By Anna Weinstein.
Heatstroke, starring Stephen Dorff, Svetlana Metkina, and Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), tells the story of a female search and rescue worker put to the ultimate test of survival when her boyfriend is murdered in the African desert and she’s tasked with evading his killers while protecting his willful teenage daughter. The film is directed by veteran Evelyn Maude Purcell, whose films include Nobody’s Fool (1986), starring Rosanna Arquette and Eric Roberts, Woman Undone (1996), starring Mary McDonnell, Randy Quaid, and Sam Elliot, and Borderline (2002), starring Gina Gershon, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Michael Biehn. I caught up with Purcell over the phone to discuss her new film.
Tell me about the origins of this film. What was the inspiration for it?
It’s based on a novel, Leave No Trace, written by Hanna Nyala West, and it’s set in Australia. Quite a number of years ago, I had just finished shooting Woman Undone and was looking for another project, and I thought, why not develop this book? Being Australian, of course, I knew there was potential funding available there. So that’s how it started. Ironically, when it came time to make the film, the Australians didn’t feel they could make it for the money, so we adapted it for Africa.
It’s beautifully shot. What was it like filming in Africa?
Isn’t it gorgeous? That was Ben Nott, the DP. But I was down there for about five months, including a month of editing. And really, you could point the camera anywhere, it was such a visual feast. This was the Karoo Desert, which is northwest of Capetown, south of Namibia. The entire crew was South African, except for Ben, who was Australian. It was an incredible experience. We shot it in twenty-five days.
Tell me, how did you find the lead actress?
Svetlana Metkina. She’s Russian, trained at the Moscow Theater. She’s done quite a bit of work over there, but this was her first leading role in an American film. Bold Films was looking for a movie for her, and I hadn’t been able to find an actress. It was a very physically demanding role – every day running across the desert in the heat, through thorny bushes, enduring a sand storm. For one shot, we took Svetlana and Maisie by helicopter and left them wandering on top of a mountain, the sun rising behind them. Svetlana did a great job, she was a natural.
And all the interaction with the hyenas. That couldn’t have been easy.
No, you can’t train hyenas. The scene where Svetlana and Maisie climb into the ruins of a building – that was the first one we shot with the hyenas. We’d done our homework, of course, but this was the first time to actually see it happening. I was in the video tent with Ben, and the crane came down, and the camera kept moving back. And suddenly, the hyena appeared in the frame and walked straight up to Maisie. We all held our breath, but Maisie wasn’t phased – very brave. She told me later that the hyena was so close she could actually feel his breath. She was absolutely great to work with, an amazing young actress.
So were you intentionally bringing the physicality, the strength, to the roles in your adaptation?
Well, that’s what attracted me to the material. I like strong female characters, and I quite liked the dynamic between the woman and the young girl. And I liked the family story, too, the father-daughter story. I’ve always been interested in how two people with children can divorce, move on, create a new life, and just expect the kids to fit into it.
So Maisie’s character’s journey was about surviving this wild situation so maybe she could better accept her situation at home?
Exactly, that’s right. She has a lovely arc, I think. Learning to take responsibility, growing up a bit, becoming gentler, more understanding. Accepting.
A good journey for everyone.
I have to ask about your start as a director. Can you tell me about your experiences working with Roger Corman?
Let’s see, this was mid to late seventies, and I was married to Jonathan Demme at the time. We’d met in the publicity department at United Artists in New York. And Jonathan met Roger, who was giving unknown talent a chance to produce and direct. Roger asked us if we wanted to make a woman’s prison movie, which was Caged Heat. And then we did two more films with Roger – I produced one and did second unit direction on both. The first film I directed, though, that was Nobody’s Fool – not the Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman, but the Nobody’s Fool with Rosanna Arquette and Eric Roberts, written by Beth Henley.
But you weren’t trained as a director, is that right?
I didn’t do any courses, no. I learned on the job, as they say. I’d worked in all different areas in the business, traveling around the world – continuity, casting, editing, publicity, distribution. And then I produced for Roger before transitioning to directing.
So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I have a project called Mind Over Mother. I worked on the script with Annie Reiner, Carl Reiner’s daughter and Rob’s sister. She had written a two-character play, and she asked me, did I think it would make a film? I said yes, I did. So now we have the script. Annette Bening and Elle Fanning are interested in doing it, and we plan to be shooting in March of next year. It has a strong, dramatic through-line, character driven – which I like of course. And strong female characters.
Heatstroke was just released in theaters and on VOD.
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International.