It’s hard not to feel a little inadequate, or at the very least unproductive, when tasked with interviewing Simon Stone. At fifteen-years-of-age, Stone already had an agent and was on the hunt for acting gigs. At 22, he founded the independent Melbourne-based theatre company, The Hayloft Project. At just 26, he took over as the new resident director at Sydney’s much loved Belvoir Street Theatre. He’s won a Helpmann Award, directed for the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies, and taken his in-demand stage productions overseas. And now the prodigious 31-year-old talent can add feature filmmaker to that impressive resume. In fact, FilmInk is meeting Stone the morning after his debut feature, The Daughter, premiered in competition at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival.
Having experienced countless opening nights in the theatre, how did Stone’s first film premiere compare? “When you do a play, you get a response as soon as you finish it,” Stone says. “But with a film, you kind of keep finishing it. You keep thinking that it’s done, but then you do a little bit more and a little bit more. There’s quite a bit of time before you get a response. Of course, you’ve shown it to people in the industry whose opinions you care about, but they’ve got their own particular filter. It’s the public who has the response that you’ve made the film for – the genuine, unadulterated human response. That’s what was nerve-wracking about last night. It’s been quite a long time between coming up with the idea and then getting to share that with the public, and finally hearing the response of an average human being…if there is such a thing.”
The response of the “average human being” at the premiere was an overwhelmingly positive one, with critics deeming Stone’s debut to be haunting and hugely assured. It’s not surprising that we find Stone – crisply dressed, but hair dishevelled – in a cheerful mood. As an interviewee, he’s almost intimidatingly articulate, but he’s also warm and wonderfully engaging. Stone dives into his responses the same way that he seems to work: fast and confident, yet open to uncovering truths along the way. “I’d been wanting to make a film for a long time,” he says. “Part of the reason that I even went into directing plays in the theatre was to practice how to direct an ensemble of actors. I thought that I’d very quickly move into making short films and follow that traditional path of becoming a filmmaker, but I got sidelined by the theatre. It turned into something that people became interested in me doing more of, and I kept doing it. I’m certainly a much better director than I would have been if I started directing films first. The good thing about theatre is that your early failed attempts disappear and you can never find them again because they only existed on the night,” he laughs.
It’s somewhat astonishing that Stone describes theatre as something that he was “sidelined” into given his reputation as one of the most exciting voices working within the medium today. In particular, Stone’s penchant for radically rewriting classic texts as he sees fit has earned him his fair share of fierce admirers and detractors, but it’s a move that has made him the talk of the theatre world. One classic given such treatment by Stone is Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 masterpiece, The Wild Duck, a haunting story of family dysfunction, deception, and devastation. In 2011, he reinvented the play using six characters and the same events, but daringly turned everything else inside out, and made it modern and essential in the process. “I remember the very first time that I read it, it was just another of Ibsen’s plays,” Stone says. “Then I re-read it genuinely looking for a play to do at the Belvoir for my first season as the new artistic director. I was looking for a play that six people could do, and there are 36 characters in The Wild Duck so it wasn’t the obvious candidate. But I saw that if I reduced it to the core group of characters in these two families that it would be good material.”
Stone was right, and it was this same material that he would revisit for The Daughter, which features a star cast including Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto, and Ewen Leslie. To say that Stone’s feature debut is emotionally powerful is a vast understatement. The film tells the story of two intertwined families and a long buried secret, which is unearthed with shattering consequences. At its tragic heart, the story comes down to a question of whether it’s better to tell the truth at all costs, and the way in which humans can respond destructively to that truth. They’re ideas that certainly pulled Stone in. “The thing that really struck me was this notion of what would you do if you suddenly discovered something about your past that you thought had been one story, and then you realised that it was a completely different story? What kind of instinctive human reaction would you have?” Stone asks. “That’s the thing that’s never gone away, and that’s the core of this film – what this revelation does in a very specific psychological way to these characters. I’m interested in flawed human beings. Well, everyone is flawed, but I’m interested in people who have lived messily, and how much people can destroy their own lives because they get overwhelmed by pain. A lot of the characters in the film act out of trying to protect themselves from pain, or feel that they shouldn’t have to feel the pain that they do. I actually find that notion a little bit entitled – that we shouldn’t feel pain and that we shouldn’t have to deal with complex, awful things on a regular basis in our life.” Stone pauses and laughs. “It’s just such great material for an exploration of the complexity of human relationships.”
Someone else who saw the potential of the material was actor Ewen Leslie, one of this country’s finest stage performers, whose screen credits include The Mule, Dead Europe, and The Railway Man. The only actor to appear in both Stone’s stage and film production, Leslie had previously witnessed the director’s adaptation of another Ibsen play, Little Eyolf, at the Belvoir, and it had left quite the impression. “I was blown away,” the always affable Leslie tells FilmInk on the phone when we catch him between projects. “It was really cinematic, it went for 90 minutes, and the acting was amazing. He’d totally reinvented it. A year later, I got this call from my agent saying that Simon Stone wants to do this play with you called The Wild Duck. The original Ibsen was a sprawling four-act, three-hour show, and when my agent told me that Simon was going to write his own version and do it with six actors as a 90-minute production, like the one I saw, I just went, ‘I’m totally on board! I really want in.’”
Prior to The Wild Duck, Stone and Leslie had worked together on the former’s production of The Promise at the Belvoir in 2009, but they had crossed paths years before that, having first met as co-stars on the 2005 war drama, Kokoda. At the time, Stone was still at drama school and trying it as an actor (he would go on to have small parts in Balibo, Jindabyne, and Being Venice), alongside his theatre directing. The two got on well, and a month after shooting wrapped, Stone saw Leslie in Tony Krawitz’ Jewboy and was so impressed by his performance that he called the actor to say that he would direct him in a film one day. “To be honest, it’s a lovely and flattering thing to hear,” Leslie says, “but at the same time, I was thinking, ‘Ah, for sure, once you’ve graduated from drama school!’ But then literally three years later, I found myself in the waiting room at Belvoir Street Theatre auditioning for him because he was directing [The Promise] upstairs. So within three years, I was in a waiting room, thinking, ‘Please give me this job!’”
The pair worked together on The Promise to largely positive reviews, but 2011’s The Wild Duck was something different all together. As well as cutting characters and having others meet who never encountered one another in the Ibsen story, Stone encased his actors on stage in a glass wall that they weren’t able to see out of. It made for a brilliantly voyeuristic experience, and one that Stone, in typical fashion, was working on right up until opening night. “Simon was writing it as we were going,” Leslie recalls. “Even up to opening week, he was changing things, cutting scenes, moving monologues, and just messing with it. Add to that, the show was behind glass, we had radio mics, and there was a live duck on stage…warning bells were going off! When you explained it to people, they’d go, ‘Yeah right…’ but they had a look in their eye like, ‘This could be a disaster!’ We did the first preview and it got a standing ovation. People loved it and connected with it. They got invested in the family story and really went with it.”
Two of those audience members who connected with the production were producers, Jan Chapman and Nicole O’Donohue. “It was emotionally moving in the way that works which remind you of the value of life can be,” the pair tell FilmInk via email about the experience of seeing the play for the first time. “Simon created a recognisable family in which words said in haste in reaction to a family upset have devastating consequences. It was a work which made you reconsider what is important in life and relationships and the fragility of it all. It was also extremely cinematic in style and with an accumulation of scenes giving an impression of events moving towards an explosion. He combined a formalism of design with extreme naturalism in the performances.”
The producing duo, who had previously worked together on 2010’s Griff The Invisible – though Chapman was more of a mentor to O’Donohue on that project – immediately saw the cinematic potential in the story, and also in Stone’s ability as a director. “The work that Simon had been creating in the theatre for some time in both Melbourne and Sydney was bold and distinctive, especially in terms of contemporising classic texts,” O’Donohue says. “The work really stood out to me, and it was an exciting prospect to bring a voice and vision like his into our Australian cinematic landscape.”
Adds Chapman: “When I met Simon, I realised what an intensive knowledge of film he had, and that he wanted to conceptualise the work in a visual and structurally filmic way. He was also very open emotionally and willing to access events in his own life and in the lives of people that he knew well to find truth in the drama and performances. He then has the knowledge and insight about theatre, film, and literature to structure this stylistically. This is what makes his voice unique as a storyteller and filmmaker.”
When the pair approached Stone – whose experience as a film director at that point was limited to a segment in 2013’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning – with the idea of bringing this story to screen, he couldn’t refuse. “Jan and Nicole had the idea,” Stone recalls, “and I’d had it vaguely too, but I certainly wasn’t going to go out and turn it into a screenplay. I was far too busy, especially to do that off my own bat. But they approached me, and I said that I would absolutely do it now that they’d asked me to do it.” He refers to Chapman and O’Donohue as his co-creators, and it was the trio who worked on shaping the production for screen. When asked whether he returned to the original source material or his play to write the screenplay, Stone says that it was a little of both. “What I essentially did was take the dramatic spine of both my reinvention and the original play, and then just find a new environment to float that story in.”
While Stone’s play transplanted Ibsen’s tale of family tragedy to Sydney’s inner suburbs, The Daughter unspools in a fictitious Australian timber town where Geoffrey Rush’s wealthy but weary Henry is looking to close down the mill that he owns. Against this background of economic uncertainty, Henry’s estranged son, Christian (American actor, Paul Schneider), returns home for his father’s wedding, carting a heap of personal baggage with him. But this is no story of forgiveness and reconciliation between a father and son. Back home after fifteen years, the clearly troubled Christian reconnects with his old friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who works at the soon-to-be-shut-down mill, and meets his wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), and father, Walter (Sam Neill). Getting a glimpse into Oliver’s bubble of domestic bliss, Christian’s own unhappiness and resentment simmers to the surface, and he eventually spills a devastating family secret.
By refashioning the drama to take place against the vast landscape of rural New South Wales, the storytelling is heavy on atmosphere, and the characters feel even more powerless. Those familiar with the work of Jan Chapman – whose incredible resume includes such classics as The Piano, Lantana, and Somersault – will feel the producer’s imprint all over this. “I am drawn to films which assist us to explore what is the essence of life and relationships,” Chapman tells FilmInk when we ask about the thematic similarities within her films. “I guess that a lot of them have an emotional intensity, and landscapes which reflect this. The Piano is the obvious example of this, but in The Daughter, we were able to create a world where the atmosphere and visual setting expand the emotions and fragility of the figures trying to do the best that they can within it.”
But it wasn’t just the landscape that had changed, with the characters shifting too. None more than Ewen Leslie’s Oliver. He’s a devoted family man in both versions, but the play’s Oliver took the form of a scruffy middle class photographer residing close to the city, and the film sees him re-fashioned as a hardworking mill worker living in the country. “Simon kept telling me that it was going to be different,” Leslie says about his character’s transformation. “But when I read the script, I went, ‘Oh shit, it’s really different.’ There was something really exciting about it. Before I read the script, my initial fear was that I’d done this play 100 times, and I was going to have the pressure of putting down some definitive version of Oliver on film. I’ve had good shows and bad shows, but this was going to be the one that will go on. Then when I read the script, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about that because I’m not going to have a chance to play that character at all.’ It was exciting to approach the story and character from a fresh perspective, but it’s also nerve-wracking because I didn’t have much to fall back on. I was at square one again.”
One of the most striking aspects of the film is its lack of a firm protagonist, but the tragedy of the story no doubt pivots around Oliver’s teenage daughter, Hedvig. She’s played by Odessa Young, and if The Daughter reveals the discovery of an exciting new cinematic voice in Simon Stone, this young actress also proves another startling revelation. The search for Hedvig, however, proved long and challenging. “It was hard because Simon wrote a part that was really difficult,” Leslie says of the eponymous role. “He wrote this complex role that had to go to all these different places for a sixteen-year-old. It’s not your generic ‘teenager with attitude’ role. It’s a really specific girl. There was a point during the audition period when he wasn’t finding what he was after. I thought that maybe this might be the type of situation where we’re going to have to find someone who hasn’t acted before, but just is the role.”
Unbeknown to them, however, Stone and Leslie had already encountered their Hedvig before the script was even finalised. Young had been selected to participate in a script workshop, where a group of actors and industry professionals read through the screenplay and pulled it apart. The young actress was never considered though because of how different Stone perceived her to be from Hedvig. “Odessa is nothing like Hedwig, and that made me deeply nervous,” Stone says. “She was definitely the best actress that we saw, but it made me nervous because essentially it’s not dissimilar to the level of transformation required by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. That’s how different she needed to be to make this work. Odessa needed to be an incredibly dysfunctional, naïve, and raw teenager who is experimenting in all sorts of strange ways and trying to form her identity. Odessa has such a clear identity and knows who she is and lives in the world of adults incredibly comfortably. Essentially what I had to do with her is something that I would be nervous asking of a three-time Oscar-winning actor – you need them to be the opposite of who they are.”
When we catch the Sydney-based Odessa Young on the phone one afternoon and repeat Stone’s comments, the young actress seems unphased. “That’s the job, right? That’s what acting is.” Speaking to Young, we do find a savvy, assured, and thoughtful seventeen-year-old, who quit school last year to seriously pursue acting. “That decision was a long and difficult one to make,” Young says. “It was all just the things that students have been conditioned to believe about how school and a piece of paper is going to make or break your life. So many of my friends who are really creative people are just being squashed by school. I was too until I realised that I didn’t need it to get a job or be happy or lead a fulfilling life.”
Despite the transformation required for the role, the actress is quick to offer up similarities between herself and the more idealistic Hedvig. “She’s an over thinker and questions everything, and I identify with parts of that,” Young reveals. “There are also similarities in the fact that Hedwig is experiencing her first love in the film, and I was going through the same thing when we were shooting. It is interesting how I identify with her and how it’s changed as well. The more that I’ve gotten to know her, the more that I’ve changed my opinion about her.” When we press Young as to how her impression of her character has changed, she replies: “At first, I thought that Hedvig was really comfortable with herself and pretty cool. But the more that I talked to Simon and got into the nitty gritty details of personalities within the film, I realised that she’s not necessarily insecure, but she’s just not aware. Everything is new to her, she’s not jaded by anything, and she’s all wide-eyed and excited about everything around her, which is something that I hadn’t considered before. Growing up in the city, you have this elitism about things like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
The role marks the second lead performance for Young, who also played a teenage runaway in Sue Brooks’ Looking For Grace. In fact, the rising actress shot the latter film and The Daughter literally back to back, and her exhaustion proved to be a blessing in disguise. “I’d flown in that morning from Perth on the back of Looking For Grace,” Young says of her first day on set for The Daughter. “I didn’t sleep much on the plane, and then went straight to set. If I hadn’t been in such a state, I would have been intimidated by who I was working with! Ewen and I hit it off immediately and we had a great relationship on set. I hadn’t met Sam [Neill] before, and I had only met Geoffrey once, so having Ewen definitely helped. He was the one person that I could touch base with.”
Another abrupt adjustment for Young was finding her feet on the sets of two directors with very different approaches. “Sue Brooks is a different filmmaker to Simon,” Young says of her Looking For Grace director. “She’s really natural and lets it all happen in front of her, and then chooses moments from that to tell the right story. Coming straight from that environment where I did have a lot to do with how Grace developed, it was interesting to then have all these ideas about Hedwig, which I’d bring up with Simon, and he’d go, ‘Yeah, but let’s do this.’ But that absolute vision is also what makes him unique. His dedication to that final product, and his commitment to making things how he wants them is something that I admire.”
Stone may possess an unwavering vision when it comes to his storytelling, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t feeling the nerves come the first day on the set of his first feature film. “I was absolutely terrified,” he says, breaking out in a grin. “You can’t ever be ready for something like this. You shouldn’t ever do something that you’re ready to do because by the time that you’re ready to do it, it’s not something that’s leading you into new things. You’ve always got to do the thing that you’re not quite ready to do. That’s how you keep moving forward.”
The entire process proved a steep learning curve for Stone, who felt fresh throughout the whole experience. “Your instincts haven’t happened yet,” he explains. “You’re not very instinctively ‘thinking cinema.’ Eventually you start doing that. Now having made that first film, knowing how the shoot relates to the entire journey of getting to the edit, it would be great to have the opportunity to start again. The thing about being a first-time anything is that you have no instincts based on experience. You have intellectual instincts, and you’ve got a series of things that you’ve wondered about and whether they might work, but they’re not based on empirical evidence or your own actual experience. That’s why first-time things are often interesting – they’re often failed attempts at trying to create some kind of recognisable genre or element, and you’ve accidentally reinvented something because you just weren’t that good at doing it! The first play that I did was equally naïve, but then you hone your instincts and keep making work, and you slowly get to a different stage – whereas you used to know a lot but not how to achieve it, now all you know is how to achieve it but not what you want to achieve.” Stone laughs. “Anyway, it’s an arc that I’m looking forward to having making films.”
While it may be the beginning of Stone’s filmmaking arc, one would assume that The Daughter is the final chapter in his journey with Ibsen’s story. But that’s not necessarily how Stone sees things. “John Ford redid stories that he’d done at various points in his westerns and Howard Hawks remade his works – including Rio Bravo three times. I’d love to do that. I’d love to take this story in fifty years’ time and set it somewhere completely different. This was just the screenplay that I had to write for this particular moment in time, but it could have gone in so many different directions. And I could just as easily write another version of this story tomorrow…”
The Daughter is released in cinemas on March 17.