I was able to chat with novelist and now filmmaker Julia Leigh about her film Sleeping Beauty in September at the Toronto Film Festival. Here is our conversation.
Women and Hollywood: Talk a little about your inspiration for the film?
Julia Leigh: To me the question of inspiration is an exercise in hindsight. The truth is inspiration is mysterious at the time. I don’t think it’s ever a rational process. But when I look back on the film I do see a number of things bubbling away. The fairytale I had been told as a child. I had read and loved two novellas. One by Yasunari Kawabata and one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They both tell a story from the point of view of an older man who pays to sleep alongside a drugged young girl. I was aware that on the internet there is a phenomenon of sleeping girls. I guess all of these things come together.
WaH: I found the film quite challenging because the characters weren’t really likable, even the female lead. You created very challenging characters. How can we get into this story when our lead Lucy, has created a distance from the world.
JL: I see Lucy as a young university student without means to support herself. I see her as quietly and willfully reckless. I don’t think of her as simply passive. And her perverse provocation to the world being my cheek is turned and try me. I remember what it was like to be in my twenties. It wasn’t an easy time. I often think the travails of that passage of life are often diminished. You might say you’re young or you’ll get over it. But it’s not easy especially if you’re someone who is disenchanted with the way the world seems to work around you. Let’s say you are a person of strong feelings and that some people outwardly direct that smash-it-up energy. In this case, with this character, she does turn it inward and she doesn’t always act in her best interests.
WaH: People don’t know how to react to your film.
JL: I know. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
WaH: I just saw it today and I don’t have the words.
JL: I think it’s good people have seen something they aren’t used to seeing. It’s original.
WaH: That’s it, especially when there is a female protagonist who is really so different than the usual women we see. Young women are made to feel shameful for their sexuality in a lot of respects, and she is not. That is the one part of her that she is comfortable with and she’s using it. Do you have any comment on the reaction?
JL: What I’m finding is that even in these small worlds of Cannes or Toronto, people who have a lot of experience with films, are really having to think about what they feel about the film. And it’s separating out all sorts of people and people are talking about it. I think that’s a good thing.
WaH: Can you explain the term wonder cinema from your description in the press notes?
JL: I love films where you go into the cinema and loosen the edges of yourself and you hopefully enter into the world of the film. You’re watching something unfold before you. I prefer the idea of wonder or intense wonder over shock or something.
WaH: Your film was in Cannes. There were four female directors at Cannes this year. Talk a little about that piece of the puzzle. What was it like in Cannes? Did you notice there weren’t a lot peers around?
JL: I had a very strange time. It was also my first film to take to a festival so I didn’t have a point of comparison. When you’re there with your film you’re in a bubble. The days are totally scheduled out. I wasn’t meeting any people other than press.
WaH: Ten percent of scripts in Hollywood are written by women. Your film made it onto the Black List. What did it mean for your film to be on that list?
JL: I think it was on the Black List in 2008 and that meant a number of people in Hollywood had read it but they didn’t want to make it. And the way the film got made was that it was made in Australia and the bulk of the money was public money. So I give thanks to the brave people within the funding bodies who supported the film. At every step of the way the film has had its supporters. At each step of the way certain people have championed it. And my kind of cinema needs champions. So we have this great system in Australia with public money.
And one of the things the funding body in Australia did was introduce me to Jane Campion and she came on at a stage when our funding was almost in place but it was still a bit precarious. She read the finished script, met me, and then agreed to come aboard as a mentor. She was around for pretty much all of pre-production. She was overseas for all of the shoot because she had prior commitments that I had known about so she didn’t let me down in any way. Then she came back for the edit and I showed her the earliest cut and she was encouraging.
WaH: What’s the difference between screenwriting and novel writing?
JL: Both are coming from the same place, which is me and my sensibility. They are both working with the flow of time, narratives and complex worlds, but otherwise, they are completely different. They’re different on the page and the process of making a film is of course completely different.
WaH: Do you have a preference?
JL: No, I don’t. I like both and I’d like to keep doing both. I think we’re all quite adaptable.
WaH: Did you know you wanted to direct this while you were writing it?
JL: I did not. When I was writing the script I envisioned it as a film from the very beginning. So there was no point when I thought this was an intriguing concept and should it be a book or a film? I never asked myself that. It was immediately cinematic to me. And even in the first draft of the script, it was written with the camera as a steady witness. It was written with an awareness of how it could be shot. I paid a lot of attention to the transitions between scenes. It was literally something I saw through my mind’s eyes.
WaH: When the script was done did someone say to you that you needed to direct the film?
JL: No. Without going into too much detail there was someone else who was kind of interested but they didn’t want it enough and at a certain point I thought I will just do this myself.
WaH: I read you were a professor at Barnard in the US. What was that like?
JL: I was a professor for two non-consecutive semesters. I taught a seminar once a week on creative writing and I loved the girls. Not every single girl but I had my secret favorites.
WaH: People would say Lucy is selling herself.
JL: It’s an unusual practice. Would Lucy take the job if she was conscious? Probably not.
WaH: I thought the whole thing was kind of a metaphor for people who are sleepwalking through life.
JL: I think you could interpret it that way.
WaH: Any advice for female filmmakers?
JL: Be very persistent.
WaH: Are you making another movie?
JL: Yes, I have a couple of projects but I’m not sure which will be my very next film.