INTERVIEW: A Long, Hot Summer of Languid Decay: Christine Jeffs On Her Debut Feature "Rain"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 04.23.02) -- Kirsty Gunn's novel "Rain" has the quality of a stone swiftly skipping across an ocean of hazy memories. It's a book of remembrances filtered through time, all unfurling in a single moment, or perhaps not at all. What makes "Rain" such an intriguing read is how well it understands the slippery subjectivity of memory. It is the story -- or not the story -- of a teenage girl, Janey, and her younger brother, Jim, during a long, hot New Zealand summer in which the final threads holding together their parents' marriage unravel. And it is about how uncertain we must be that anything we recollect actually happened that way, how apt we are to grasp the essences of things more than the things themselves.
The new film based on that book -- also called "Rain" and written and directed by the first-time New Zealand filmmaker Christine Jeffs -- transforms the novel's structure while maintaining that subjective, stone-skimming quality. (In fact, Jeffs has even written a stone-skimming scene into her script.) There's an extent to which the film itself is just a tease for some other movie coming never, but this is no mere exercise in music-video superficiality. When I saw "Rain" way back in January, it impressed me; as I sat in a theater just last week watching the film's trailer, I was more impressed by how instantaneously I was transported back to Jeffs' world of sticky summer air thick with cigarette smoke and moody '70s grooves. For "Rain" is like the movie most movie trailers make you wish for, but which never appears: a feast of sensual sensory details and impressionistic meanings; a movie that kicks around in your head for days afterwards, slowly assuming its final shape; a bold exercise in termite art. Beyond that, "Rain" is a strong coming-of-age drama-- one that treads somewhat familiar ground, but compensates by offering an astute adolescent's-eye-view of the world, in which the failures and betrayals of the adult world are at once irksome and tantalizing. All of which makes Jeffs more than deserving of her recent tapping as one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch." IDP releases "Rain" on Friday.
indieWIRE: What was the process by which you read Kirsty Gunn's book and decided to turn it into a film?
Christine Jeffs: I read the book about four times. I carried it around in my purse and it was kind of thumbed and underlined. I was haunted by it, but I didn't really know where to start. I hadn't ever adapted a book before, I hadn't made a movie before, I wasn't sure about the process -- and the book is so atmospheric and not obvious in terms of turning into a narrative that a film audience can enjoy. So, what happened is that I ended up speaking to Robin Scholes, who had just produced "Once Were Warriors," and she said, "What do you want to do next?" I pulled out my book and said, "This." She said, "Have you got the rights?" I said, "No." And she said, "We've got to do something about that!" She read the book overnight and the next day rang up and purchased the rights which were, luckily, still available. So, that started the long path of the development of the project.
In making the adaptation to the screen, there were a couple of fundamental changes. One of them was that the book was very literary -- it had the device of an older woman looking back on her childhood -- and I decided that in order for the audience to engage as much as possible with the journey of Janey, they should experience it as the story unfolds, so that it wasn't about looking back. I wanted to make the whole tense of the film more present and, therefore, hopefully a more engaging, immediate, and intimate experience for the audience.
iW: One of the things that's striking about the book is its ambiguity. You're not ever sure how reliable this narrator is.
Jeffs: It is very biased, yes. No one else has picked up on that, but that's one of the strongest things I took away from it. She's tough on her mother, isn't she? There's a line in the book I remember: "Children have it in them to bring the ending down." There's definitely a strong sense of judgment in the book at times.
iW: Your film adopts a more objective approach, as though the viewer were a fifth family member allowed to bear witness to these events. It takes other liberties too, but it really succeeds at capturing the essence of what's on the page.
Jeffs: Kirsty gave a lot of freedom, which I guess you have to, as films and books are different experiences. I always felt that the tone of the book was what I wanted to translate across to the screen, that I wanted to maintain a consistency there. The book for me was full of clues -- I would read a line in the book and that would give me a strong sense of a scene to write for that character. With the Cady relationship, there's a line in the book when Janey's looking back and she says, "He was my mother's friend," and you just get a sense from that line that he was more than a friend, that the mother had had an affair with him. So there are clues all through the book which I kind of extrapolated into scenes I felt described this family's undoing.
iW: And both the book and the film are rather nondescript as to what exactly has gone wrong in this family and brought them to this point of languid decay.
Jeffs: There's obviously a breakdown in communication between the parents and a sense that their lives have come only so far. For Kate [Janey's mother], there's a sense that she's getting older and she's got a lot of selfishness, looking for greener pastures, looking for her life to be more than what it is. I guess there's a point as an adult when you look at you life and say, "Is this all there is? Isn't there more?" There's a point where, if you don't keep the communication fresh-- if your life isn't in every moment that you're living, if you're not truly sharing an emotional landscape with the people that you're with -- you become very isolated. So there's a sense that every character in the film is kind of on their own path, which is singular and unconnected.
iW: That's one of the film's most interesting juxtapositions: at the same time these people are pulling apart from one another, they all seem intimately connected to the physical landscape that surrounds them.
Jeffs: The book was very beautifully written in that way. There's a line: "When the rain came it came first as the scent of rain." And there are all kinds of beautiful lines that evoke a sense of how if we look at the landscape we can read a lot about our own lives. I think the landscape is very changeable, very transient, like relationships are. There's a lot of change in the landscape of the film -- here's a sense of the aridness of the relationships, so even though the family is in a house beside the water, a lot of the time we filmed them in that landscape when the tide was out. There's a sense of things coming unstuck -- feet stuck in the sand, the boat beached like a whale. There's a sense that things are not as they should be, that there's a longing there, like when the water has run out and the land longs for it to come back in. Things are unsettled, on the move, just out of reach.
iW: A specific part of the landscape -- water -- is the major symbol in the film, and it seems to be a double-sided suggestion. On the one hand, water is life and on the other, it's the thing that can (and at one point in the story does) take life away.
Jeffs: There's a sense that the water invades these people's lives. It starts with the location of the house. We decided -- it was a financial decision as well -- that the film would feel more real if the water was always invasive, if when you were in the house you could look out and the water would be right there, which would have been different if we had chosen to shoot in a studio for the interiors of the house. So, some of the decisions we made were very much about us wanting the world of the landscape, the world of water, to be able to invade this family at any time. At first, it feels kind of tranquil, but there's always the sense that it could change at any moment. There's a sense of danger as well.
iW: The two child actors in the film, Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki and Aaron Murphy, are remarkable and remarkably unselfconscious. How did you go about casting and working with them?
Jeffs: Alicia was found through a formal casting process. There were several girls who looked like they had the potential to play the part, but she was the one we kind of had our eyes on. The most important thing was that she was only 13 when we shot the film, and not many girls at that age are self-contained enough to not seek approval from adults in an interactive situation. And she was self-contained enough not to feel like she had to answer a line of dialogue straight away. She wasn't just about saying the lines, and that was the key thing for both of the children -- they had a sense of self-containment where they could just watch, listen and wait and, when they felt it was the right moment, they could then engage. That gave them quite a lot of power, I think, in terms of their performances -- their ability to listen.
Aaron was a little boy from the area where we filmed. We couldn't find anyone through the formal casting process -- I wasn't happy with any of the boys I looked at on tape. Aaron had the perfect physicality, but was incredibly interior, so the challenge with him was bringing him out of himself; he was very shy, very un-precocious, very unlike the child you see in the film.
iW: Although "Rain" is your first feature, you've worked extensively in the short form, particularly commercials. What different challenges and rewards did you find working in this longer form?
Jeffs: For me, a day on set is a day on set. That's the great thing about doing commercials -- you're used to putting film through the camera. So, when I started on the film, it was like just another day on set. It was obviously more special, because it was a bigger journey, but the practicalities of arriving at your call time and going through the day were the same. Each scene was kind of self-contained -- in a way, even though you're thinking about the big picture, you're just getting through every moment and making it work to the best of your ability. The most exciting thing was watching the story unfold, in terms of the big arcs, the big journeys that the characters were going on. Just being able to really get your teeth stuck into some material.
[For more "Rain" and when it is opening in your area, visit www.rainthemovie.com.]