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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Kim Farrant – ‘Strangerland’

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Kim Farrant - 'Strangerland'

Kim Farrant’s Naked on the Inside sold to major networks worldwide and her award winning short films The Secret Side of Me, Alias, Sammy Blue, Beloved and Bombshell have screened at Cannes, New York, London & Toronto and more. (Kim Farrant’s official site)

Strangerland will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 23.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

KF: It’s about a couple, the Parkers (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes), who move to a remote Australian desert town and pretty soon after that, their two teenage kids go missing — just before a massive dust storm hits. With the town suddenly shrouded in dust, the townsfolk band together to search for the children — lead by local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving). As the search continues, Rae begins to unravel the family’s secrets as to why they so abruptly left the previous town. Suspicion is cast, rumors spread and hysteria sees people turn on each other, including the Parkers. With scorching temperatures rising and time running out to find the kids before they perish, the Parkers are pushed to the edge as they struggle to cope with the terrifying uncertainty of their children’s fate.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KF: I wanted to explore what behaviors we go into when life sideswipes us and we find ourselves completely up against it. Do we drink, take drugs, gamble, avoid, deny, blame others, become violent, act out sexually? And even more taboo than that, I wanted to explore how and when women act out sexually, something that often seems more acceptable in Western society for men to do rather than women.  

I also wanted to show the parallel between the incredibly powerful force of female sexuality and that of nature (hence the term mother nature). I also saw in the story a wonderful opportunity to illustrate that sometimes something beautiful can come from tragedy, the blessings in a crisis.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

KF: Getting the film financed. People found the script confronting; I think it scared them and attracted them at the same time because it was tapping into the shadow side of female sexuality and what happens when primal needs don’t get met within a relationship.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

KF: How they act out in times of crisis. What patterns of behavior do they go into? How do they cope with extreme emotional pain and uncertainty? Ultimately, I want them to consider being more compassionate towards themselves and others in how we all deal with the more punishing times in our lives.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

KF: To be completely true to themselves and their inner knowing. I made a commitment to myself when making the film, to stay connected to my feelings and to my instincts, and to reside in, and direct from, my big, wild heart. Not just function in my head.

I checked in with myself at the start of each day and end of each day (and when I had a moment at lunch) to make sure that I was still feeling connected to my vision and that I was expressing everything I needed to say on an interpersonal level with everyone I was working with. Cast and crews on film sets are dealing with huge amounts of pressure and everyone is trying to do their best and not fuck up, so emotions run high and I had to really be diligent in continually communicating anything that wasn’t working for me, be it creativity or personally, so that there was no tension on my set. I believe a good vibe on any production all starts with the director.

I never want to be one of those women who buys into a paradigm that it’s a man’s world and that you have to cut off your womanliness to make it. To the contrary, I stayed grounded in my feminine self and lead from there. What does my feminine self mean to me? Well, I think all men and women have feminine qualities but for me it means being able to feel and sense things deeply. So if I was moved by a performance, I let myself cry. If I felt angry, I tried to name it honestly, without dumping or blaming, so that issues could be discussed openly. I can’t direct if I’m shut down trying to protect myself. How can I tune into an actor’s performance if I’m not 100% open and receptive?

I also think it’s really important for me to be connected to my body, so I went running each morning before shooting or I’d swim after wrap. Not only did it mean I was very fit and could run half a mile out in the desert at the drop of a hat when the Motorolas weren’t working to talk to an actor who was alone out in the bush, but it also meant that my body instincts were alive and operating at an optimum level so I could respond from my gut instincts. I also sometimes would put on really loud music at the houses we were staying in and just have a dance or have a whacked out old scream at the ceiling. I shake off the day — dance is my medicine.

Another thing I’d suggest is to treat everything an actor or a crew member gives as an offering of their creativity, whether the idea works for the production or the story or helps me work out what doesn’t. It’s a gift from them and needs to be acknowledged. And therefore I always attempt to thank people, no matter how big or small the offering. And give them positive feedback about their work when credit is due. I don’t like to withhold from people. Why do that? People love to be acknowledged and I find they worked harder because of it. And one of the best ways I could acknowledge the amazing work of my cast and crew was to pay out of my own pocket for three wonderful massage therapists Gina Chick, Susan Walstab and chiropractor Dr Randall Farrant, to massage the cast and crew during the shoot. They lapped it up and I gave this gift to myself too. Self-care is really a must for me. How can I give to others if I don’t nourish myself first?

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

KF: Me – that I must be square because I don’t drink alcohol or do drugs. The Australian crew were a bit shocked that I didn’t drink and to see I was the first person cutting loose on the dance floor at the wrap party and the last to leave. Alcohol and drugs give me headaches, make me depressed the next day and clog my creative channel, so I don’t do either and haven’t for a long time.

My work – I have encountered misconceptions about being a female director. For example, when I was preparing for my big pitch to our Australian funding body to green light the film, I decided to go out and buy myself a new outfit for the meeting. A male friend came shopping with me and he was going around the store pulling all these hokey women’s business shirts and trousers off the racks and handing them to me. I kept looking at them saying, “Er… No… No… No…” Finally I found a pretty and flattering dress I loved and put it on and said, “What do you think?” And he handed me another formal business shirt and pants and said, “I think you need to show them that you can lead a bunch of 120 people on your set, mostly of whom will be men.” And I said, “What, you think I need to look more like a man to do that?” and he said, “Well, it will help prove to them that you can direct.” To which I gagged and replied, “I don’t need to cut off my femininity or my sexuality in order to direct.” And I bought the dress, wore it to the meeting, felt awesome, pitched like it was my last day on earth and we got the funding.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? (Is it a studio film, a crowd sourced film, somewhere in between?) Share some insights into how you got the film made.

KF: Besides my foxy dress, government funding agencies in Australia — Screen Australia and Screen NSW, The Irish Film Board, local distribution by Transmission, International Sales agents Wild Bunch, and International investors Worldview.

I love to pitch so I pitched the film at several markets — Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam, Dublin, Screen Producers Association Australia and then to sales agents around the world, often by myself, sometimes with Fiona Seres the original writer and sometimes with the producers Macdara Kelleher and Naomi Wenck. I am also a co-producer on the film so I think that helps as a director to be involved in the who is going to back your film so that you know who you are engaging with creativity and financially.

I also needed to show that I was ready and able to direct a feature. I’d made network one hour TV shows and lots of short dramas, and long form documentaries, but I needed something more current and a longer format drama. So I wrote and directed and self and crowd funded a half hour drama and used that as part of our submission for funding and that really helped show the funding bodies how I had grown as a director over the years of developing the project.

The other thing that really helped was making not just my directors vision book but making visual slide shows to music and I also shot some scenes from the film with other actors which I used in submissions.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

KF: Susanne Bier – Open Hearts, In a Better World, After the Wedding and the original Danish version of Brothers. Bier gets such depth and brutal honesty in the performances she elicits from actors. Her films have such pure integrity and show both the ugliest and most beautiful sides of human nature. She is probably my favorite female director.

Andrea Arnold – Wasp, Red Road, Fish Tank. What incredible films! I’m such a huge fan of Arnold and her films have such guts and strong female characters that desperately want things and go all out to get them. She is not afraid and this translates to her actors. She also so accurately represents the worlds of her characters through detailed design and her shooting styles and collaboration with the uber talented DOP Robbie Ryan.

Jane Campion – I loved Sweetie and The Piano and In The Cut and her short films Peel and A Girls Own Story. She writes and directs such strongly defiant women, explores being female in a multidimensional way, and she is not afraid to explore women’s sexual needs.

Claire Denis – Beau Travail is one of my favorite films. I love how she explores feminine qualities in men in that film, in a sensuous, sculpturesque way and I respect her for her darkness and willingness to show the incredibly messy and darker side of human relationships, illustrated in her sibling love flick Nenette and Boni.

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