Trancending the Elements: an interview with Daniel Nettheim, director of The Hunter

Director Daniel Nettheim on location in Tasmania.

Director Daniel Nettheim on location in Tasmania.

At first glance it seems that director Daniel Nettheim has come out of nowhere to direct The Hunter, an ambitious wilderness-set project boasting performances by actors of the calibre and stature of Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor. But Nettheim has been honing his craft for years. After starting out as a photographer, he attended AFTRS, graduating in 1995. That same year his short film The Beat Manifesto won three AFI Awards – including two for Nettheim, for Best Short Film and Best Screenplay in a Short Film. He’s been steadily employed ever since as a director of commercials, multimedia and a raft of terrific television – including Spirited, Rush, All Saints, The Elephant Princess and The Secret Life of Us.

Based on the acclaimed 1999 novel by Julia Leigh, The Hunter follows Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary sent from Europe by a sinister biotech company, to track down the last Tasmanian Tiger and extract its DNA. The search brings him into contact with a bereaved family, and with the competing interests of loggers and environmentalists. Produced by Porchlight’s Vincent Sheehan, with a screenplay by Alice Addison, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Humphreys. Edited by Roland Gallois, with production design by Steven Jones-Evans and costume design from Emily Seresin, the atmospheric and haunting film features sound design by Sam Petty and Liam Egan, and an original score by Matteo Zingales, Michael Lira and Andrew Lancaster. In other words, it’s a hugely accomplished team, with a raft of credits and awards to their name. Yet as Daniel Nettheim admits, at the end of the day, it’s the director who has to provide answers to the numerous questions that arise as a film is made.

L-R: Daniel Nettheim, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill - on location for The Hunter

L-R: Daniel Nettheim, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill - on location for The Hunter.

In this interview, Nettheim talks about the the experience of shooting in remote and beautiful Tasmania, and explores why he thinks we continue to be fasinated by the elusive Tassie Tiger. He also identifies his most pleasurable and painful aspects of directing films and television, and the difficult art of compromise. He also shares his memories of that distant AFI Awards ceremony, 16 years ago, where he had to juggle his handful of old-style AFI Awards – a collection he was hoping to add to one day, to make up a set of legs for a glass-topped coffee table!

Australian Film Institute: Congratulations on the release of  The Hunter.  Why do you think we continue to be so fascinated with the Tasmanian Tiger? What’s that about?

Daniel Nettheim: It’s an interesting question. To me, and maybe to a lot of people, the Tasmanian Tiger represents the possibility of redemption, perhaps. The idea that if this creature is still out there somewhere, we’ve got a second chance to save it – to do the right thing and redress the wrongs of our colonial past. So I think the myth that it’s still out there somewhere is so attractive because maybe it represents a possibility of appeasing our collective guilt. You know, not just about the tiger, but about the damage we may have done to the environment in our past, when we were less enlightened. That’s one explanation. I also think that there’s just something attractive about the mythology of this creature that’s supposedly extinct, yet there are these intermittent reported sightings.

AFI: Are there really people saying that they’ve seen these creatures in recent years?

Daniel Nettheim: Completely. Oh yeah. We had a guy shooting behind-the-scenes video material when we were down in Tassie, and everywhere we stopped, he would do a little interview with some of the locals. Pretty much everyone had a story. It was either that they knew someone who knew someone, or it was a firsthand account. At the very least, people would have a story of their grandfather, who might have seen one well into the 1950s, twenty years after the last one supposedly died out. In fact, Madman have cut some of this footage together into a little voxpop documentary that they’re putting up on the Facebook page. [Posted below]

Daniel Nettheim: You do sense that there’s not just a hope, but a genuine belief spread amongst many quarters, that the thing is still out there. And the response as to what people would do if they saw one is also pretty telling, because most people say: “I would not say a thing!” or “I would never reveal its whereabouts.” So there’s this great kind of protective sense that’s pervading all these stories.

AFI: The landscape in this film looks absolutely amazing. It’s beautiful. Tasmania is beautiful, but it’s also quite… scary or sombre looking. It’s not really a cheerful landscape, is it?

Daniel Nettheim: It’s a very varied landscape, and we’ve made very conscious choices about how we portrayed it. We chose never to shoot in sunshine, for example. We tried to avoid it – which was pretty easy in the end, because there wasn’t a lot of sunshine! In those conditions it’s a really broody, haunting and compelling landscape. But it can look completely different when the sun comes out. People say that the seasons can change up to four times in any one hour in certain parts of that landscape, and that was true. We saw it. One of the greatest challenges of filming there was just consistency of light, you know. Over the time it takes to shoot one scene, you got clouds, you got sun, you got rain, you got fog.  Vincent [Sheehan, producer of The Hunter] screened the film in Tasmania for some people associated with Tourism Tasmania, and the comment was made that we’ve shown the landscape differently to how many other filmmakers have before.
The joys of location shooting in the Tasmanian wilderness.

The joys of location shooting in the Tasmanian wilderness.

AFI: In what way is the landscape different in your film?

Daniel Nettheim: I think a lot of other filmmakers who travel down to Tasmania are really attracted to the kind of dark, very closed-in forests, whereas we picked out some of those more open, button-grass plains and some of that more sparsely wooded kind of alpine territory.

AFI: Apparently it’s still very easy to get lost there.

Daniel Nettheim: Yes, when you look at the map, something like 33% of the island is either world heritage or protected national parks that can never be built on, can never be developed. And there’s a lot of rugged, thick bush. You can see this huge green swathe with no roads down the entire West coast. There are national park areas that have never had a tree chopped, and never will now. So it’s quite impressive from that perspective. And also, you can see why it can give rise to the myth that the Tasmania Tiger is still out there somewhere in these areas that people can’t access.

AFI: The Tiger could very well still be out there, somewhere.

Daniel Nettheim: It really could, you know. And if it’s smart, it’s going to stay well away from where people go!

AFI: In your film you use an iconic piece of old and damaged footage of the last Tiger in captivity. How did you work with that?

Daniel Nettheim:  There’s something like six minutes of moving footage that exists in the world. And two different bodies that own different section of them. So we had to apply to two different bodies for permission to use it – the NFSA and the Hobart Museum,. [Watch the National Film and Sound Archive’s footage online here on the ASO Australian Screen website.] We were being provided with very kind of low-res, bad-quality digital versions of it. You know, when we went to do our title sequence, we looked at the blow-up for the first time and it just didn’t cut it. And we were asking repeatedly: “Do you have a better version? Do you have a better transfer?” And in the end, they sent us the negative or the original print, whatever they had so we were able to do the first really great quality, high-res version of it. Having worked on those sequences for so long with that low-res digital version, it was just so amazing when we saw it projected for the first time and you could just see the crispness of the fur on that animal’s back. Of course, it’s all scratched and degraded and the temptation would easily be there to clean it all up, which we didn’t want to do, because part of the value of the footage is its age.

Director of Photography Robert Humphreys with crew on location for The Hunter.

Director of Photography Robert Humphreys with crew on location for The Hunter.

AFI: How long was this film in development, from the optioning of the novel by Julia Leigh, until now?

Daniel Nettheim: We optioned it in 2001, so that’s a good ten years before the financing of the film was locked in place.

AFI: Did you think it was going to happen?

Daniel Nettheim: Ah, look, you always keep working on these things as if they are going to happen. You can’t let yourself doubt or you just lose heart. I think there was always enough interest to get it up. From the start, there was so much beauty in the novel and a lot of awareness of the novel and even the early screenplays did justice to that, even when we hadn’t quite nailed the story. There was always enough there to maintain a sufficient level of interest in terms of getting another draft written, getting development funding and so forth. But obviously, Vincent and I were always working on other things at the same time.

AFI: Have you worked with producer Vincent Sheehan before?

Daniel Nettheim: I’ve never worked with Vincent before, but I’ve known him for a very long time. We were at art school together, circa 1984, and I was flatmates with Vincent when he was producing Mullet (2001) and saw how hard he worked as a producer. We talked for ages about the possibility of doing something together, and this book ended up being that project.

AFI: You graduated from film school in 1995, so it’s been a little while between graduating and making your first feature. Did you always want to make feature films?

Willem Dafoe as The Hunter

Willem Dafoe as The Hunter

Daniel Nettheim:  I did. But I also looked at the reality, even when I was at film school. I looked at the reality of the industry and saw that you couldn’t sustain yourself professionally purely by doing features. So I consciously angled myself towards getting work in television drama when I first got out of film school. And for the bulk of the last ten years that’s what I’ve been doing. That really was a very wise choice, because if I’d purely been trying to develop The Hunter and get it funded, I would have been driven insane!

AFI: You’ve done some wonderful television, and from the look of your credits, it’s kept you very busy.

Daniel Nettheim: Absolutely. I’ve kind of been non-stop for ten years and you know, I’ve been privileged that I’ve gotten to work on some of the really quality shows that are being made in this country.

AFI: Is the main difference between working on a feature and working on television the greater pace of television shoots?

Daniel Nettheim: Definitely the pace is the main difference.  I definitely learned a lot of skills from doing fast-turnaround television drama. That helped and informed the making of this film. But there’s a certain kind of onus, a certain imperative in shooting television drama to get the day done. So, you’re constantly balancing compromises that may need to be made. You’re aiming for 100%, but you’re realistically expecting to get 85%. And you just want to make sure that you make the right decisions in the right areas. With television you get used to cutting corners – trying to do that in an effective way. So it was almost a lesson in reminding myself on the film: “Okay, I don’t have to be cutting corners now. This has got to last a long time, so be looking to get the best option, not just the quickest option.”

AFI: “This is Art!”

Daniel Nettheim: Yeah, well television is art as well. There wasn’t even that kind of differentiation of quality. It was really just about the differentiation of working practice.  I guess I’ve become skilled at certain working practices required for TV, which is to really kind of, you know, make good decisions very quickly. And you know, the film was more like making good decisions with a little more time for reflection and little more time to think about how we can push to do better.

AFI: What are the aspects of directing that you enjoy the most?

Daniel Nettheim: What I love is being surrounded by a bunch of people who are really excelling in their craft. I find that really inspiring. When I started out at film school, I would have loved to have pursued cinematography or editing or production design. But you know, pursuing one would have been at the exclusion of all others and what I’ve realised about directing is that I get to keep a finger in the pie of all those areas. So that’s inspiring, being able to talk to a bunch of different creative people in a bunch of different languages, but all telling the same story. I actually do enjoy the on-set work. I like that kind of pressure-cooker situation where everything’s about exactly what’s happening in the moment. And I enjoy just the craft of working with the actors to bring that story alive and seeing those characters kind of lift beyond what’s on the page in front of your very eyes, and what these actors bring to it.

A kind of alchemy - characters made flesh. Frances O'Connor and Morgana Davies in The Hunter.

A kind of alchemy - characters become flesh. Frances O'Connor and Morgana Davies in The Hunter.

AFI: It’s a bit like alchemy or magic, seeing those written characters become flesh?

Daneil Nettheim: It is! It really is, because when you’re making a film or a television program, what you’re aiming for is for the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole. That’s the kind of thing that you’re hoping for as a director. It’s not just to deliver an audiovisual version of the source material, but to transcend it and combine the elements into something that can really, ultimately, move audiences.

AFI: It’s a truism that the most difficult thing about working in Australia is the low budgets and the difficulty in raising finance for films, but apart from that, what’s the hardest or least pleasurable aspect of your working life?
Daniel Nettheim: Hmm, the hardest…? Having to compromise is hard –  it’s the least pleasurable. I remember working with a First AD (Assistant Director) who does a lot of films, and he said he’d given up doing television, because he was sick of telling everybody they couldn’t do their job well. You know, like telling people: “No, you don’t have time to do that. You’ve got to compromise, you’ve got to deliver something that’s not as good as what you’re capable of.” So, look, you know, it’s not pleasurable telling people: “Near enough is good enough.” You know, you’ve just got to accept that and move on. Also, another aspect which is the least pleasurable – and it’s not just local to Australia, but I think it’s universal, is the long hours you’ve got to put in. Shooting days are really exhausting, and everybody – the director probably no more so than anyone else –  has to maintain a very intense level of focus from the start of shooting in the morning until the end of the ten hour day. As a director, you’ve then got to go home and prep for the next day. And you’ve got to be completely on your toes and ready to answer the hundreds of questions. It is exhausting. You get to the end of a shoot and you’re just shattered.
Sam Neill and Frances O'Connor, The Hunter

Sam Neill and Frances O'Connor in The Hunter.

AFI: One final question. You won two AFI Awards back in 1995 for your short film The Beat Manifesto – Best Short Fiction Film and Best Screenplay in a Short Film. What can you remember about receiving those? Were you at the Ceremony?

Daniel Nettheim: Yeah I was there! Absolutely. It was really exciting. What I remember particularly was that, because I co-wrote the screenplay with two other people – one was Tony McNamara, who’s a pretty prolific television writer, and the other co-writer was Matt Schulz, who’s a novelist – neither of them were there to collect their Awards. So, I walked away with four statuettes. There was an afterparty and we had to stand in a queue with a whole lot of other people, holding statuettes and waiting to check them in, so we could go in and, you know, have a dance at the party. And then when the afterparty closed down, we went on to some bar somewhere in Melbourne and so, you know, I was clutching these four statuettes all night!

AFI: They’re heavy too! Have you seen the new golden AACTA statuette that we have just unveiled?

Daneil Nettheim? I’ve seen pictures. It looks really pretty. I’ll tell you my only disappointment: it’s that the previous statues made great table legs! And I was hoping to collect four in my career so that I could prop up glass-top tables with them! But I’m happy to have them on the shelf. And look, receiving those awards was such a boost. The Beat Manifesto was just my film school short, and I think those awards really kick-started my career. I’m sure it got me in the door of the first TV producers that I worked with.

AFI: Thanks for your time, and all the best with The Hunter in this year’s AACTA Awards!

Daniel Nettheim: Thanks!

The Hunter released nationally on 6 October, and was opening night film for the Samsung AFI | AACTA Festival of Film. It is one of the 21 Feature Films in Competition for the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards.

Extra Reading & Research:

Watch the trailer for The Hunter, below:

Watch behind the scenes of The Hunter, below:


Watch Nettheim’s AFI Award-winning 18-minute short film The Beat Manifesto, or read an excellent Senses of Cinema essay on that film here.

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of reviews of current release Australian feature films Blame and Sleeping Beauty. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from various sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!


Blame Key Art AustraliaReleased nationally in Australia on 16 June by Pack Screen, Blame premiered at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (where it was a MIFF Premiere Fund film) and screened to some acclaim at festivals including Toronto and Chicago. Filmed and set in the foothills of Perth, the story centres on a group of young vigilantes intent on wreaking vengeance for a sexual betrayal.

Directed by Michael Henry, and produced by Ryan Hodgson, Melissa Kelly and Michael Robinson, Blame stars a raft of fresh but familiar talent, including Sophie Lowe, Kestie Morassi, Damian de Montemas, Simon Stone, Mark Leonard Winter and Ashley Zukerman. Reviewing the film as part of the TIFF 2010 lineup, Twitch’s Todd Brown was particularly impressed by the actors, and by the opening sequences, but writes that the film is “[l]ong on cast and concept but slightly short on execution,” and that it “never quite manages to reach its full potential or really cash in on its premise”.  

Megan Lehmann, writing for The Hollywood Reporter (login required), calls Blame “a compact little thriller set in a remote corner of the Australian bushland,” and predicts that it will be a good calling card for its cast and crew. She singles out the stark piano-heavy score and DOP Torstein Dyrting’s lingering camera-work for special mention, with the only real criticism being a “generally tight script  [that] stumbles in the second act as the characters chase their tails for a while.”

Simon Miraudo, over at Quickflix sees in the film “brief flashes of brilliance that evoke Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie,” though ultimately, he argues, “it feels like a sincere tribute to Hitchcock and Christie, but not a modern-day companion piece.” Miraudo singles outs out performances by Damian de Montemas, Sophie Lowe and Kestie Morassi for special mention. Also seeing Hitchockian references in Blame, Peter Galvin (SBS Film) commends the way the audience’s sympathies are simultaneously engaged by both the victim and the perpetrators.

Leigh Paatsch, reviewing for the Herald Sun gives Blame three stars and writes that “[f]irst-time writer-director Michael Henry makes a little go a long way throughout, pushing an impressive young cast through a twisty, turny maze most viewers will be happy to get lost in.” Both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz from the ABC’s At The Movies are similarly impressed with the film, agreeing with a three and a half star rating, and praising it as an intelligent low budget film that “punches above it’s weight.” 

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty key art AustraliaSleeping Beauty, an ‘erotic fairytale’ about a young woman, Lucy (Emily Browning), who sells her body in a particularly passive way, is shaping up to be one of those films that is dividing critics and audiences. This divisive tendency was evident at the film’s premiere screening in Official Competition at Cannes 2011 (you can see a table summarising critical responses from French critics at Cannes here), and the vigorous debates here at home continue the tendency. In fact, as Glenn Dunks argues, writing for Onya Magazine, perhaps “the discussion it has elicited from critics and audiences (domestic and international alike) is reason enough for [the film’s] existence.”

One of the most interesting and lateral responses to Sleeping Beauty is this one by Matt Riviera on his blog A Life in Film, where he engages not only with the film but with its critical and audience responses. (Riviera has meticulously compiled a table of Sydney critics’ responses to 2011 Sydney Film Festival offerings, including Sleeping Beauty, and you can see that film’s divisive effect evident in the chart here.)  

Anticipating that many viewers will be alienated and unmoved by the somewhat clinical tone of the film, Riviera notes that “[w]e are not encouraged to relate as much as to reflect on our position as voyeurs. In other words, we can look but cannot touch.” He goes on to offer a fascinating and unexpected reading of  the film as a metaphor for Australia’s passive relationship to its own beauty and international exploitation.

Over at Cinema Autopsy, Thomas Caldwell gives a more conventional review. Awarding Sleeping Beauty four stars, Caldwell admires writer/director Julia Leigh’s “well tuned sense of visual storytelling” and notes that the film’s cinematography (Geoffrey Simpson) and production design (Annie Beauchamp) evoke the work of Kubrick, Lynch and Greenaway. Caldwell also praises the “meticulous and minimalist sound design by Sam Petty”, and the “highly measured and controlled performance” of Emily Browning in the lead role.  Anticipating other viewers’ criticism of the film, he writes that “[o]n face value Sleeping Beauty may appear to be simply an arty exercise in film style and as a result will no doubt perplex and frustrate some audiences, particularly those expecting something more erotic or blatantly emotionally charged. However, like Lucy it contains something dark, complex, mysterious and, indeed, beautiful deep down below the surface.”

David Stratton, reviewing for At The Movies, called Sleeping Beauty “a handsomely made and quite haunting first feature” and gave the film three and a half stars. Stratton argued, however, that “while it’s often very impressive it’s also very cold and detached.” Andrew L. Urban is another such viewer, frustrated at what he perceives as the film’s coldness. At Urban Cinefile he writes: “I salute the unique vision, but I feel cheated that I felt so little emotion in a film that has such vast emotional potential.” Writing in the same space, Louise Keller declares Sleeping Beauty “a mesmerizing film and a stunning debut for Leigh, although the ending disappoints and leaves us adrift.”

Jim Schembri, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald gives the film backhanded praise, arguing that “the one thing you can’t say about Sleeping Beauty that you can about many other Australian arthouse films, is that it is boring. If anything, there’s something mesmerising about Lucy’s journey and in Browning’s deliberately passive, low-key performance, even if the whole shebang leads to frustration.” Leigh Paatsch, in the Herald Sun is not so kind, describing it as “prentious” and an “arthouse snoozer”. Variety’s Peter Debruge is similiarly unimpressed, criticising the film’s “frustratingly elliptical feel and lack of character insight.”

Over at the Guardian however, Peter Bradshaw seems to gain far greater insight into the “emotional seriousness” of Lucy’s character, praising Emily Browning’s “fierce and powerful performance.” Bradshaw also calls the film a “technically elegant” and “assured debut”, nevertheless finding it to be “no more than the sum of its parts”.

Clearly, the debate will continue to rage. What did you think?

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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