Interview: Director Kim Farrant talks ‘Strangerland’

In the new Australian thriller Strangerland, we get a story that is not only gritty and raw but eerily realistic. Focusing on a simple family whose two children have gone missing, Strangerland has an impressive cast consisting of Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving. The film not only benefits from having a strong cast but from a highly capable director, Kim Farrant. This is Farrant’s feature film debut and it is a powerful entry in the gifted filmmaker’s budding career. Farrant recently spoke with me, here’s how that interview went:

First off, the film is beautiful. Great movie, really powerful, I really enjoyed it. What drew you to the project?

So the project actually came from a fascination with theme and the theme of how we act out and cope in times of crisis, and only two years ago, my father died. It was a kind of horrible, drawn-out, long illness. I was kind of assailed with grief and found myself living in New York. I didn’t know anyone, you know, not really wanting to be alive, and in that space, I acted out sexually with a couple of total strangers, and probably what I needed at the time was a big hug. But I kind of, you know, just longing to connect and this kind of desire for touch and for some kind of life energy, you know, because sex and death, the link between that and the need to feel alive. And somehow, I think at the time, the feeling that if I f@#$ someone or have sex with someone that I could regain some kind of control because in the face of grief and uncertainty, there’s so much helplessness and not knowing. But obviously, that control was momentary and then the grief came flooding back in, so it really stuck with me. I had a lot of shame about it. It was only a couple of people, but it really stuck with me for a long time, and then over the years, I’ve talked to other people about their experiences or times of crises or not knowing, you know, because we didn’t know if he was going to live or die. And then I was like, oh, I’m not alone in this. Other people have sexualized on their grief, and that was the kind of understanding that sat with me for ages, and then I was interested in exploring a story around how well do we know those under our own roof and who can you trust if you can’t trust your family. So I found a writer who was also interested in that premise and those themes, and together, we wrote the story – well, we wrote an outline together, and she wrote the story and turned it into a script and went from there.

So would you say Catherine is a reflection of yourself?

She has aspects of me, as that, the 22-year-old who was lost and needing touch for affirmation, and I think as a young child, I was very pretty and would often get, “Oh, you’re so beautiful,” and “She’s so pretty,” and so my lens that I kind of experienced the world was through that of physical beauty and being acknowledged for my beauty. And Catherine, she’s a beautiful woman, and we cast Nicole, and she’s a beautiful woman. I think when you’re objectified like that from a very young age, you learn that how you receive love or attention in the world is through your body and through touch. So that was also a part of it, and then Lily, her daughter, is another generation of that. She’s a reflection of Catherine in that way.

Very interesting. What was it like working with such huge talent?

Oh, it was amazing, and everyone had different needs, like I had Nicole who is very experienced and has made over 65 films and has all that behind her, and then I had actors who never acted before and young kids who had talent and had intuition, but they had no technique. It was like working with everyone in terms of what they needed from me, what their process was, and then also some of the actors, I was able to use some of my own process as a director. You know, I also coach actors, so I was able to use that in the mix. So it was amazing, and it also, I think working with people like Nicole and Hugo and Joe who were so experienced, there’s such a level that everyone kind of sets up to, which is a privilege as a director to work at that level. Also, they were very respectful of me as well, which was really lovely for me. You know, we would improvise sometimes into a take or during a take or sometimes I’d do sense memory with Joe or with Meyne Wyatt, who is one of the original actors, or Lisa Flanagan, so it was a very collaborative, it didn’t feel like anyone was pulling rank or anything like that. We were all in it together, trying to make the best movie.

That’s great, that’s great. So it wasn’t too difficult to get the three big names on-board?

Oh, Hugo came on-board really early, like after the first draft, and then we kind of went through a long process of development, and we originally, the two original characters were originally white characters and then we changed them as the more time we spent researching and doing location scouting out in the Australian outback, we realized the actual cultural diversity was way more balanced than it was in the cities. There was way more aboriginal people in terms of the amount compared to white people in the rural areas, so we decided to turn those characters into aboriginal people, and then it was a mix in that way.

The film is shot so beautifully. What was your working relationship like with your cinematographer, P.J. Dillon?

What we did was I had been collecting like a visual bible of visual references over the years and two days before we started official pre-production, I got all the heads of the departments, costumes, design, the editor, and the producers, and one of the writers was there, and we sat down with P.J., all of us, and I went through scene by scene and showed them my visual references and said, “This is the tone of this scene, here is what is happening in this scene,” and then they were all able to contribute their ideas and come back to me in the first week of pre-production with their thoughts on visually how they could contribute here and what the design might be, so it was very collaborative in that we all started from the same place. We all knew the tone, that was really important to me, and I love that for me it feels really well executed in the film, both visually and in the sound design and in the amazing music, so yeah, it was a kind of process of going back and forth. He also came at it from a stranger’s perspective. He had never been to Australia, definitely never been out in our desert, so he saw the light in a different way, which was perfect because we were, you know, viewing it through the lens of Catherine, and she was a stranger to this town, so I think he brought that as well, and he was very courageous in, you know, we’re shooting Nicole Kidman and yet he’s totally letting one side of her face fall off into darkness, and I love that. I love that he’s so bold in that way, and that really supported me in my vision of allowing both the light and the darkness of these characters to come through.

So it was a huge collaborative process.

Absolutely, absolutely, and the same with the composer, Keefus Ciancia, who is American. He was sending me bits of music and examples or feeling or tone while I was just out of the edit so we were feeding things into the edit, so during that editing process, he’s constantly feeding us tracks so that when we were cutting, again, we had that sense of the tone really going, and we could cut to the music. The whole way through, it was like me trying to get in their head and them trying to get into my head. It’s fantastic.

I have to know, it was probably my favorite scene, how was the dust storm scene pulled off?

Ah, the dust storm. So it was just a lucky day, it was such a big storm.

So it was real?

One person in the audience asked me that, and they didn’t believe me when I said, “Oh, it was just a coincidence.” Now, I mean, so all of the foreground and midground in the scene where Nicole and Joe are actually, they get out of the car and they’re engulfed by the storm, that stuff was created on camera using special effects. Like these guys had packs that had dust in them on their backs and the big wind turbines would blow them, plus smoke from a smoke machine, into the air and that was kind of the swirling dust in and around them in the dust haze, and we shot it at night so it had that kind of strange orange and red color. And then the dust from rolling down the main street, all of that was created in visual effects by the guys from Iloura, who also did Mad Max: Fury Road. So we were very spoiled in talent.

That’s great. What is it about Australia that fascinates you so?

I think, well, I grew up here. I think the fact that it’s so interesting, you know, when we were doing research and we started consulting with aboriginal elders about the land and the content that we had in our script that involved aboriginal people, it became very apparent to me that as an educated white woman, I had no education or understanding of the land. The land in which my forefathers came and took from the aboriginal people. I had no understanding of how the land was, in their mythology and their truth, how it was formed. I didn’t listen to the land, and I learned that when we were out there and we were doing location scouting, and we were talking to one consultant in particular about the land, and you know, he said that the land will give to you and it supports us, but if you disrespect it, it can also take. And so in that way, the dust storm was reflective of that. That was also reflective of Lily and her being this all-powerful kind of force. It kind of comes through the town and no one left unscathed in the wake of her. But to me, I think it’s the kind of, there’s a vast, massive, harsh desert landscape out there which in moments is like cruel and unforgiving and unrelenting in its size and its heat. But there’s something really beautiful about it as well. It’s like if you look at it from a different perspective, there’s something really beautiful. That was a big fascination for me, that the land is this all-powerful force and something that can scare you. If you don’t listen to it, it can be terrifying. It can be like, did the land take my children? But there’s a history in Australia of children going missing in the desert, and the colonials had this kind of anxiety about when they came all those many years ago, they took the land, and then when their children would go off wandering and, you know, you’ve got these little Scottish and Irish and English children who’d never seen vast open spaces, and they’d go off wandering and they’d get lost. They would say that the land took them, and they felt it was their punishment for them taking the land from the aboriginal people. So there’s a kind of history of children going missing in the desert, and we were playing into that and the irony of the black trackers who used to get sent out to try and find the white children, when it was the whites who came and took all the black children from the aboriginal people, the stolen generation. There’s a whole undercurrent for us and, you know, it would be a similar thing with the American Indians, that the white Americans took the land from them, and in Ireland, and with the gypsies, people took the land from them. It’s kind of history about the land and kind of possessing it or possessing something which in a way ties into Lily and possess and take this energetic, wild force of nature, and she’s like that. For us, the land was like this force of nature, Mother Nature. It’s feminine, it’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s still, it’s beautiful. It’s a mixture, like women can be. (laughs)

Kim, what do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I hope they take away an opportunity to look at themselves and to look at how they deal with crises and how they act out and how, you know, do they grasp at the bottle? Do they grasp at drugs? Do they medicate on pills? Do they go into workaholism? Do they go into blaming others and violence? How do they act out? Do they sexualize? And within that, maybe by seeing the film, there’s an opportunity to have some compassion for others but more importantly for themselves, to practice self-forgiveness. Because we all deal with things in different ways.

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