Last year, the breathtaking Australian film The Daughter made its debut at the Sydney Film Festival, and later this month, the film is finally seeing the wide release it deserves (read our interviewer’s four and a half star review of the film HERE).
The film is based on Director Simon Stone’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which made its debut on the Belvoir Theatre stage in Sydney back in 2011. It was a production described as theatrical, and as Stone goes on to say, this was much of the reason they went ahead and turned it into the film – but it wasn’t quite as easy an adaptation as he was led to believe. But then again, this is – impressively – his first feature film.
Last month, Larry Heath sat down with Simon Stone to talk about bringing his stage adaptation to the big screen. He goes on to reflect about the joys of featuring the beautiful Australian landscape in the film and gives advice to himself for future films, which may be words of wisdom for all aspiring filmmakers…
Also look out for some tips on how to create fake fog for a film!
Tell me a little bit about where the discussion started to turn your adaptation into a feature film.
The idea (of the original production) was that it was going to be a bit… filmic. I suppose products invite you to imagine them as what they want to be imaged as. So the fact that I had written the stage play as a screenplay then immediately made audiences go, “Oh, it’s very filmic”… this made Jan Chapman and Nicole O’Donohue, the producers, imagine that it could be a film. It also helped that I was writing, for the stage, quite quotidian, everyday dialogue.
So they went, “Oh that’s not too theatrical, the leap isn’t so huge”. The performers in the play that I’d written were mic’ed because they were behind the glass wall, which also achieved a sense of a close-up, so you heard their voices and their breath in a way that is reminiscent of cinema.
But, in the process of making it into a film, I was disillusioned because it wasn’t a film, it was a play written for an abstract stage where there is no realistic interaction with props and scenery, landscape – anything like that. So I had to write a series of scenes set in real places that I had to actually see in my mind, which I don’t ever bother doing when I’m writing plays.
How did you end up in the location you did… in New South Wales?
I wrote it thinking about a kind of archetypal timber town somewhere in the world where there was decaying in the street, the end of days for the single industry towns. And that could have been the mid-west of America, that could have been in Scandinavia, it could have been in some kind of town in the middle of England, or Germany, or… Australia. And I thought initially that the best place to do that was in Tasmania because there are towns that literally used to be timber towns where the industry has died.
Screen New South Wales, who have been huge supporters of the film, went, “please can you see if you can choose New South Wales”, and so I went “okay, I will go on a location scout and see if there is anywhere in New South Wales we can do this”. So we spent like a week and a half just traveling around New South Wales just going “Is there anywhere here?” And we ended up in Batlow. We drove into this town and I was kind of out of the car before it even stopped moving with my camera clicking off photos of the location there that was exactly what I had written.
Lots of hills, pine trees, decaying factories. And then we drove from there to Tooma, which is half an hour away, and there’s this timber town there – which is currently thriving – but it just gave us all the timber stuff that we needed.
And then we drove to a lake that looked like the lake that I’d written, with pine-treed mountains in the background, and we drove up a hill between Batlow and Tumbarumba, and there was this incredible red house that was built like the country houses of Scandinavia. Just in one place, everything fell into place. Everything I imagined was there. I couldn’t believe it. Not only did we have the place but we know knew that maybe this film can actually be made. Without the locations the film would have just fallen on its arse.
And without the great actors on board it would have done just the same.
I already had the actors on board at that stage, so I knew that the cast was there and ready to go.
Your choices in the editing room, and the cinematography, end up defining the tone of the film. The use of voice over and the still, almost motionless shots of the lead characters, in particular… Were those decisions made in the editing room or was that something you went in knowing that that was how you wanted to approach it.
Yeah, that was kind of like, I knew… I kept a few secrets from various people while I was making the movie. I knew that I wasn’t going to be focusing on the scenes in the traditional way, just adding the shots together to get a conventional scene, and then adding that to another scene with the film becoming a series of scenes patched together. In terms of the cinematography, of course that was planned because that was the only way that we got it.
The locations of course play such a big role – we were talking a lot about that previously – do you feel lucky that you were able to capture those moments, that you were able to capture the fog cascading over the trees, and those shots that came to shape that film?
Some of the scenes with fog in them are actually just the dust from the cars that Andy, the cinematographer, got his assistant to drive up and down on a dirt road. And it looks like mist. Some of the construct of it is a bit like a wintery landscape, but we didn’t shoot it in winter, we shot it in September-October. And then one day it was foggy, the very closing shots of the film come from the fact that I interrupted the shooting of a scene because I saw it and said, “go and get that!”
The first AD went, “You do realise we don’t have time to shoot the actual scenes that we’ve got, let alone your pretty little mist shots.” But I was like, “Yeah, but the level of credibility that’s going to lend the film is something we need a certain amount of, not just people’s faces talking to each other”. And I knew the film was going to specifically use the landscape as a metaphor, a kind of reflection mechanism, a dramatic palette cleanser.
And finally, if you could go back before you started working on the film, and give yourself one piece of advice, other than torturing your ADs by the sound of it, what would that be?
Um, this is a question relating to regret?
It is though, it’s kind of like, what would you have done differently? I don’t really think that way, because what I generally do is do it differently the second time I do it. You know, I like the mistakes I’ve made in the past, it makes me go “thank god I actually made that mistake” because now I have something I’ve learnt from for the future. So I guess I’d go back and say, “make all the mistakes that you need to make”, but then I’d be talking to the same person who just did it. So I wouldn’t have influenced the past whatsoever, which is always my problem with time-traveling movies.
But in terms of what would I say to the Simon who makes the second film, there are all sorts of stuff. What I’ve learnt, maybe not quickly enough, was when to abandon set-ups or a shot that is clearly not going to work. The shoot time is everything, it’s the most valuable resource, so don’t waste any of it and don’t worry about the logistical nightmare you might set up if you go “no, we’re not going to shoot this today, we’re going to do something else”.
Thank you so much for your time. It’s a brilliant film, I hope everyone goes to see it.
The Daughter is released in Australian cinemas nationally on 17th March 2016.
Interview and Introduction by Larry Heath. Transcription by Jennifer Ma.