The Australian writer-turned-director chews over the controversy surrounding her feature debut, Sleeping Beauty.
Australian novelist, screenwriter and now director Julia Leigh doesn't play by convention. Sleeping Beauty, starring Emily Browning as a university student caught up in a hidden world of illicit desires, opened the Cannes Film Festival back in May, with Leigh brushing shoulders with some of her most dignified contemporaries. LWLies caught up with Leigh recently to find out how she's coped with all the attention surrounding her striking feature debut.
LWLies: We were wondering how the early conversations went between you and Emily Browning. Presumably you approached her after writing the script, we read that you put it together in about 10 days or so. We just wanted to get a flavour of those early conversations, whether you kind of had to sell the idea to her, whether she kind of jumped at it immediately, just to get a flavour of how the collaboration came about.
Leigh: Sure, sure. Just, can I quickly say about the script? I did write it quickly, the first draft, and then I took much longer to basically develop it myself by showing it to my friends, a few people I knew in the business and I set about finding a producer who recognised the script for what it was.
Okay, that’s interesting…
But yeah the most important burst of writing happened quickly, yeah.
And that’s interesting actually, when you say you say ‘a producer who recognised the script for what it was’, what does that mean and how many producers…
It means, I saw at least a dozen producers I’d say, and some did say basically ‘no way’, but some of them said ‘oh’, y’know, 'We love the concept but we’d like you do X, Y and Z' and in the end I just found a producer who was prepared to make the film as it was written, which is not to say that there wasn’t some fine tuning along the way, there certainly was throughout the making of the film, but yeah I sort of opted to get the script to where I wanted it.
So was the feeling that you had put together something that was too controversial? That was an exploitation movie?
The people who said no? Look, I don’t really know all their reasons for saying no. I think... a combination, I assume. The nature of the material, I was a first-time director, y’know. I try not to think about it too much.
Yeah, the fact is someone said yes and we can move on, that’s fine. So back to those early conversations between Emily Browning, so what was her reaction to it originally?
Well, so she was sent the script and I was told she really loved the script and she put down a test on tape. I saw her test, I thought she was great, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I think she’s very beautiful; she has a strange beauty that appeals to me. And, yes then we had the meeting between the actor and the director and I flew down to Melbourne to meet her. She was visiting her hometown and we talked about the project. She didn’t really have any qualms about the script, I think the thing that she was most concerned about was the first scene in the film where Lucy has to swallow the tube with balloon on the end.
Did you film that for real? It looks real and it certainly sounded real.
Well, the magician must never reveal his tricks.
Okay, well we can definitely tell you that it had the probably desired effect. Because we sat there finding it difficult to breathe, feeling vaguely sick myself.
I must confess that I do love that opening scene and on the few occasions that I’ve actually watched the film with an audience around me I do just watch the audience during the opening scene and I watch their body language and I watch people’s reactions.
As they try to crawl into their seats.
And I can tell it’s working.
We just finished working on an issue around Drive, the Ryan Gosling/Nicolas Refn film.
I’ve not seen it.
It’s a good film. We saw it at Cannes and one of the things they both talk about is the… Friendship is almost not quite the right word but when you find a collaborator who you understand and who you like, what a valuable thing that is for an actor and a director, and we wondered if you kind of echoed that sentiment, if you think that that relationship between actor and director is kind of crucial to how it turns out?
Yes, it’s my first film but I imagine that it must be crucial for every film. I see part of my job as the director is to help the actor do their best work, so I don’t necessarily see myself as the actor’s best friend but I am quite scrupulous about being trustworthy, y’know. I always keep my word. And let’s say, when shooting Sleeping Beauty, sometimes Emily had to do multiple takes for some of the scenes and if I said this would be the last take, it was true. I didn’t come back and say, 'Oh, just do one more.' And that was to basically to earn people’s trust.
Before you started on set did you have an idea of the kind of director you hoped you would be and did you kind of find that the reality was different to that?
Well, all I know is the way that I did it. I don’t really know any other ways. But, yeah, look I just try not to crowd out the actor too much.
Do you see Sleeping Beauty kind of specifically as part of a tradition of movies that are dealing with sexual politics, if you kind of see any forebears in a way?
I think the subject matter inevitably lends itself to that kind of reading, I mean we are talking about a story where older men pay to sleep alongside a drugged young girl, I mean that’s a… The film actually has antecedence in the culture. You have the classic fairytale. You have the bible story of King David descending out to sleep beside young virgins. I mean imagine what that would have been like for those young girls. You have a very well known novella by Gabriel García Márquez that tell the story from the point of view of an older man paying to spend the night alongside a drugged girl. You have sleeping girls on the Internet, so a couple of these things were out there in the ether and I was responding to them and transforming them.
Do you see it maybe more as an interrogation of age than of sex even?
Age is certainly… What I like to say is for me the story is made whole by its concern with age, with the portraits of the older men. You know, these men are invited in to a space where they are told that there is no shame here. So they are given, really, a permission to reveal their innermost selves and I hope the audience finds that intriguing. I don’t think it’s something that we often get to see in terms of older male characters.
Did you find when the film screened in Cannes that the debate around the film adequately represented what you were trying to achieve? Did you feel that people were talking about things that were interesting or was there a measure of kind of getting sidetracked by this idea that this is Emily Browning, a young actress and she spends the whole film naked.
Look, as a filmmaker I can’t control what people say about the film and there are many, many reactions. I don’t really know but I have a feeling that people might have the impression that they’re going to see things in the film that actually aren’t in the film. Like, for example, actual fucking in the chamber and you don’t actually see that, you see something more interesting, I think. So, to answer your question, there’s no one particular way I want people to talk about the film. I can’t really control it.
Did you play much of a role in the release of the marketing materials? Everyone hopes for a mature response, and then what you need to do is sell the film and sell the messages that are in the film. Were you conscious of that and did you get to play much of a role in choosing the images that were put out there?
I did have a role in approving the stills that we used, but we had quite a wide pool of approved stills. So I did have a say in that, not the final say but I think it was pretty collaborative. In the press materials I did quite a long director’s note and conversation which I’m pleased I did, but again it’s not my role. I was involved, but I didn’t have final say over the marketing.
Do you think in cinema the concept of the nude exists as well? Does the way we shoot the body and way that we understand the body and present the body on film, do you think there is an idea of the nude in cinema in the same way that there is in art and you’re sort of contributing to a body of work about that?
Well, I would say yes, shorthand. I think that’s a great avenue to explore and the answer has to be yes. I gave a great deal of thought to have we would cover those chamber scenes. And, by the way, other nude scenes like the inspection scene or Lucy getting out of bed to put on her underwear and get back in to bed. So I gave a great deal of thought in to the camera and how we would do that all in one long shot. I hoped that the camera would be a tender, steady witness and the point of view of the camera in the chamber where it’s pretty much on the fourth wall of that room which involves the audience. I did want the audience to knowingly watch the film so to be aware of the act of watching and similarly to bring their hearing up to quite an acute level; that feeling where you could have heard a pin drop. I wanted to sort of heighten the responses of the audience. And it is a heightened film, it’s not strictly naturalistic.
Not at all, and the dialogue as well, some of the dialogue scenes particularly between Emily’s character and Clara, the matriarch of the home, the scenes between them particularly have a kind of flavour...
Yeah, so I’m not aiming for… I’m very far from the kitchen sink.
Presumably that’s something that you have to prepare very carefully for. The way the film is lit has almost a kind of two dimensionality to it. There’s a huge amount of depth of field to it, there’s some quite sort of static, tableux kind of scenes and in the edit, there are a lot of fade to black shots which make it a very specific idiom. Did that come out of conversations with your technical crew?
Yeah, in terms of the lighting. With the DP, what I did not want was a high contrast look. I did not want dark shadows released against brighter light, which is something you work on in the grade. And we sort of wanted a gentle light, if that makes sense. A sort of slight strangeness you know? Strange and beautiful.
Was Cannes an enjoyable experience? How was it for you and the reality of it being there with a film?
Well it was my first film festival by the way.
Your first ever film festival?
Wow, so that’s quite in at the deep end.
Yes, so I didn’t have a lot to compare it with. I’m about to go to Toronto so that will be my second festival.
Yeah, you’re not messing around with any of these small time festivals. Start with Cannes, go to Toronto.
Yeah, but Cannes was a really wonderful experience. I was so busy. It was kind of crazy. I did have one quite funny moment – my family came and I was walking along with my French publicist and I turned to my mother and I said 'Mum, did you ever read the script?', and she went 'no', and the French publicist sort of covered his mouth in horror. Of course, all good artists must transcend their mothers.
Yeah, never was truer advice spoken. Did she like the film?
She’s very supportive. It’s not the kind of cinema that she usually goes to.
Was her response a kind of, 'That’s nice dear, me and your Dad are very proud'?
Erm, yeah. More or less. She was genuinely proud, yeah.
We were wondering as well what the lessons are that you’ll take forward from this experience on to the next project. The key things you’ve learned.
I think, it’s not easy. It would be a massive understatement to say it’s not easy to make a feature film. And there were times that I felt like I was being battered in the high seas and at those times I clung to my script and the material for ballast. You will face so many obstacles and so many trials that you really have to have something to hold on to in those difficult moments and that has to be why you’re making that particular film.