The Australian novelist’s first foray into film directing is not the Sleeping Beauty we all know and love. The story of a young woman’s induction into the strange sexual practice of being drugged to sleep whilst older men pay to be alone with her, Julia Leigh’s debut is a very creepy yet visually elegant work. BEV sat down with the director to talk about her inspiration and the leap from the literary world to the cinematic. Interview by Laura Bushell (www.laurabushell.com).
Part of your inspiration for Sleeping Beauty came from a recurring dream you had, can you tell me about that?
After the publication of my first novel I had to do a little bit of press and I contracted this horrible nightmare of being filmed in my sleep. It was quite compelling because the dreamer dreams she’s asleep in her own bed, when in fact she is asleep in her own bed. I realised we’re all quite vulnerable in our sleep and sometimes it’s as if we wake up and edit out our nights as if they haven’t happened. So I wondered what would it be like to know that something was happening in your sleep and know it probably wasn’t good for you? How would that seep through into your waking life?
Was this always an idea for a film script or could it have been a novel?
Yes, this idea came to me as a cinematic project, I never asked myself if it should be a book or a film, that didn’t even occur to me.
I wrote the script quite quickly and I wasn’t thinking any further than just finishing the draft, so I didn’t think I would necessarily direct it. Then at a certain point in time, and I honestly can’t remember the occasion, the sentiment became ‘I’ll just do it myself’.
How was the development process and finding a producer?
I tried many producers, about fourteen or so. Some said ‘No way’. Some said ‘We really love it but we want you to make changes to the script’, changes that I didn’t agree with. In the end I found a producer who recognised the script for what it was and we made a deal that this would be the script that would be shot.
How did you prepare for the transition between the literary and the cinematic?
The cinematic qualities of the film were in the script, in the conception of the project. I did an enormous amount of preparation! Some scenes we even prepared so much that we got actors that weren’t in the film just to block out the movements using a video camera and then we took that into rehearsal with the real actors. So it evolved through that process and then we took it to set on the day.
So it was quite a planned shoot, you didn’t end up with loads of extra coverage?
There was quite a lot of planning, but that said there are always things that happen on the day and I’m always very open to that. But yes, because of the shooting style this was something that we really had to plan. One of the challenges of course was holding onto a sense of pace, because we were not going to be able to build pace in the edit, I had to try and always be aware of the flow of the film.
How would you describe the style of the film?
I hope that the style allows the audience to use its imagination. I chose to shoot scenes in these long takes and I think of the camera as a tender, steady witness. In a way this shooting style allows the audience to really watch the film knowingly, almost to the point of complicity.
I’m interested in that phrase, ‘tender, steady witness’. Could you elaborate?
I guess there’s an openness to the way of shooting. I saw Klute recently and it had Jane Fonda being watched, and I thought that was a very voyeuristic style of filmmaking in terms of camera technique. Sleeping Beauty’s not like that, it’s more open. I prefer to watch knowingly or to witness than to be a voyeur, but I do appreciate that those lines get blurred.
And when it came to casting, what attracted you to Emily Browning?
Emily did a wonderful test and I really couldn’t take my eyes off her. I find her very beautiful, I think she has a strange beauty. She understood the script and it resonated with her. In her test I saw she could bring this tip of the iceberg feeling, she got that sense of the quiet, willful, recklessness of Lucy but she side-stepped the danger of a self-pitying character. She was very brave, she had no qualms about the scenes, she’d read the script and knew what was in the story.
Lucy could be seen as quite passive, just sleeping through the whole experience. But the act of her doing this is pretty feisty and rebellious.
She has this perverse provocation to the world, sort of ‘My cheek is turned, try me.’ I certainly do not see her as simply passive, I think she’s quite a radical person.
Did you feel you had to build up the trust between the two of you for some of the scenes?
Yes, trust was hugely important, for the actors and for everybody. I think our rehearsal process did establish that sense of trust, I just always tried to maintain that.
Of course it’s also true for the male actors too.
Yes, exactly, it’s definitely worth pointing out that this is a story of Lucy and her youth, but it’s made whole by these stories of the older men. The men also have very demanding scenes and it’s very rare that you ever get to see older men as exposed in every sense. One character says ‘There’s no shame here, no one can see you,’ but of course the audience can, which pulls us into the film in an unusual way.
Another unusual touch that affects the audience is the monologue straight to camera.
It’s good not to be too schematic in a work so people feel that they know what’s going to happen next. It’s good to shake things up a bit so that people are really waiting to see what will unfold. That monologue is very important to the film as a whole and I see it as a direct transmission of the character’s wisdom. There’s something quite ancient about the experience of looking at a big human figure, it goes back to religious sculptures or Easter Island. It affects us on an animal level, that’s why I think a film in the cinema is great, compared to seeing it on DVD.
It’s self-reflexive, like that dream you had. It makes you remember you’re in the cinema
Yes, that the camera’s there.
A male journalist in the UK said that no man could have made Sleeping Beauty. What do you think about that?
Well I tend to think that nobody else but me could have made the film, that’s how I feel about that.
Do you mind your gender being raised in relation to being a director?
I have no problem if people want to raise it. Once you’ve made a film and put it out there, people want to talk to you about your work so it’s out of my hands. But the figures about the number of women directors don’t lie.
Well, thanks very much for your time. I hope doing the press in the UK doesn’t give you nightmares!
What is going to happen now? I dread to think! [Laughs].
Sleeping Beauty opens in UK cinemas on Friday October 14th. Don’t forget, buying a cinema ticket to see a film on its opening weekend positively impacts the life of the film and is a wonderful way to support women filmmakers. Thank you!