres away from each other in completely different worlds. And I like that that’s the make up of Australia.
In your plays, you create quite a specific colour palette – I’m thinking of Hamlet, Strange Interludes – but for The Daughter, you used this incredibly varied colour palette. Did you work with Andrew (Commis, cinematographer) to create that?
One of the things I said to Andy early on is that I wanted there to be an aesthetic shock cutting between different story lines. To go from something quite blue to something red or whatever, and also to try to find exposure differences so that there’s a shock when you move from one storyline to the next. So that was a focus, this notion that you’re constantly shocked as you keep watching the movie. But also because it’s an ensemble drama – certainly there needs to be an aesthetic unity but there also needs to be a sense of different storylines that are being brought together. Working with Andy was incredible, I had a series of aesthetic instincts and he was open to them and talked me through how we might achieve them. I found my aesthetic in theatre slowly. Look at my early work, it doesn’t really bear any kind of relationship to the stuff that’s then seen as the stuff that I do. And it’s going to be the same thing with making movies, you’ve got to start and you’ve got to try and you’ve got to follow instincts and then you eventually realise the things you want to keep doing and hold on to.
How did you find the difference between development and production periods for The Daughter from your theatre work, from something like Thyestes?
Thyestes was quite quick. Certainly the amount of time from when I first had the idea to do the show and then when it was on stage, there was quite a lot of time, but Thyestes was probably done in about seven weeks. Which is quite long for an Australian production.
But you’re also transitioning to a film schedule where it’s not as ephemeral or adjustable, constantly growing like theatre, but being recorded. Particularly given the way you’ve talked about the film as being like memory, creating the impression of a memory.
Being able to overthink something is dangerous for the creative process and films are essentially things that need to be overthought in order to protect the money that is invested in them. And the amount of money that you spend on a single hour shooting is hugely outrageous and if you were ever going to think about that you’d have a nervous breakdown and die. So you have to find a way to keep reinventing it at every stage of overthinking it. So you’ve got to create as much disruption as you possibly can to the process. You need to create as much certainty for all of the people around you so that they know what you want and what you want them to achieve for you, but then you need to find a way to totally interrupt that and reinvent it in the moment. And shoots, especially fast shoots like a 30 day shoot that we had, are very good at that because disasters come and things don’t happen the way you expected them to. That’s when I start getting excited. When something goes wrong, I go “Great, good. I have a job to do, it’s not just some foregone conclusion, spontaneity is back in the game”. Same thing with the edit, you’ve got certain things that you thought you were going to get, certain things don’t work, and you just go “well, now I have to reinvent this and now I have a job to do again”.
Filmmaking is that balance between preparing as much as you possibly can, for the sake of other people. I would much prefer to just improvise everything, like literally have a camera crew at my disposal for longer and improvise more. And certainly in future projects I’m going to try to do that more. Have less script. That’s kind of how I really wanted to work to begin with but you have to get funding. Once you’ve developed a certain level of trust people will go “Ok, well, you can experiment in that way”. The way that I achieved spontaneity of script was to promise to make one film and then let the actors be in control of their character and their improvisation and me throwing stuff in while we were shooting it. That’s how we regained the notion of spontaneity in the film.
Because it needs to be there in the performances, you need to see a moment of spontaneous existence. If you don’t, it all feels a little bit too measured and a little bit pre-ordained and a little bit melodramatic. You need to see existence. The structure can be whatever it is but the performance needs to be capturing a moment of human surprise. And that’s the challenge. And it will always be the challenge for anyone making movies is how to capture something that feels genuinely observed rather than created. It’s the big lie that we’re all engaging in and actors are at the centre of that lie and you can’t have any systems in place that disrupt the ability of an actor to discover humanity in that brief moment. There are various ways of achieving that and the way we achieved it here was to have lots of stuff pre-prepared but to have me throw everything out as soon as we were on set. Which was really important and it put the actors back in control.
But I wouldn’t let anyone, for example, watch any of the rehearsals that we were doing. I just couldn’t stand it when people were standing around and watching us rehearse. And people were like, “we need to know where start laying the dolly track”. But even if we lose half an hour here I can guarantee you will be wasting a lot more time if I’m still trying to figure out how to shoot this scene while we’re shooting it because we’ve all pre-empted what it was going to be. Whereas if you let the actors tell you what it’s going to be – this film is about human beings – through being human beings in an environment, if you let the actors dictate that through their existence, then we can have a muse, we can go “let’s cover it like that, let’s do it like that”. Putting the actors at the centre of it is something that people often forgot, often they’re one of the last elements to appear in the creative process. People forget to do that and it just has to be everything.