When Rosemary Myers had to pick out a dress for her lead character Greta (Bethany Whitmore) at the center of her debut feature “Girl Asleep” to wear for her 15th birthday party – an event Greta starts to resent her mother for planning since it accelerates her stride towards adulthood, not to mention exposing her to the classmates at her new school she’s loathe to be in the same room with, let alone her own home – the director had the wherewithal to make a fashion statement she couldn’t in its original stage incarnation, telling her longtime production and costume designer Jonathon Oxlade to go nuts in styling the frock that’s meant to drop jaws. Yet her thoughts kept coming back to the simple pink dress with a tasteful red ribbon around the waist that had that effect for audiences who saw the play.
“It’s funny because we had a similar dress in the play, except we had a longer version [of it],” says Myers. “Jonathon had come up with a lot of other ideas for what the dress should look like [for the film], and I said, ‘Nothing can beat that original dress to me.’ There’s like a lamb to the slaughter [quality] about that dress that is kind of the experience she’s about to go through.”
The dress is still a stunner, one of the many touches that Myers and her Australian-based Windmill Theatre Company carried over from the stage version of “Girl Asleep” that makes the film adaptation such a spirited and inventive cinematic experience. With the granular detail associated with creating a world on stage that can continually reveal itself paired with the exuberance of being limited only by the extent of a filmmaker’s imagination, “Girl Asleep” may be about a young woman coming into her own, but it displays a first-time filmmaker in Myers already in full flourish. With her longtime creative partner Matthew Whittet on board as the screenwriter, Myers relishes the opportunity to get clever with scene transitions in which everyday objects reorient you to what time it is and to bring a handmade quality to a film of considerable scale as Greta’s emotional journey grows epic, one that’s eased slightly for our resilient heroine with the help of Elliott (Harrison Feldman), a new pal at school.
Shortly before the film hits American shores, Myers took time away from a rousing Rooftop Films screening in New York earlier this summer to talk about making the transition from stage to screen, creating such compelling compositions for “Girl Asleep” and revisiting the battleground of high school.
How did this come about?
The designer, the writer and myself are working are actually from the theater, and we have made a lot of plays about the teenage experience. We really love fairy tales, particularly “Sleeping Beauty,” and some people that had an innovative fund for making films said, “We’d love to take the voice that you’ve made with your theater work and put it on film.” This is the show that we were coming up to make, and we said, “We’re making this one as a play first, but let’s make it as a film straight after that.”
Did knowing you’d make it as a film change the way you developed it as a play?
It was so helpful in terms of being able to test the muscularity of the storytelling, and to see it with an audience repeatedly and just know how it was being read and understood because then when we took it to screenplay, we were able to improve it. Strangely enough, our theater references a lot of film, and we wanted to make a film that kept its theatricality as well. So there were two sides to the discussion – one about the actual storytelling, and the other about the form of the film.
When you make an independent film in Australia, you don’t get much rehearsal time, and when you make a theater show, you maybe have five weeks of rehearsal, so we were really able to understand the storytelling and talk about it a lot with our actors. A lot of our actors were in the play that were actually in the theater show too: Amber [McMahon], who plays the mother, Matt [Whittet], who’s the writer played the father, and Eamon [Farren] who plays the character of Adam, actually played Elliot in the play.
You’ve said Greta and Elliott were played by someone older in the show too. Did it change the tone when you had your teen leads played by actual teens?
Yeah, it changed it enormously. It was quite great, because Matt and I have worked on several plays for young people, but this is the first time that we’d actually worked with a lot of young people in the realizing of the artwork, because [typically] it’s really hard to have young people in the cast because of the demands of taking five weeks – all that time away from school – and there’s a lot of regulations about how many hours you can have young [children working]. We did quite a big hunt for the two leads because we knew if we didn’t have those actors right, we didn’t really have a film.
We knew who we were looking for, and that’s why when we found them, it was so obvious to us. For Bethany [Whitmore, who plays Greta], we really felt we needed someone who could hold a lot of the story on her face because she is quite a passive protagonist, and then of Elliott is so specific, we had seen Harrison [Feldman] playing in a few plays and a TV show in Australia, and kept looking at him going, “Oh god, he could be great.”
When we found them, they were amazing to work with. I spent a few days with them and before we started the shoot, just the three of us, and we would just read the script to talk about it. A few people said to me, “Oh, how did you get such great performances out of those young people?” It’s like, they just are actually these great actors in their own right and to hear the story expressed by people of the correct age, it was quite incredible, especially because remember from when I was young, there’s a hierarchy on the playground and all of these things, so the [cast] was able to very much bring their experiences to it.
You mention the camera being able to hold on Greta’s face. Was it an adjustment coming from the stage in how you could direct an audience’s attention?
Yeah, that’s what’s so exciting about the process, just the way that you can control the audience and the way you can compose pictures. Our theater is very visual, but this was taking it to a whole other level and had such a strong dialogue between the core collaborators, which was myself, Matt [Whittet, the writer], and Jonathon [Oxlade, the production designer], and our [director of photographer] and our editor. We had to find people that we really felt shared a sensibility with us – we were a little bit maverick in terms of how we were going to approach making a film and they were going to take a risk on us too, really, because we hadn’t made a film before, and they were great.
I spent a lot of time with them, just storyboarding the film. We didn’t want to waste any time when we got into the shoot, but I found it hard to get my head around point of view because it does your head in a little bit when you’re not used to it. In the theater, it’s a lot more visceral, but that was a real thrill to construct [for the camera].
One of the most immediately striking things about the film is the decision to shoot in the square 1.33-1 aspect ratio. How did that come about?
That was the ratio of the era, and Andy [Commis, the director of photography] and I were discussing it and thought it would be really fun to kind of compose pictures in that way. When we hit on it, we never looked back. We even had a little frame made that we put over the lens at times, so we could have a little template of the ratio, and we’d stick it over so we could see what it looked like.
It might seem a little counterintuitive since you have so much going on in the background, but you make it work. At the start, it’s wonderful how you have a tai chi lesson in that opening scene set at school.
We just had so much joy putting that stuff in. When we first wrote the screenplay, some of the funding partners actually said to us, “We know the quirk of your work and we don’t feel like it’s really reflected in the screenplay,” and we said, “Well, that’s because when we write scripts, we bring them into the rehearsal room and we add the quirk while we’re rehearsing.” That [emboldened us] when they said, “That’s why we’ve backed you, because we really want your language and your quirkiness in this film, so we did another pass to articulate all of that.
That’s what you have to do, because [making a film is] such a different process. You can’t spend time finding things on the floor, you have to work it all out before you go into the shoot. We are very used to solving problems and building worlds in real time and real space, which can be quite challenging sometimes because we’re relying on the audience’s imagination and we’re relying on what we can actually achieve live. But we were pretty good at laterally solving problems and having fun with the medium in that way. Even when we make our plays, and a lot of the references we love are people like [Michel] Gondry and Spike Jonze, artists that definitely have fun with the form a lot and play with the theater of the form quite a bit as well.
What were the possibilities you were excited about doing cinematically that you couldn’t do in the stage production of this?
I was excited about having all those different people. Usually when we make the play, we have five actors. When we did the party sequence in the play, it’s a four-minute scene with five people playing 20 different people, so it’s very funny and people really love it, but it’s a sight gag won’t mean anything in the film because you have the power of editing. So we had to work out a dance sequence that would be as equally as exciting. We still wanted to make it stylized and it was a really fun scene [since] a lot of that was shot in a forest that we built in a studio.
Is it true all the party scenes were shot in one night?
Everything that’s got a big crowd at the party was shot in the course of one night, so it was an epic night. For the kids, it was great. They turned up, got their hair and makeup done, and then were thrown in the pool. One of them – the art director’s son – got their first kiss, so it felt like a [real] party, and by the end of the night, it was wearing a little bit thin because we were shooting some of the scenes as the sun was rising and we’re going, “No, we’ve got to beat the sun.” But we got it all.
For the scene with the girl in complete camouflage who holds up the film’s title card, how long did it take to paint her to match the stones behind her?
Maybe about six hours, and it was a really hot day, so the poor girl was on the verge of passing out a couple of times. She was so excited to be cast – we did a fairly open call in Adelaide, in the town where we live, and asked kids to submit YouTube videos – and then there was the grim reality of what that meant, having to stand still and be body painted for all that time. But I think all of the kids have an incredible ownership of the film now, and whenever it’s screened, they’re always always coming and watching it with their families.
There’s a lot of people on the crew of this film who wear a bunch of different hats, but one of particular interest is your production designer Jonathon Oxlade, who is also your costume designer. Did having one person in both those jobs help with keeping the consistency of the world?
Yeah, it was important that it was the same person. Jonathon always does the costumes as well as the sets, so it does make it very cohesive to the world and we were going for a very specific kind of look and feel and use of color. Andy [Commis], our [director of photography] worked with Jonathan a lot too and we really looked at a lot of ’70s photography [to figure out] how we wanted the palette to work and how we want to colors to pop.
Since there’s a timeless quality to the story being told, why did the ’70s setting feel right?
In our [original set of] shows, one show was set in the ’90s, one in the 80s, and then this was the third one, and because it was the girl’s story, we thought it was an interesting time because the ’70s were such a different time for a girl in Australia. The film is a lot about grief and losing [that part of] childhood that you want to hold on to, and it also is for the parents because their roles are up for grabs – their two children are getting older and they’re losing something too. For the mother, I thought it was interesting because the ’70s is very big for women’s liberation in Australia and women getting careers and she was probably more the housewife of the era, and then on the other end of the spectrum, you have [Greta’s] very different sister, Genevieve, who you feel like is really going to forge her own [way]. For someone like Greta who’s understanding that she’s moving into the adult world and defining herself as a individual, she’s saying, “Who are the models for me out there?
Apart from that, we like the era and we love the music. It’s the era that I grew up in and by setting something up as other [for this generation], I think it actually kind of makes the universality of the experience come through because that world of it is quite particular and you’re not distracted by [contemporary nitpicks]. At one point very early on, when the costs came in, the producer was going, “We might have to lose the period.” But we just absolutely did not want to do that. The relationships would have been slightly different if it was set in the modern era. There’s no social media and it was a more innocent time in some ways. Someone like Genevieve, her world is just opening up with this European pop music. But in Australia, that was all quite new at that time. [Now] everyone now has the world at their fingertips, really.
Were there personal details you could sneak into the film if you grew up during this era?
A lot of things sneak in as you go, because you are talking about our experiences in the making of these plays as they’re being created – the different characters that were going to have to tell the story, and things like the older boyfriend [Genevieve] has and his relationship with Greta. That was all stuff that I remembered very strongly. Because this was the female experience, and our last two plays have been around the young male experience, there was a lot of things to talk about in [terms of] the kind of sexual awakening and the eroticism of that time of life.
Had you or the theater company in general wanted to make a film for a while?
It’s funny for me because even when I was in high school and after I left, I was really toying whether to go to film school or drama school, and ended up going to drama school. I love theater and I had a career trajectory in that area, but [film] was certainly something that I always thought would be wonderful to do. Knowing how hard it is to get a film up, I just wondered if it would ever be a possibility. It’s very hard to escape the screen. It is a predominant art form of our era, and even in our theater work, it’s probably our main reference. As a group of artists that want to tell stories, we worked really hard for the opportunity and there was this really amazing initiative happened in Australia to offer artists from outside the film world the opportunity to work in film. A lot of really interesting projects were born out of it – a big dance film by one of our amazing dance companies in Australia, and some short films. They’ve all been quite amazing.
It’s also very different for us, too. When you spend 20 years making plays, plays are very ephemeral. They come and [go], but with [“Girl Asleep”], we go, “Wow, we’ve got this thing forever now, and we can look back on it.” Even a lot of our shows that do turn around, they might last for several years, but then they’re gone. You might have a video document of them, but that’s not really the same. It’s actually quite amazing to have something to show to our grandkids. It’s quite crazy.
This also has been hugely successful around the world during its festival run. What’s that experience been like for you?
That’s been phenomenal. It’s been this way beyond anything that we anticipated and I don’t even know if it’s really sunk in yet, actually. Andy, our [director of photography] said to me, “Rose, 95% of directors in Australia never make their second film.” And I’ve got a good career directing theater, so I just thought I’m just going to make the film that I would want to watch. We didn’t think very much beyond making the film when we were making it and we poured our heart and soul into it. Of course, we were really excited to show it to people at the first film festival that it played at and it got picked up for Berlin from there. The story has had great resonance with people and it has been quite incredible to see it in cinemas, in different places in the world, and have the teenagers responding to the work so beautifully. That’s been quite amazing, [as it has been connecting] with other filmmakers. It’s such a massive industry with the potential to talk to so many people.
Well, I certainly hope you’re going to make a second one.
We’re certainly thinking about it.
“Girl Asleep” opens on September 23rd in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and September 30th in New York at the Landmark Sunshine before expanding across the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.