A Sense of Wonder: Julia Leigh talks about Sleeping Beauty

I’m interested in Wonder Cinema. I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with ‘Did I really see that?’ and ‘Did I really hear that?’ and ‘Can such a thing really exist?’. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as wunderkammer, wonder-room. – Julia Leigh in her Director’s Notes for Sleeping Beauty.

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Who is Julia Leigh? There’s a whole lot of curiosity about this first time Australian director whose debut feature film, Sleeping Beauty, made it into Official Competition at Cannes this year. Add to this the fact that Jane Campion, the Cannes-annointed elder stateswoman of auteur cinema, has supported Sleeping Beauty, adding her ‘Jane Campion presents’ imprimateur to the title. Oh, and then there’s the nudity – lots of it – and the film’s tagline: ‘an erotic fairytale’.

Starring the luminous Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a young woman who is drawn into a particular kind of prostitution, requiring her to be drugged, unconscious and unclothed in a chamber where she’s visited by elderly admirers. It’s creepy and intriguing; brave and stylish. So who is the writer and director from whose mind this strange story sprang?

Julia Leigh was 29 when her first novel, The Hunter, was published in 1999 to international acclaim, including being named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her novella Disquiet (2008) won the UK Encore Award and was an LA Times Favourite Book. Then, in 2008 the script for Sleeping Beauty was named on the Hollywood Black List – an annual list of Hollywood’s most liked unproduced screenplays.

Sleeping Beauty key art Australia

So how does a successful novelist turn into a screenwriter and then a director? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Leigh is uncoventional in a multitude of ways. A qualified lawyer who has never practised, she holds a PhD in English from the University of Adelaide. She’s studied and taught abroad (including a stint as Adjunct Associate Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University). Now 41, Julia Leigh would love to make more films, as well as write more books. But it’s clear she’s an artist working to her own timetable – and one who is choosy about answering questions that attempt to explain her work. As she writes in her Director’s Notes, “It is dangerous for me to explain the meaning of my work. Like gouging out my own eye. Like pinning down the viewer and gouging out their eye.”

Here we chat to Leigh about the move from solitary novel-writing to colloborative filmmaking; about working with her editor Nick Meyers, and the fruitful collaboration with production designer Annie Beauchamp. Leigh also talks about the importance of beauty and of living in the creative “risk zone”.

AFI: Filmmaking is such a collaborative endeavour. Was that something you enjoyed, a change from the more solitary nature of writing a novel or a novella?

Julia Leigh: It’s very interesting shifting between the two, but novelists and filmmakers both need to have something they want to explore. That is the most important thing. They both create complex characters and full detailed worlds, and they both work with the flow of time. In  a way the perceived loneliness of the writer is not so dissimilar, actually, to the situation of the director, because I do feel the director is the only one who holds the whole film in her head. I really did enjoy the collaborative process, however, and the strong relationships you have with the actors, and the heads of department, and the people on set. They’re actually still quite close one-on-one relationships rather than this big group of people that you’re talking to.

Sleeping Beauty 1

Eden Falk, Emily Browning & Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: One of the closest and most intense relationships would have to be between the director and the editor, who both shape and create the story together in the cutting room. Can you tell us a bit about how this worked with your editor Nick Meyers?

Julia Leigh: Oh, I had a great editor! I was just so lucky to work with Nick Meyers [whose other credits include The Bank, Balibo, The Boys and Mrs Carey’s Concert]. I hadn’t met him before. I gave him the script to read and we met for a coffee. You know, in those initial meetings with people, for all my head of departments, I tried to gauge how people responded to the script and if the project resonated with them truly.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

There is this strange thing, it’s very hard to talk about expressedly, but you know, it’s a person’s energy or vibe and how that comes across when you’re meeting them. So yes, so Nick came on board and one of his roles during the shoot of course was to look at the footage as it comes in each day. We watched the rushes and he spotted what we call pickups. You know, he said: “You might need to go back and shoot this exterior.” And we did, and it’s in the film, so you know, that was one of his jobs there. We didn’t actually have a budget to do an extra day of pickups. So we had to jam them into the existing schedule, so that was pretty tough.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule?

Julia Leigh: We had a 29-day shoot.

AFI: And what was the budget?

Julia Leigh: Ah… I’m not at liberty to discuss the budget. I think that’s something people don’t talk about, you know. It’s just so low-budget or whatever… Yes, so Nick and I went into the edit room for the process of the edit and you know, it’s very strange, it’s a very close working relationship. When you see the film you see we have an unusual shooting style. Scenes are sort of covered in one long shot, which might seem that there were very few editorial choices. Often a film is made where shoot a lot of coverage, which means you shoot that scene in wide and then you go in and you shoot one of the actors all in close-up, and you cover the scene from lots of different angles. Then in the edit you piece it all together and pick and choose from performances and decide where you want to focus on, all those sort of things. But in this case, we actually did not shoot traditional coverage and some people may think that that means there was not a lot of work to do in the edit. But in fact there was and we selected our performances very carefully.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: It sounds like having such an experienced editor working on the shoot really helped to keep it within budget.

Julia Leigh: Yes, Nick also had some great suggestions for some sort of secret tricks that we used, that I cannot reveal, that made the film viable. It was a very short script actually, an unusually short script for a feature film. It was something like 67, 68 pages. And I thought that every single scene would be completely essential in such a short script. But in fact, in the edit, we did drop some scenes. So Nick was very helpful in working out what to let go. And in the edit, it’s very, very fine choices that you’re making. You’re working with the flow of the film.

AFI: How important was it for you to be making something that was beautiful to look at?

Julia Leigh: There’s no harm in beauty! [laughs] I really admire women’s beauty, you know. And I love male beauty too… And yes, this film is quite beautiful and I think that marries with the subject matter of the film, so it’s appropriate.

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

AFI: The film is very beautiful and stylish from a production design point of view too. Can you talk about that?

Julia Leigh: I loved working with our production designer Annie Beauchamp [whose other credits as art director and production designer include Moulin Rouge, Praise and Disgrace].  She was one of my first collaborators to come on board and she just did an amazing job, especially considering our small budget. We went out on location shoots together really early in the process, and pooled images and defined our colour pallette. I really enjoyed that part of things, and I think the look we got was quite amazing.

AFI: There has been some talk about it being difficult to get the film funded and supported officially because of the explicit nature of the material. Was that the case?

Julia Leigh: Look, as far as the funding goes, we got government funding from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. And I do really want to pay tribute to those brave people within those organisations who fought to support the film. I have no idea exactly what went on behind closed doors. But all I know is that it’s a very competitive environment and any film that gets up has to have its internal champions.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

AFI: And do you think the film will shock or offend viewers potentially?

Julia Leigh: I don’t really want to address that in this interview. You know, I hope people watch the film with a sense of wonder and I hope the film allows them to use their imaginations.

AFI: You’ve said in the press notes that you’re comfortable ‘being in the risk zone’.

Julia Leigh: Yeah, I’m very comfortable in the risk zone. In fact I like to be in the risk zone. I think in fact with all good projects, you are in the risk zone. If you’re not in the risk zone, there’s probably a problem.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie - lonely friends in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: Did you always imagine that you would be a writer when you were a little girl?

Julia Leigh: I have always been somebody who has been formed by literature. I mean, I was a big reader. Yeah, I think a reading life is part of the writing life. And actually, this thing about this shift from literature to film, it all comes from the one place, which is your sensibility. And your sensibility is formed by so many different things. So I do resist this habit of typecasting people into one medium or another.

AFI: And yet it is quite unusual for a novelist to turn director.

Julia Leigh: That’s true. Actually, there probably aren’t many novelist-filmmakers. I can’t think of any.

AFI: Can you tell us about your involvement with the film adaptation of your novel The Hunter, releasing later this year?

Julia Leigh: Yes, it’s directed by my friend Daniel Nettheim, he’s a director. And I opted not to read the screenplay and I opted not to go to the screening room of the early cuts of the film because I’m waiting for the glorious day when I can just sit down in a cinema with an audience and see it myself as a very surreal personal experience, which will be a great day I think. That film is also coming out later this year. But I did go down and I visited the set in Tasmania and that was wonderful.

AFI: How did Daniel come on board with the project?

Julia Leigh: Dan is actually a really close friend of mine. We edited the student newspaper together in 1989, Honi Soit. There was a close little group of us and that was a great early collaborative experience.

AFI: It’s often mentioned that your script for Sleeping Beauty made the Hollywood Black List. How does that actually happen?

Julia Leigh: I have an agent in America at UTA, Bec Smith, and that’s how that happens.

AFI: That must have been very helpful in getting the film up?

Julia Leigh: I think it was an element. It’s very hard to get a film up, there’s so many important elements and that was probably one of them.

AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release, and thank you for talking with us.

Julia Leigh: Thank you.

Sleeping Beauty is in national release from 23 June, 2011.

To see an interview with Julia Leigh, conducted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and filmed by Screen Australia, click below.

Production Notes

Sleeping Beauty is written and directed by Julia Leigh, produced by Jessica Brentnall and executive produced by Tim White, Alan Cardy and Jamie Hilton. Distributed by Transmission Films (Aust/NZ). Filmed in Sydney, 2011. Shot in 35mm. 101 min.

Director of Photography: Geoffrey Simpson ACS
Production Designer: Annie Beauchamp
Editor: Nick Meyers ASE
Costume Designer: Shareen Beringer
Composer: Ben Frost
Casting Director: Nikki Barrett
Sound Designer: Sam Petty
Associate Producer: Sasha Burrows

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5 thoughts on “A Sense of Wonder: Julia Leigh talks about Sleeping Beauty

  1. ” I’m not at liberty to discuss the budget…”
    OMG, What??
    What a disgrace.
    A pile of other people’s money wasted on self-indulgent up-itself narcissism and “I’m not at liberty to discuss the budget” ???
    And you didn’t push for the details of why? Thank you for talking with us. No problem, thanks for the free plug.

  2. Thank you for your comment. It is standard practice for us to ask about film budgets when interviewing those working in the Australian film industry, as we did in our interview with Leigh. It is correct that Sleeping Beauty was in part funded by Screen Australia and Screen NSW, which Leigh credited and was thankful for. However, it is important to note that this film was also financed by significant private funding, and that, according to Leigh, she is contractually obliged to refrain from discussing budgets.

    • I have no doubt that once you add up the Screen Australia, Screen NSW and Producer Offset contributions you can be quite sure that the film was funded for the greater part by the taxpayer. Ms Leigh’s glibness about the money she receives from the public purse, from our generosity, is questionable. Perhaps she could consider some accountability to the people who were the majority funding of her film. Contractually bound? She can talk rough numbers and if she can’t show enough steel to do that she should at least get a new agent! If you want to ruin the remnants of the Aussie film industry just keep taking public money, turn in irrelevant films and condescend to the public who wonder why they are funding films instead of schools and hospitals.

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