Eight Questions for Shirley Barrett, Director of "Love Serenade"
by Andrea Meyer
"Love Serenade" by Australian filmmaker Shirley Barrett ushers into
theatrical distribution next month by Miramax. While Barrett has completed
several short films and worked regularly in television, this is her
first feature. This year’s Camera d’ Or winner is a wacky comedy of two
sisters in small-town Australia who fall in love with the same man. With
a dash of magical realism and an occasional absurdist foray, the film
takes a completely original look at romantic love and infatuation.
indieWIRE: What was the original spark for "Love Serenade"?
Shirley Barrett: Originally it came from three separate points. Knowing
the town really well, because my husband grew up in the town where we
shot. I thought it would be a good spot for the story, because it’s so
sparse, bleak, minimal. It just has the silos and the Chinese restaurant
and the river. It was so contained, it felt almost like a movie set or a
stage set. That was one point. The other one was music definitely. "Love
Serenade," the song by Barry White. I really found the song so
disturbing. It starts off as a seduction song, you know, "Take off that
brassiere, my dear." And as the song progresses, it seems to almost get
a horror movie feeling about it. You know, there are these strings sort
of going off in the background and Barry sang things like, "Lord have
mercy on me." I really think it’s a great piece, and it got me thinking
about writing about a sinister kind of love, an unpleasant, unwholesome,
disturbing kind of love. The other point was wanting to write something
about what I think might be a common trait among younger women,
projecting their fantasy of romantic love onto whoever they are involved
with at the moment.
iW: So, let’s talk about him, this unworthy love object. Ken Sherry is
just about the slipperiest guy you can imagine . How did you develop his
Barrett: I worked with George [Shevtsov] on a student film that I made when I
was at film school years ago, about eight years before I shot "Love Serenade". He played a fundamentalist preacher, but he played much the
same way he played Ken Sherry — very oily and malevolent. And I really
loved him. I thought he was great, a very unusual presence. So, when I
went to write my film script, I thought, "I want to write something for
him, because he’s not used a lot in Australia." He’s a theater actor.
And so I liked the idea of discovering him. Because it was written for
him, it just fit him. But George in real life is very much the
antithesis of Ken Sherry.
iW: How did you work with your actors?
Barrett: Well, we had two rehearsals. And obviously when each of them got the
part, they really understood the script, so they really had a good
understanding of their characters. You know that old cliche that 90% of
the directing is done in the casting. It’s really true that if the
casting is right, and the actors have a sense of the characters, it’s so
much easier. You’re really most of the way there. But we had two weeks
of rehearsal, one week that was in the town. We looked at the script and
played the scenes and all that, but then we also did quite a bit of
improvisation as well.
iW: Let’s talk about the fish thing.
Barrett: I think it’s entirely up to you to interpret. It didn’t even come
into the script until the second draft. I think I just felt like I
needed to enliven it somehow, it was bogging down. I felt that it could
take that step into the slightly surreal. There were already certain
hints in there that were leading that way. I pushed it there almost as a
writing exercise, just to free it up a bit.
iW: Did you pretty much stick to the script?
Barrett: In rehearsal, a few things were changed, but nothing major. Once we
were on set, we stuck to the script. In the editing, it was one of those
revealing experiences where suddenly all the inherent problems of the
script are up there before you so a lot of cuts were made in the editing
room. There’s a whole opening scene where the girls are discussing every
last available man in town, which was kind of a nice way to set up the
film, but it didn’t really work.
iW: The look of the film is very tacky and unattractive. What were you
going for visually?
Barrett: I really wanted to create a feeling that the town was so bleak and
unpleasant that it was almost a character in itself. That to me
explained or partly evoked why the sisters are as lonely and desperate
as they are. I’m sure something bad has happened to me in a house just
like that nasty little bungalow where Ken lives. You know those rickety
walls and the furniture. I’m sure something bad has happened to me on a
couch like that. I knew exactly what that should look like, that
particular couch. Leatherette or faux leather, you know, it squelches on
your bare legs.
iW: Well, it looks like you had a good-sized budget. Where did the
funding come from?
Barrett: Like most films in Australia, it came mostly from government
funding. There’s a system in Australia where films are funded by the
government. Not many films are made, and they’re never very big budget,
but you can get your film made. My film was like the top end of
Australian film as far as budget, and it was 3.8 million Australian,
which I think is two and a half million US dollars. So, it’s very
difficult to make anything much beyond that. There’s only a certain
amount of money allotted each year and a lot of films being made.
iW: Your distribution story sounds like every filmmaker’s fantasy.
Barrett: Yeah, it was just great. Miramax bought it before it even went to
Cannes. The Australian sales agents Beyond Films took it over to show
Harvey and he really responded to the film immediately and rang up Jan
and said, "I fucking love this film!" Which was very nice, obviously.
And they bought it for quite a few territories as well as the US. And
then we went to Cannes, and it won the Camera d’Or there, so we were
just on a great roll. Best first film. I remember them saying to me, the
Camera d’Or people, "this is the best prize you can possibly win because
you can only win once." And there’s this huge prize money associated
with it. It was a real dream run.