In the last days of a dying logging town Christian (Paul Schneider) returns to his family home for his father Henry’s (Geoffrey Rush) wedding to the much younger Anna (Anna Torv). While home, Christian reconnects with his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who has stayed in town working at Henry’s timber mill and is now out of a job. As Christian gets to know Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young) and father Walter (Sam Neill), he discovers a secret that could tear Oliver’s family apart. As he tries to right the wrongs of the past, his actions threaten to shatter the lives of those he left behind years before.
“The Daughter” marks the film directing debut of Simon Stone, who brought the Henrik Ibsen based play to life as “The Wild Duck” on stage before taking on the feature film adaptation. For the ride he has brought with him the original star of the play and theatre royalty, Ewen Leslie, and star on the rise, Odessa Young.
We sat down with the dynamic trio in Melbourne on the eve of the film’s Australian release.
Do you notice a difference in the response between Melbourne and Sydney audiences?
Ewen: I found the MIFF screening of the film was a lot more focused. Did you find that? In Sydney there was a bit more laughter but Melbourne was more focused.
Odessa: Yeah it was quite focused. But also I was very focused on the fact that Geoffrey Rush’s entire family was sitting right behind me.
Well he’s intimidating by himself, I’m sure the whole family would be doubly so.
Simon: He’s not at all intimidating!
Odessa: Well maybe not for you! [laughs].
Simon: No, as a human being…
Odessa: Well yeah, as a human being, but the enigma of Geoffrey Rush is very intimidating.
Simon: You mean Geoffrey Rush – the word. But then you meet the human being that is attached to that word and he’s not at all intimidating.
Ewen: But I do find with theatre, the audience in Melbourne…oh I’m going to get myself into trouble. They’re both great cities!
Simon: That’s like saying, would you ask a parent to go ‘which child is your favourite?’ in front of the kids. That’s what you’re asking us to do.
Odessa: No it’s more like asking your kids ‘who is your favourite parent?’ Because as a society we didn’t birth Melbourne and Sydney. We are the products of those cities. So it’s about asking the kid, ‘do you like Mum or Dad?’.
Simon: That’s true. Thank you for correcting my metaphor. You are absolutely right. And children are more likely to just go ‘Mum’ in front of Dad [laughs].
Odessa: But which one’s Mum?
Kids can be cruel. Adults can be cruel too though – as we learned in “The Daughter”. I see a lot of films – lots of superheroes, a few young adult adaptations, not a whole lot of films inspired by a play that was inspired by a Henrik Ibsen play. How hard was it to get this film made?
Simon: I have to be honest – most people say yes, and I had this problem and this problem. No. We had no problems. We literally had no problems.
Ewen: I think a lot of people got behind it very early, and were supportive of it early on. I was the first person attached to it so I suppose I saw a lot of that stuff from early on.
Simon: For whatever reason the path of the film has been really blessed in the process of getting it made. The right people just kept becoming patrons of it as a project. I realise how incredibly privileged we are at the level support we’ve had, at the number of amazing human beings who said ‘I will lend my acumen to this project’. Making films doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
Ewen: I think also certain people, like [producer] Jan Chapman, [producer] Nicole O’Donohue and Geoffrey, had seen the play, had really liked it, seen a lot of Simon’s work and were really interested in him. And people like Miranda [Otto] and Sam [Neill], people heard that it was happening and actively wanted to know about it and possibly be a part of it.
Simon: The hardest thing about making the film and the most exciting thing about making the film was the shoot. THAT was a nightmare in the realms of ‘how on earth did it happen?’ But it was a nightmare that we all enjoyed. Because it was kind of impossible film to get shot in the time that we shot it. But we just all went [fingers in ears] ‘lalalalala’ the entire time. [laughs]. And just somehow, weirdly, just through lying to ourselves, managed to make it happen. If I look back at it, the level of self denial that I was in, that I had to be in to make it happen, I just go ‘how on earth did it happen?’. And I think it’s just this creative process that actors go through, this ‘are you kidding me, this is the first scene I’m shooting with Miranda Otto [Ewen’s first scene] and it’s the break-up scene…’ And it was because of scheduling difficulties and all that. But Ewen could have gone ‘there’s no way this is going to end up being a good scene.’ Ewen could have let himself go down that path. But he didn’t.
Ewen: And the other one was the corridor scene at the end of the film with Miranda and I.
Simon: But that was because I was an asshole…
Ewen: That was on the day. Simon was like ‘we’re going to do that today. We’re going to do it next.’
Simon: We’re going to do it now. We’re going to do it after the lunch break. And everyone (because that’s the final scene) was like ‘what are you doing Simon?’. The producer’s coming to me going ‘you can’t do that. They’re supposed to have the whole weekend to prepare for this scene. And it’s Friday afternoon and they were getting ready for a scene in which they don’t really have to do anything. And you’re going to make them do that scene right now. And I’m like ‘yeah’. And they were like ‘but you don’t need to. There is absolutely no reason for you to make them do that. They can prepare and do it on Monday’. I was like ‘yeah but I think it’s going to work really well if we do it now.’ And they were ‘but how can you know that and the actors are saying they don’t want to do the scene and are actively trying to talk you out of it.’ And I said – to anyone who was willing to listen – ‘that’s exactly what’s just happened to these two characters. Their worst nightmare of ‘holy shit we have to deal with this right now. What are you talking about?’ is exactly what’s happened to those two characters. So they level of absolute shitting themselves those those two actors had walking on to that set. The level of adrenaline, of ‘will I even remember what I’m supposed to say here’, haven’t had time to reflect and get ready for it, made for the most extraordinary shooting moments we had. It’s a nightmare. And it’s a brilliant nightmare.
Odessa: How many shots did it take?
Simon: It was the first take. The wide shot was the first take which was pretty much half the scene. And I think it’s take two for the closer shot. But mostly with Ewen it’s take two.
Ewen: Just don’t roll on the first. Save film [laughs].
Simon: No but you need to know that we’re rolling in the first take for take two to work. Otherwise it would be take three [laughs]. All he’s doing on the first one is going ‘okay this is what it is’. And you can use stuff from it because sometimes there’s really surprising moments. But Ewen’s kind of using it to go, ‘right did that, now I can experience it.’
William Friedkin quite famously only does one take for each scene. Unless they really mess it up. Because he wants that theatre type energy to the performance.
Ewen: Yeah, Clint Eastwood is one take as well I think.
Simon: It’s really good for banal scenes but I think the problem with having one take as a generalised rule is that sometimes what happens if you do multiple takes, is that there’s a point where the text becomes so boring to the actors that they start doing really interesting, just existing in it, stuff. So with the comedy stuff, and that seduction scene, where Ewen does that incredibly cute face to Miranda at the door frame, that was me letting him play around for seven takes and then giving him one piece of direction on the eighth that made him willing to make an absolute fool of himself.
Ewen: Essentially I was very embarrassed trying to seduce Miranda Otto.
Simon: You remember what I said to you?
Simon: I said you have to be like a little boy who is totally even embarrassed about using the word sex. And Ewen was like ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this in front of other human beings’. Because no one wants to put their actual sex life on screen. Everyone talks about having to do those breathing noises was so embarrassing. No the embarrassing bit is when you are in a relationship that you have been in for eight years and you discuss whether or not you’re going to have sex now. Because it’s not really that sexy. And those are the hard things to play. Those weird things that people do, not the hot stuff that people do.
Yeah that’s just styling, editing. Tell me, Odessa and Ewen, Simon didn’t surprise you with the car park scene though did he?
Odessa: No we knew that was coming.
Ewen: And that was scheduled towards the end of the shoot which was good.
Simon: But once again the context of that scene is that the characters have been thinking about that confrontation for a long time. ‘I need to see my Dad, this is what I’m going to say to him, I’m going to say all these things to him’. And he’s like ‘I need to not see my daughter right now’. So in that situation the idea that these people have been dealing with their own version of this story for a long time, just from a pragmatic point of view, the two human beings who are playing these characters are in the right state of mind. So to a certain extent it’s also about when do you use the power of disruption as a director. And sometimes you can disrupt in a really helpful way, and go ‘I’m not going to tell you what I actually want you to do in that scene, and it’s four weeks away, and you’re coming to me at the pub and asking me what I think about that scene and I’m actively not going to talk to you about it. And I’ll talk to you about something else but I know that on the day there’s going to be a moment of great disruption where I go ‘let’s try that’.
You have a background as an actor as well is that right?
Do you find that helpful?
Odessa: Helpful for us, yes.
Ewen: Yes I’d say so. It’s really helpful.
Odessa: I haven’t been trained and I didn’t go to drama school, I got everything I needed to know to do that shoot from Simon. Simon was my drama school essentially.
You’d just come off “Looking for Grace” is that right? You did them back to back.
Odessa: Yes. And you normalise your first experience of something. Because “Looking for Grace” was my first feature and it was so entirely different to this. I was like ‘oh yeah I get this now, that’s what this is’, and then I got on to the “The Daughter” and was like, oh no, never mind [laughs].
Ewen: Something Simon said when we did the play of “The Wild Duck” that’s been true of every time I’ve worked with him, and it was on this film as well, during the previews of “The Wild Duck” he was chucking in new dialogue, getting us to do new stuff, swapping scenes and speeches and stuff, and he said ‘I won’t ask you to do anything that you can’t do, but I’ll probably ask you to do everything that you possibly can’. That was always sort of a rule, and even pulling that corridor scene on us on the day, yeah it’s scary, but it’s not like we can’t do it. I sort of know the lines and we have a camera and a corridor so I guess we can do this now.
Simon: I also knew that there’s nothing that Ewen can’t do. So when I said to Ewen ‘I’ll never ask you to do something you can’t do’, the hidden text there is, ‘I know you can do everything. And I know you may not know that but I know you can so I’m going to keep pushing you’. [laughs]. The thing is, I remember as an actor having a couple of experiences where someone went, ‘no I know everything you think about this scene, just give me that.’ And it happened to me twice in my entire career as an actor. Disappointingly only twice. And I remember going ‘wow’ when I saw what I did. I went ‘oh that’s not me. Someone invited me to become someone else’. But go beyond the realms of my own imagination. And I think that’s the great advantage I have of someone who’s been an actor. Knowing that actually, every actor is searching for a moment of great surrender. Surrender to a story. Surrender to a character. Surrender to a vision that lets them turn around and go ‘there is no world in which even if I dreamed of what I could do as an actor that I could even imagine that was possible’. And when you get actors to do that you also get audiences to go ‘wow I never expected that I would ever see something like that. As a human being I never thought that anyone would understand my inherent humanity as much as being able to suddenly reveal humanity in that particular way that reminds me of moments in my own life and reminds me of moments of people that I love. Kind of that’s what you’re always searching for in the performing arts, in cinema and theatre, you’re searching for a moment of human revelation and I don’t think you can get it unless a whole heap of people are all willing to surrender their dignity. Because we spend a lot of our lives building up a whole heap of protective mechanisms. To look okay. To not look embarrassing. That’s what we do with our lives. We learn through our childhood, our teenage years and our adulthood to eventually at some point, become an older person that knows how to exist in our body that isn’t too embarrassing. And actors have to let go of that entire social survival instinct of slowly learning how to not be embarrassing. They have to constantly throw away their right to dignity. And the sacrifice that is socially for the people who get to watch those kind of performances and the kind of complexes it creates in actors, that sacrifice cannot in any way be under-appreciated. People always thing that actors are kind of glamorous and extraordinary because the photos they always see are the photos that you do during press. But the majority of an actor’s life is being embarrassing in front of a camera or in front of human beings. And people may very well say ‘oh that was just that person playing that character’ but my body and my brain doesn’t know when I’m doing the embarrassing thing ‘oh it’s not me it’s Oliver’. My body is just going ‘this is humiliating. I hate this. Everything I learned as a child to survive is now being thrown into jeopardy’. And for me, I would like to make a tribute, in saying this, to the extraordinary sacrifices that actors make on a consistent basis when they’re willing to actually go there, (which not all of them do). But the ones that do are giving us this extraordinary gift. I couldn’t do it which is why I became a director [laughs]. I’ve taken on the role of someone who encourages an environment in which that can take place. And luckily I have the human beings who are willing to do that with me.
Well I don’t think you could have picked a better cast to do that for this film.
Simon: Not at all.
The Daughter is in Australian cinemas 17 March 2016.