Cate Shortland was in Toronto for the premiere and we were able to speak there.
Women and Hollywood: I saw your previous film and then I saw this film and I just thought wow. This is completely different in scope and also, of course, the language. Talk a little bit about the journey from a small Australian movie to a beast of locations all over Germany.
Cate Shortland: After Somersault I was approached to do sort of similar indie films about relationships and I just wasn’t completely inspired by that. And then I read this novel The Dark Room by Rachel Sieffert that was given to me at a film festival by a producer. She was the youngest person to be nominated for a Booker, so it was quite a profound read. And, I just loved the mix of huge ideas done through this incredibly intimate story of a girl realizing that her father has committed all these crimes.
WaH: How do you make the first thing happen?
CS: Producer Paul Welsh hired a British writer, Robin Mukherjee.
WaH: So you were connecting with Paul then?
CS: Yes. Robin did the first couple of drafts in consultation with me. And then I took over the writing and I did the last two drafts. I worked with a German script editor in Berlin, Franz Rodenkirchen. And, I did a lot of workshops in Berlin. I did workshops with people that were in Hitler Youth, women that had been in Bund Deutscher Mädel, the German girl’s league. I read a hell of a lot about Einsatzgruppen, which were the mobile death squads because the father in our story is a doctor who works in that field. I had big influences. I was really influenced by Claude Lanzmann's Shoah in terms of some of the people in the film talking about nature and particularly one man in Belarus who says, “Look, Claude, look at the birds. Look at these beautiful trees. See the sun shining.” And they’re in this field and then he says to Claude, “This is what it was like when they were murdering us.” I had this idea that a lot of war films are made, or a lot of post-war films are made, and they are really dark and they have this kind of sepia. And I just thought it’s actually not the reality in a lot of cases.
WaH: Did you write in English and then someone translated it to German?
CS: Yes, I worked with a translator.
WaH: What drew you to the story, did you have connections? It's not like everyday that someone says I’m going to tell a Holocaust story.
CS: I studied fascism when I was at university. My husband’s family are German Jews. I’m very close to his grandma and she left Berlin when she was 19 in 1937. So, it’s kind of all around me. Plus, I love Berlin. We’ve gone and lived there quite a bit. And I love how they create art. I love how they’ve dealt with the history. I found it a really inspiring place to work.
WaH: Are you prepared for some of the reactions you are going to get on this film because you’ve humanized a very inhuman story.
CS: Yeah, I am. I completely respect people’s trauma and that I can never understand that kind of pain that those people and their families have been through. I’ve just been reading a book called Legacy of Silence by an Israeli. He’s a psychologist. And he went to, I think in the 90's, to Germany. He’s the son of survivors. He went to Germany to interview the children of high-ranking Nazis. And a lot of his family and a lot of his friends stopped speaking to him. And his son was dying of lymphoma, his 15-year old son said, “Dad, why do you have to go? Why do you have to be with these people? It’s causing everyone so much pain.” And he said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” And they were just sitting in silence and the son said, “I know why. I know why. Because you’ve always told me that the closer you get to truth there’s hope.”
And for me, that was really, kind of profound. That this man who had everyone turning against him just had to know the truth.
WaH: Interesting. What was the biggest challenge for you during the actual shoot?
CS: The biggest challenge was to make sure that we were looking at things honestly and truthfully. We weren’t making an apologist film. That was the toughest part.
WaH: And the Germans are very sensitive too.
CS: Oh, very.
WaH: So, I could imagine that you had to be very careful.
So, Somersault was a huge success and you’re getting good notices for this. I was reading one of the trades here that said “Cate Shortland is on the hotlist”. What does it feel like it to be on the cusp of something here and what are the challenges for you as a director as you move to the next step?
CS: I feel like I need just to keep trying to make the work for the right reasons. I think part of that is working with really good people, and just trying to make strong truthful work. And not being diverted from that.
WaH: What does it feel like to have your film submitted by your country for Best Foreign Language film?
CS: It’s exciting. I’m really hoping Saskia Rosendahl gets the recognition that she deserves. She’s a really intelligent, truthful actor and she can do some major work.
WaH: I was struck by watching your film at some of the shots that you chose, like the light streaming in through the windows. And I had an almost visceral flashback to a scene in Jane Campion’s Bright Star. There is a generation of directors in your country that grew up with some of the best female directors working as your predecessors. Talk a little about your country and the great amount of women directors who are coming out of it and how that happened.
CS: It happened because in the 70's, they set up a women’s film cooperative, I think it was Jan Chapman, and, some other women. And they when the Australian Film Television and Radio School opened they lobbied that there should be a female contingent of students. I’m not even sure if they even had a course just for women. The whole rationale was to break down the idea that women were scared of the technology, because they thought as soon as women were familiar with the technology we’d just use it. And I’ve worked with Jan for the last 10 years and she’s such a mentor because she’s an incredibly gentle intelligent woman who champions female directors and female technicians. And that’s how we’ve grown up, I’m not sure that there’d be many countries that have a similar legacy. That’s why there are so many female directors.
WaH: I really feel like someone has to write about this in a significant way because it matters. Because when you see people like yourself building, clearly building, on what’s come before you, this, this is what makes change. It’s why it is so normalized in your country for women to direct, because it is normal.
CS: I never had an idea that I couldn’t, it was that normal. Yeah.
WaH: So, do you have any advice that you would offer to other women directors?
CS: I think that what was the best thing for me was that I never considered myself different. I just worked in the same way and I fought for my films. I didn’t have to fight to be a female filmmaker, I just had to fight to make my films. But, I think I come from a country where I'm very fortunate. I don’t think if you are from the Middle East or some parts of Europe, maybe even North America, you have that same opportunity. I think also working with other women helps. When women get together and support each other that really helps because that has been the history of our industry in Australia.
WaH: How do you escape the Hollywood pull when you get a certain level of recognition and keep your core?
CS: Well, I think Kathryn Bigelow is a really good example of somebody that has maintained her truth and she makes the films she wants to make and she hasn’t let other people affect her too much. Her last film is to me so inspiring and the way she sees war, the way she set up those really intimate relationships in and amongst this carnage. I just think someone like her or Jane Campion they just keep making the films they want to make. And the whole idea of industry or the studios is sort of superfluous to that I think.
WaH: What’s next for you?
CS: Making a film with Jan Chapman. And I’m developing a project with Liz Watts, who produced Animal Kingdom and who produced this film.