Theater director Benedict Andrews probably was meant to adapt David Harrower’s play Blackbird to the screen, being one of the first people to direct it for the stage, but waiting a decade or more allowed him to build a reputation to pull together an amazing cast for his first film.
It stars Rooney Mara as the title character, a young woman who decides to confront the man with whom she had a relationship at the age of 13, confronting Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) at his work place where they have an intense and emotional discussion about what happened between them.
One of the big differences between the play and Andrews’ film is that the latter allowed him to go into the past and actually show Una’s encounters with Ray when she was 13-years-old, scenes in which Una is portrayed by Ruby Tokes.
The movie also stars Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) as Scott, one of Ray’s co-workers who gets caught in the middle of this difficult reunion.
The Tracking Board spoke with Andrews earlier this week.
I know you directed “Blackbird” on stage…
What attracted you to the material back then?
Well, the play was a revelation when I read it. It’s one of the best chamber plays written in the last 20 years and will go on and stay a kind of classic of contemporary theater. It’s like a verbal boxing match between two people. It’s a profound kind of inquiry into truth, into responsibility, into memory. Just a kind of claustrophobic encounter between these two people that in the theater we’re trapped in the same room as.
When I did the play and translating it into film, I was deeply attracted to this kind of essentially morally ambiguous place that both of the characters are in translates into an emotionally ambiguous space that they’re in. For her, where desire and guilt have become mixed up and where questions of her abuse and questions of love become so mixed-up. This seems to me a very volatile place. It had all sorts of things that attracted me in the theater in terms of characters whose situations take them beyond the norm into a place where their reality is somehow shattered. In that place, they have to face things in themselves.
All of that interested me very much in the theater. Some of it kind of belongs in the theater, but there were some things that made me curious about how one could carry all of those things and all of that complexity and all of the sort of morally ambiguous space that the characters find themselves into, might make for riveting cinema.
I think there were two things that I thought might become fundamentally cinematic. One’s the idea of the encounter — these two people meeting again after 15 years. The first word of the play is a shock, and what the shock of that encounter might be like to experience as cinema.
The other was a question of time. This is about two people meeting again after 15 years, sort of the scar tissue of the past is coming back and memories are interrupting the present. For me, that’s what the cinema is much better at looking at that than theater.
Were you thinking about this as a film even back then, which I guess was 12 years sago?
No, it was more like it was kind of a seed that was buried. It’s a little bit anecdotal, and I don’t want to go into it in too much detail, but literally a couple of years afterwards when I was still living in Australia I had inquired for the rights to it in 2008 or 9. They weren’t available when I was kind of looking for the rocket launcher for the first film. I’d been curious about this, thought this could really be something. The rights weren’t available, so I thought, “F*ck it, that’s not for me then.” Kept looking for other things and I was attached to a few things in Australia, but it didn’t happen and basically my theater and opera schedule just kept sort of steamrolling, especially as I started to work in Europe more and more. Then there came a point a couple of years ago, 2013 or something, when I said to my Australian agent at the time, “I got to make a film in the next couple of years, been wanting to do it for so long. Start feeding me stuff.” On the first round of that little list of kind of loglines was Blackbird.
I was like, “Okay, this is really meant to be.” The producers knew of me because by that point I’d brought some theater to New York, and they’re New York based theater and film producers, Jean Doumanian. They knew of me there and David Harrower, the writer, had seen my work in London, which wouldn’t have happened previously to that point. A kind of conversation began organically from there. I’m a firm believer in magic and accidents. I felt like at that point various stars were aligning. I wasn’t thinking about it every day at that point, but it was like there’s something about the intensity of this play as a chamber play, having spent that kind of formative … In Germany, we rehearsed quite a long time, three months of rehearsal with those guys. It meant I really had it inside me and I’d unpacked it and sorts of detail. When I came to the work on it with David, both of our question, “How can this be a film? How can this not just be filmed theater?” It’s like that was already there.
In this case, he adapted his play into a film himself, so had he already written that screenplay and did you work with him to make those changes?
There was a version. It had gone through various adventures with different directors. For various reasons that didn’t happen. Some of them were going to take it to different places. When I met him he said, “Look, I’ve got a screenplay, but I’m really waiting for a director to get their hands on it and make it theirs.” He’d begun to open up the present, so Riz’s character, Scott, existed in some form. I think it’s the trajectory towards the party at his place and the wife. I think that was there in that first draft, but, for instance, there was no sense of the past. They didn’t show it. I said to the producers in my first kind of pitch meeting with them, I said, “I want to show the past.” I remember Jean saying, “What? You want to show the girl?” I’m like, “Yeah, I want to go there,” because it’s a very different thing. In the theater-
That’s one of the benefits of a movie, that you could do that.
Yeah, it’s very different. In the theater, it’s in your imagination, and that’s really cool in the theater. When she says, “My 12-year-old body,” everybody sees that differently. In a way you’re weighing up what’s true, what’s not; but once you start to show it, it’s true. You have a different emotional terrain that you can open up. That wasn’t there. David came up to visit me in Reykjavik and we spent a good couple of days just starting to unpack it. Then, over the course of a year, we thrashed drafts backwards and forwards together. Yeah, it was a very dynamic process between the two of us.
How’d you go about casting it? Rooney had just worked with Garth Davis, another Australian stage director, but you also have Ruby Stokes playing her younger self who is pretty amazing.
Yeah, she’s incredible. Three different ways. Rooney was just simply the first person I thought of when I knew I was going to make the movie. I’d seen her and really liked her in a kind of really wide range of stuff, but I was always really attracted to this combination of fierce intelligence and real strength that she has alongside great vulnerability. I knew the character of Una needed to combine both of those things.
She’d just come off shooting Carol with Cate Blanchett. I’ve directed Cate three times in the theater and know her well. At the time, I think we were bringing a production of The Maids that I did with Cate Blanchett and Isabella Huppert to New York. And Cate had directed Blackbird as a play in Australia. She knew it really well. I was like, “Okay, so I think Rooney’s perfect for Una. Did you guys have fun? Is she the real deal? Did you like her?” She goes, “You two will love each other,” and sort of set the conversation in motion from there. It turned out Rooney loved the play, so that went from there.
Initially, I was looking at some older guys because the role is older in the play and it became very liberating once we were showing a lot of the past that I knew we could kind of go a bit younger with it. That was a real kind of huge light-bulb moment when Ben came there. I directed him in Australia in a production of Marc Antony and knew him well. He’s one of my favorite actors, but again, like her, he’s really unafraid to go to very vulnerable places in a kind of pursuit of truth and put himself on the line. You really needed that in both these characters.
Ruby came from just a very long search with a very good casting agent. We saw a lot of people, some of whom play other small roles, like the girl in the end who’s very, very good, who plays Amy, the daughter. She didn’t look like Rooney and she looked a bit too young. It was a very fine line. The girl couldn’t look too young or the story changed, even if she was 12, 13, but you can look 16, you can look 9 at that age. The meaning of the film and the audiences visceral reaction to it was going to completely change. If she had looked too young, they’d find it uncomfortable to watch Ben’s character in an entirely different way. There’d be a moment where’d they go, “F*ck this, I could never engage with him.”That meaning was also part of the casting process, let alone her looking like Rooney and having talent. Ruby has an extraordinary talent, which also comes down to being able to draw the audience into thoughts that we don’t always understand but we sense that are there.
What I love about her performance is you could just in a way have someone who filled out the parts, who was just like a kind of, “Oh, yeah, that’s just a flash of Rooney. She looks like her.” Ruby in some of those scenes, like when they’re on the Ferris wheel with her and Ben takes her hand, the troubling thing is the complexity of her thoughts and was like she knows that this is very wrong. Almost as if she knows it’s doomed, as if she has some sort of pity for him.
This is all just stuff that a good actor will do. They will enlarge that moment, take you into some place that … For all the things that I been taking credit for in good directing of actors, it’s always going to be beyond the director. The director can help them access that place, but it’s always beyond there. The fact that she can take us there, the film needed that, and we’re just very lucky. It’s a great performance.
All the performances are amazing. Obviously, there are benefits of making a film besides showing the past, in that you can do multiple takes, so do you take advantage of those things?
Yeah. I think just the difference is that happens over weeks and weeks and weeks in the theater rehearsal room because then they’ve got to go in front of an audience with a charge of that with no one there apart from the audience and that kind of adrenaline of that. It takes a long time to prepare to even be able to do that. Whereas, in the film, it’s just has to happen once in front of the camera. It doesn’t make any sense if it’s sort of left in a rehearsal. We’re saying, “She was really great when we were rehearsing. You should have seen that.”
You didn’t rehearse as much, I guess?
We didn’t rehearse.
No, we talked a little bit. They had an input into the screenplay quite a bit, but we didn’t. No. The piece is about two people meeting again, so we had to kind of save it all up for that. Then, I guess, we’re all just drawing on the type of things that … all the impulses that might happen over weeks and weeks of theater rehearsal period and sort of wanting to be up to really precisely provoke something there or see what happens if we take it from this way. That kind of dynamism and tightrope walk all had to just happen in the whispers between slates.
I was also curious about casting Riz, because he then appeared with Ben in Rogue One.
Yeah, they had, but afterwards. I was a member of the Star Wars fan club when I was a kid. For sure, but it’s completely separate. I love Ben. I completely don’t know what I’d seen Riz in then. Oh, it was Nightcrawler. He’s done extraordinary things since then. Such an interesting role that he plays, Scott, because he’s outside … he’s more like us. He’s outside. He doesn’t understand all this secret baggage between the two of them. He’s kind of in our position, curious about her but not really knowing what’s going on. We’re just really lucky he wanted to do it. He’s just a great actor. He brings a different style in a way. Their style, they’re locked in these words from the past and all this. He’s sort of kind of loose. He’s great.
I was bummed I missed this movie last year at Toronto and I realized after seeing it that I had missed my chance to see Blackbird on Broadway with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels. Was there a conscious reason to change the title to separate the movie from the play?
We shot it as Blackbird and it was only during the edit that it became called Una, partly because It’s about the two of them at every moment, but Blackbird is kind of cypher in the theater. David never explains what it means. While we were watching the film, I realized that with all the ambiguity of their relationship that perhaps having another mystery wasn’t the useful thing. A lot of people started asking me, “What exactly is this Blackbird?” As if there were some hidden meaning. I think there’s kind of plenty of hidden spaces that the film goes into, and I realized she was leading us to them.
Una is the name that’s echoed in his brain that he’s been unable to speak for 15 years, but she is the one we’re following in the film in a different way I think then perhaps in the play where you’re trapped in the room with two of them. Here, the way the beginning works, she leads us to him. We follow her to him, and we’re following her questions without in anyway diminishing the encounter between the two of them where he does. In the film, it’s her questions and her need to find out what happened in the past that leads us to him.
I know the original play was sort of based on something that happened, maybe not a meeting like this, but at least a person who had done something like this that got him jailed.
The story David read about an American soldier… a teenage girl had run away with him and that was the starting point for David. He was in a Q&A recently, he said he’d initially written a version where there were many, many characters, it was a lot wider and the great moment, I think, was when he distilled that down to become a chamber play.
Was this supposed to take place in England or Australia? I wasn’t quite sure.
Were there any laws that backed up Ray would only be in jail for four years? Here, I think it would be ten years minimum.
The play was written in 2004 or 5. We didn’t bother to retrofit the present to pretend that we were then, right? She drives a car from 2013 or whatever. The law that we had to at least keep credible was the Sex Offender Register. She refers to that. She says, “A couple of years later, if you had done this, everyone would know. You wouldn’t be able to change your name because of the Sex Offender Register.” In a way, we just sort of acknowledged that those laws exist, but we’re not 100% accurate on them. Right?
We thought about shifting it here. Obviously, Rooney’s an American actress, but for me there’s just something about it being on an island. Well, we could find a place I’m sure where everyone knows each other and all of that, but he’s not that far away yet. He’s disappeared, but the idea that when they were running away in the past that they were getting on a ship to go across to Europe and start a new life there, that kind of fantasy somehow. I just wondered how it might have changed the temperature of the adolescent sexuality if it was here in a way that this film right there sort of.
You directed the play in Germany, and it’s been done in Korea, so it’s amazing how it can translate to all these places and languages.
That’s something very essential about it. The theater allows that. The theater you can be staging Tennessee Williams set in New Orleans but you’re doing it with Japanese actors.
Have you started your next movie Seberg yet?
We’re in kind of like attaching cast, going for financing, but haven’t made an announcement on that. I’m working with good people on it. Yeah, it’s all steamrolling ahead. I look forward to being able to tell people about it. I’m hoping to be shooting it in spring of next year. Quite far down the line with it. There’s a good cast being attached but it’s all not official yet.Super exciting cast. F*cking really exciting ensemble cast and it’s a much more epic sweep than the claustrophobia of Una.
Una is now playing in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine and will open in L.A. at the Arclight Hollywood and Landmark Regent starting Friday, Oct. 13.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor