Building From the Details
Mar 22, 2013
Seven years ago, Australian writer/director Cate Shortland spoke to Under the Radar at length about her award-winning debut feature, Somersault. The film's lead actors, Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington, were unknown to U.S. audiences back then but have gone on to successful careers in Hollywood. Shortland seemed primed to do the same. At the end of the interview, she mentioned a few projects that were brewing, including one set in Baltimore. However, none of them materialized. Instead, she moved to South Africa with her husband, filmmaker Tony Krawitz, converted to Judaism and adopted two African children. Life pulled Shortland away from those projects but also would inform her second feature, Lore, a World War II story about a German teenage girl who must lead her younger siblings to safety after their Nazi parents are imprisoned by Allied forces.
Lore is an adaptation of Rachel Seiffert's novel, The Dark Room. Seiffert is an English writer, but Shortland chose to make Lore a German-language film, which required having her adaptation translated, as Shortland does not speak German. Taking another chance, the director cast first-time actress Saskia Rosendahl as the title character, a young girl who is forced to question her own beliefs as she sees her world turned upside down and the lives of her family threatened. Under the Radar met with Shortland in Los Angeles in November to discuss these challenges as well as other facets of the making of Lore.
When we spoke in 2006, you mentioned three other projects that were on your horizon: Patchwork Planet, an adaptation of a British book, and a film set in Bali. Did any of those get anywhere?
I stopped working on the Balinese film, and I'm hopefully gonna shoot that next year. That's the one I've sorta stayed with. The others, I didn't feel as passionate about as I felt about Lore, so I stopped working on those and kept going with this one.
Had Lore been in the picture when we last spoke?
I had the novel. Robin Mukherjee did the first two drafts, and then I took over the writing. And, as soon as I started writing it and thinking about it, it was the one that felt the most truthful. Maybe the others felt more like movies. But this one felt more like I knew the people, or I felt close to the people.
Between Somersault and Lore, I know you did The Silence.
Yeah, for television.
Apart from that, did you take time off?
I went and lived in Africa. I have two African children, and my husband was writing a script in Johannesburg, so I had a couple of years living there, and we were working outside Soweto. So that was an incredible experience, especially doing that work before I made this film. 'Cause, in a way, it was like working in an apocalyptic environment. We were working with HIV and TB.
Did you adopt your children during this time?
Yeah, do you want to see a photo?
[Shortland leaves the room and returns with a photo of her children on her phone.] They're so cute.
How long of a process was that?
It was two years to do the adoption. So that's why we lived in South Africa for two years. My son was 11 when we adopted him, and so he worked on this film with me. He was 17 when we shot the film, and he was my video operator. He stood next to me for the whole shoot, so that was really fantastic, and he was part of the camera team.
So life took over for a while.
Yeah, but it was a choice. I had to make a choice. I'm so happy I made that choice, because you can always come back to film, but you can't always have a family.
Did you turn down projects during that time?
Also, when we last spoke, we talked a little about Lynne Ramsay. Before last year, I had been wondering, "When is Lynne gonna make another film? When is Cate gonna make another film?"
Yeah, I know. I think maybe women approach filmmaking in a different way, perhaps.
The workaholic mentality?
Well, it's not a career. It's like a passion, and maybe I can only do films if I think I'm really gonna do a good job, and I'm really gonna want to live with that for years. I should be more money-oriented, 'cause we're broke, but I can never take just a job. I have to take something that's just totally gonna become my life.
Speaking of money-oriented, was there ever any doubt that this would be a German-language film?
I said, about four years ago, "Guys, I'm really sorry, but I can't direct the film unless it's in German." And then there were a couple of days of debate. And then the producers said, "OK." And that was a really tough decision, because I don't speak German, but I had a lot of filmmakers around me who were making films in languages that aren't their mother tongue. Films like Lilya 4-Ever or Babel , so there were a lot of examples of films that had worked and the director doesn't speak the language. There are also some examples of films that don't work, but the producers put a lot of trust in me.
I wanted to ask about the casting, particularly your lead actress.
She's great, isn't she?
I don't see any other credits to her name.
No, it's her first film.
So what was the casting process like?
Casting took six weeks. It's a low-budget film. So that was quite a lot of time for us. I saw a photograph of her in the first week, and I said, "Oh no, please don't bring her in. She's just this Aryan goddess. She's beautiful. It wouldn't work." And then, we still hadn't found the right girl, and then the casting director brought her in the last week of casting; we started preproduction that week. And, I was actually just looking at the casting tapes this week, because we're doing the making-of, and just the way she carried herself and this inner strength and grace, 'cause she's a classically trained dancer. And she speaks like four languages. She's phenomenally intelligent, and, really, no bullshit, every day going to work with her was such a pleasure.
How old is she?
She was 17.
In the novel, was the girl 12?
In the novel, the girl was 12, and we made her 14.
Was that because of your actress?
In Germany, if we'd have made her 12, we could only shoot four hours a day. And also, we added a much more— There was a sexual element to the book, but we brought that out. And there was a violent element to the book, and we accentuated that. And having her older gave us more options and more nuances than if she was younger.
Had Saskia been though auditions before? Was this something that she wanted to do?
I don't think so. Saskia's a very self-contained person. It's not like she needs acting. She doesn't crave attention in any way. In fact, quite the opposite. I really want her to work with great directors and make more films, but I don't know if she will because it's not something she has this passionate desire for. She talks about wanting to travel in South America. She not thinking, "I just want to move to Hollywood and make big movies."
I spoke to Andrea Arnold last month and asked her about Katie Jarvis, her lead actress in Fish Tank, who had never acted before and hasn't been in a film since then. They keep in touch, and Andrea said that Katie still wants to do something, but you never know.
You never know, that's right.
Was there anything that you found surprising, either during the research or making of the film, about the history and events you were depicting?
I think it confronted my own perceptions. I think I tried to think that I was more open, but maybe I did have this perception that there was something inherently evil in German culture, which sounds terrible, but I think I had to fight that the whole way and look at every character as a human being and not as a Nazi monster. That was probably a big learning curve for me.
And how Germans have dealt with their history, the transparency with which they deal with their history has been really interesting, compared to how Australians would deal with theirs.
I saw that Lore played at a festival in Hamburg. Has it opened in Germany?
We screened there, and we got the Critics Award. And then we screened in Frankfurt, and we got the Directors Award. So, the two screenings we've had in Germany have been really great.
What were the challenges of working in German for this film?
I had to learn not to worry about the text, and to look at what the actors were doing to see what I was feeling, instead of this sort of cerebral thing. I had to let it be a far more emotional experience. I couldn't be a control freak, even if I wanted to be, which I do want to be. [Laughs] So, that was fantastic. I just had to watch and interact as if I were observing something I'd seen for the very first time. I had done the translation with the translator, I knew what they were saying, but I didn't know the order of the words. So, it was kind of liberating.
For this film, you broke away from your team of Bob Humphries and Anthony Anderson. Was that difficult to do?
It was really scary not to shoot with Bob, 'cause we'd shot so much together. The whole process for me was about trust. I was working with a production designer and a costume designer and a DP and a First AD that I'd never worked with before. So, it was immense growing time just learning to trust people and not to compare them to anybody else, just to look at their strengths. Yeah, it was a really good experience.
There are still some of the stylistic touches from Somersault, such as the shots of nature that are interspersed. Why are those important to you in telling a story?
I think the way I look at things is detail. So, perhaps, in this room I might not look at the whole room. I might look at the color of your skin or a shadow or something. And that's how I direct. And that's how Rachel Seiffert wrote the book, The Dark Room, which the film is based on. So she talks about the veins in people's skin, the stitching coming undone on someone's shirt. It was written in these beautiful fragments, and that's how we approached the work, was building it up from the details out. We'd start on this [pointing to her teacup], the transparency of the tea bag.
There is a lot of beautiful imagery in those shots. Was that conveyed in the book as well?
Yeah, that was the striking thing, and it's something you don't often see in films, especially films with anything to do with the holocaust. I watched Claude Lanzmann's Shoah again, and he talks about that, and the people he interviewed talk about that, that as massacres were happening, and horrendous acts of inhumanity were happening, the forest was still growing around them, and there were still flowers and birds, and the sky was blue. And often, when we portray it on screen, it becomes this very dark place, and the reality is that nature goes on regardless of what humanity does.
Did you shoot form the hip this time around?
Do you mean improvisation?
We did a lot of improvisation, and a lot of it's in the film.
—with the actors?
A lot of stuff's improvised.
And when you have a first-time actress?
She'd just go with it. She'd just keep going. [Laughs]
Where are you living these days?
I live back in Sydney. We were living in Berlin, and in Johannesburg, and now we're back in Sydney. So we're back home.
Assuming that you've seen Avatar, what was your reaction to seeing Sam Worthington in it?
Joyous. I always feel great joy— I feel great joy when I'm in the room with him. He's a beautiful guy, and I love Sam, so I always feel really happy— [Laughs] It sounds really banal, but that's how I feel. He makes me happy. I'm working with Sam at the moment. We're doing a miniseries for television. It's on Gallipoli, which was a huge battle in World War I. It's about the first entrenched war journalists.
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