“I once filmed a couple who lost a child to cancer and they were so raw and fragile and broken. It’s that depth of truth that becomes the measuring point. It tells me if I’m getting this level of truth from my performances.” – Kim Farrant.
Interview by Matthew Eeles:
Strangerland is your first feature film. How has the experience been so far?
It’s been amazing. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been a long, long road. 13 years. [Laughs]. I’ve learnt a lot as a filmmaker, I’ve grown a lot and I’ve learnt a lot as a woman. It all happened in the right time but sometimes a long the way I was wilful and wanted it to happen in my time line, but it happened in the timeline that it needed to happen. I’m grateful for all of that now because there are many things I learnt as the script developed – there was rigorous work on the script. I went and made other films as a director which then made me grow. I feel that by the time I got to direct Strangerland I was ready. I felt like I had earned it and I felt equipped and excited to do it. The amazing thing was that those themes I was interested in, and the reason why I wanted to tell it, was still alive in me after 13 years.
You’re an experienced documentary filmmaker? Has that experience come through in Strangerland – which takes place in a very realistic world?
Well, I’d say the shooting style isn’t necessarily documentary-like except for the hand-held camera aspect of it, which is a very steady hand-held camera. What informed me from my documentary work was the ability to prepare, to do all my research, to do all my character work, rehearsals with the actors and storyboards and then let all that go and be really present in the moment on set to all of the dynamics, like what the weather was doing, what the props gave us, what the location guys gave us, what the actors brought fresh in that moment, what the feeling or the vibe of the camera was doing. All of those factors mean that if you’re really present in that moment then you can experience electricity. When you’re a doc filmmaker that’s what you have to do all the time. You have to be completely present to what’s happening in each moment.
The documentary experience also gave me a barometer for truth. I know what real life looks like. I once filmed a couple who lost a child to cancer and they were so raw and fragile and broken. It’s that depth of truth that becomes the measuring point. It tells me if I’m getting this level of truth from my performances. If I’m not then I have to go deeper and really push the actors to get the level of intensity that I want.
Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving certainly bring an incredible intensity to each of their roles. Were they, as an ensemble, everything you hoped for?
The part of casting that I think is most interesting is that you can have two actors who, by themselves, are really interesting, but you want to make sure there’s chemistry with other actors and that there’s polarity, because polarities attract. Those different elements were so exciting in the casting of those three leads. Jo and Nicole are both open to improvisation in their work. Sometimes we would improvise into a take, which was really exciting and it brought a lot of freshness to the moment. Sometimes we would improvise during a take to keep things spontaneous and alive. They were always happy to roll with that which made it incredibly dynamic and intense on set.
Every actor has a different process and need that you want to make sure you’re respecting as a director. Sometimes their need is for space, sometimes they want to be left alone or to joke around and other times they want to be able to prep for the next moment and not engage with anyone in the cast or crew.
I would tune in to what they needed in each moment. Sometimes I would work and prepare with an actor before a take and other times I would completely leave them alone. It’s about whatever works for the moment.
Before we attached the cast Fiona and I did a lot of research into the parents of children who had gone missing and we also spoke to a lot of cops in the missing persons unit. When the cast came on board we got them access to particular couples who had lost their children and they were able to speak with them. They were amazing and so informative. The film, in a way, is dedicated to them and anyone who has had a child go missing and the state of limbo that throws you in and the harrowing grief that comes with it. The research definitely informed us and the way that we told and ended the story because their journey in real life is what we were aspiring to depict in the film. Sometimes television broadcasters and studios want us to think that everyone wants everything to be nicely tied up neatly in a bow. I think a lot of us find it difficult to sit with the uncertainty and the impermanence of life but for the parents of the children who go missing there is no certainty, there is no resolution, no conclusion and there are often no answers and the child is never found. Where does that leave you as a human being in that state of limbo? That’s what we wanted to explore and how people cope and deal with that. The story is not just for people who have lost their children. It’s for anyone who has had an experience where life side swipes you and you’re grasping for some certainty.
I want to read you a quote from your director’s statement about how you coped with your father’s death and the overwhelming grief you’ve said you weren’t prepared for.
“I found myself wanting to connect, to feel fully alive, to make love, to fuck, to feel something… anything… other than the dark cloud of grief shrouding my heart.”
Obviously wanting to make love and fuck isn’t something that everyone desires in times of grief. How are you expecting (or hoping) audiences to react to scenes in Strangerland inspired by your very personal desires?
Great question. And you’re the only one who’s been brave enough to ask it. [Laughs].
My experience was something that happened in New York. I didn’t know anyone, I was alone, I had those encounters with a couple of strangers and it really threw me that I would do that. I was 22 and I was young. I was left with a lot of shame around those experiences but because it happened behind closed doors and no one saw it and no one new about it I kept it a secret and then I felt very ashamed about it. That shame imploded and festered inside of me and I was left with it for a long time. Years later, after more life experiences and more difficult challenges, I wondered if I was the only person who felt like that. Of course I realised I wasn’t, but how would I know? No one ever talks about it. You can see people out at a pub getting completely drunk and know they may be suffering grief or in some form of pain because sometimes we drink on our feelings. Sometimes we see people taking drugs to numb their pain or you see people excessively exercising. Violence is another way of coping and dealing with extreme feelings. So I thought, “How do we really know how many people sexualise their pain, their grief, anxiety and their rage? How do we actually measure that?” We can’t because it’s something that happens in isolation behind closed doors. I wanted to shine a light on that for those who have ever experienced that and for those who have had it as an addiction or a compulsion. Also for those who have ever been sexually objectified.
As a young child I remember people saying, “she’s so pretty” or “she’s so beautiful” and I was learning that if I was pretty and beautiful then I would get love and attention. I think a lot of woman and young men grow up with those feelings. You can learn that through your body you can receive praise just by how you look. I was also interested in exploring where that leads because if that’s your vehicle for getting love and then you have a crises, you’re going to go to the love because you’re in survival mode. I wanted to shine a light on this area which is often clouded in shame. Hopefully through that we can foster more self forgiveness and more compassion but also reduce judgement from others. Hopefully people will see themselves in the characters of Strangerland, and also see a propensity to judge.
One of the most amazing things I was told during the research was that when people go missing, especially in the outback, everyone gathers together and everyone wants to find those missing people but after a couple of days people get bored. People get frustrated and annoyed that they can’t find them because they want to know. When they can’t find them people start accusing other people and suddenly you have these towns in crises where everyone is casting blame and suspicion on each other but really it’s just the mind and it’s devilish need to know and understand and control.
Well that’s a great answer to a question I was a little nervous about asking.
[Laughs]. Well I’m glad you asked it.
Something that’s seldom seen in Australian films is CGI which I imagine is because of the costs involved. How did you find creating and shooting the red dust storm?
How to make a missive dust storm was one of the things I learnt a lot about while making this film. [Laughs]. In a real dust storm there’s a wall of dust that rolls through and it’s very eerie. We watched a lot of videos of real dust storms and we had a dust storm consultant. The next question was how are we going to create this dust storm? The special effects team worked out that anything that was in the foreground would be shot in camera and that we could create that with massive wind turbines and guys walking around with backpacks full of dust. Anything that was mid-ground would be created with CGI. We were lucky enough to have the Mad Max Fury Road special effects team onboard who were in the land of dust storms and in that world. [Laughs].
I can see the similarities.
They had done a lot of research on how to make it look real and have our particular objects fly through the air. When you’re in a dust storm it goes from being daylight and then as soon as the front hits you you go into a blackout then a brownout and it’s this real surreal experience that, for us, was so important to capture. You can’t see anything. Because we had our characters looking at each other through a vale of suspicion, metaphorically it was perfect. It allowed the parents to be covered in dust. What was once a respectable family unit is now covered in dust and debris and no one was getting out unscathed. It said so much symbolically.