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Girl Asleep: An Interview with Director Rosemary Myers

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By Anna Weinstein.

Described by Variety as a “strange, savvy, big-hearted teen adventure,” Rosemary Myers’ debut film, Girl Asleep, is the story of a young girl navigating the frightening forest of adolescence. Myers describes this forest as “a place where characters go into the wild,” where they’re forced to confront deep, dark things and ultimately transition and transform.

Girl Asleep originated as a play, which premiered at the Windmill Theatre in Adelaide, South Australia, where Myers is Artistic Director. Myers is a multi-Helpmann Award-nominated stage director, and her productions regularly visit leading stages and festivals around Australia and the world. Prior to Windmill, she was the Artistic Director of Arena Theatre Company and also the Artistic Director of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Out of the Box Festival in 2010.

When did you first start directing theater?

I’ve been directing and creating theater since I graduated from university about 25 years ago.

Can you tell me the history behind Windmill Theatre?

Sure! Windmill Theatre is an amazing initiative of the South Australian government. About 15 years ago, the government invested in Windmill to create theatre for young people and family audiences. I was given the amazing opportunity to be Artistic Director and work in this dynamic environment with a great team of talented people. We’re a small company, and because we aren’t beholden to deliver an annual season, the kinds of projects we undertake are quite varied. We also do lots of touring around Australia and the world – from the remote APY Lands to Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre to the New Victory Theater in New York.

What was your role in developing the stage production of Girl Asleep? Did you collaborate with the writer, Matthew Whittet? Or did he bring you the script fully formed?

Matthew and I work very closely together, along with Jonathon Oxlade, the designer, to develop our projects with our broader artistic team. Girl Asleep is the third part of a theatrical trilogy that explores the teenage experience. The first play is a manga-inspired version of Robin Hood called Fugitive and the second is the story of three teenage losers called School Dance. It’s very “John Hughes-esque”! Just before we made the film, we performed all three plays together as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. We really love exploring the teenage years in our theater making, as it’s such a time of radical change and high stakes.

As the third piece in the trilogy, what was the inspiration for this particular project?

Both of the previous shows had male protagonists, so we wanted to explore a story focusing on the female perspective. Also, I’d always loved the story of Sleeping Beauty, and we were particularly interested in what was happening to her while she was asleep and finding the connection with the teenage experience that is quite latent and dreamy. When I think back to my teenage years, I lived in my head at this time of life more than any other.

What was the impetus to turn the play into a film?

girl-02Both Matt and I participated in a workshop called The Hive. It encouraged artists from outside the screen world – visual artists, choreographers, musicians, and theater-makers – to come together and explore our ideas for the screen. The workshop had a fund attached, so we were able to pitch a project. It was a very bold initiative and some great screen projects have resulted.

Were you involved in the scripting as well then?

Matt and I are strong collaborators, so I was very involved in developing the screenplay, and Matt was equally involved throughout the directing and editing process. He also plays Conrad in the film.

How did you raise the funding for the film?

We had The Hive money, which came from four sources: Adelaide Film Festival, Screen Australia, The Australia Council for the Arts, and ABC Arts. And we also went to our state-based funding agency, The South Australian Film Commission, and to some philanthropic sources as well. Windmill Theatre Company and the Screen Producers Offset also supported us.

Could you discuss your casting process for the film? I’m particularly interested in your casting of Greta and Elliot? They were phenomenal.

We saw a lot of actors audition for these roles, but Bethany Whitmore and Harrison Feldman were always our front-runners, right from their initial self-tests. I spent a few days just talking and working through the script with them. They are consummate professionals and weren’t afraid to take risks in their performances.

How was directing the film different than directing for the stage?

The processes for making theater and film are very different. With theater, you uncover the play in the rehearsal room, whereas so much of the film is created in pre- and postproduction. We shot the film in 22 days, so it was a super tight schedule. It was my first film-directing experience, and before we started someone said to me, “anyone who knew what he or she was doing would not attempt to make this film on this budget!” So the whole way through it was a heady combination of exhilaration around what we were creating and overwhelming concern that we would not get it finished. The fact that we had realized the material as a play, even though it was very different, was an enormous benefit. It meant we had tested the key story points and ideas.

What was the most challenging part of making the film?

girl-03The most challenging part was realizing a period piece on a relatively small budget and timeframe. Time is a major stress as the clock is always ticking and film is a very expensive medium.

The most rewarding part?

The rewards have been multiple. When we made the play, the actors were adults, so hearing the script embodied by teenage actors was a great joy. Collaborating with film artists like our Director of Photography, Andrew Commis, and editor, Karryn De Cinque, was also fantastic, and the journey of the film itself has been quite incredible. To see the way it has had traction with audiences all over the world has been a remarkable experience.

Who would you say is the ideal audience for this film? Do you have any hopes for what your audience will take away from the picture?

It was made for teenagers, but I think the audience is quite broad. People who like their storytelling a bit left of center really embrace it. I think all our work is quite imaginative and lateral. Ultimately, it’s an uplifting story that celebrates friendship and embracing change on your own terms.

What has been the most surprising response to the film?

We’ve had some incredible feedback about the way the film can speak to audience members, which is the highest praise for us as a group of art-makers and storytellers. We took the film to Berlin, and it was the first time we saw the film with an international audience, which was a huge thrill. Some people have recreated the dance sequence and performed it for us. One person made little Greta and Elliot dolls, and a Japanese reviewer couldn’t believe that men in Australia ever really wore shorts that short (they really did)!

What are you working on now?

At Windmill we’ve just finished a musical version of Rumpelstiltskin, and now I’m in Sydney remounting the play of Girl Asleep for a Christmas season at Belvoir Theatre. We’ve had a really busy year, so I’m looking forward to some camping over Christmas, and then we’re starting on some new projects in 2017. I found out that like theater-making, filmmaking is quite addictive – and now that we’ve made Girl Asleep and learned so much in the process, we’re super keen to apply that knowledge to another film.

Girl Asleep will be released digitally on December 6, 2016.

Anna Weinstein is a regular contributor to Film International. The first three books in her Focal Press | Routledge book series, “PERFORM: Succeeding as a Creative Professional,” are forthcoming February 2017, including Writing for the Screen and Directing for the Screen.

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