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

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of what some reviewers said about recently released Australian feature films. Please note that these do not reflect the views of the AFI; we’re aiming to represent just a smattering of opinions and views from various sources. You’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Mrs Carey’s Concert

Mrs Carey's Concert key artBob Connolly and Sophie Raymond’s observational documentary about a high school music teacher may well be the surprise Australian hit of the year. The self-distributed film, which opened this year’s BigPond Adelaide Film Festival, is not only performing well at the limited release box office (more than $500,000 to date), it’s also being universally praised by critics and reviewers. David Stratton and Margararet Pomeranz from At the Movies describe it as “a rounded and very satisfying film that is both hugely entertaining and incredibly inspirational,” giving it four and a half stars and four stars respectively. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Sandra Hall also gives Mrs Carey’s Concert four and a half stars, praising Connolly’s “patience and unobtrusiveness” which result in a film that’s “well worth every exhilarating minute.” The Age’s Jake Wilson  gives high praise, writing that Mrs Carey’s Concert “transcends its “inspirational” format to rank as the best Australian film so far this year.” Filmink’s Cara Nash calls the film “absorbing and revealing” and “nothing short of compelling”, using the Filmink ratings system to value the film at $17 out of a possible $20. Writing for Onya magazine, Glenn Dunks has only one qualm, observing that “a sequence in which Mrs Carey loses a folder of sheet music feels artificial and unnecessary.”  In the end however, he finds the film to be “a wonderful experience to witness.” (Interested in finding out more about Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond? Click through to read our recent interview with them.)

Mad Bastards

Mad Bastards key artFilmed and set within Indigenous communities  in the amazingly picturesque Kimberley region of WA, Mad Bastards impressed at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Directed by Brendan Fletcher, and featuring the musical talents of the Pigram Brothers (who also acted as producers on the film), Mad Bastards is a musical journey following three generations of Aboriginal men who find their way out of the cycle of violence. Thomas Caldwell, writing for The Big Issue magazine (review reproduced on the Cinema Autopsy blog) gave the film four stars and announced that “Mad Bastards is simply Australia’s most impressive film since Animal Kingdom.” Helen Garner, writing in the May 2011 edition of The Monthly writes that “Mad Bastards is a work of serious maturity and grace. It reminded me of something that Plato said about art – that it should be ‘like a wind from excellent places, bringing health.”

Writing for the SBS Film website, Michelle Orange found the musical interludes intrusive, arguing that director Brendan Fletcher’s “over-reliance on score sets up an avoidant rhythm that begins to feel like a lack of narrative confidence.” Ultimately though, Orange finds much to like about the film, and writes that in it’s final climactic scene, “the privileging of tableau over dialogue feels just right.” Quickflix critic Simon Miraudo gives Mad Bastards four out of five stars, and despite admitting to hating films which conclude with footage of real subjects, Miraudo acknowledges that it works here, and that “Mad Bastards is an involving tribute to – and exciting evolution of – Australian storytelling.”

Writing for the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Jim Schembri awards Mad Bastards four and a half stars out of five, writing that it “bravely explores a host of hot-button issues with a deft blending of humour, sensitivity and often brutal frankness.” Andrew L. Urban over at Urban Cinefile writes that the film “understated in its redemptive message, much like Samson and Delilah was, and while it has a few clunky storytelling moments, it’s an engaging and touching film.”

Snowtown

Snowtown key artCertainly the most controversial Australian release of the year so far, Justin Kurzel’s feature directorial debut Snowtown is based on the brutal serial killings known as the ‘bodies in the barrels’ cases, which occurred in Adelaide in the 1990s. Winner of the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival’s Audience Award (where it had its Australian premiere) and selected for Critics’ Week at Cannes (where it received a special mention by the Jury President), Snowtown is currently dividing audiences and critics – though everyone seems to agree that Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and Jed Kurzel’s musical score are beyond reproach. 

One of the most rapturous responses to the film surely came from Clem Bastow at The Vine, who awarded Snowtown five out of  five stars and wrote that despite its grimness, the film is “an incredible piece of cinema and a devastating, poetic work of storytelling.” Crikey blogger Luke Buckmaster over at Cinetology was similarly blown away, praising the “airtight sense of verisimilitude maintained by unwavering directorial focus,” and calling it the “most frightening Australian film ever made, and a great piece of art.”  

Both Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile commended the strong performances of the actors in the film and agreed that the film succeeded in creating an undeniably tense atmosphere, yet Keller’s admission that she ” left the cinema feeling repulsed and downtrodden at the sombre world depicted, from which not even a little piece of blue sky can be seen,” is one echoed my many viewers, including Helen Garner, who admitted in The Monthly that the film left her despairing and nauseated.  The Adelaide based Anders Wotzke of Cut Print Review commends director Justin Kurzel’s naturalistic direction, but argues that the grisly film “struggles to build an emotional rapport with its audience.” Both Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from the ABC’s At the Movies  praised the impressive acting performances on screen, but found the setup confusing and worried at the film’s lack of “moral centre”. The debate continues, and audiences seem keen to check it out for themselves, with the film’s strong performance on the limited box office charts. (Interested in learning more about the actors in Snowtown? Click through to read our interviews with Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway and Louise Harris.)

Check out these films on the big screen now, while they’re in the cinemas, and feel free to drop back and leave your comments and opinions.

Next week, our Reviews Wrap will take in the crowdfunded film The Tunnel, available freely on torrent; Beck Cole’s Here I Am, and Mark Lewis’s 3D creature feature documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest.