Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, who directed Blackbird in Berlin back in 2005, discusses the challenges of adapting the play for the screen in Una, as well as the differences between directing for stage and screen. Go to part 2 of the interview.
With his feature debut Una, acclaimed Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews proves he’s just as adept at directing for the screen as he is for the stage. Perhaps best known for his recent Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster, Andrews’ film deserves to be seen by a wider audience though it’s still seeking North American distribution.
Based on David Harrower’s play Blackbird — recently staged on Broadway with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels — which he also adapted for the screen, the film is about the confrontation between two ex-lovers, Una (Rooney Mara) and the much older Ray (Ben Mendehlson). But they haven’t seen each other in more than a decade, when they were neighbours and lovers, and Una was only 13. They were both traumatized by the events and their aftermath, and their meeting now is about finding peace, unleashing anger, and tapping into old lust, abuse, and guilt.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with director Benedict Andrews to discuss adapting a play for the screen and the differences between directing a piece of theatre and a film, from performance to staging and beyond. An edited version of our discussion follows and will be published in two parts.The play is two people locked in a room. It’s extremely rhetorical. It’s some of the sharpest, most brilliant blow-for-blow two-hander writing in the history of modern playwriting. Click To Tweet
7R: What made you want to do this particular story, which was a play, as a film?
Benedict Andrews: I directed the play at the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin in 2005, in German. The play had really stayed with me and stayed under my skin. I wanted to make a film for a very long time. I was looking for the right project.
I was very fascinated with the idea in Blackbird, from the time of directing it. I started to think that there was something in it that would offer me a route out of the theatre into the cinema. The challenge and the paradox of how does a piece of theatre become genuinely a film was exactly what I was working on as a theatre-maker starting to make a film.
The play is two people locked in a room. It’s extremely rhetorical. It’s some of the sharpest, most brilliant blow-for-blow two-hander writing in the history of modern playwriting. You’re locked in a room with those two people, and it’s all words.Blackbird is a story about time: wounds, unresolved scar tissue still existing over 15 years, events of 15 years ago that have become unspeakable and resurface in the present.Click To Tweet
I have been profoundly influenced by Tarkovsky and Deleuze, understanding that the space of cinema is an inquiry into time. Duration or emotional time is the special property of the cinema. It’s the real moment that is recorded for eternity, that one moment that’s recorded, as opposed to in the theatre, where they replay that again over and over.
I became fascinated by how Blackbird is a story about time: wounds, unresolved scar tissue still existing over 15 years, events of 15 years ago that have become unspeakable and resurface in the present. So I started to think about great cinema that’s predicated upon that like Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It’s the same idea of time and flashbacks and the present being ruptured by the past: they’re not neat narrative flashbacks. They’re absolutely part of the crisis of the characters and the fabric of the film. That seemed to me a really great limitation.
7R: What was the difference between telling this story on stage versus screen?
Benedict Andrews: I’d done a nice production of the play in Berlin in 2005 with wonderful actors there. It was an extremely tough, well acted, quite intimate production at the Schaubühne Institute Theatre in Germany. That was its own thing. Other directors have done their own very good productions of the play and many more will. It exists as a great piece of literature. I don’t need to go to the theatre to see a perfect rendition of that. It has to become something else.I didn’t want to rely on what I do in the theatre at all. But I wanted to draw on it very deeply.Click To Tweet
I’ve had an inquiry into film for a long time, watching films and reading literature about cinema. I’ve been really obsessed with it. But how would that happen? I didn’t want to rely on what I do in the theatre at all. But I wanted to draw on it very deeply. The most obvious space for that is performance. But that’s kind of what I do is get good performances out of people. Although it’s a performance driven film, it’s a hell of a lot more of that, as well. It has deep cinematic space in it.
It was very interesting that very fine line between drawing on the play, but letting it become something else, losing the language. Language is so important in that play, but David and I, in David’s script, were quite careful to not try and replicate it. For instance, in the play, you have this brilliant, brittle, broken, fractured language. They hardly ever finish a sentence. The first lines are “A shock.” “Yes.” “So.” “What?” “Uh”. There’s a kind of fractured jazz in that. We’re not trying to replicate that. I guess that’s the confidence in David as a writer, saying, “The play already exists.”
But I guess when you’re making a piece [of theatre], that’s what experimentation is about. You’re looking to find new ways to express things. For example, that turning stage [in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire, set in a theatre in the round where the stage turns 360 degrees], we invented that, my team and I, in order to, like a can opener, take the lid off the play and invite the audience to see the nervous system somehow.
That’s also part of filmmaking, to invent new ways for how the camera moves and what it does. I feel I’m really at the beginning of that. The idea of the labyrinth in this was a way for me and my team to structure the ideas, whether it’s that cul-de-sac that she lives in and the repetition of the houses there and the idyllic garden around it versus those long aisles of stacked containers. They’re both ways for me to animate the camera.
7R: How do you lead the two of them out of that room they’re confined to in the play?
Benedict Andrews: Partly, that is, “Let’s open up their lives around them.” But as an impetus for the filmmaking, the idea that we were following her, Una, through a labyrinth, in the present and the past: beginning with the girl walking around the side of the house through to her walking down the street at the end of the film. That was a way of getting out of the closed room of the theatre.Film allows me to enter spaces that I could never enter as a theatre maker.Click To Tweet
Within doing that, while I wanted to make something genuinely cinematic, it still allowed me an opportunity to reflect on the play’s fossil of theatre inside the film. For instance, the use of long takes, but also the use of closed down, claustrophobic rooms. The progression from that room that is the play into the room with the boxes into the two toilets — she’s in the cubicle and he’s on the other side of the mirror — allows me to enter spaces that I could never enter as a theatre maker.
Sometimes, in my theatre, people have said that it’s very cinematic. They don’t mean realism. They mean a sense of space and deep space, the way I get close to people, and the split perspective in the theatre.
7R: How do you find it different directing performance in theatre versus film?
Benedict Andrews: In the theatre, I rehearse for weeks on end and kind of rehearse the shit out of things. I think my rehearsal rooms tend to be very dynamic, muscular places where we cover a lot of territory and where I ask them to do very difficult things. They ask each other to do very difficult things, too, and to be raw and emotionally naked.
Over the course of that rehearsal, you get very lost. You have time to get lost. There are moments when they feel everything I say is completely untrue, where they feel “Oh God, will this ever be truthful?” When you’ve gone through all these processes and kind of shredded through impulses, on the other side of that, in front of an audience, it becomes true. They need that deep digging so they can pretend to be real, or they can be real. They can do it for the first time again and again and again in the game that they play with the audience.I didn’t want to wear out their meeting or their chemistry beforehand. So we didn’t rehearse.Click To Tweet
Although I could have drawn on all of those skills with these guys, I was very certain that that was not the way into this for us. I didn’t want to wear out their meeting or their chemistry beforehand. So we didn’t rehearse. We had a couple of days around a table, mostly discussing the script, letting that flex. I discuss the script a lot in a theatre rehearsal room.
But I didn’t want them to intellectualize it too much. They’re both extremely smart, instinctive actors. So what I was trying to do with these actors being asked to go to very raw, brave places, it had to happen for them in the moment. It was about me doing what I would do over the course of a theatre rehearsal room, but just having one shot. Going in and whispering, “Try this” to her and “This” to him.
It has to happen for the camera. It’s useless if you’ve shot your fireworks in the rehearsal room in film. That’s a different craft from the theatre where you have to have bled and wept all over the rehearsal room floor with its markup tape in order to reconstruct it on the stage in front of the lights and all those eyes.The whole film is based on two people whose relationship is lived in bubbles.Click To Tweet
There’s no handheld in the film. So it wasn’t like, “we’ll prioritize the performances, shoot handheld.” That would be an obvious thing for a theatre director to do. You could go for a sort of neo-Cassevetes realism, put the camera right there. For various reasons, we decided not to do that, for the tension of the material and for the strange, uncertain relationship to the subject positions that it needed. Sometimes, the camera is just an observer pushing in. It helps to create this very gripping, quite claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. We worked with a very small team. In the glass room, there was all this rotting garbage all over the floor and glass everywhere, so the boom was always trying to keep it out.
The whole film is based on two people whose relationship is lived in bubbles. Every single one of their relationships, in the past and the present, even their gaze at the party at the end, everything they do, they’re in a bubble. Their relationship can’t exist in any other way. That’s the tension of the film. Someone else finds out, it’s over, both in the past and now. So we set all these spaces where it’s sort of locked off from other people. We had to mimic that on set in order for them to have that.
Read more: “Benedict Andrews talks Una Part 2″ >>