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19 September 2018
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Cate Shortland, writer/director Somersault

Sarah Runcie, Film Development Administrative Officer, speaks to Cate Shortland about her debut feature Somersault.

Cate Shortland has made some of the most interesting and original short films to come out of Australia in the past decade. From her early experimental work Strap On Olympia to the searing and darkly funny Pentuphouse, to the intimacy of Flowergirl and the polished film school production of Joy, Cate has turned her unique visual and emotional intellect to stories of thwarted intentions involving complex but often inarticulate characters.

Her much anticipated feature debut, Somersault, revisits many of Cate's previous preoccupations with sexual awakening and self-destruction, trust and transgression. However, it is Cate's unique balance of closeness and coolness, intensity and fragility that makes Somersault such a challenging and beautiful film.

Somersault is the story of Heidi, played by Abbie Cornish, her background of familial discord, her catalytic contention with her mother and her subsequent journey through a sometimes bleak terrain of sex, love, acceptance and abandonment. Somersault is, however, an ultimately hopeful film that affirms the value of forgiveness without easy catharsis.

Back in Sydney after the craziness of Cannes, Cate is sitting on a white chair, at a white table, in her white living room, which is connected to her white kitchen and which I got to via a white corridor; yet Cate is earnestly telling me that she is really into wood panelling, wallpaper and cuckoo clocks.

For those that have not seen Somersault at its festival screenings in Melbourne or Sydney, any discussion of the clichés of alpine interior design would seem disconcerting. But it is the out-of-place and discarded objects of the winter world of the small highlands town of Jindabyne that are metonymical of the out-of-kilter characters, their half-expressed emotions and their barely defined desires.

SR: What attracted you to the world of Somersault?

CS: What happened was that I grew up in Canberra. My parents live right on the outskirts in a suburb called Duffy ... When you are in the streets of Duffy, you can see the Brindabella mountain range. Like, we could see the Brindabella mountain ranges from my mother's kitchen window, so as a kid I grew up seeing snow falling and snow collecting on the mountain range. I really loved it ... Snow is somehow connected with home ... As a kid I used to ski with my Dad ... [Snow has] really romantic, sort of, warm connotations to me about family.

I find the harshness of that landscape really beautiful ... Also our film is about intimacy and the harshness of that environment really makes the scene between the young lovers much more warm, much more intimate just because everything outside is freezing. You've got foggy breath. Everything is covered in frost. You can feel the cold when you watch the film. So when they are inside, and they are together … it's warm. And that helps with the exploration of intimacy.

SR: What kind of 'look' did you want to get and what kind of dialogue did you have with your DOP in order to get that?

CS: Bob Humphreys (DOP) and Melinda Doring (designer) … we've done three films together, so we had a really great shorthand and we knew that we wanted the film to be hand-held. We … talked about the film almost in terms of documentary. So it seemed that the next step was that it be hand-held ... that seemed quite obvious and we were looking at things like Nan Goldin photographs and paintings by Gerhardt Richter and Bill Henson. I think it happened a little piece by piece and it's one of my favourite parts of filmmaking - the toing-and-froing that goes on between the DOP and the costume designer and the production designer and the director - and it's just that beautiful thing of people that know each other well and know what each other likes. Like Melinda knows I love wallpaper and wood panelling so … we're kind of like the wallpaper queens ... the look of the film came from old relationships and we all wanted to do something different, something new with the look. And that faux-European thing, the cuckoo clocks and the wood panelling - we all just really love that … when I go to Europe, I just take photos all the time of really tacky old shops and train stations and … Yeah, I really like it.

SR: What interests you about all that paraphernalia?

CS: There's irony to it but there's also a real sweetness. There's something innocent about all that tacky stuff. Something about childhood, about memory, about that old world charm which you can sort of laugh at but there's something really beautiful about it.

SR: So what is your view of it? Is it a satirical view?

CS: No. I mean the whole thing with our film is … that Heidi, she doesn't even know what irony is … So when she picks up something that other people see as junk, she sees the beauty in it. And it might be like a cuckoo clock. Like at one stage she winds a cuckoo clock in her flat when she's talking to a motel owner but she's only doing that because she thinks it's beautiful. She's not doing it because she thinks it's tacky.

SR: So is the act of retrieving, or perhaps, rescuing a discarded object ironic because Heidi is so bent on self-destruction for a good part of the film?

CS: Well, I think she is a really interior character. She finds it hard to articulate what she really feels. And so what she has done in her life is become obsessed with objects and that's why the character collects things in her book because she is trying to make sense of life. And that is why she touches everything because she is so disconnected from the people around her so the objects in her life become much more important.

SR: Is that why sex is such a loaded thing with the character of Heidi. That it is a search for connection?

CS: I think it is a search for … The reason she probably has sex with people at the beginning of the film is because she wants to be loved and by the end of the film she realises that she can be loved … without that. That she can have an emotional connection with someone purely because she's a great person.

SR: … and that's through her own self-forgiveness? Why does she make that initial transgression?

CS: She's got a crush on her Mum's boyfriend and she's lonely and she doesn't know how to be intimate with someone without making it sexual.

SR: Why?

CS: She's probably had a fairly dysfunctional background. That's what Abbie and I think. We just thought that she kind of didn't know…what society says is right and wrong. That she exists in this area between right and wrong. And also she's right on the cusp of being a woman so there's so much grey area in her life. Nothing's black and white. And I think the male character [Joe, played by Sam Worthington] in the film … tries to make everything black and white even though he too operates in some very grey areas. So, they really have that in common. They are, in fact, incredibly similar characters. And, it was funny, during the shooting Sam said to me: "Fuck, you know, we are so alike". And it was the first time he realised that.

SR: So you didn't say that? You didn't set that up as something that you discussed in rehearsal?

CS: I didn't think that it was important to talk about the similarities of the characters. It was much more important to work out what was happening in a scene individually. If they were kind of awkward and fucked-up with each other, that was good. And if he was judging her, that was good. Because that is what he has to do on the screen. So we didn't psychoanalyse everything. And also, they would have got incredibly bored in about two seconds if we had started doing that. Especially Sam.

SR: Is there is a kind of mirror relationship between the two characters?

CS: I think they are quite similar. He's judging her in the film for all the things he's done. So it's quite ironic and quite funny and neither of them ever realise that. I think he probably does towards the end but she has no idea.

SR: Where does the character of Heidi come from in your experience?

CS: I grew up, when I was a teenager, with this fantastic girl called Heidi who was really rebellious and creative and always wore black and was really kind of tough. And … I think that's why. I just used to think this girl was awesome … I was working in a jeans store and she came in and tried black stretch jeans and I just thought 'God, one day I would like to be that cool.' So instead I made a film with a girl called Heidi so I was never that cool ...

But also for this beautiful, blonde, Aboriginal girl I used to teach who I really fell in love with who was just a divine, divine girl … who had a really sad life but was really strong as well.

SR: So you were a teacher?

CS: Teacher's aide…and I used to tutor in an Aboriginal Homework Centre in Redfern for about four years.

SR: Where does the character of Joe come from?

CS: The Joe character is quite dark and he has not a lot of respect for the people around him or for himself but he's also immensely charming ... We are brought up in such a politically correct environment that to be a bit of a bastard, to play a bastard in an interesting way, is really difficult now ... Sam is such a sweet guy, is such a nice guy, but when he came into the casting he, kind of, knew who Joe was and not many of the others did. Like, I remember in the casting I used to say to the actors: 'You don't care if she likes you…[all] you're trying to do is to pick her up.' And I think not many of them understood that [whereas] Sam just went 'oh yeah, right' and played it like that. That's why we cast him, because he could do it ... But it was a really big stretch because he had to play this upper middle class guy that had been at boarding school … all of the things that people didn't expect Sam Worthington to play ... He's incredibly charismatic which was really important for [Heidi] to have such a massive crush on him and for her to fall so madly in love with him. I knew it had to be someone who could be strong and who could hold the screen, especially against Abbie, because she's really powerful on screen.

SR: Why did you choose to make the two characters from different social backgrounds?

CS: It was like one of them lived at number 1 in the street and the other one lived at number 7. And one of them had a really small house and one of them had a really big house. It wasn't [that] class was a theme in the film. It was more like that was where the characters came from. And so we explored that and … it's really hard to describe. Class was never important in a way. It just happened to be that he was from a rich family and she was from a more working class background ... He never says to her in the film 'you're white trash' or 'you're poor'. Or she never says to him 'you're rich'. They know that about each other in a way ... It's never really articulated. As I think in Australia it's often not articulated. I mean, class in Australia is really prevalent. But it's not often discussed I don't think. I think may be it's as prevalent as it is anywhere in the world but we try to pretend that it is an egalitarian culture. When it's so not.

SR: What was your own writing process in developing character?

CS: What I did on this draft, which was really useful [was] I spent about six weeks just writing back stories. Really in-depth back stories. Like, for the character of Heidi's mother, I wrote a kind of 30 or 40-page back story from the moment she was a little girl until we see her in the film. And I knew everything that could happen in that woman's life ... So when I started writing these scenes on the screen when she spoke, I, kind of, knew what she'd say because I knew what her whole life had been. And I did that for every character. And that was from Rob Festinger - he said to me … "Do not write until you know who you are as that character … if you even start writing, you're just bullshitting and you're just writing crap because it's not honest."

SR: So, you didn't write any dialogue until you had your back story down?

CS: I write dialogue in the back stories ... I just write scenes if I want to write scenes with dialogue or just anything … that is going to help you know that person better ... That was really, really helpful.

SR: The most powerful scene for me was the conflict immediately after Heidi and the boyfriend, Adam, played by Damian de Montemas, are discovered on the bed by Heidi's mother. I completely got the full enormity of that transgression.

CS: When we did rehearsals … we talked about what had happened. We played the scene in different ways but Nicole [Heidi's mother, played by Olivia Pigeot] really never showed us what she was going to do. And then on the day, she didn't speak to the other actors. And she came out and when she played the scene a lot of the crew were crying … because it was just so confronting. The way that she played the scene and what's on screen is a lot of that first take. …That was all Olivia ... I don't think that a director can elicit that sort of emotional response. I mean, 99 per cent of it is the actor.

SR: Did you go through in any way the reaction with Abbie, for Heidi? Like that moment when she brings out her hands?

CS: No. Abbie and I just talked about that she didn't know what to do with her hands. That's what we talked about ... I think, the hands, the shaking hands are beautiful. The way she sort of covers her ears and covers her face is really beautiful because it's such a vulnerable, vulnerable action. And, you know,…it's really melodramatic, in terms of a melodramatic action which comes from quite old theatre … It's really great. Because, you know, you don't have to say anything. You just do that.

SR: In the development of the character of Heidi, are self-forgiveness and redemption interdependent in your own view?

CS: What do you mean by redemption?

SR: I think, being cleansed of sin.

CS: That's a tricky question. I think … people do bad things. And, I don't know. It's probably a question you should ask Anthony [the producer]. I don't like the idea of sin. It's kind of an awful, awful way of looking at the world because, just by people's actions, you're going to go to hell … I think we all do things that we're not proud of sometimes in our life but hopefully, most of your life you spend trying not to hurt other people. Like, I really love that quote, which is biblical, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' And I really firmly believe in that but I don't believe in sin … I don't honestly really, really believe in the bad seed. You know? I think life is a culmination of events that you either make happen or they happen to you. So it kind of makes me uncomfortable that whole idea of sin. I think we all, you know, we all do good and bad. Hopefully we mostly do good.

Somersault, produced by Anthony Anderson, will be in cinemas nationwide on 16 September.

Actor Abbie Cornish and writer/director Cate Shortland in Cannes for the screening of Somersault

Somersault's Sam Worthington and Abbie Cornish at Cannes screening