A languid atmosphere pervades every frame of Broken Bunny. In the late summer heat, children dance on the grass, caught in a long, unbroken, static take. When a mother’s voice calls her daughter off-frame, this childhood innocence feels ruptured, even though the adult isn’t seen. Also lingering around the corner is the premonition of older age and the loss of innocence, found in the presence of a wounded bunny. Meredith Hama-Brown – who last joined us with beguiling journey into the afterlife And, We Disappear – carefully crafts a portrait of growing up with unnerving static frames and keenly-felt sound design, resulting in a deliciously-rendered sense of moral ambiguity. We caught up with the writer/director to discuss working with child actors, feline cameos and the personal inspiration which started it all.
Tell me about the casting process for your trio of young girls.
We didn’t have a casting director for our film so we just posted a few open casting calls. We started by receiving some self tapes and then brought some of the girls in for an in-person audition. The auditions were quite thorough. So many of the kids were such naturals but I wanted to make sure I could direct them well and really get a specific type of performance from them. In the end, we ended up with our amazing three leads, Vanessa Przada, Bracken Hanke and Ashley Wood.
What inspired you to have this bunny at the centre of this film?
The first part of the film is loosely based on an experience of mine. I came into contact with a very injured rabbit (I was older than these characters, however). I knew it wouldn’t live but struggled with the idea of putting it out of its misery. I called my mom for advice and meanwhile, another girl found it and picked it up. The bunny was in no shape to be picked up and it must have only been in greater pain. I was thinking that the person who tried to help it must be quite naive but at the same time I couldn’t really face killing it myself either. And without that courage at the time, I couldn’t really help it. Even if I ran after the other girl, I wasn’t really prepared to offer a better solution. I still feel bad for the pain the bunny must have been in.
Aside from the beginning of the film being based on reality, I wanted to capture more than simply my experience. I wanted the film to be about the inevitability of death and a child’s first realization of it. I guess the bunny could have been any animal but there is something so sweet and innocent about bunnies that it just stuck.
And the bunny itself, it’s real right? Did you have a handler on set?
Yes, the bunny is real! But the injuries were not. Those were done with VFX by Freddy Chavez Olmos. And we did have a handler on set, Bonnie Judd. I was terrified the night before we shot the bunny scenes because especially with all of the long takes that we had, I was certain that something would go wrong and our time with the bunny would be rushed. I guess that’s the most stressful thing about working in film is that there are so many unknown variables. In the end the animals were great! Everything went smoothly and we got the shots exactly as envisioned.
I wanted the film to be about the inevitability of death and a child’s first realization of it.
The cat steals the show in its one scene with some appropriate, uncaring stretches. Was this on the first take or did you specifically want the cat to move like this?
The cat (Spike) was an unplanned animal! He was the best surprise of the shoot and he was the resident’s pet at the location we were shooting. The owner was lovely and thrilled when we suggested placing him in the shot. I was in luck because I really wanted a symmetry in the story: three girls, three shots of their homes, three conversations with their parents. It only made sense to have three animals.
The Production Designer Sophie Jarvis has a cat of her own and was really great at picking up Spike and putting him in the shot. And then he just happened to do the funniest, most perfect blocking! Sometimes the unplanned parts of filmmaking are what make it most special and I couldn’t imagine the film without Spike’s cameo now.
Usually children are told to be seen but not heard. Here we have parents who are heard but not seen. Why did you want to create a world without adults?
The idea for the adults to always be off screen was something that happened intuitively. It’s really just how I envisioned the scenes taking place when I was writing the script. I think this desire for the scenes to play out this way was likely that I didn’t want an adult to come into the scene and pierce the bubble that the girls all exist in.
Children have the tendency to overact sometimes, but here you let them underact a little to create the vibe of the film. Was it a challenge?
Not a challenge at all. I always put a lot of emphasis on the casting process to really make sure I cast the right people. The actors were amazing and it was so easy working with them. I really lucked out. But we also did some thorough rehearsals which I think helped us to be on the same page once we got to set. A lot of this wasn’t running the scenes but just talking with them about what the scenes were about and what style I was hoping to achieve with the performances.
I loved the use of widescreen, deep focus, long takes and this atmosphere of stillness and strangeness it creates. For me the style helps to create a morally ambiguous atmosphere. What was the intention of this style here?
This was a big question I was asking myself during the initial stages of prep. At first I was planning to shoot it much more intimately, hand-held, etc. I wanted to create the feeling that we were swept up in her journey. But something felt very off about approaching the film this way and it was really bugging me. I realized that I actually wanted to do the exact opposite. The reason is that, as an adult, this story to me would have been a bit boring and predictable if I shot it that way.
It’s not really a massive surprise that the bunny has to be put out of its misery, but what adds much more tension for me is to watch this from a distance, objectively, not taking on the characters’ subjective view and seeing the impending doom approaching. It’s less a question about what will happen to the bunny and more of an observation of when the girls will realize it when shot this way. And to me, that was more interesting and in line with what I wanted to explore.
The futility of seeking control feels even more amplified to me when shown through a highly controlled camera.
Also, the static, wide and often centred frames, shot on Arricam LT/2-Perf 35mm with Cooke Speed Panchro lenses, point to a feeling of rigid control. I wanted it to feel very controlled because that is exactly what the protagonist is trying to achieve. For some reason, oddly, the futility of seeking control feels even more amplified to me when shown through a highly controlled camera. All of these ideas were developed and clarified in conversation with Director of Photography Norm Li. It really helped to have someone as insightful as him to help push visual ideas to their maximum potential.
Was it a challenge getting the blocking right, because it’s so precise?
The overall blocking was quite easy, even though as mentioned, it was precise. I think the actors were just great at being meticulous with where they landed in the frame.
Though not exactly blocking, I think the physical performances were a bit more challenging. I wanted to find with the actors the right balance of a slightly elevated/stylised physicality, while still also feeling subtle and naturalistic. They almost seem to be contradictory performance styles so it was really just about finding the right amount of each. I wouldn’t call it a big challenge. Again, the actors were really intuitive about it all and it was easy to find. In rehearsals we also discussed the stylized nature of some of the physicality so I think they understood the reasoning and were able to pull it off so well on set.
I wanted to find with the actors the right balance of a slightly elevated/stylised physicality, while still also feeling subtle and naturalistic.
The film hinges upon quite a dark decision at the end. What I love is that you can’t tell why exactly she did it, but the implication leaves an unsettling feeling. Tell me about how you wanted to frame that scene.
Well, the initial idea was that she kills the rabbit because she sees it isn’t going to live and wants to spare it any more pain. In the writing process some readers also brought up that it could seem as if she kills the bunny out of jealously or something more malicious. At first I was worried about this double meaning, but before shooting the project I decided that it was actually interesting for the film to have ambiguity in this moment. I decided to embrace both interpretations because I think they both encompass the heart of the theme, which is about disillusionment and a loss of innocence.
What are you working on next?
I am currently writing a feature film that I hope I will be able to get off the ground! I’m also always looking to do more short narrative films and would love to do more music videos when possible.
Broken Bunny is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.