Blackbird, a single-setting two-hander about a young woman named Una and Ray, the older man who molested her as a child, seems like an unlikely stage property to turn into a film. But the challenge of bringing David Harrower's play to the screen didn't deter Benedict Andrews, the Australian theater director whose productions have often pushed the boundaries of theatrical convention.
While most of Andrews's work has been seen onstage in Australia, Germany, and the U.K., New York audiences got a taste of his style in both his production of Jean Genet's The Maids at New York City Center, starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann's Warehouse, which starred Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster. In The Maids, Andrews had surveillance cameras installed, giving us views behind the scenes of the lavish set, while Streetcar played out on a slowly rotating set that exposed every angle of the physical and psychological drama. Even on stages with "four walls," the director was already suggesting to audience members that they were operating as the lens of a camera in these productions, taking in every intimate moment and angle of the story.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Una, Andrews's debut feature and an adaptation of Blackbird, starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, feels like a fully confident work of cinema, one that, in contrast to the play, weaves between present and past in trying to flesh out the tensions at the heart of Harrower's provocative play (Harrower himself adapted his work for the screen). With Una now in theaters, Andrews sat down with TheaterMania to talk about his film-directing debut.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is it about Blackbird that made you want to adapt it for your first film?
I always wanted to make a film, but I remember joking with people when they asked me about it that I would never make a film from a play. But Blackbird just stayed with me after having directed it [in Berlin] at the Schaubühne [in 2005]. Cinema, to me, is the medium par excellence to explore the emotional experience of duration and time, and how cells of the past and memory can interweave into the present. So it seemed interesting to me how cinema could explore this encounter and these two people after all this time, but also in a very different way from theater: the qualities of memory, and the idea of something that has been kept hidden coming back and being worked through.
Did you find any major differences between directing a film as opposed to directing theater, especially for someone like you who has often pushed the boundaries of theater?
When I directed the play in German, at the time it was one of the most "realistic" things I'd ever done. For the film, though, I went through a whole process with David Harrower about opening the piece up, to keep that sense of claustrophobia that that play is based on but get out of that closed room, to have the two of them pursue each other through the present and through the past. Blackbird is a verbal boxing match between two people; it works on the screen of the audience's imagination. As soon as you start to show that, you're into something completely different.
When it came to casting, I didn't want people who'd done it as a play. I wanted the performances to feel raw. We improvised around the text. In the theater, I'm very faithful to text. Even if some people say my productions don't seem to be "faithful," I use text as a rhythm. I like to work with the rhythm and the rigor of the language, not in a slavishly faithful way, but as a kind of score. That was something we deliberately didn't want here.
Working with film actors Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, did you have to adjust your rehearsal process compared to rehearsing with actors in the theater?
For this, I deliberately did not rehearse. The theater rehearsal room is like a laboratory: You're there together over the course of weeks and weeks, searching through it, thrashing through impulses, because in the end, the actors have got to go out in front of hundreds of people a night and do it as if for the first time. For the camera, it has to happen once. I didn't want Rooney and Ben to get cozy in the rehearsal room the way you need to in the theater to be vulnerable later on. So we didn't rehearse. We talked about it a bit. They had quite a lot of input in the script through discussions.
A rehearsal is a kind of dance of impulses between the actor and the director, and it's hard to tell who's leading that dance, [because] you're firing off each other. We had to find a way for that to happen between takes. So I would go and say something to both of them, whisper in one's ear, try something slightly different. Rooney and Ben are both really smart at being in front of the camera. They both have a pact with themselves, with each other, and with the material to put themselves on the line.
I read somewhere that you actually studied filmmaking when you were younger…
I studied theoretical cinema studies in the early '90s as part of my theater degree, when I was studying directing. A hero for me as a theater director approaching filmmaking is someone like Ingmar Bergman, whose life became an interweaving of those two things. On the one hand, they're separate, and on the other, they're completely inside out of the same glove. That's a big aspiration for me: to be able to continue to make work in both those mediums — and to feel them reverberating off each other.
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