Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Cate Shortland Interview


Cate Shortland on Somersault

Edinburgh Film Festival, August 2004

Neil Young : The film has been well-received at festivals all over the world, and has obtained distribution in many countries including the UK. What were your realistic ambitions for the project?

Cate Shortland : My biggest dream, I suppose, would be that it would get into a “big” festival, like Cannes, or Venice, or Sundance… Something international, because it kind-of has to – if, in Australia, it’s going to be taken at all seriously before the release. It would be really hard to release a film in Australia if it hadn’t got into a big festival overseas. There’s a big perception that overseas is better, and that Australia is a cultural wasteland, and if it’s not shown overseas then it’s got no kudos.

Is that the same with actors – they need success and recognition overseas.

I think it helps them, but I think there’s a lot of actors in Australia which we work with, and I love, and lots of people respect, which you’d hardly ever see overseas. A lot of them do a lot of theatre, as well, and they’re really happy doing that.

There are many Australians right here in Edinburgh at the moment…

The screening was really good, but when we had the Q+A … I knew a couple of those people, but most of them I didn’t know… So many Australian accents – there was that young guy who said he really related to it, he was from a rural area.

Are you from a place like Jindabyne?

I was born out west in a place called Temora, which is near Wagga Wagga. That’s in western New South Wales. But there was a really big drought and my dad lost everything so we had to move away from there. We moved to the suburbs of Canberra, which is a very cold place. Where I grew up in Canberra, I remember as a little girl washing up in the kitchen, and there was always snow on the mountains, upland from our house, so it looked a bit like the film. The beginning of the film is all shot in Canberra – “our nation’s capital.”

Which maybe hasn’t been shown in that many films… Holy Smoke, perhaps?

No, she would have done that in Sydney.

You’re putting Canberra on the cinematic map.

“The next big location!” But speaking of Jindabyne… I don’t necessarily see the film as specific to that one area. I think I could have made Somersault in a rural community in many places in the world.

The film shows a wintrier side of Australia than we’re used to see in films. Was that your intention from the outset?

It wasn’t my intention to show… anything. I wasn’t thinking about ‘what am I going to show‘. What I always imagined was the cold, and little red hands… sticking out of parkas… red cheeks and people’s breath on the air. that sort of thing. Mist across fields – I always imagined that when I was writing the script.

It’s certainly a chilly-looking film. During the Q+A you mentioned something about having something red every ten scenes or so.

What we did was we put a map up on the wall, like a really long wall-chart, and it was every scene in the film, we wrote what was in the scene, who was in the scene, and what red would appear in the scene, which was every ten to fifteen scenes – we knew that we had to have red in the film. And that was, like, taillights of cars, or her gloves, or her bare legs next to the heater, or something like that.

What does the colour red symbolise in the film?

Life, and passion, and blood… Just for me it had all sorts of connotations throughout previous drafts and this draft would be the most refined version of that.

The end credits refer to the Aurora programme, an “intensive” script-writing programme.

That programme wasn’t part of the script, that was more the pre-production. But the script writing itself was pretty intensive. I was in a hotel for two days with the script supervisors who came from America and Australia and the most important meeting I had was probably with Rob Festinger, who wrote In the Bedroom. He was an amazing guy, and made everything seem really casual… The way he spoke about the work was really casual – just his manner, he’s got a really easy manner, and he’s really funny. He made me decide to work on the script again – I’d had the script in a drawer for three years and said that I was never going to make it.

The film was originally going to be called More than Scarlet. One or two Ts?

One T, but there was a Gone with the Wind reference. Because she used to play a game in a previous version of the script where she was Scarlett O’Hara. Thank God, she doesn’t do that any more. What happened was I threw out the previous two scripts and started again on the last one, it actually became Somersault when we were finished shooting.

So More than Scarlet implies she’s like Scarlett O’Hara, but somehow ‘more than’ Scarlett?

Yeah, it was. I really hated that title.

But you dreamt it up.

Kind of. With the producer, we just had to find a title, and we did. but I’m much happier that it’s called Somersault, because it’s concise and it actually means something to me, it references her life. I looked it up in the dictionary and it said “To fall forward and land on your feet,” something like that.

At the end there’s the boy on a trampoline, and you think ‘Here comes the somersault’ but it doesn’t actually happen.

I’m glad he didn’t do it!

Some people may be surprised that Aurora includes American writers, and not just Australians and New Zealanders helping each other.

What’s great about the programme is – it’s called Aurora – and what’s great about it is that it doesn’t matter where people come from, it’s just to get the best people to work with. So this year they had Lynne Ramsay, and other people. They had Australian and New Zealand people – Rowan Woods [The Boys], Jane Campion, Chris Noonan who did Babe, Jan Chapman who did The Piano, so there were lots of different people, Australian and overseas.

Working with Jane Campion, were you ever worried about people drawing comparisons…

It’s so funny, you don’t ever compare… It’s other people that compare you. Of course, because Rowan Woods is my friend, I get scared sometimes and think, oh, I don’t want to show him my film, that sort of thing. But it’s because they’re your mates. But you don’t ever think “I’m like Jane Campion” or whoever. You just make the work, and the labels are put on you afterwards.

Their success made it easier for you to get started?

I think the big thing in Australia is that there’s been a lot of fantastic female film-makers. Like, when I was growing up, at high school, the first film we studied at high school was My Brilliant Career by Gillian Armstrong.

Have you met her?

Yeah, I met her. She’s great. Really nice. So, you just expected that you could do it. There was an expectation there. As well as Gillian Armstrong, there were people like Jocelyn Moorhouse [Proof], Jane Campion. Later there was Clara Law [The Goddess of 1967], there was Allison Maclean [Crush] from New Zealand. So there was, like, about eight women directors, who were 10 to 15 years older than me.

It’s not such a big a deal as, say, in America, where they made such a fuss about Sofia Coppola getting an Oscar nomination for Best Director…

It’s completely different to America. I direct TV as well, and often I’ll be working on a show – there’ll be eight directors and three, four or six might be women. It’s just taken for granted by the crews, and by everybody.

Is that a reflection of Australian society as a whole.

It’s so funny. I find it really unusual – last night we were doing the Q+A, and this Scottish guy said to me ‘All the men in your film are bastards, and that’s because Australian men are bastards.’ And there’s a real stereotype about Australia, and how rough people are. But the funny thing was we all went through equal opportunity schools, when we were public schooling – girls had to do what boys did and boys had to do what girls did. I think that started in the early seventies. There is a toughness to the people, both men and women…

That toughness comes through in the film – did you ever consider ending things on a tough, downbeat note?

He used to commit suicide – Sam Worthington’s character, Joe. He was very conflicted and the gay character Richard used to get bashed. I’m really happy that we steered well away from that, and didn’t make him a victim. He’s actually the most together person in the film.

Did you perhaps feel yourself getting too fond of the characters to be ‘mean’ to them?

I didn’t. When I was writing the script I was working with a 17-year-old girl, and I asked her, “What do you reckon Heidi would do, at the end of the film? Would she go off on another journey, or would she want to be with him, what would she want?” And she said, “Oh, no – she’d just want her mum.” It was very definite, and I really believed that that was true – she just wanted to be with her mum. She’s just a 15-year-old girl, you know. It just seemed like the most truthful thing, rather than working out whether it was gonna be a happy ending or a sad ending, or how to resolve things. It actually just seemed like the truth for the characters. And that was the whole rationale behind this draft – making everything as true to the characters as it could be.

How many full drafts were there altogether.

Say, over the last eight years, I’ve probably done four funded drafts, but also fiddled around, changed things, and thought about it. Originally it was three main characters: an older gay man, the Joe character – the young guy, and Heidi’s character, the young girl. And it was much more about the Joe character, his confused sexuality. He was sleeping with Richard and with Heidi and she finds out, and there was a lot of violence in the film. What I realised as I began this draft was that I had tried to work on narrative a lot in previous draft to the detriment of the characters. So what I was determined to do, and what I was advised to do, was actually to throw out the scripts and just write, for about two months, the characters’ lives in their own voices. Sometimes 40 pages. For the mother who’s on the screen for about eight minutes. So you really knew those people when you started writing.

It sounds like an exhausting process – next time do you feel like doing a much quicker, simpler sort of project?

No… you actually know those people so well that they’re actually real to you. It’s actually like you’ve created a real person. You know everything about them, their sense of humour, you know they had a dog who died when they were eight, that they used to have a cubby in the forest, they found Playboy magazines there once. Everything about those people, you know… You have dialogue all through it, everything. It so totally opens up the world to you.

Do you give this material to the actors?

No – often you don’t even talk to them about it, unless they really want to come and talk about, because often they don’t need to know, and I think it’s gonna impact on them badly, unless they’re that type of actor.

Some of the characters – sorry, some of the actors – asked me, they said “Did you have back stories for these people, and can we read them?” And those actors, of course, you just work with them the best way they want, and what’s going to work for them, so you just gave it to them. But some people, such as Sam Worthington, just want to work on what’s on the page, with the other actors and the director.

That’s what I call the ‘Julianne Moore’ approach – she never does any of this agonised preparation or research, she just goes from the text,

Yeah – “What’s here, how am I gonna play this now?”

And that certainly works for her.

Yeah, works very well!

Speaking of people like Julianne Moore – this film’s being acclaimed to the extent that one imagines you’ll be getting offers from American producers, Hollywood etc. Is that a direction you want to head in?

If I was offered something that I read, and I really really loved the script, and I met the people that I was going to work with, and I got on with them, then I would want to work on that project. But I certainly don’t want to go over and just do a project for the money. Because I’m not gonna do a good job – in the end it’s not good for any of us.

What do people like Jane Campion say about the Hollywood experience?

I have – and everyone’s advice is – just stay true to the project. If the project doesn’t get under your skin, don’t do it. Don’t think “Oh, maybe I can make it work if I cast this person, or… ” It’s gotta be “Fuck! I really wanna do this project.”

You’d rather lure the Julianne Moores of the world to Canberra or Jindabyne?

No – I’d like to work anywhere in the world. Like, I really admire Allison Maclean who did Jesus’ Son, and she did a lot of Sex and the City… She’s really great because she’s actually got firm ideas on what she wants to do, and she makes it work for her.

Jesus’ Son was based on short stories. Somersault has something of the feel of a novel, but it’s an original script idea. Is it your preference to develop stuff from your own ideas?

I’ve got a couple of things where I’m working with people that are adaptations of novels, and I’ve got other things that are original ideas. I’ve got three projects on the go at the moment, and I’d like to do a television show. It’s a police drama, but it’s not traditional police drama. The cop can’t fire in the line of duty and he’s put on a desk job in a police museum, where he has to curate old photographs of crime scenes. And he becomes obsessed, gets this sort of erotic attachments, to one of the women who’s been murdered in the photograph – a case from the sixties. And he goes about solving that crime. The title is The Silence.

Any actors lined up?

I’ve got an actor that I would absolutely love to work with, and when you’re doing television it always comes down to whether the network thinks he’ll get an audience.

Who’s that?

I can’t say! It always comes down to other people, and whether the package works.

Do you feel any pressure to make another movie, to act quickly on the back of Somersault?

No – I actually feel that I’d rather have a baby than make a film. I’d really like to have a baby and I think that if I work for 20 or 30 years and I do television and I do some feature films and I work with really good people, that’s great.

Which directors do you admire in particular.

There’s lots – I love Terrence Malick, Scorsese…

Malick uses lots of voice-over. Somersault is a project which could easily have used voice-over.

I kept thinking “Far out, we should have a voiceover”, but when we cut the film we didn’t need it. We didn’t want the film to be any more crowded… Space in the film is really important, and voiceover would have been… too much texture. And I really love the sound that we’ve got.

Of course, if there was just Heidi narrating it might not feel so much like it’s Joe’s story as well – but he really becomes like an equal character in the second half. Though he’s older, they’re at similar stages in their emotional development.

What we wanted, and it developed more as we were shooting – we realised that they’re two sides of the coin in a way. They both were sexual but they’d have had intimacy.

He’s behind her, perhaps, in terms of emotional development – she’s got the objectivity to assess feelings.

Yeah – I think at the end of the film he would change more than she would by meeting her. His life would change more – that’s interesting, because I think he’s in the film maybe a fifth of the time that Abby’s in the film. But Sam was such a great force in that film… On the page that role was not a massive role, but he totally imbued it with life, you know.

When he first appears, you’re not sure whether he’s just some bloke in a bar or if he’s going to turn into the male lead.

That’s what we wanted.

By the end, you really want them to be together, though of course it’s not practical.

I just think that would be so… well, she’s 15, he’s 25. She needs her mother – she’s a child, basically, almost. She’s on the cusp of being a woman but really what she needs is her mother’s love. She’s too young to be in a relationship with a man. And he needs to get out in the world.

The difference is maybe that she’s had to leave her home and experience new things, whereas he’s never really gotten away from Jindabyne…

I think they’re just different people… I think she would give him the impetus to change, and not judge so harshly everybody else, because he’s so scared they’re gonna find out who he is. That’s such a great lesson for any of us – to have humility towards other people. And when you’re young, you often don’t. You gotta… trip over a bit…

transcript : 15th October 2004

by Neil Young