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Categories: Interviews

The Australian director talks relating with his characters and communicating with his audience through metaphor.

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The Daughter is an emotive debut drama mounted by the talented Simon Stone, one of a number of smart young directors emerging from Australia today. The film itself is actually an adaptation of a play of the same name by Henrik Ibsen – one of the great 19th century playwrights – and it hones in on two closely-linked families living at the foot of the strikingly gorgeous Snowy Mountains in Australia. 

One family is headed by a powerful, brooding industrialist played by Geoffrey Rush, and then also his returning estranged son, Paul Schneider. Alongside them, the second clan seems somewhat more bohemian, and they lovingly revolve around the resplendently lively Odessa Young, who plays the charismatic daughter of the film’s title.

The interlinked trajectories of these two families begins to wobble when Schneider returns for Rush’s wedding, and talk emerges that the family’s lumber mill must be shut down. But really it is a dark secret shared by these two families that will cause this film’s sparks to fly.

Full of clever, well-executed techniques, The Daughter is very good at drawing you into the world of this unusually large and star-studded ensemble cast. It also really makes you feel something of the increasing disjointedness in the characters’ lives, and makes you feel part of their thoughts and feelings.

This makes the film well worth watching for those who fancy keeping an eye out for potential future stars, but the director’s debut definitely lacks a certain something in zing, perhaps a certain punchiness in style that you hope Stone will knock out the park next time around.

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You previously adapted this film as an original play. Do you think the success of your previous adaptation allowed you to attract big names to this project?

Yeah, interestingly, I think all of the people in the film had seen my play. So in that sense, they kind of new they could kind of trust me from an acting point of view. I’m sure they had no idea whether or not I could direct a movie. But I’m sure that didn’t matter that much to them: whether I messed up my own first movie. [Chuckles.]

But yeah, I think it turned out okay. I’m pretty pleased with the results. I’m really happy that people are responding to our film as strongly as they are. I’m also really excited by the fact that it’s playing all over the world, and that I’m getting to share the story with so many different people, across so many different cultures.

It’s really great to see their responses, because as a director, when you finish you’re always so worried about how you should have done this or that, so it’s good to see it turned out okay. Though you’re also always wanting to immediately get on with the next project and put those lessons into practice.

Will theatre continue to be the root of your future productions?

Not necessarily. I mean, I just got the rights to a short story actually which I’m making into a film. Theatre is not really an obligatory starting point for me, or anything like that. Theatre is just a great place to experiment with storytelling first. You have to learn how to tell a story there very quickly. Very often you have to turn around a play in a matter of weeks, so it’s a great place to learn how to make important storytelling decisions and get around problems.

It teaches you very efficiently how to achieve the kinds of resolutions that you need to achieve during the course of a story. You learn that quickly in theatre, and you learn it while on set with actors. So in many ways it’s a great place to learn your trade as a storyteller. It’s also a great place to learn all the kinds of fundamental narrative arches that exist, because in many ways most stories boil down to certain arches.

So in terms of my relationship with theatre, it’s obviously an important one because in many ways it made the task of making my first film much, much easier. In a way, it also meant that I was always thinking of angles, almost like camera angles.

Theatre is just a great place to experiment with storytelling first. You have to learn how to tell a story there very quickly.”

It’s interesting with the Norwegian dramaturgic influence you have with Ibsen too, because you’re film also really reminded me of Joachim Trier’s films.

Yeah, I actually haven’t seen many of his films yet – but people do keep telling me that I need to. He’s just one of those directors I haven’t quite caught up with yet.

I can definitely relate to that. Still, it’s interesting though, because Little White Lies recently described Oslo, August 31st as “one of the coolest film about sadness.” Do you think in some ways your film fits that description?

[Laughs.] Errr… I don’t know how cool my film is, I don’t know if I would describe it like that. I would love to make a cool film one day, but I don’t know if I’ve necessarily done it yet…I think this is more an honest film about how messy life can be.

It doesn’t have the kinds of characters that would even have the kind of necessary facilities to consider themselves cool, though. I think it would have been unfair to the honesty of the film to have had characters who thought they were cool sliding about above it like that. So yeah, maybe it’s more a film that is daggy and uncool.

It was more about the emotions of the characters?

Yeah, it is always just meant to be an honest reflection of the world of the characters. It was always about putting the focus on the emotional fragility of their experiences, because I really think one of the great values of cinema and of great performers within that is their ability to show these kinds of raw and naked truths.

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I think that actually acts as a really important private message to viewers, reminding them that, “yes, I’ve also been through this, and yes, it really did look like this, and yes, that really was that embarrassing thing I always wanted to forget.” In that way it’s almost like a collective therapy. It allows you all to relate to a really important part of who we all are, because it allows us to all admit that we all know that feeling too.

Is there one of the character’s experiences that you particularly really relate to, though?

I would hope that I feel that way with all of them, really. I did write all of them, so you’d hope that I was associating with them all while I was writing them.

With the audience, though, one of my hopes is that they might be able to watch the film and feel that they associate with this or that character at this stage in their life. Then maybe if they watch it again in ten years’ time, I’d love to think that maybe they’d find themselves associating with a completely different character.

In fact, what I do really enjoy about hearing audience responses is that there’s never just one set response or one particular thing that we’re all drawn to. There’s always this mix of completely different responses.

Your film often seems to have this kind of very mystical, considered cinematography. Could you tell us a bit about the sorts of effects you wanted this to have on the audience?

Well, I suppose there we’re talking about the metaphors of my film, and I never plan my metaphors in a way that they will mean either this or that. My metaphors are always intuitive – I mean, that’s kind of what metaphor is: it’s the kind of thing you can’t literally describe, so you have to find an image for it instead, which in many ways is actually a better expression of the thing you’re trying to convey. It’s certainly much better than anything you could say literally with words.

Then there’s also symbols in filmmaking, which for me is something that actually means something. It’s analysable, it really represents something, it allows you to communicate something both quickly and universally. That’s what a symbol is.

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So were there symbolic aspects to your cinematography? 

No, because I hate symbolism in art! With symbolism you’re effectively just going, “well, everyone has agreed that that means that.” In those instances there’s almost no room for anything subconscious to occur. So to try to answer your question, if anything, the ways in which we shot the film were always trying not to be symbolic but rather metaphoric, and leaving room open for interpretation.

Or we were even just being real; some of the cinematic decisions we made were also just meant to be real. That’s actually when metaphors are at their greatest – when they’re just a real thing, and no less real for their ambiguity. They capture something real about life in those instances, and whatever your response is to the kinds of mixed messages they create, it can be really powerful on a personal level. 

You talk about realness, but were you altering things a lot in post-production too?

Yeah, we did talk a lot about the way we wanted the film to look. For example, I wanted the film to look like it was overcast the whole time – so we never let ourselves shoot in direct sunlight. That was largely so we could make the film feel universal, because the Australian sunlight does feel very specific.

I mean as soon as you shoot in that kind of sun, it’s just an Australian movie, and I wanted people from all cultures to be able to identify with what we see in the film. So we only ever shot under this kind of universal cloud cover, or I got rid of the sunlight when it was present. That was very consciously done too.

We never let ourselves shoot in direct sunlight. That was largely so we could make the film feel universal, because the Australian sunlight does feel very specific.”

What about in the way you were filming, were you also heightening reality in some senses there too?

With that kind of thing, it was often that we had lots of discussions about whether we’d shoot hand-held or not.

Often we’d shoot things hand-held when the characters have a choice to make, as it could easily potentially push them in one direction or another. Up until those moments the film is generally either locked off, on dollies or on steadicam.

So in these instances where there’s a kind of steady movement in the camera, I guess it suggests that fate is in charge, and these things are just happening with nobody necessarily being at fault or responsible. It just kind of happens, they’re just coincidences that may or may not lead to confrontations.

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Then when you do get to confrontations and the characters can choose, the film then kicks into hand-held, because the film itself doesn’t know what’s going to happen or what the characters are going to do. Often I wouldn’t let the cameraman and Andy the cinematographer see rehearsals to kind of encourage this effect too.

I’d let them know that the action is going to head in this kind of general direction, so they could know to light that space – but I didn’t let them know any kind of predetermined routine of what was going to happen on set.

And have you been finding that these kinds of techniques have been communicating this intended effect to audiences?

You know, I really think it’s wonderful that audiences are able to retrospectively analyse your films and the kind of metaphors you put in it. They are almost able project stuff onto the film for themselves. I think that’s beautiful.

For that reason I always try to never agree or disagree with other people’s readings of my film, because it’s never necessarily either this or that. I guess the important thing as a director is to just find things that will have… resonance… to put in your film. Then whatever direction that resonance goes in is just up to the audience member. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

The Daughter is out now in select cinemas.

Thomas Humphrey

A freelance film journalist and acting director of the Nottingham Alternative Film Network. This network aims to champion short films, and tries to bring great features which UK distributors overlook to the city.

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Posted on Jun 6, 2016

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