Jessica Hausner has long explored the private worlds that exist within the one we all share, so it’s understandable that in spite of her latest film “Little Joe” being classified as her first foray into science fiction, it’s a genre that has long appealed to the Austrian writer/director.
“I’ve thought about those films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” very much because I like that set-up. You have those crazy themes where it’s like ‘Oh, my uncle is not my uncle anymore, he has been replaced,’ and you meet that person and he’s perfectly normal, but I think that is a very basic human situation is that person that you used to know is not that person anymore,” says Hausner, who explored the effects of alienation in fascinating ways in such wonderfully curious dramas as “Lourdes” and “Amour Fou.” “It’s something that we experience in our lives maybe not to that extent [in a sci-fi film], but at a certain level, yes, because we find out that the people that we’re closest to are also the ones who can feel strangest to us.”
In “Little Joe,” Hausner imagines a not-so-distant future that doesn’t seem so strange at first, centering on a scientist named Alice (Emily Beecham) who has developed a new flower for Planthouse Biotechnologies that the film takes its name from. A wiry plant with crimson fibrils, it seems like a reflection of its redheaded creator in a physical sense, but is perhaps more accurate in addressing what’s going on in her mind, overactive from both her fierce intelligence and imagination, but also worry from whether her work is resulting in neglecting her young son also named Joe (Kit Connor). When introducing one to another during her increasingly limited time at home, she hopes to cheer her son up when Little Joe emits a fragrance designed to bring happiness, yet the intoxication it’s capable of can work both ways when it’s discovered that its pollen can be poisonous, seemingly a survival mechanism for the flower.
As Alice protects her prized creation against increasing scrutiny, you come to see that she hasn’t only upset the natural order of things in genetically tinkering with a species of flora, but in the lab where she works where she refuses to conform to the expectations that colleagues Chris (Ben Whishaw) and Bella (Kerry Fox) have of her and their suggestions of what priorities she should have. With the blossoming of Little Joe, you experience the full flourish of the filmmaker who is able to build a fully realized future with subtle, clever touches throughout that make it both familiar and surprising – “South Park” really may have no end in sight – while crafting a sharp study of a woman navigating how to much to forge her own path ahead or conform to a society where the persistence of outmoded ideas about how it should operate has instilled a lack of trust and growing isolation amongst the citizenry as they confront change out of their control and burrow into their own bubbles.
With a nimble lead turn from Beecham, who deservedly picked up the Best Actress prize at Cannes where the film premiered this past summer, “Little Joe” may be arriving at the end of the year, but feels as if it’s the start of something new and when Hausner was recently in New York for a retrospective at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, she spoke about how “Little Joe” may have been a departure in some ways, also being her first English-language film, but an extension of her preexisting body of work and the time-honed techniques that have made it so bewitching.
You’ve said in other interviews that “Frankenstein” actually might’ve been a starting point – how did “Little Joe” grow from there?
The starting point of the film was actually Alice, who is a scientist and maybe there’s the Frankenstein link [in] that she does create a sort of monster with this plant, but what I also found interesting was that she’s also a mother, so [there’s] this side of her life is the love for her child and during the film, she’s very much influenced by this anxiety of hers that she cannot be both a good mother and a good scientist and the beginning of the story [was how] she’s so much influenced by her feelings of guilt.
I loved the idea that Alice was going against nature, not only in genetically engineering this plant, but how she’s wired differently than the people around her. Was it interesting to build around her?
In all my films, I’m looking for a set-up that’s a closed space. For example in “Little Joe,” the plant house and that company and the hierarchy within that company is a small version of the society because in a society, we also are very much influenced by the place we have within that society and by the rules of that society, so in my films very often it is more focused on this influence of the rules on an individual in this society, [which] are shown more than this individual side of the human being.
Yes, for example, we were trying to build up a scientific story about how a plant could really influence the human brain, so we were talking to different scientists and we asked a human geneticist how could a plant possibly influence a human being and they came up with that idea that it could be a virus, a sort of tool for genetic engineering that has mutated. It’s not a very likely scenario, but possible, and that was ideal for the story because we’re not looking for something that always happens… [laughs] but for a quite unlikely incident to build up the ambiguity and the question mark behind it.
Was there any inspiration for Little Joe as a plant?
Yes, there was a plant called Blood Lilly, or I think in Latin, it’s Haemanthus. It’s very rare and they grow it in South Africa and it has this red ball-like flower. And all the plants that were in the greenhouse were designed – they’ve been handmade by a propmaker and his team, so they had to build a thousand plants at each stage of growth. So there were a thousand plants that were closed, then a little bit open, a little bit more open and nearly opened and fully opened, so those five different states of growth had to be built.
The color palette is so striking – how did it come together?
It’s very much the costume designer [Tanja Hausner] who starts those ideas. We work together on all my films and she comes up with some images in the beginning of a project that she thinks fits the story. For “Little Joe,” I remember she came with a picture of a model from Vogue Magazine, and this model had red hair and a short haircut and she was wearing a pink blouse. The costume designer immediately said, “I think this would be interesting,” and already we knew that Emily [Beecham] would play the role, and she has red hair, so we then built the entire color palette from there, from the red hair and the pink blouse and also the red and green flower.
Well, I have the feeling that Emily has a great talent, which is she acts in a way [where] she keeps a secret, so she’s not delivering all the information at once, but as a spectator, you want to know more. You think, “What is she really feeling?” so she keeps a secret somehow a mystery and I think this is a very, very great quality about her.
How early do the ideas for the music come to mind?
The score was not composed for the film. It’s by a Japanese composer Teiji Ito, and we used the music as it is for this film. I was a big fan of Tejii Ito’s music because he was also doing some of the music for the films of Maya Deren, the experimental filmmaker in New York during the 1940s. I really love her films a lot and I feel very much related in a way to what she did, so I felt Japanese music fits well for my film.
Do you give that to the actors at all as inspiration?
No. I don’t do that. I don’t think an actor needs to have the full picture because it’s distracting. I have the full picture, and the cinematographer, but everyone else focuses on what they do for the film, [which] works best for what I’m doing.
Given this idea of ambiguity that’s central to the film, by the time you get to the editing process, is it tricky to not put a fine point on things or do you take things away to make them more obscure?
Yes, the edit is a very important phase in the film because during the shooting, we were shooting different levels of being changed. [laughs] There were some scenes with the boy Joe [played by Kit Connor], or with Chris, the co-worker of Alice [played by Ben Whishaw], [where] we shot one version where the character’s not at all changed and then is slightly different than before and then much different than before because I wanted to have the choice during the edit. And then during the edit, it was very interesting because we nearly always took the version where the characters nearly not changed because that created much more suspense. It was more interesting for a spectator not to know if someone really changed or not, so we followed that line.