A SFS Q&A with Kim Farrant, Director of “Strangerland”

Interview and article by Nicole Newton-PlaterKim Farrent Masterclass2

With her debut feature film Strangerland an incredible hit at both Sundance and this week at the Sydney Film Festival, Kim Farrant is a growing force in film direction that aspiring filmmakers can all learn a great deal from. Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving and Joseph Fiennes, her film is presently being praised for its courage to tackle a confronting and haunting issue in society and it is being hailed a celebration of Australian cinema. Farrant’s vision of film direction as an all encompassing role in the filmmaking process is one that has proved extremely successful for her.  Sydney Film School students and other aspiring feature makers were extremely lucky to have the opportunity to learn more when she visited the school on June 13-14 to host her Masterclass Workshop in Filmmaking.

We had the good fortune to talk to Kim Farrant during the Sydney Film Festival and we thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak to us.

Q. Firstly, congratulations on Strangerland being part of the Official Competition at the Sydney Film Festival! How has your festival journey been so far?
A. It’s been amazing out there. You know, State Theatre opening night, 2000 people….I mean, it doesn’t get better than that. Such a beautiful audience who had a lovely reception to the film and lots of laughter and tears, people were moved and lots of lovely comments afterwards. It’s been a great a great blessing and it’s been wild.

Q. What initially drew you to Strangerland?
A. Well, actually I had this theme that I had wanted to explore which is how we act out in times of crises. We all kind of respond to crises in different ways. Some of us try to get some solid ground under our feet, some of us might resort to drinking alcohol, taking pills or drugs, over-exercising, becoming a workaholic, blaming others or over-sexualising themselves. So that theme was something I was very passionate about and I had been interested in creating a story about a family as I was interested in the secrets we hold as families, what’s forgivable and unforgivable and what we tell and what we don’t. So I went to the writer, Fiona Seres who was the original writer of the script and presented this theme but also this concept of exploring the darkness in a family. Then together we brainstormed for a couple of weeks in a room and then she went on the write the script and Michael Kinirons came on board later.

Q. You said that Strangerland is about how people react in a time of crisis, was his something that you had to do further research for in order to create the right atmosphere? 
A. Yes, I mean there was a lot of research in terms of reading about and meeting cops from the Missing Persons Unit, but also parents of children who had gone missing and talking to them about their experiences and how it affected them and the behaviours and feelings they went through. A lot of parents of missing children are going through the grief of having their children missing, but they are also dealing with being the prime suspect in the case. So they are under the scrutiny of police but also subject to the belief and rumours that get cast by community, as well as loved ones. So we were really committed to representing their experiences on screen and the truth of that is that these parents if children who go missing and never come back is that they just live in this eternal limbo that is just true horror at it’s greatest.

Q. Was it particularly challenging making a film in the extreme Australian outback conditions?
A. Well, it was challenging in terms of it sometimes being quite hot and it was challenging in terms of the distances that we had to drive. We had a 30 day shoot and we were basically shooting all over New South Wales. So with that time was probably the bigger obstacle rather than the conditions themselves. It is harsh out there, but at the same time it is incredibly beautiful and the fact that you had no mobile reception and no internet connection was basically a gift in a way. It means you are present and focused, but at the same time you are experiencing what the characters are experiencing which is lack of connection to technology and our normal comfort zone of being connected to our devices 24/7! It was something that helped not only cast but also the crew and head of departments as you are really in touch with the characters in the story.

Q. Strangerland is really quite suspenseful. What are some of the directorial challenges involved with maintaining tension?
A. I think one of the major challenges as a director when making a drama or a mystery or thriller that is so full of tension is being able to be comfortable with holding tension. I think a lot of our comfort zone as people is we avoid conflict and we gravitate to comfort and I was doing the reverse. I was gravitating the actors towards conflict and having them avoid comfort. So it’s like the willingness to be the person who is making others uncomfortable by not giving them the scapegoat of relief and the film is quite unrelenting in what I think is a really positive and engaging way because as a lot of people say it feels like you’ve been on the edge of your seat the whole way with your heart in your throat. You have no certainty, no giving it to you wrapped up in a bow. It takes you and leaves you feeling quite unearthed. For me it was the willingness to be able to hold that space because I am like everyone else I want to be liked and I also have a people pleaser within me. So I have to put that aspect of me aside and be willing to hold a very tense place. In terms of characters, not tense in terms of the crew and cast, but you know it’s uncomfortable material and that takes people into uncomfortable places. That was the main challenge, but it was a satisfactory feeling to be able to hold that space.

Q. In Strangerland you work with such household names as Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving and Joseph Fiennes. Was working with such high profile stars something you felt you had to adapt your directorial style for?
A. You know, the thing about Nicole, Joe and Hugo is that they are all incredibly down to earth and collaborative and open. Really they’re there to do their best job as actors and deliver the performance. So really I just felt like we were all on this mission together and in this swamp together and getting our hands dirty to deliver the story and pay tribute to the characters that they were inhabiting. So I feel like that bigger story was always our primary goal and it wasn’t about certain personalities or egos. It was more about “How do we in this limited time frame of 30 days get the most raw and truthful performances and create this world in the time we need?” So it felt like we were on a mission together and my job was steering that ship, but I never felt alone in that. I always felt supported by my incredible cast and crew.

Q. As the film is your first feature length film, what do you feel you have learnt from it as a director?
A. I’ve learnt to never give up. You know, it took 13 years from conception to Sundance. I’ve learnt to keep true to my vision and that people along the way will tell you that you can’t do it and you just thank them for their advice or unsolicited advice and keep going regardless and keep believing. Maintaining and holding that vision for 13 years was in a way easy because the themes were so strong and the script was so powerful that I kept feeling inspired that I had to tell this story and I had to explore these uncomfortable aspects of human nature and parts of ourselves that we often deem uncomfortable or unlovable. So I mean tenacity is something that I have learned and I have a great belief. I also had beautiful support along the way in terms of the producers, the writers, the rest of the team and the cast.

Q. Looking back on your career, you begun your work in acting and then moved into screenwriting and directing. What made you decide to make that switch?
A. I had an experience when I was at acting school. I loved acting and I am so grateful to have learned that process. I think like an actor when I am directing each character’s different journey and ask myself all the questions that an actor would ask themselves in order to understand their character’s objectives and their obstacles, their flaws, their fears…that’s the world in which I come from. At acting school at The Journey in Sydney, the teacher couldn’t teach that day so I had to step in to direct the play on that particular day an it was the first day I felt a home and in my skin. I thought “Ahhh…this is what I am supposed to do!”
I did a bit of acting when I left school, but then  I started writing short films. I got into film school and  went to AFTRS for three years and made ten films while I was there. It’s been quite a ride, but it has formed all the different qualities I needed to direct.

Q. Do you think that is an important thing to do when studying film? Not just look at one area but a whole range of different specialties in the film making process?
A. My belief as a director is that if you want to direct, you need to know the role of every single person on that crew, what they do and ideally an experience of doing it. So I have written, I have produced, I’ve shot, I’ve edited, I’ve sound recorded, I’ve designed, I’ve done costume and make up..and not all as credited credit on a film. It may have been on an exercise or on a film lab, which I did in Amsterdam where I did costume design and make up as well as directing. I’ve done documentaries where I have been responsible for shooting and lighting and I have edited my own films or short films. So getting the experiences of all of those things I think is completely valuable and necessary. Working and continuing to work and study as an actor. Only recently I did an acting course with Susan Batson, who is Nicole Kidman’s acting coach because I was going to be directing people of that calibre and wanted to know what their techniques were like. So I think the more you act the more you feel comfortable directing actors and know that they aren’t this foreign species. Many directors are scared of actors and don’t understand their feelings or know how to talk to them. So one of the main things I say to budding film makers is to take acting classes. Get in front of the camera and know what it feels like and you will have much ore gratitude for your actors.

Q. So you’re giving the students at Sydney Film School a Masterclass Workshop in film making this weekend. What would you like the students to take away from the workshop?
A. I hope they walk away feeling inspired and also that their belief systems are blown apart in terms of what’s possible as I am the classic example of The Little Engine That Could. It took me 13 years to make Strangerland and several setbacks and “no’s” along the way, but I kept going and eventually I got to make it. I definitely had a lot of obstacles in that task. Part of what I am going to be talking about is the different ways of getting a film made, the processes I went through in terms of development and raising finance, but also creating all the materials to pitch with such as the visual diaries and slideshows as well as the verbal pitches and documentation that I wrote that I took all over the world. That’s all part of it as well showing the students different tools and acting techniques which I use and that I he learnt along away the way. How to get the right performance from an actor, how to speak in their language and what you can give them and offer them. We will also be going into rehearsal techniques and everything from location scouting, crewing up, working with designers, visualizing the story and post-production. All the way through to festivals, marketing and publicity. It follows the process right from the initial idea to putting it out in the world.

Q. And what advice would you give to film makers who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
A. Firstly, find your own footsteps! Don’t follow mine because we all have our own unique voice and that is one of the delights of being an artist is finding your truth and be willing and courageous enough to seek it out. So that would be one of the main things, and to have the courage to tell stories that risk at some level, that challenge, that inspire, but also that confront. The main thing is to keep making films. Keep directing. If you find yourself in development for a long time but haven’t actually exercised the direction muscle, go out and create work and actually be on set. That’s the way to keep that directing instrument alive. It feeds you, it feeds your soul.

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