Luke Shanahan: Down the Rabbit Hole

August 4, 2017
Director Luke Shanahan opens up about his debut feature, which premieres at MIFF this weekend.

Medical student Maude Ashton (Adelaide Clemens) studies medicine in Germany, far away and disconnected from her family. Her twin sister Cleo has been missing for a year. Maude’s family has already held a funeral service without her. When Maude becomes haunted by dreams that her sister is still alive, she returns home to Adelaide and follows a trail towards a hidden commune in the South Australian forest.

Twins, and their mythologised emotional connections, are the focus of Rabbit, a new and wonderfully creepy thriller from first-time director Luke Shanahan. The film stars Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) alongside Alex Russell (Jungle) and Veerle Bætens (The Broken Circle Breakdown), and premieres at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. In conversation with Shanahan, the most obvious question appeared to be “why twins?”

“I was sitting down with a friend who was an identical twin,” recalls Shanahan. “They were actually drawn apart by their own intimacy; essentially they were so close that they didn’t get on any more. They were estranged. I knew one of them, and the other lived on the other side of the world. She said that they were so close that the intimacy drove them apart, so much so that it caused the other one to move to London. I just thought that was a fascinating idea.”

“They still reacted to each other,” he added. “They mentioned instances that I’ve got in the film. One said, ‘I fell over and broke my leg,’ and the other one on that same day would sprain her ankle. They were that close. You hear these things in mythology and think, ‘that can’t happen,’ but one of them would break up with a boyfriend and on the other side of the world the other would ring them up and ask ‘What happened? Did you have a fight?’ It was literally like that. I took her at her word – I don’t think she made it up for the sake of conversation.”

“I just thought that was a fascinating idea: what if you could test one in a life-threatening event – could the other one react to it? If you were asking for help within a space or a horrible situation, could you call out to your twin no matter she was and could she react and follow clues and help you? Essentially, that’s Rabbit. An estranged set of twins, living apart, one has been missing for a year, and the other living on the other side of the world starts getting visions and nightmares that her twin is still alive in South Australia. It’s a cold case: the police have given up, the parents have given up. The parents have even had a funeral, because they just assume it’s all done, but the twin says ‘No, she’s alive. I can see her,’ and just follows those bread crumbs back to Adelaide and starts to piece it all together and realises her state could be linked to this.”

“Everyone puts a lot of faith in fate and destiny, and that we’ve all got this pre-determined fate. I’m just asking that if you have a sibling that has 99.5 per cent of the same DNA, obviously there are decisions that may be similar that you will make, but will there be that variable that will make you do something different? That’s essentially what the film asks.”

Rabbit is a film with some unexpected surprises. After leading the audience into what seems like a very American kind of thriller, a sudden burst of noise against a red screen heralds a sudden and profoundly more unsettling second half. “That’s exactly what I wanted it to do,’ says Shanahan. “When that big block of red comes up, she’s down the rabbit hole. For me there are two halves of the film. The first half is trying to work out what happened, and the second half is where the gothic fairy tale takes over. I liked the dichotomy of the twins – the two halves.”

The unpredictable second half has a deliberately European style and aesthetic. “We had a lot of European investment. The Europeans were on-board early on, because they saw it as a European film. I knew that they would sort of get it: there’s a Michael Haneke sort of a feel, there’s Polanski and all that sort of stuff, but the Americans are a different kettle of fish. You think, is it going to be too moody, too atmospheric, without enough sort of Eli Roth horror in it? I think the trailer leads people to believe it will be a bit ‘girl in the woods’.

Shanahan adds: “We’ve just come back from six days in the States, and it’s funny: I wondered how it was going to go down, and the Americans loved it.”

One of the film’s most striking elements is its musical score. Composed by Michael Darren, it has a distinctly 1970s style and cuts in and out without warning. It helps to create a constant sense of unease. “That was always my intent,” says Shanahan. “I always had the score in my head. It was always a 1970s ‘John Carpenter meets Italian horror’ score.”

Was there a chance some of the music was too loud? “Those notes aren’t too loud, it’s mixed big. If I sat on the fence, and didn’t make those choices… I felt it had to shock and it had to be like a fairy tale. That mix of classical and a 1970s organ Italian horror theme was integral. Cutting them off in moments was like the staccato effect of Maude’s dreams. I wanted to have that feeling of being unsettled.”

The style of the music is echoed in the film’s editing and photography. “I wanted the shocks to come inherently from the craft, rather than being the nasty stuff. It wasn’t important to see that, but you always needed a feeling that something bad was going on from the opening credits onwards. I think it pays off, but it doesn’t come in loud explosions. There’s only really one drop of blood in the whole film. I’m most proud of the colour palette, and Anna Howe’s cinematography. I just think the whole look of the film is almost like The Handmaid’s Tale or something. The only primary colour is the red, which is a deliberate move: those blocks of red.”

Reaching the end of the process on his first feature, Shanahan reflects on the experience: “It takes a long time. The support we had was amazing from the FFC, from the distributor, from Level K the sales agent – all of that was amazing. It will never happen again I think, in terms of creative control – I hope it does – but I feel like I wasn’t stifled in any way along the line. I had a producer, David Ngo, who was fantastic. It’s not that I asked for exorbitant things but he didn’t say no – we tried to work it out, and I guess that’s because we worked together before.”

“Coming from a commercial background you learn to tell stories quickly. We’re in Australia. We’re making indie films. You have to work within the parameters. We don’t have heaps of money, and we don’t have heaps of resources. You just get clever with it. I had so much preparation. I sat with the DOP and the production designer, and we had sketchbooks and we had pads, for months beforehand. Colours and fabrics, and everything we were going to use. We had to be really prepared, and I guess the big lesson I learned was trusting the people around me and trusting that things are going to take longer than you think. This took two years from pitching at MIFF in 2015 to premiering at MIFF in 2017, and I reckon that’s pretty fast for an Australian film.”

“You can’t prepare enough. We had a once in a hundred years storm in Adelaide for two days. All of those things happening when we were shooting, and you just had to go inside when we were outside or vice versa, and just have faith in each other. I’m a pretty collaborative director; we’d block the scene, but we might change it up. Nothing was sacrosanct. It was an organic process, and I think working in Australia you’ve got to have faith in those working around you.”

Rabbit has its world premiere on August 5 at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs until 20 August.


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