Peter Weir’s 1975 film “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” much like the geologic formation named in its title, casts a very long shadow. Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, the movie adaptation tells the story of three young women and a teacher from Appleyard College, who go missing during a Valentine’s Day outing in 1900.
Considered a masterpiece of Australian filmmaking and an achievement in Weir’s early career, the movie created a haunting Victorian aesthetic that is still referenced in films, fashion, and other art forms to this day. Because of this impact, the movie looked as if it would be one of the few classics that would remain untouched by the latest wave of remakes and reboots. Then a group of women came along to change that.
Showrunner and director Larysa Kondracki and star Natalie Dormer spoke to IndieWire about why they dared to tackle “Picnic at Hanging Rock” as a limited series for a new generation.
1. The Series Avoids Weir Altogether
Kondracki herself is an ardent fan of the original film, which is why it took some convincing for her to sign up for the series.
“[The script] was sent to me. I said, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t wanna touch Peter Weir,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Are you crazy? No way.’ Everyone said the same thing: That’s such a canonical film, and you’d hate to be disrespectful of it.”
She soon learned, however, that this was not a remake of Weir’s film, but instead went straight to the source material. Writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison adapted Lindsay’s novel into a six-part series for television.
“They said, ‘Read it. It’s a reimagining of the book; it’s not the movie,’” said Kondracki. “The second you read the first page and Bea’s writing, you just went, ‘Okay, this is totally different.’”
Dormer added, “The text is there. It seems bizarre that when the original story is so great that it would only have one incarnation. So we take nothing away from the Weir. It has its reverent place. We’re doing something completely different.”
2. The Adaptation Expands on the Girls’ Stories
Of course, adapting Lindsay’s novel is daunting in itself because it’s also considered to be one of the best Australian novels of all time.
“Oh my god, it’s like the Bible, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and all of Shakespeare rolled into one,” said Kondracki.
Dormer said, “It wasn’t done before because no one would. They couldn’t get the rights from Joan Lindsay’s estate. Our amazing producer, Jo Porter, finally wrestled and persuaded the woman who looks after Joan Lindsay’s estate that she would do right by it. But it’s such a phenomenal, original text that like sort of Arthur Conan Doyle, when you’ve got good source material, you can reinvent Sherlock however many times. And people do.”
(Dormer speaks from experience. She guest starred on CBS’ “Elementary,” a contemporary take on the Sherlock Holmes tales, in a role that puts a twist on the character Irene Adler.)
Here, the “Hanging Rock” series expands the stories of the schoolgirls — those who have gone missing and those who’ve been left behind — in a way that adds an extra element of doubt to the overarching mystery of what happened at Hanging Rock. While trans-dimensional and mystical elements appear to be at work, the film also brings hints of human-engineered foul play to the doorstep of Appleyard College.
“The script felt much more about who the girls were as opposed to what actually happened, and so that was exciting,” said Kondracki.
Miranda (Lily Sullivan) is the tomboyish ringleader in a close-knit clique of girls at the finishing school. She’s pals with pretty heiress Irma (Samara Weaving), Marion (Madeleine Madden), who is of problematic birth, and younger student Sara (Inez Curro), who’s an orphan. A young man named Michael Fitzhubert (Harrison Gilbertson), who is visiting his uncle nearby, also has his role expanded from the novel, which explores the social pressures and injustices of the day.
“I think they realize that it did deserve an ensemble exploration of the different characters that are in the book. It lends itself to six hours. It can take it,” said Dormer. “Victim of circumstance, victim of life, victim of being held, victimized by your own hopes and fears and inner secrets. Being held hostage by your own inner instincts. Mike suffers that. Miranda suffers that. And Sara.
Added Dormer, “Here’s the thing about ‘Picnic’: You can watch it at quite a lovely, entertaining, superficial level and enjoy the mystery of the girls disappearing and the dark comedy that is most frequently provided by Yael Stone and Ruby Rees, who are both absolutely brilliant at making us laugh. You can watch it just at that level. If you choose to, you can watch it at a level of anthropology, a level of deep psychosis. You can watch it at a deeper level.”
3. The Shiny New Cruel Headmistress
The character of Mrs. Appleyard has always been harsh and demanding, but in the limited series, she’s far more hands-on and personal in her maliciousness. In part, that’s because she’s closer in age to the girls she’s leading, as opposed to the previous incarnations. But she also has a dark past she’d like to bury and instead be perceived as an upstanding headmistress and respectable widow. Keeping secrets can be a stressful business.
“We get a little bit of criticism on this, [Dormer playing] the old widow, but she’s actually right,” said Kondracki. “A woman in her 30s is a spinster back then. I also wanted Appleyard to be a little more relatable to the girls and not just be like an older matron, where you could see that there’s still hope for her. Otherwise, it’s all over.”
Dormer, known for playing an array of women in corsets in series ranging from “The Tudors” to “Game of Thrones,” was Kondracki’s first choice to play the part. The actress said, “Larysa wrote me an incredible letter that basically said, ‘Anyone can play her as a two-dimensional villain. I need an actress who will bring her vulnerability to the fore and not excuse her actions, but qualify them.’ I was intrigued at the idea of playing someone who was running from their past, tries to reinvent themselves.”
To prep for her role, Dormer stuck to what was written on the page. She had never seen Weir’s film and didn’t feel it had any bearing on her Mrs. Appleyard.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I mean, I’d seen sequences of it because I understood from fashion editorial shoots more than anything, it’s always on the mood board for anything spring summer,” she said. “It’s informed generations of Vanity Fair and Vogue shoots, right? Those white dresses. So I’d seen sequences and I watched a few short segments on YouTube, just to get the feel of the ’70’s, but I didn’t watch the whole film and I wouldn’t have done that to myself. The Rachel Roberts character was so different from mine. There’s nothing to be gained from it.”
4. Updated Widow’s Weeds
That is not to say that Amazon’s “Hanging Rock” will skimp on the white dresses. The girls at Appleyard College will still be decked out in white, but Mrs. Appleyard herself is bringing her own sense of spirit to her attire as headmistress, a role of authority that is not the usual fare for Dormer, who often plays the ingenue or seductress.
“It’s fantastic! It’s refreshing to let the younguns get on with being beautiful and flowing and being allowed to be not worried about aesthetics, not playing a romantic role that requires hoping that the light is bouncing off you in only a flattering way,” she said.
“But [Hester Appleyard] is sharp. She’s, as you say, she’s got style. The shoulders are a case in point,” said Dormer, indicating the puffed sleeves on the dress she was wearing at the time. “I thought I’d pay homage today because that opening silhouette, that opening black silhouette, you know the widow, that impenetrable, mysterious widow. She’s got style but she dresses in a very contained, repressed way. She’s trying to keep all the secrets in, literally and metaphorically.”
That opening shot of Mrs. Appleyard is the only time the series presents her in the typical widow’s weeds — black gown and veil. For the rest of the series, she’s moved into half-mourning garments, but instead of the more muted colors of grey, mauve, or white, she veers towards rich and striking jewel tones like ruby, topaz, and amethyst.
“That’s the brilliant costume designer Edie Kurzer. A lot of my clothes were made from scratch to my body measurements with material that Edie had been sitting on for decades in some cases,” said Dormer. “I added my halfpenny’s worth, as us Brits would say. But the costumes are Edie’s and Larysa’s vision.”
Another detail is the small round sunglasses she wears, which gives Mrs. Appleyard a sinister steampunk vibe.
“The Gary Oldman specs, as I called them,” she said. “It was very useful with my very pale blue eyes in the midday Australian heat. Edie Kurzer was like, ‘You know, they had their version of sunglasses in the Victorian era and we might find a place for them at some point.’ [In one scene] you can see the white sheets that are hanging in the courtyard and there was just light bouncing and reflecting everywhere, and I was squinting like this, and Larysa was like, ‘Well maybe it’s time to put the sunglasses on.’
“But she doesn’t get to wear them that much. She really wears them primarily in the first and second episode. You don’t really see them much after that, unfortunately. But it immediately translates the vibe that we’re going for with the show.”
5. That In-Between Vibe
Newcomers to “Hanging Rock” may not realize quite what they’re getting themselves into, but this is not a typical mystery. Without giving anything away, the visual experience of the series mirrors the interior lives of the characters in addition to hinting at otherworldly influences. While Weir’s film had a signature, dreamy aesthetic, Kondracki wanted to establish her own striking point of view. Having directed episodes of “Legion,” “The Americans,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Gotham,” she’s well aware of how to create arresting shots for television.
“[Weir’s film] is very famous for its sort of pastel-y and was it Vaseline or nylon, a very kind of ’70s aesthetic,” she said. “I think I really wanted to give this a modern, muscular, almost Kubrickian [feel]. Because of the symmetry of Victorian architecture, you could really pull that off. And then the framing and using big anamorphic lenses …I’m a huge Michael Mann fan, and so you see Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro with these big lenses right up to their faces, and I’m like, ‘These girls can handle these frames, Natalie can do that.’”
As Kondracki continued, “Obviously the world itself was quite beautiful, the architecture’s beautiful… And because this show’s all about rebellion and control, especially in Episode 1, I tried to put Natalie always dead center. And then there’s a shift when she finds out about the two riders in Episode 2, that the camera just slowly puts her to the side. So it was always understanding that relationship between control and rebellion, and in the same way, having a very heightened aesthetic.”
Dormer appreciated how the visual tricks played with the series’ sense of time. “It has a modern sensibility, even though it’s corsets and horses. It’s like we almost think a bit more in sci-fi terms than anything else, because of the sort of fifth dimension sort of stuff, the imagery and the playing with time and the surreality of it,” she said. “It’s got a Lynchian, a David Lynch feel to it. We play a Lewis Carroll sort of feel to it in places that obviously reflects the psychological background of different people and the tricks that the rock plays on people. But it’s funky.
“I didn’t realize how far Larysa and the other directors as a collective were going to push the envelope visually,” she added. “The visual effects, the camera angles, the red lights in places, the upside down shots. It’s bold visually. Its sound design, its music. It’s fresh and it’s defiant and it’s genuinely distinctive. And it was just a pleasure to see that everything we had talked about during the shoot really did get realized in that regard.”
6. Hanging Out at the Rock
One of the players in the mystery is the Hanging Rock itself. Also known as Mount Diogenes, the former volcano has passed through many hands, but it still has cultural and spiritual connections to the indigenous tribes that were once its custodians. Just shooting key scenes there allowed Dormer to appreciate why the setting was so important to the story.
“It’s got a spiritual feel to it, it really does,” she said. “If you’ve got Pagan tendencies — it’s sacred to the indigenous/Aboriginal communities — or if you’re just a God-loving Christian who believes in the wonder of the seven days of Creation, whatever your discipline of spiritual belief is, it invariably has an energy that even for me is just time. They’re millennia old, these rocks, and it’s just Mother Earth, you know? The majesty. The Australian landscape, the Macedon region is really stunningly beautiful and it has an energy. And I don’t know whether it’s lay lines or just sheer beauty, but it has an energy. It’s a magical place.”
7. The Mystery Continues
Despite its 1900 setting in Australia, the story has an enduring quality of uncertainty and yet of possibility that compels viewers to check in with it periodically. Exploring that sense of wonder and curiosity is yet another reason Dormer wanted to do the series.
“That is the human condition. We want answers and we want to put things in boxes because it makes us feel safe,” she said. “But the truth is you can’t reductively put things often in boxes. That’s not the nature of life. And that’s what we all wrestle with on a day-to-day basis, and that’s why it feels incredibly modern, even though it’s period setting.”
”Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the series, is currently streaming on Amazon.