This is the second part of our two-part interview with Benedict Andrews on his feature debut Una and the differences between directing for film and theatre. Read part one here.
7R: One of the big differences between directing for theatre and film is you have so much control over what people are looking at, at any point in time.
BA: It’s very true. I guess that’s the art of the stage director, as well. They’re editing your view all the time. I play with that in different ways in the theatre. In the A Streetcar Named Desire that I did recently, [7R: with the spinning stage], now that’s fucking with it entirely. It’s bringing a closeup to you, but at the same time the person [opposite] is getting a long shot. It’s a real game to make sure both of those are going to be good at the same time. It’s fracturing playing with point of view.
In The Maids, which we took to New York, as well, we used eight or so video surveillance cameras extensively, tracking every moment, so you would get the audience watching this scene, but at the same time, focusing in on your hand or some detail that you wouldn’t see. So I’m very interested in that in theatre.There’s such an incredible intimacy allowed in cinema and that suits this material so much, the way that camera sits on Ben or Rooney’s face...the way that the unspoken can come.Click To Tweet
But you’re right. Here, it’s something else. The whole grace and art in cinema is in doing that. I love starting to really discover that language and work with that. There’s such an incredible intimacy allowed and that suits this material so much, the way that camera sits on Ben or Rooney’s face, or the girl Rooney’s face, and the way that the unspoken can come. In David’s writing, he’s editing through, making you see things in the play, very, very smartly. You’re kind of on a knife’s edge. Just as you think one thing, the ground collapses under you, and you’re falling to another position in the play.
Our job was to find non-literary, cinematic ways of doing that. That’s the eye of the camera and the movement of the camera and what it sees versus what they say. I’m not saying what they say in the theatre is primary, but that membrane we were talking about before, that is kind of activated through the words and the mouth. Yes, what they say here is very important.
But there’s a beautiful opportunity to say, as she describes and asks him to describe the experience of their sexual act in the past, we listen to that while we watch his face sweating in a fractured mirror in the bathroom. Or, alternatively, as they are unable to speak about what happened between them when they first meet, the camera pushes in on the strewn clothes on the floor. That dialectic or tension between image and what is said is really exciting and not something I think you can do in the same way in the theatre.
7R: When you’re doing theatre, everything is blocked out, and every part of the stage has meaning. How do you think about translating that into the frame?
BA: I’m very obsessed with framing. Even if it’s a fixed frame of a proscenium, I change the pictures. I hope I’ve gotten good at over the years. Thimios Bakatuakis [Una’s director of photography] has a very interesting eye, as well, which is one of the reasons I was interested in him, notably, especially that first film, that first breakup movie with Yorgos, Dogtooth, that locked off frame with people walking in and out of it.
He works in theatre, too.
Frames have tension. Frames don’t take things for granted. I think that’s similar to my idea of reality in the theatre. Even if I’ve got a realistic set on stage, something always fucks with it, like the cameras in The Maids or the spinning in A Streetcar Named Desire. I never take realism for granted. Many theatre does. We all agree that this wobbly thing is a wall. We’re presenting images, we’re creating things. That, for me, is to do with the tension in the frame.It’s realism, yes, it’s very concrete. But we didn’t want obvious British kitchen sink realism, which we’re all in a way outsiders from.Click To Tweet
We play with that a lot, the way the edges of the frame move and camera movements. The idea of finding …we don’t really take realism for granted and I think it’s the same thing for our production designer Fiona Crombie who worked with me in the theatre, and she works with Justin Kurzel. Justin was my theatre designer for a long time until he started making films, from 1996 to 2002. We worked a lot together when we were kids coming up in Australia. We’re from the same hometown, and so is Fiona, and she was our costume designer and she was my sometime set designer. So we have a deep understanding.
We wanted to find…it’s realism, yes, it’s very concrete. But we didn’t want obvious British kitchen sink realism, which we’re all in a way outsiders from. Some of my team are from there, my wonderful editor and costume designer, but Thimios, me, and Fiona, we’re bringing an outsider’s perspective to that. Maybe that’s something that’s just innate to me in theatre. I think that’s why I work in the theatre. The theatre is an outsider perspective for me anyway. It opens up our understanding of the world by making the world strange to us in beautiful and profound ways.
I think that outsider’s perspective is really important for us picking spaces. The factory was more than just a factory. It had to be a labyrinth, as well. In designing that glass room, which is one of our only built environments, most of that stuff was found…like that pub. That was that pub. We took away things that would date it to now, but the guys in that pub, they’re from that pub. The women in the first scene when she walks into the factory, they are the women that work in that room in that factory. They were very important in composing sometimes quite formal images that it had a real grain of truth in it. There’s a tension in that.I think an important quality in the film is a deep sense of silence as opposed to the play.Click To Tweet
7R: How did you think about sound in the film?
BA: You have these two people locked away in their own thing, and they speak a different language to everybody else. Their relationship, Ben and Rooney, and how they speak is very different to how Riz and Rooney speak, not just because their stuff comes from the play, but because they’ve got all this shit to chew through.
We were often playing with very small spatial shifts of sound between the glass when they’re inside and outside and the idea that those industrial spaces started to take on a kind of music. I think an important quality in the film is a deep sense of silence as opposed to the play. There’s a great quietude. There’s a lot of space between the lines. Around that, you hear a live, living, breathing space. For me, that helps to get it to some sort of mythic, slightly dreamy level, as well as the realism. Yes, they’re real sounds that the sound designers recorded in the factory, but it starts to have a hypnotic, dreamy, industrial feel, coupled with Jed Kurzel’s very sparse score.
That was very interesting for Jed and I. We’re old mates. We go way back. We were at drama school together. We understand each other very, very well. His challenge with the film, from the very beginning, he said to me, “It’s got to be shimmering and beautiful.” It’s a traditional score, sure. Our challenge was if you use anything that’s too obvious, you solve what we’re trying to do in the film, which is keep the audience absolutely guessing.Their relationship is so tough, what happened to them. But its beauty, and why I think it engages us, is it’s so tender at the same time, even if it’s morally abhorrent to us.Click To Tweet
So he had to find a very fine line with the sparse music. He’s a great guitarist, but he’d never done a soundtrack with purely guitar himself. He’s playing nearly everything on his guitar himself, then through X number of pedals and processing so you don’t really hear it as guitar. Their relationship is so tough, what happened to them. But its beauty, and why I think it engages us, is it’s so tender at the same time, even if it’s morally abhorrent to us, which it should be, and it is. To both of them maybe it is, as well. But it’s so mixed up, and it’s so mixed up with tenderness. Somehow, his hands on the strings, on the fret of his guitar, plays into that, as well. It’s a very spare score and the interplay with the sound design was very good.I write poetry, and that was really close to the editing process: you move that to here, and that becomes something new.Click To Tweet
7R: How was the editing process?
BA: I had an incredible editor called Nick Fenton who cut Clio Barnard’s films, Selfish Giant. We began again from the beginning. We threw a lot of the screenplay away, necessarily, which I think he liked very much. He said many first time directors don’t do that. They hold onto it like a liferaft, whereas we started from the beginning again an thinking about how memory worked. So we allowed ourselves to just experiment with what we had and discover it.
I write poetry, and that was really close to the editing process: you move that to here, and that becomes something new. Or if I cut Shakespeare: take away a big bit here and something else grows. I found that extremely creative, a making anew of the thing at every step of the way: the script stage, the shooting stage, the cutting stage. What everybody says is true: you make a film three times, once on the page…
Una screened at the Toronto International Film Festival as an acquisition title. It is still seeking North American distribution. The film will also screen at the London Film Festival this month.