“I used to write to service my directing,” Catre Shortland told this year’s Big Screen Symposium audience. “But when I had kids I wanted to stay inside the house, to simplify my life. Hence I became a writer.”
Having introduced herself, Cate Shortland outlined her preferred materials for working with. The first, objects, a secrecy thing. The second is landscape – she likes to explore the beauty of landscape as an escape, as well as the impact it has on the body. Thirdly, facts – for example when she’s perplexed by something in the newspaper. When she thinks about life, what life is, she finds it’s constantly a plugging of holes such as grief.
When introducing the themes that run through her work, she says, “I am very interested in violence. I grew up in such a violent place – I’m constantly working it out.” She feels the same about sexuality – particularly the connection between sex and death.
Although she has spent much of her working life in television, and has made a number of successful short films, to illustrate her themes (and obsessions) Shortland focused her discussion on her feature films. The first was Somersault, produced by Jan Chapman (The Piano), with whom she is also working on her third feature now in post, Berlin Syndrome. Quoting Chapman: “You hope you will feel good about your film, but you never know how it will affect other people.”
Somersault is set in the environment she grew up in, suburban Australia. “There is a tricky scene in this film – a girl is high on drugs, and the two guys she’s with want to rape her. I was scared about the scene and for the actors, because of the nudity, the actions…”
To get through the fear, and particularly to help the actors, first they improvised all the dialogue, both during the casting process and in rehearsal. They then used a choreographer to work out the movement of the whole scene. After that they reworked the dialogue. Finally, the scene was shot in one take, 10 minutes long – and then edited down.
“A scene needs oil and water, friction, shifts in tone from one second to another.” The issue for Shortland is always how to make a scene truthful, rather than dramatic. “I still have the ending in my head. But how to make it organic? That’s my struggle.”
One answer is to have everything going well, then set a bomb under it. Another is to cut stuff out of the screenplay, and see what happens when the scenes that are left butt up against each other.
“When actors ask me questions, I will give them answers,” she said, “but I always say ‘What do you think?’ Because what they’ll come up with is much more important.”
Shortland’s second feature, Lore (pronounced in two syllables, not unlike ‘Laura’) took her completely out of her comfort zone.
Fourteen year old Lore and her three younger siblings find themselves abandoned when her parents are arrested for being Nazis at the end of World War II. She resolves to take her siblings and travel across devastated Germany, mostly on foot, to find their grandmother.
Shortland’s family was Jewish, holocaust survivors. “I had a real hatred towards Germany. The film changed my perspective, made me open myself.”
When she was introduced to Rachel Seifert’s book The Dark Room, which analyses Nazism and corruption and their effect on German children, the challenge of a different perspective profoundly affected her. The story of Lore is a true one, based on Seifert’s own mother.
Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee wrote four drafts of Lore in Australia and in the UK. Then she made a three-week road trip from the Black Forest in the south-west of Germany through to the eastern Czech and Polish borders, up to the North Sea. Then she rewrote the script, because of the landscape. “That’s a regular process.”
She started off polarizing the Germans. But in Germany she met a group of people in their 80s, ex-Hitler Youth, SS, and so forth – they told her stories they’d never told their families. “No one is unlikeable if they challenge and fascinate us.
”We have these beliefs, but the animal inside us knows they’re not right.
“The film is about a young girl searching for her grandmother. But it’s also about national socialism and the search for the mother – with Germany as the mother. It’s about the joining of the body to the Earth, taking the politics out of it. All that people have done to each other is superfluous – you can still love the place.”
There is an object that travels with Lore through the film, a little ceramic deer, which isn’t in the book. ”I love the sensory. I love touch.” (Shortland’s upcoming Berlin Syndrome also has at its centre a girl who is given a charm which travels with her through the film.)
Shortland has deliberately chosen to go much deeper into the psychology of sexuality and violence than the original book does.
In an early scene in Lore set by a river, which is the film’s most literal exploration of the moral complexity of sexuality and violence intertwined, a young guy uses a rock to kill a man, to save Lore from assault. She could stop the violence, but doesn’t. Why would she make that choice? “This is what the Germans did… If the audience is not asking questions at the end of the scene, then you are not working hard enough as a writer.”
An audience member asked if Lore was complicit in the violence to some degree? And was that true for all Germans? Shortland: “She is complicit, but she is saying to herself that she is watching, not complicit.”
Having to work with a second language, one in which she was not proficient, was liberating. “I used to be very precious with dialogue. I am trying to be less so. I no longer need to have total control – working in a second language helped me with that.”
Moderator Brita McVeigh asked, “Why are you not precious with dialogue any more?”
Shortland replied, “What I am concerned with is truth.”
Having gone through what she describes as immense anger and grief during the research process for the film, Shortland also learned from Seifert, and from the experience of making the film, to drop her judgemental attitudes. She told Collider, “One of the beautiful things about making the film is I’ve had to throw out a lot of the preconceived ideas I had about Germany and about German people.”
Ironically, having described herself initially as a director/writer turned purely writer, Berlin Syndrome is written by someone else.
“I always work collaboratively, writing dialogue with another person. I use the producers, or my partner (fellow BSS presenter Tony Krawitz) or other writers. Sometimes I work it out by myself, by seeing something…
“One must honour the moments when one is struggling. Create a ritual out of it.”
Shortland was asked about writing for television, where you are handing your work over to other directors. ”I am very comfortable with that now. With a project called Deadline Gallipoli, it turned out very differently from what I’d envisaged – it was a shock. But that’s okay. I am now working on a new ten-part television series. It’s about the eye, voyeurism – one can’t touch, but one can look.
“When asked about the difference between male and female directors, I used to say none. But as I get older (which is beautiful), I find I am embracing who I am.”