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Growing up is hard enough without the added issue of accidentally ending up in a weirdo parallel universe that maybe — just maybe! — isn’t so far estranged from the real world as one would like to think. That’s the idea behind director Rosemary Myers’ stylish and super-fun feature debut, “Girl Asleep.” The Australian coming-of-age tale, set in the oh-so-swinging seventies, follows the charmingly awkward Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) as she makes the jump into adulthood, care of a very weird fifteenth birthday party. Greta’s life is weird enough — she recently switched schools and is being bullied, her best pal Elliott (Harrison Feldman) wants more and her parents are totally nuts — but things go totally topside when she slips into another dimension, care of a surprise birthday party with shocks to spare.
Myers’ film, penned by Matthew Whittet (who also stars in the film), has all the hallmarks of a classic “damn, being a teenager is gross” comedy, but it’s lightened and brightened up by a distinct visual style and a wonderful sense of whimsy that has already drawn comparisons to works by Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze. Myers and Whittet are both theater veterans who make the leap to film with the feature, and their long-tim creative partnership gives the feature a lovely boost (and, yes, “Girl Asleep” was originally fashioned as a play).
Punctuated by some serious dance sequences, outrageous outfits and a spirit all it’s own, “Girl Asleep” is a dreamy debut with an appeal all its own. IndieWire recently hopped on the phone with Myers to talk about her new film, those terrible teen years and how to breathe new life into a classic genre. Read on to learn about Myers’ inventive debut in her own words.
Matthew and I have made a lot of plays together, and also with our designer, Jonathan Oxlade, so the three of us had made a lot of work for young people. Matt and Jonathan and I have made a lot of work that’s been about the teenage experience, and in the course of making that work, we developed a certain kind of stylistic, theatrical voice between us.
We were approached by this really amazing initiative here in Australia called The Hive. It was to really look at taking some artists that didn’t come from a film background and giving them the opportunity to first of all, go to a big workshop — I think it’s based loosely on something that happens at Sundance — just to think about how your work might transfer or what you might like to be interested to do in that medium, and then it was the opportunity to pitch for projects out of that.
It was really a thrill. I don’t know what it’s like in America, but I’m sure it’s the same. It is a time and kind of fiscal constraint. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, because all the projects are relatively low budget, but it was amazing to have an opportunity to do something like that and to tell a story in a whole new medium. I think the projects that have come out of there have been quite different to things that exist more in the mainstream film world.
We were able to spend a lot of time in development and be quite playful in the way that we make our work. We do collaborate even with a lot of the actors. Matthew is obviously in the film, but also Amber McMahon, who plays the mom and Eamon Farren, both of them were in the play version. I suppose we all share a lot of sensibilities, and we’re excited by a lot of the same ideas.
We’re very influenced by the screen, because it’s the main artistic medium of our era, really. Number one, it’s influenced audiences hugely, and I think when you make work for younger audiences, I think that poses really exciting propositions for the form of theater, because you have this audience that is so strong in popular culture. They have so much information at their fingertips, and they’re used to rapid moving form, and theater traditionally isn’t that rapid a moving form.
We love films that are not necessarily mainstream alternative films. Films like “Donnie Darko,” and those kind of movies are deeply etched in our minds. Wes Anderson is enormously theatrical, and same with David Lynch, I think. Even people like John Hughes have been an enormous influence, particularly on Matt, because he grew up with those movies. I think they’re more in the writing style than the stylistic realization, but they’re all massive influences on us.
We feel there can be a lot of conservatism in making theater, and particularly some of the old audiences have very entrenched notions about what theater is about. To us, theater is about an audience and a group of artists coming together at a point in time, and beyond that, all things are up for grabs. I think number one, younger people and their embrace of popular culture, and they’re not so entrenched in ideas about what theater might be. That’s a great liberation as a group of art makers to have an audience that takes that point of view.
Teenagehood is a time of massive transformation. That is always a very interesting place which to explore, identity and stories of human experience, because it’s essentially like part of you is dying and you have to embrace another part of yourself, especially that time of life, because you’re really coming into a sense of yourself as an individual and you’re asking big questions about who you’re going to be and you’re facing your sexuality.
The film is the third part of a trilogy of shows that we made. The first part was set in the ’90s, the second part in the ’80s, and the third part in the ’70s. I think we felt like it makes the world slightly other, and in some ways, it’s slightly a more naïve time, because I think young people didn’t have as much information at their fingertips. They weren’t contending with so much information as they are nowadays.
I think Bethany in particular, she’s pretty switched on for what she wants to be part of. And what she does in Australia, and she’s done very interesting things. She loves film. She watches a lot of film, and she responds to the scripts straight away. She really understood the vision for the work very clearly right from the beginning. That was very important.
It was like film school for me making this film. I’d never made a film before, and I just learned so much from the process. We would love to do it again, because now we’ve done it once. You get a bug for it. We’re starting to think about making another film and potentially adapting one of our other plays into a film.
I just really learned how much image can carry a story. There was so many times when we just slashed the script and just goy a picture, because you can see a point of view so strongly. We spent a lot of time storyboarding the film because I had never made a film before, and I didn’t want to shoot not knowing what I was doing. That helped me really get the language, to get an understanding of it, because when you’ve got theater in your DNA, it’s a very particular way that you work. Even the way the camera motions can tell a story.
“Girl Asleep” is currently playing in limited release in Los Angeles and New York.