“It’s a little bit harder as a woman to get a film financed in this country as a director,” says filmmaker Kim Farrant who has just made her feature film debut with the taut new Australian psychological drama Strangerland.
In the film Farrant explores how people cope with crises. In this case, the Parker family has just moved to a new town in the outback and are thrown into a crisis when they discover that their two teenage children have gone missing. The worried couple (played by Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) seek help from the townsfolk and the local cop (played by Hugo Weaving).
Farrant wanted to explore themes of how we act out and cope in times of crises. “I was interested in that because I think we all deal with extreme pressure in different ways,” she continues. “Some of us resort to drinking, or taking pills, or drugs, blaming others, and that can lead to violence in some cases. And for some people that can be acting out sexually or sexualising their grief or anxiety. So we were really fascinated by how people really grasp at different things to try and get some permanence back under their feet when they feel completely assailed by life, when life sideswipes you and you don’t know where to turn and you’re full of anxiety. Especially when children are missing, which is every parent’s worst nightmare, you’re kind of left in limbo, wondering what’s going to happen? Are they going to survive?
“In the case of missing children, people want to find fault somewhere. That feeling of uncertainty can implode into rage, and that can be cast on others. So there’s a kind of blame that starts oozing out between the family members and also the community, from the local police, and to the real family of missing persons. It’s horrific what they go through because not only is there a child missing but they are also the first prime suspects from the police.”
But the film doesn’t provide any easy answers, which was a deliberate choice on the part of Farrant and her scriptwriters. Farrant researched the topic with parents whose kids have disappeared. “What was so harrowing to witness in them was this kind of eternal state of limbo that they live in, that kind of not knowing,” she elaborates. “And every time the phone rings they think ‘maybe it’s my child calling.’ This could go on for years and years, there’s no closure. And so however you experience it, life is full of impermanence, and we wanted to be true to that and not just give you a classic Hollywood studio ending where everything’s tied up in a bow but to leave you in the deep like a lot of parents of missing children who never really know.”
Farrant says that the film took thirteen years to bring to the screen from its initial conception. Farrant approached Fiona Seres first with the basic idea for the film, and they developed an early draft of the film. Several years later writer Michael Kinirons came aboard to polish the script. When writing the script Nicole Kidman was high on Farrant’s wish list of actors to play the pivotal role of Catherine, the mother of the missing children.
“Nicole’s an incredibly brave actress as seen in films like Dogville, with Lars Von Trier, and The Paperboy and Rabbit Hole. When she read this script she loved it, it was so sparsely written. The lead female was three dimensional and full of all these different qualities. She wasn’t just somebody’s wife, she was a character with her own arc, who goes on an emotional journey. She’s full of flaws, she has some tragic flaws that come out, and she was a very complex, layered character.
“I think Nicole really saw this as an opportunity to express that she’s a deeply sensitive person. And in some moments in the film she’s so extremely vulnerable and exposed, and in a way the character can’t cover up anymore. We all walk around and some of the time we have these masks or public personas, and Catherine can’t hold that mask up anymore. Nicole was very willing, giving and extraordinary I think to go that far.”
The script found its way to Kidman because she and Weaving share the same agent. Farrant had made a short film with Weaving, and she cast him as the policeman early in the process. When Weaving’s American agent read the script he passed it on to Kidman, who read it overnight and immediately came aboard. “I got a call saying ‘Nicole wants to do your movie’ and I was like ‘OMG!’ That was pretty amazing! ” she recalls.
Initially Guy Pearce was slated to play Catherine’s husband Martin, but due to scheduling difficulties he had to pull out. In stepped Joseph Fiennes. Although he was committed to another film at the time, he was able to postpone that other film to do Strangerland. But Farrant admits that juggling all those schedules for the cast was something of a nightmare.
Much of the drama takes place in a remote and unforgiving landscape that was harsh and brutal, and the film is at times reminiscent of other great Australian cinema classic like Wake In Fright, Walkabout, and even Peter Weir’s enigmatic and haunting Picnic At Hanging Rock. “We were interested in putting our characters under the extreme pressure of being out in the land and away from all technology and the comforts of connection, and seeing what happens to them in that environment,” Farrant explains. “People talk about being in the bush, that when people first get out there they go through a technology detox. I think that’s true because you’re kind of left in these vast spaces with all these thoughts running around in your head and they become a lot louder when you don’t have all these distractions. So that was a strong influence as well.”
Strangerland is the debut feature film for Farrant, who trained as an actor both here and in the States before taking up a career as a director. A veteran of short films, documentaries and television series including Rush, she also directed the feature length documentary Naked Inside Me. This gave her plenty of experience and confidence. “It gave me the opportunity to explore,” she says. “I’ve directed television, and that was fantastic in terms of the rigorous schedules and learning how to do between 35 and 40 set ups a day. I’ve made quite a few half hour documentaries, and that was a kind of truth barometer, which I then take to all the work I do in drama. There’s such emotional rawness and intimacy there. When I’m directing actors I have to be able to get that same level of truthful performance out of them.”
Some of the films and filmmakers that have influenced Farrant were Danish cinema, and in particular directors like Lars Von Trier and Susanne Bier, and also great Australian filmmakers like Jane Campion and Peter Weir. Farrant admits to also being a huge Cassavetes fan, and says that his film A Woman Under The Influence was a big influence on the character of Catherine. She also admires Sean Penn, and his films such as The Indian Runner, The Pledge and The Crossing Guard. “I think he’s an amazing director,” she says. “Big films for me have looked at the emotional dynamics within families.”
According to a recent Screen Australia report, only about 16% of films made in Australia have been directed by female directors. “It’s a little bit harder as a woman to get a film financed in this country as a director,” Farrant says. “The fact that only about 16% of our feature films are made by female directors is a problem,” she continues, although she seems a little hesitant to explore in too much detail what she labels as a rather controversial topic given her position.
She goes on to repeat an anecdote about going shopping for an outfit to wear to a meeting with Screen Australia to finalise the funding for Strangerland. She was accompanied by a male friend, who was well educated and who had worked in the arts industry for a long time, and he advised her to wear pants and a shirt rather than dresses.
“When told that she needed to be able to show that she can lead a crew of 100 people, her response was: “‘So, I have to look like a man in order to be able to direct a film? I don’t understand that. I have to have a penis to be able to direct a film? Is that how it works?’ But obviously it’s not. I was on set and I wore dresses, and I wore skirts, I inhabited my femininity and I led a crew of 85, and there wasn’t a problem. But I think that with that kind of thinking there are some issues that need to be looked at, through regulation in the film industry and through education about what we can teach our young people about gender equality.”
Nonetheless, Farrant is busy developing a number of new projects that will keep her in the director’s chair for quite some time yet. She is developing a new tv series with a writer in New York called Random, an ambitious anthology series which is looking at the shadow sides of sexuality. Other likely projects include a UK psychological thriller called Hush Money, for Michael Winterbottom’s company,and the other is an indie drama in the States called The Evil In Me, which is, according to Farrant, a darker version of Little Miss Sunshine.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television