Undertow, the first feature from MIFF Accelerator Lab alum Miranda Nation, is a Geelong-shot psychological drama about grief and obsession set against the backdrop of local footy culture. The film follows photo-journalist Claire (Laura Gordon, Joe Cinque’s Consolation), who is struggling to cope with the loss of her unborn child, as she becomes increasingly obsessed with Angie (Olivia DeJonge, The Visit), a pregnant young woman Claire suspects of having an affair with her AFL player husband, Dan (Rob Collins, Cleverman; Glitch). We caught up with Nation to get some insight into what makes her film tick.
What was the initial inspiration, the seed, for the story?
I started my career as an actor before transitioning into writing and directing, and around the time I started writing for film, I performed in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids. I found the relationship between the sisters fascinating. I wanted to write something centring on a really complex relationship between two women – not a romantic or sexual relationship, although there are elements of that in it too – a kind of love-hate-need relationship – two sides of the same coin. The story evolved hugely from that starting point but that was the initial inspiration.
What made it important for you to film around your home territory of Geelong? How did your familiarity with the area inform your choices?
It’s a really rich landscape with so many contrasting features – the old industry on the bay, the semi-rural outskirts, the vast coastline. It felt like a fitting metaphor for the pull between the ‘civilised’ and the primal that the film explores, and for the contrasting worlds of Claire and Angie. Being familiar with the area certainly informed my choices, I had many locations in my mind as I was writing so that streamlined things once we were scouting. DOP Bonnie Elliott and I spent lots of time recce’ing the area and taking photos years before we went into production.
How did the casting process go, and what you drew you to the actors you decided upon?
We had a long casting process for the lead roles as is often the case on a low-budget film. It was a combination of auditioning, meeting people, and being familiar with their work.
I’d always known of Laura’s work and knew she was incredibly committed and talented, but it was her self-test that really blew me away – it was thrilling, because she delivered the lines just as I’d always heard them. That wasn’t something I expected, because the character always evolves to meet the actor, and there were other wonderful auditions, but the fact that Laura seemed to tap into the rhythms and emotions I had written as if she was inside my head and body was magic – it just seemed like it was meant to be.
Olivia actually came on board very late in the process, about three weeks out from shooting, but funnily I’d had her in my mind right from the beginning, after seeing her in Hiding. She has incredible screen presence and I really loved the energy she brought to Angie – a really feisty fuck-you attitude!
I was aware of Rob’s work from Cleverman. He brought a combination of dignity and defensive vulnerability to his audition that was very intriguing. It was really important to me that the actor playing Dan be empathetic, that he not be played as a bad guy, that we see he’s just a regular guy making decisions to get by.
Josh Helman, I was aware of too but I didn’t really know his work. I watched a lot of stuff including Flesh and Bone, where he plays a really troubled character with great sensitivity. Josh has the alpha male screen presence that I was looking for, but I also knew he could bring an empathy and complexity to what risked being a one-dimensional character in the wrong hands.
Based on the publicity materials, we feel safe in calling this a genre film. What was the attraction there? Are some themes easier to explore in the thriller mode?
Hmm, interesting question. I actually don’t think I’d call it a genre film, more a drama with genre elements. Perhaps the publicity material has brought those elements to the fore. It plays with psychological thriller tropes in that it delves into the psychology of the protagonist and plays on her distorted perceptions and her struggle to grasp reality. It’s a very subjective telling; Claire is an unreliable narrator and it’s sometimes ambiguous if what we’re seeing is real or not. It’s definitely not a thriller in the sense of big thrills and chases so hopefully people are not expecting that! Maybe safer to call it a psychodrama, or a drama with elements of body horror and suspense. All of my work to date has played with this intersection of the conscious and the unconscious in one way or another.
What would you say the core themes are?
Sex and power. The taboos surrounding sex and the body, especially the female body and female sexuality, and what happens when we try to suppress the ‘ugly’ or uncomfortable or painful parts of ourselves. The tension between the instinctual and the intellectual, the body and the mind.
Working with a largely female crew, did you find communicating certain concepts in a female-centric story easier? Did your crew perhaps “get” some things you were trying to say in the film more readily?
Yes and no, it’s a story that both women and men have related to. Bonnie and I and other crew members talked a lot about the female gaze and about representing sex and the body in a way that was never gratuitous but always in service of the story. It was really important that the actors felt comfortable and that we had a mutual understanding about when and why there would be nudity in a scene. Having an all-female camera crew helped create a really safe and respectful shooting environment. It’s not an easy thing to do as an actor and I am very grateful that they trusted me.
Having said all that, I do think we’re a bit hung up about nudity in Australia – I love how much more relaxed they are about it in Europe. After all, it’s just a naked body! It’s part of that whole stigma we have around the body and sex.
What are you hoping audiences take away from the film?
A friend recently quoted Jane Campion to me, saying about her work – “It’s just a contribution to the conversation”. It’s a pretty intense and provocative film, I hope that it leaves people talking, wondering what they would do in a similar situation.
What’s up next for you?
I have a number of projects in development, a long-form TV series and a couple of features. We’ll see what gets traction. In the short-term, my two-year old daughter is pretty keen for me to stay at home and play.
Undertow is in cinemas from February 27, 2020