Q&A with the writer and director of Somersault
Apr 01, 2006 Web Exclusive
Cate Shortland didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a filmmaker or rubbing shoulders with international celebrities at the Cannes Film Festival, but that’s where the Australian director found herself two years ago when her feature-length debut, Somersault, premiered as a selection in the festival’s Un Certain Regard, a category that favors new talent. Somersault, which went on to win all 13 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards for 2004, is a breathtaking showcase for the skills of its filmmakers and cast, particularly Shortland and lead actress Abbie Cornish, who plays Heidi, a character embellished by Shortland long before production on Somersault commenced. Cornish’s embodiment of the character is so penetrating, it’s not surprising that Shortland, when interviewed, still speaks of Heidi as if she’s flesh and blood, or that she once mistakenly refers to Cornish the actress as Heidi. I spoke with Shortland by phone days before the U.S. theatrical release of Somersault.
Has it really been 10 years since you began conceiving the script for Somersault?
What happened was, it started as a short film idea that was probably going to be like a 10-minute film. And then I spoke to Anthony Anderson, who was a friend of mine, who ended up producing the film, and told him the story, which was way different to what it is now, but it had a similar theme, and he said he felt maybe I should write it out to be like a half-hour drama. And then I did that, and then it just seemed to continue. So the idea came to me when I was making short films, but it wasn’t as a feature film.
Could you have imagined that you’d still be talking about this idea 10 years later?
No. I didn’t imagine four years ago that I was even going to make the film. It was really Anthony pushing me to do the last draft. ‘Cause I was ready to give it away, and it was Anthony pushing me to get the draft out again and have another look and to start fresh that got me excited about it again. So I’m so grateful to him.
How did you meet Anthony?
I met him at about four o’clock in the morning crossing the street. He’d just been a waiter at a party, and he’d gone to pick up a coffee and newspaper, and I was crossing the street with a group of friends, and we were on our way to another party, and he said, “Oh, I’ll come with you.” And that’s how I met him. So I met him on a traffic island at one of Australia’s busiest streets, Oxford Street, in Darlinghurst.
Were you in interested in becoming a filmmaker long before you began studying it?
No. What I really wanted to do, thought about doing, was being a photographer, and I had friends that were photographers, and I hung out with photographers. I hung out in photography studios, and then I started doing film theory, and it was like all the ideas came together when I started doing film theory, like the idea of making images telling stories and actually having a meaning out of those stories. ‘Cause what I was watching when I was doing film theory was, I suppose, heavy European films. And what I’d been brought up on was a steady diet of commercial American film. So that really challenged me—I was about a 20-year-old—to just open my eyes as to what was out there.
You had made some well-received short films before shooting Somersault, but you also directed some television episodes.
Yeah. I was eight months out of film school and couldn't get a job and wasn’t sure what I was gonna do, and was asked if I’d come in and speak to these people about this show called The Secret Life of Us. And [I] spoke to them, and then they asked me to do the first episode of the show. And I was really floored by that, working with a full crew. And it was in another city. It was in Melbourne, and living away from my home just seemed like a massive leap, but it ended up being fantastic. ‘Cause it was really, really hard and really stressful and it taught me a lot about working with crews and getting results really quickly, which is what you have to do on low-budget filmmaking as well.
I was wondering if you had difficulty transitioning from film to TV and back to film, but evidently it served you well to have this experience going into your first feature.
Yeah, and then I’ve done another mini-series which has just gone to air in Australia.
What's that called?
The Silence. It was two parts, so I directed both episodes.
Did Somersault have its public debut at Cannes?
Yeah, in Un Certain Regard.
What was that experience like?
It’s like tripping I suppose. It’s like you can’t believe that you’rethere, and everything is so surreal and it’s so outside of your ordinary experience. It’s kind of wonderful. It’s not about filmmaking; it’s something else completely different. And also the French treat it as an art form, which really in Australia we don’t. And that was refreshing. It was a really beautiful experience, but it’s just so out of the ordinary. Cannes is filled with like Russian mafiosos and starlets, and then it’s got art house cinema and it’s got pornography; it’s got everything. So it was kind of a wild experience, a great experience.
Were you able to watch the film with the French audience?
Yeah, I watched it the night it screened in Un Certain Regard. And that was really beautiful. That was probably the best screening that we’ve ever had in terms of the emotion of the screening. The audience was really emotional and showed such beautiful generosity to us, which was great.
Who else from the cast and crew was able to share that with you?
Jan Chapman, who's our executive producer, and Abbie who plays Heidi, and Sam [Worthington] who plays Joe, and Anthony. And Decoder Ring were also there, who did the music.
How did they end up doing the music for Somersault?
The editor, Scott Gray, had a friend that worked in a record store, and he suggested to Scott to have a listen to this new kind of electronic music, to see if it would work for the film, because they’re really influenced by cinema. And one of the members of the band doesn’t actually play an instrument; what he does is collect archival footage and he projects that during the concert. They compose to image, so that was kind of how we came to them. And then we met them, and just their knowledge and also the depth of emotion that they could bring to it was really beautiful. Because it’s not like traditional score; it’s very minimal and that was also important to me, that it wasn’t sort of strings and piano, that it kind of had a different feel to it.
And then there were the AFI awards. How gratifying was that?
It was really great, but it was also a difficult time in Australia in film. And what was causing a lot of the problems was that we didn’t make a lot of films that year, and also the films we were making didn’t get a strong critical or audience response. So it was kind of hard for me, because I made this film in this year that wasn’t seen as a great year. It was kind of a double-edged sword. Our film actually got a fantastic critical response in Australia and overseas, but the actual atmosphere in Australia at that time in the filmmaking community wasn’t great. So it was sometimes a little bit difficult.
In the press notes I read that Heidi was partly based on a girl you observed when working with children. But then I also read that she was based on a girl you worked with in a jeans shop.
Yeah, she’s a bit of both. The girl I worked with in the jeans shop was actually called Heidi, but I worked with emotionally disturbed kids for a few years, and we had this beautiful little girl there that was about, I think, 13, and would always go missing, and she’d be on buses and in the city, and the police would be called, and we’d have to go and get her. But what she’d often do is just approach men, like businessmen or the milkman, or a guy sitting at a bus stop, and she’d sit down and start talking to him and say, “What’s your name?” and “My name’s Heidi,” and then she would say, “Where are you going?” and this guy would say, “Oh, I'm going home,” and she’d say, “Oh, can I come with you?” So she was really, really damaged. But also what she’d do was, she’d climb bridges and get on top of buildings and— yeah, she was really mixed up, but incredibly smart and never really felt sorry for herself. It sounds strange, but she had a really strong sense of herself, and I always remembered her and I found her very inspiring.
Do you have any idea what became of her?
No, I don’t. I really hope that she ended up OK. ‘Cause half of her was so strong and yet the other half, you know, she’d had such terrible things happen to her. So you don’t know which side actually won out in the end, or if someone took advantage—too much advantage.
In every synopsis I've read of Somersault, it mentions that Heidi is 16 years old. Do you think this is obvious to the viewer just by watching the film?
She was actually 15, but we put it up to 16 for the censors in Australia. So we scripted it as 15. Why, do you think she seems older?
It wasn’t until after seeing the film that I read that Heidi is 16, and itcame as a surprise to me. I thought maybe I missed something that told me that she’s 16. So I was just wondering if indeed there is something in the film to tell us that.
No, there’s not. In a way, it wouldn’t matter to me if she was 13 or 17. Because what she’s doing, she could be those ages. It’s the damage that she sort of causes herself and the experiences that she’s having, and the feelings that she has, it’s— you know, I know women that are 29 that are still almost doing what she’s doing, the mistakes that she’s making. The great thing about her is, for me, that she has this fantastic love of detail and love of imagery and has this interior life that is really untouched, and I think that’s kind of her strength. So her age, there’s nothing I suppose in the film that gives it away; she’s, in a way, a generic teenager.
The scene when Bianca's father drives Heidi to the lake, is it up to the viewer to determine what happens between them there, or in your eyes is it pretty straightforward?
No, I think it’s up to the viewer, because some people would think that he dropped her home, and other people would think that something else happened between them. So yeah, I like leaving things like that up to the viewer.
I hope it’s OK to tell you this, but the first time I saw Somersault, I found myself reacting to some scenes the same way as when I saw Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar. I wanted to know if you had seen that film before shooting Somersault?
Yeah, I did actually. I saw it about a couple weeks before we were filming. And I met Lynne Ramsay when we were in post-production. She came out to Australia, and we spoke to each other about what we were doing. Yeah, I likedMorvern Callar a lot. I'm excited to see what she does next.
Is it coincidence that I saw some similarities, or do you think her film had some kind of influence?
Um, [extended pause] I found it really inspiring when I saw it, but it wasn’t like we watched it and went, “Oh, we should do this, or this, or this.” What I loved about it was that she was really strong to her vision. The film to me has such integrity, and it’s really fresh, and all of those things I found incredibly inspiring. I found it really contemporary and, I don’t know, just filled with this beautiful usefulness. Nothing stodgy or staid about it, and not hung up on narrative, and I loved that. That kind of gave me strength. And it was more about emotion than the three-act structure, or moving from one incident to the next. Whenever you see stuff like that, you just think, “Ah, God.” You just want to be stronger, want to be a stronger filmmaker.
On set, who required more of your attention: Abbie Cornish or Robert Humphreys?
Sam Worthington, by far. ‘Cause Bob Humphreys and I have worked for like 10 years, so there’s hardly any real communication between us on set. We spend our Sundays together. So we were doing six-day shoots, and then Bob and I would have breakfast and then meet up and spend like five hours together, and then go through the next week’s shoot, so that when we’re on set we don’t have to speak. Because we don’t have enough time to speak. We shot the film in five weeks, so it was pretty rushed. But definitely the person I spoke the most to was Sam Worthington, when I sometimes felt terrible because I took it for granted often that Abbie knew what she was doing.
Was it that you felt pretty sure about how Abbie was doing?
Yeah, she kind of knew what she was doing from the very first day she came in for casting. She had this amazing instinct when it came to Heidi. All the other girls came in and they were flirting, and Abbie came in and she played her really straight and really contained, and it was just so spot on that the only times she and I would really discuss in depth on set how we were gonna change something was [when] I’d say, “Are you using that voice?” And that voice was this kind of, it’s almost like a teenage girl’s voice. It’s a pleading voice or a sort of a whiny voice, and Heidi never uses that voice. Her delivery should always be really flat. Yeah, that’s where Abbie and I spoke the most, ‘cause we had three weeks work rehearsal, so we really, really talked a lot in rehearsal.
One of my favorite moments in Abbie’s performance is Heidi's reaction to her name tag at the BP. She’s holding back this smile.
Yeah, she’s so proud of it.
Were there points during the filming when the landscape or weather conditions dictated scenes that were not in the shooting script?
The way we shot the film, we overexposed the film two stops when we were shooting, and then when we processed the film we had to pull it back two stops. So what it meant was, when we were shooting, we couldn’t shoot in direct sunlight; otherwise, the film would actually burn out. And that caused us massive problems ‘cause we could only shoot our exterior scenes either in shadow or in the mornings or the [evenings]. There’s very few things shot in the middle of the day ‘cause the Australian sun is so strong. One thing we were very lucky with though is the snow came very late that year, so when we arrived we were all wearing t-shirts and walking around thinking, “Aw, we’re never ever gonna to get any snow.” And then I think it snowed for about three weeks. And we were at the base of the snow field, so there wasn’t much snow where we were, but what we were doing was trucking it down, and then the art department would scoop it out and put it around.
When Heidi’s leaving town on the bus, there’s a flash of light that looks almost as if film stock had run out. Was that the case?
No, I think it’s the sun dipping and coming out suddenly, and we cut on the sun popping out.
Were there any times when you were on location and you saw something that made you think, “Oh, I've got to shoot this,” even though it wasn’t in the script? Or was the budget so tight that you couldn't really—
No, that’s kind of how we shoot a lot of stuff because we shoot it a little bit like a documentary. And if there was a beautiful sky or something that we wanted to shoot, we’d end up using that location in that way. It’s really fluid the way that we try and work; nothing’s locked down, nothing’s storyboarded. And Bob Humphreys, his background is like 20 years of documentary cinematography. So he’s just such a pleasure to work with because you can change things on the spur of the moment. Of course, you can’t light one way and then suddenly say to Bob, “Oh, actually I want to turn the other way.” But you can pretty much change things quite dramatically, and he won’t complain. He’ll go with it because it’s what is needed in the scene.
Who was responsible for putting together Heidi’s diary for the shoot?
That was our art department, and they hired a young girl who was at art school. And then Melinda Doring, who was our production designer, and this young girl and I, just all talked about diaries and looked at different young girls’ diaries, and that’s how we put it together. And Abbie also had a big input into the diary. Abbie actually did a lot of collages that you see in the film; they’re Abbie's work, so that’s really great.
And the text that was written in it?
That was all scripted. Like the featured text, the stuff you actually can read, that was scripted. But all the other stuff we just made up.
I think I saw a reference to someone named Jack in there.
Yeah, it’s probably like her granddad.
Are you working on a script or film now?
Yeah, I’m working on a film set in Baltimore called Patchwork Planet. And I’m working on a British book, adapting that. And I’m working on a film set in Bali which I’m writing.
Wow, you have a lot on you plate right now.
I do, yeah, pretty busy.
I was in Baltimore about a week ago visiting my sister.
Is it a great place? I can’t wait to go there now. I’m really looking forward to it.