Jasper Jones

Rachel Perkins, Craig Silvey, and Aaron L. McGrath on Bringing Jasper Jones to the Big Screen

March 2, 2017
The director, writer and star of the new Australian literary adaptation, Jasper Jones, shed some light on the journey from page to screen.

Adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones tells the story of the eponymous part-Indigenous outcast (Aaron L. McGrath), and the narrator, Charlie (Levi Miller), who are drawn together when a terrible murder rocks the small Western Australian timber town of Corrigin. Set in the mid-’60s, the coming of age tale sheds a light on issues of race, class and family that are even today not too far beneath the surface of Australian society. We were lucky enough to steal some time with Silvey, director Rachel Perkins, and star, Aaron L. McGrath.

Craig, how soon after publication of the novel was the possibility of a screen adaptation raised?

Craig Silvey: Probably a couple of years into the book’s trajectory it started to become more of a living, breathing possibility, I suppose. We started to garner a lot of public support and it seemed that it was going to have this amazing endurance, so it was probably from that point that I had to really start taking it a little more seriously. Also, producers at the stage had started on the initial stages of development.

Were you worried about how it might translate to the screen?

CS: Not particularly. I see film just as I see theatre – as entirely separate in terms of the mechanics of the storytelling, but also in terms of the parameters of what you can really do. Novels are special and unique for a certain reason – that being that it’s a really private journey. When a reader picks up a book, they open the front cover and they breathe life into it. It’s a really intimate thing to do. A reader has to do the work. They conjure those scenes by lending a book the authority of their imagination.

However, with film it’s a much more passive absorption. You sit in the cinema and let it wash over you. It’s a public thing. It’s something you can do with friends, it’s something you do with a crowd. But not only that, the making of a film is very different in the way you sculpt a screenplay.

Jasper Jones

Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, and Angourie Rice in Jasper Jones

Rachel, how did you come on board?

Rachel Perkins: I basically sucked up to the producers! (laughs) No. I read the novel a couple of years after it had been published, and felt like it would make a great film and thought “Wow, I could maybe direct this! This could be really fantastic.” Got all excited, approached the agent, and the rights were gone. So then I was very deflated for a few years. Then, my friend [producer] David Jowsey, I heard that he had the rights, so I immediately rang him and said “Please put me on the list.” Because I knew there would be so many directors wanting to, vying to get that gig – and they did put on the list. It just had this serendipitous quality… the kind of work I wanted to do had gone away and then come back through this really nice friendship that I had with David. So that’s how I came to it.

And what was it that you saw in the novel that made you want to put it on the screen?

RP: Great storytelling, and you don’t come across that every day. And I felt it would be really popular, actually – and that’s not a bad thing, that’s a great thing. You want a story to resonate as widely as possible – or I do – not compromising what it has to say, but actually speaking to people in a really effective way.

The great thing about this book is that it has this murder mystery as a hook, and once you open the page you’re on that hook. Like me, I didn’t want to put it down until I knew. But along that journey there’s all this beautiful material about these two boys and their friendship, and falling in love, and falling out of love. There’s wonderful humour that I really respond to, but it’s also got deep heart and it takes that seriously. It takes its emotional centre seriously and goes to these very dark emotional places. So that combination of having the lightness of it and the depth of it, I thought, “Here’s a really wonderful piece of work.” and I loved it – and tried not to destroy it in the process! (laughs).

Aaron, were you aware of the book before you came to the film project?

Aaron L. McGrath: I was aware of the book – I actually did a book trailer for a friend when I was 15. Before I even started acting and stuff someone approached me and said ‘Do you want to do the trailer for this book? And then four years later I got an audition after a call from Rachel saying, “Come in, I want you to try out for this movie.” It was down to me and this other guy, and I think Craig wasn’t really fond of me… I think it was because I didn’t have the green eyes!

RP: It is from the book – he has striking green eyes!

C: Let me put it on the record: I’ve been wrong many times over the course of the development of this film, and I suppose that was yet another instance where my instincts were askew.

Rachel, what did you see in Aaron that made him your Jasper Jones?

RP: I remember seeing his first audition when he was just a little young guy (to Aaron) How old were you? 15?

ALM: Yeah, 15.

RP: He was doing this little car scene where he was driving a car. There were four young Aboriginal guys, none of whom had ever acted before, and we were all, “Now, who’s that guy? He’s got something. He’s interesting. Let’s pursue him.” He just stood out. And he’s got charisma, but he’s also got heart. Onscreen, actors have to bring this emotional truth. They have to be able to touch that stuff and make it real, and that’s what Aaron’s got. But also, he’s sort of like… It’s interesting with Jasper Jones. {To Aaron] You said once, “I’m like Jasper Jones.” It was something really eloquent you said. “I understand Jasper Jones. They think he’s someone else, but I know who he is.” Because Jasper Jones is seen from a distance. Nobody actually talks to him, nobody knows who he is – they just project all this fear and resentment onto him, but actually he’s just this really gentle, lovely guy who has been misunderstood, and he understands that about himself. And I think Aaron has some life experience that means he understands that character and he has a great naturalism. And we got on really well when we first made a film together, so I had a really personal connection.

Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, and Angourie Rice in Jasper Jones

How did you find working on a period film, trying to capture not just the look of the ’60s, but the attitudes – the cultural assumptions and prejudices?

CS: As a novelist you have the luxury of knowing that your audience is going to have a suspension of disbelief to a certain extent. As long as you don’t corrupt that, you’re free to get away with it. However, with film there are so many aspects that you need to be on top of so that you’re not disrupting that. For me it was important that this film didn’t feel acutely nostalgic, that we weren’t rewriting history and trying to sanitise life in that period. I think to a large extent we were very successful in that.

RP: I think the lightness of touch was really good in terms of the script. Craig made really good choices where he didn’t overplay things. There’s an example where the Lui family are attacked by some hoodlums, but the next day you see the neighbor come in and say “I’m really sorry” and you see the guys fixing his fence. That’s a much more real situation – the town’s not full of white racists and supremacists; actually the Lui family live next door to other Australians and they’re friends, and the Australian thing to do is to defend your neighbor. That’s a much truer telling of racial vilification I think, and it shows that there’s not bad and good – there’s just people.

CS: Well, there’s isolation and understanding, isn’t there? The point being that the neighbours, the people who know the Luis, have the myth and the noise removed, and they know these people as human beings and know their story, understand them. The people to whom the Luis are alien, are different, to some extent misunderstood – it’s those people who are the aggressors.

After such a long journey to the screen, what are you hoping audiences take away from Jasper Jones?

RP: I just hope it really resonates with them. I hope they’re really moved and affected by it, because it’s a very honest film. IT’s got its heart on its sleeve and it doesn’t deny that it has this heart. It really goes for that strong emotional territory. I hope that people are moved by it because it’s courageous in how much heart it puts out there. I don’t know if “heart” is the right way to describe it…

CS: I think sincerity. I think our performances and the way you’ve designed this film, the way Rachel has told this story, has the audience in mind – there’s no pretense to the way this story is presented visually. But I agree with Rachel – I think ultimately, we haven’t tried to be prescriptive in terms of our thematic interrogations. I think what’s important to us is we can invite people into this story, and ultimately, it’s a moving and a meaningful cinema experience.

Jasper Jones is out today. Read our review here.

Comments

  1. Libbiebhowell

    Saw Jasper Jones today/ another great Australian movie/ loved it/ cried a little/ bloody excellent for me….

Leave a Comment