Adding further proof that The Voices Project, run by the Australian Theatre for Young People, is fast becoming a breeding ground for outstanding shorts from some of Australia’s most talented filmmakers comes Melissa Anastasi’s This Feral Life. The powerful story of Mia’s headlong dive into debauchery as she attempts to deal with life, loss and longing in a small country Australian town. Anastasi joins us to discuss adapting Julia-Rose Lewis’ theatre monologue for screen and the importance of emotional truth and tone in storytelling.
This Feral Life was born out of The Voices Project – can you tell us how the scheme works and how you got involved?
The Voices Project is a young writers’ initiative of the Australian Theatre for Young People. They support emerging playwrights to create 10 minute theatre monologues around a theme, and then selected works are performed in a stage show. Some of these works are then made into films. Producer Dan Pritchard, who was familiar with my work, approached me with a couple of the monologues and asked me to select one. Immediately I responded to This Feral Life and could see its potential as a powerful film.
Mia’s repeated idea of leaving the place she grew up echoes themes in your earlier short Moving. Is that what drew you to want to direct This Feral Life over the other monologues you read?
Well, all of the monologues had in some way responded to the idea of ‘place’ as that was the theme of the theatre show. What drew me to this particular monologue was the character of Mia – she was this fierce young woman, trying so hard to be completely self-sufficient, but underneath that was this vulnerability and all of this hope. I really identified with her character, and in some way saw aspects of myself and friends I had around that age, in Mia.
The monologue was set completely in a cemetery, but in Mia’s speech there were clues of the kind of world she lived in, and as I read it many images and locations came to mind, as did the other characters in Mia’s life, so for me there was so much to work with, and it felt like a good fit for my aesthetic approach, and my interest in particular themes, about loss and moving on and being shaped by your past but not dominated by it. I have always been obsessed with the end of things in my films – death, the end of love, the end of innocence, or of a way of thinking. And with the death of one thing, the birth of another.
I have always been obsessed with the end of things in my films – death, the end of love, the end of innocence, or of a way of thinking.
How did you and Julia-Rose Lewis work together to adapt her original monologue for screen? How much freedom did you allow yourselves to deviate from the original text?
Working with Julia-Rose was fantastic. From our first meeting we just hit it off creatively and responded to each others’ ideas about the work. I talked to Julia about all of the ideas I had and we were just in simpatico with it. She was very open to exploring the subtext and broadening out the story and I would write and send her things, and we’d meet and talk. From the start it was always very important to me that the film adaptation stayed truthful to the original intention of the monologue.
The monologue itself was left in tact at the script stage, except for a few small trims. It was in the edit that I found that I needed to move sections of the monologue around to make the film work in a more coherent way. In the stage version the monologue is completely fragmented and stream of consciousness, and I found that for the film to work, a different ordering was necessary, particularly bringing the reveal of Mia’s father’s death forward, in order to ground the work in a key event, and also to enable more of a character arc, from the denial of grief to acceptance of loss, and in that acceptance, the ability to move on.
Also, I could recognise that with the adaptation to film, we had a real opportunity to create subtext and show things that are in conflict with what Mia is saying so that the audience can see very clearly that there are contradictions in this character, and that things aren’t as black and white as they may at first seem. She isn’t just an angsty teenager for the sake of it. She is working through trauma and grief and actually coming to real philosophical realisations about the world and her place in it.
Voice over is one of those narrative conventions which seems to fall foul of harsh criticism when not done right, how did you balance the film’s visuals against the extensive use of voice over in telling Mia’s story?
Well, I hope I have achieved that! For me the biggest consideration with regards to the monologue, was – what is the context – who is Mia speaking to – is it simply an inner stream, or is she addressing somebody? Reading the monologue, it felt disingenuous to place the entire thing as an inner reflection. Mia gets very worked up in different passages, and it really feels that she is addressing a listener of some description. At the same time, that person didn’t feel close to her but more of an outside observer, who she is trying to convince that she is ‘fine’. So I started toying with the idea of a faux documentary-like we are an observational doco crew with Mia, observing her at moments, and then at a few points she will speak out loud and will be aware of the presence of the camera.
Airlie Dodds (who plays Mia) and I also worked with this in the rehearsal process. I always had a camera with me, and in her most personal moments of private reflection, would have the camera going, so that she became completely comfortable with it as part of the story, and also aware of it as a vehicle that she could use if she wanted to. If she needed something to work against, she could use the camera as the other character in the scene. That may seem counter intuitive, to make an actor aware of the camera, but it became her most intimate companion throughout the film.
We shot much more of this than is used in the actual film, as the images and scenes of her life worked so well with a lot of the monologue as voiceover, but grounding it in a few to-camera scenes, helped set up an audience contract where they are invited into her story, rather than being outside it. She always knows that the audience is there.
When it came to filling the role of Mia, what was it that Airlie Dodds brought to the casting that let you know she was the right fit? How did you build up the character that she largely has to convey through expression alone?
I auditioned around 30 young women for the role of Mia, and Airlie was actually one of the first people I saw. Even after seeing everybody else, I just kept going back to her – she had this intense presence that really captured my attention, and as an actor without formal training, was drawing from a very personal and honest place.
Because of the nature of the piece, I approached the rehearsal process a bit differently than for other films. I did a lot of sensory memory exercises with Airlie, getting her to describe only the tastes, smells and images around key events from her own life and having her tell those back to me on camera, and only later if she felt comfortable disclosing the actual memory. We’d make a note of things that had particular resonance, to bring up during takes. We were trying to build an inner world that she could be working with whilst delivering the monologue and/or shooting all of those scenes of her alone on the streets and bridges and wide open spaces of her town. And in the cemetery.
Also taking in objects – earth covered potatoes and rough stones, a tennis ball, things that she could interact with on a physical level and articulate memories and feelings around. I got her to throw things and improvise around scenes and shout at me and to get me to believe things she wanted me to believe. I also got her to write letters to the other characters in the film.
We created a huge amount of backstory about her family situation, and improvised a lot around backstory also. All of this was to give her things to work with and play against, which really helped ground the pages and pages of dialogue in specific moments. Making each line about something specific was very important. Airlie was a great collaborator and we had a lot of fun working together in this way.
This Feral Life put me in mind of Cate Shortland’s feature Somersault, was that an influence on the project? Where did you draw inspiration from?
I usually gather a whole bunch of influences from different places when preparing for a film, a bit like a bowerbird building a nest. I reference a lot of photographic work, and other films and stuff that I find online. For This Feral Life I gathered photographic references from all over – there is so much interesting work out there by young photographers that I find really inspiring.
Whilst preparing I was watching a lot of UK cinema actually, so films like The Arbor and Fish Tank and the films of Lynne Ramsay were big influences. The Arbor blew my mind, I was really inspired by the way it played with form. I love Cate Shortland’s work and have referenced it for other projects and find it really inspiring, but yeah for this film those other references were there a lot. I’m also a huge fan of Terrence Malick, and the period sections of Tree of Life was also an influence; that impressionistic immersion in the textural world of the characters is something that I find myself trying to attain in my own work.
Also, Seamus Mullen the DP and I went out to the locations and shot beforehand and he edited together some mood pieces to music that was tonally in line with the film, which was very useful and a good way of us getting into each other’s heads and into the physical world of the film.
You’ve spoken about the importance of all the elements working towards the emotional tone and truth of the film. How did those considerations translate to how you and Seamus Mullen chose to shoot This Feral Life?
Seamus and I have worked together a couple of times now, so we have a good understanding of each other’s sensibilities. We spent time looking through different references and talking about the character’s journey, and how we could best use lighting and camera movement to emulate that. We wanted to shoot as much as possible at dusk and dawn, to capture that sense of things changing and shifting in shape, as that is what is going on for Mia throughout the film. Shooting scenes in darkness and in silhouette was part of taking the audience into Mia’s loneliness, as was cutting from close ups to big wides. In terms of framing, we always wanted to shoot a combination of fairly tight shots of Mia’s face and her point of view of the world, juxtaposed against big wides that gave a sense of the character’s isolation within this empty suburban wasteland.
Having characters break the fourth wall and look into the camera was also a key decision in taking the work initially into a documentary style space with Mia, and then further and further into her subjective headspace as she imagines all of the people in her life staring at her and judging her. In terms of the colour palette and editing style, it was really about emulating the world view of the character, based on what she said and what she was going through. There is a slightly desaturated quality to the world, with more and more colour seeping in as the film goes on, to reflect her own journey towards a more hopeful future.
We also used slow motion, very sparingly, for the shots of Mia walking up the hallway, and repeated that throughout the film, finally leading us into the bedroom where Mia’s father died. This felt very much like a memory, and was a great motif to edit around. Also selecting locations that spoke of that sense of urban isolation was important, worn places with texture and grit, that would visually tell the story of the world Mia inhabits. And sharing music that was how we felt the film should resonate emotionally was actually a big part of it.
Then as mentioned earlier we drove around to the locations and shot some material there and got a sense of the light, as natural light was always going to be a big part of the shoot, and we scheduled our days to shoot key material in the afternoon and at sunset. Due to the budget constraints, we shot with fairly cheap lightweight equipment that wouldn’t require much support or chew up much time in setting up, so we shot with a shoulder rigged Blackmagic cinema camera (and a 7D for the slowmo) and used lighting sparingly – for the house scenes, and just a portable LED for a few night shots. This enabled Seamus to respond intuitively to the improvised scenes with the actors – he is an incredible handheld camera operator, and I really love what he can do in those situations. We went handheld for most of the shoot so that the camera would emulate a sense of movement and change and energy, rather than remaining static.
In some ways it felt like we were making music.
Your improvisational approach during the shoot meant you had a lot of material to play with in the edit. How much did the form of the film shift during post?
The edit was a lot of fun, but quite challenging because the whole has a very specific rhythm – in some ways it felt like we were making music. The first cut we stuck to the script, but then it was apparent that we needed to reorder the monologue itself for the film to really work. So there was a lot of experimentation with moving the words around. The concepts for the visuals and the improvised scenes are all still there, but just reordered. We did have to cut about four paragraphs of monologue, just to keep the running time down, and because it just became overwhelming, and we wanted to have breathing space in it.
You’ve consistently moved between fiction and documentary pieces throughout your career, where are you heading next?
My focus has always been on drama, although I also love documentary and am doing some work in that space also. But my next project is a short film set in the snowy mountains, and I’m working on a few feature drama ideas that should take more shape in the next 12 months. Ideally I’d love to be shooting my first feature in the next couple of years.