Simon Stone is a golden child of the local theatre scene. During his stint as Resident Director at Belvoir, Stone won the 2011 Helpmann Award for Best Play for his dramatically rewritten adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. He has since adapted that play for the screen with a film re-titled The Daughter. Coming off the back of its Sydney and Melbourne premieres, The Daughter will play the Venice International Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious festivals, in early September. We talked to Stone about his first stint as a film director, the transition from stage to screen, and the banality of metaphors.
When you were writing the script of The Wild Duck for stage, did you ever think that it would become a feature film?
I basically wrote it as a screenplay for the stage in order to break it out of the classical structure that Ibsen created it in. I needed to find a way to disrupt that. We’d get up every morning and I’d read an Ingmar Bergman screenplay because his screenplays are so incredibly beautiful just as pieces of writing. That plus coffee and breakfast would give me the adrenalin boost to try and create this splintered, elliptical version of what was originally quite a linear play. So when it then came to making the film a lot of people perceived it as being this quite simple transition, and maybe once long ago I’d also imagined that, but by the point of actually needing to turn it into a screenplay, I realised quite quickly that it needed to be quite different from the ‘screenplay for stage’ that I’d written.
The entire play hangs on words, it hangs on these things that people say to each, the lies that people tell, the things that people are hiding from each other in language, ways of saying things that expose truths about their past. So the entire story and all the imagination that the audience brings to it hangs off those words—just words. And the production was, essentially, just a group of people in an empty room saying these things to each other. So when it came to the screenplay, of course nobody wanted to see a group of people talking non-stop, that’s not playing to the strengths of what cinema is. So, I needed to kind of fill in all of those things that are laying in the subconscious underneath the text and behind the text, all the descriptions of backstory. I needed to invent the location, the environment, and who these people are when they’re not having the most important conversation of their lives. Because in film you want to meet people, and know who they are, and know their backstory and social circumstances. And those things in film, that kind of broader painting of a socio-economic landscape, a natural landscape, and the figure in that landscape, are why wide shots, mid shots and close ups were invented for cinema, because a sense of context is everything. In the theatre, the context is the theatre; it’s the room the play is playing in. In cinema, the more elliptical the detail you can find, the better.
On the topic of characters and backstories, how do you feel about the representation of women in the film?
I think the film is a condemnation of masculinity more than it is a weak portrayal of femininity. It is a focus of masculinity, of course, but it’s about these men who obsessively want to be proud of who they are and they think that has something to do with their sexual relationships with women. And the women in the film accept a far more complex view of things, far more open and clear view, and that’s what interests me about the women in the film. They’re much more like people I’d like in real life, rather than the men who are dysfunctional and childish—all of them really. Everyone who destroys something in the film is a man.
In terms of the broader question you’re asking about, about representation of women in film, it has to be a story-by-story thing. At least 70 percent of the stories I do on stage have a woman, a very complex woman, at the centre of them. And when one of them is the one you make into a film and that one happens to have these dysfunctional men at the core of it—well it’s just not something you can really breach until you’ve looked at a broader body of work.
How much do you think the film you’ve made is an ‘Australian story’?
As much as I am an Australian writer-director, and that is to say I grew up in Switzerland, I lived in England, and my mid to late teenage years I spent in Australia. So I am a sort of patchwork of different cultural influences. It is a Scandinavian play from the late 19th century. It’s performed by Australian performers, it was shot in Australia, the crew is Australian, and it’s an honest depiction of all of those influences.
I think the question about ‘Australianness’ is one we have to let go of to a certain extent. I mean all of our influences are what we are, and we just need to be that and stop searching for Australian identity. Because it exists as exactly what we do, our identity is the things that we do. And you know, I think that one of the genuine strengths of the ‘Australian personality’ is that we are able to survive in a whole lot of different contexts. Australian artists go into European contexts, American contexts, Asian contexts, and they’re at home and they can weather the cultural differences because we’re such a mixing pot of a lot of different cultures. We can kind of align ourselves to various different cultures when we work overseas or in the work that we ourselves produce here. That’s the interesting thing, I think.
The film is set in the last days of a dying logging town, and Henry, Geoffrey Rush’s character, plays this big Aussie magnet who owns the local timber mill. Can you explain that character and the importance of environmental factors in the film?
Well I wanted to explore a power dynamic that is very key to the play, this kind of figure that essentially by the end you realise is behind a lot of the backstory that creates the complications in the movie. It’s a figure who, to a certain extent, has free licence, because of his powerful position, to make certain decisions that sacrifice other people’s ability to make decisions about their own fate.
Of course logging in Australia, and logging pine forests in Australia, is very strange because of the artificial process—pine trees don’t belong in Australia, but we like the wood that is created out of them and we have lots of land, so it became an industry.But now it’s an industry that really doesn’t mean that much use in terms of the export and it’s since become diminished. Having said that, when a series of timber towns shut down in Tasmania, there was a huge loss of income and employment, so then there’s that story with this notion that the socio-economic fallout of a thing that is very good for the environment—these things that don’t belong here are no longer here, and the regular devastation of the landscape is no longer happening because these timber towns have been shut down—so what’s good for the environment is very bad socio-economically for the workers, and that’s when a leftist becomes confused, because two issues very core to them are in conflict. And I was very interested in that as a backdrop for the film because that idea of what’s right and what’s wrong is totally confused. That moral complexity tying itself up around character’s motivations is something I like to explore. So to a certain extent it was a political decision to set it in that environment, but it’s also not a bad metaphorical backdrop for the need for something to change in these character’s lives.
At least in terms of the ending, there’s a departure from the play in the relationship between Hedwig and the duck, do you think that’s your biggest departure from the play (and does that also explain the change in title)?
To be honest, Hedwig’s relationship with the duck is one of the few things that is actually surviving from Ibsen’s play. I genuinely don’t want that final moment to be seen as a metaphor in the film. What happens in that moment is that a girl thinks she needs to set a duck free—it’s actually a ridiculous notion that is made tragic by the situation that she’s in mentally at the point in time.
I don’t believe in metaphors. I believe that metaphors are rich when they can be interpreted in a million different ways, but they always have to come from real life in some way. For the character Hedwig, in a weird way, it was like the Bad Boy Bubby [an older Australian film with Hugo Weaving] sort of thing, Bubby being abused by his mother then enacting that abuse on the cat—there’s this third level of parental responsibility being sacrificed in that moment. Hedwig’s parent has failed her, and she is now failing her child, and, you know, that’s kind of what I’m interested in there.
But it always has to come from the characters, otherwise it becomes a banal symbol that can be read one way and one way only, and that always sickens me, when I watch any theatre or film, I think: as soon as every single person in the room understands what an image means, it’s dead.