When two teenagers, a brother and a sister, vanish in Strangerland, it sends their parents, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), into a spin. Not surprisingly.
The film was written by Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons and is director Kim Farrant’s dramatic debut (she had previously made the feature-length documentary Naked on the Inside, an exploration of body image).
We asked Farrant what five things most influenced how she came to depict the characters in the film that are in crisis.
To depict the fog of grief
Farrant drew heavily on her own reaction to the death of her father when making Strangerland, she says.
“I hit rock bottom,” she tells SBS Movies. “I was slain with grief. He died of AIDS and it was a four-year death. It was in the early ’90s so there was a lot of stigma around it. The homophobia made it more painful for myself, my brothers, my mother. And he was young: only 60.”
Farrant took up smoking as a result, she says, and blames this for a lung infection she contracted six months later.
“It (this illness) made me think I should give up and I did. I was in my early 20s at the time.”
Giving things up didn’t stop with cigarettes.
“I started peeling away and getting rid of all my vices, including drugs – I was 23 and I’ve not had drugs since – then alcohol, then sugar.”
She clearly remembers the impact and, years later, channelled it into Strangerland.
“I saw that the more I let go of, the more acutely I felt. I started to feel incredibly sensitive and highly attuned to different emotions. Emotions would just fly through me. I questioned why I was so sensitive and realised I wasn’t numbing out my pain any more. I felt things.
“I had doubts about my ability to cope with life. How do any of us deal with life: the minutiae, the pain, the difficulty of it. Do we blame? Do we reach out to others? Do we withdraw from the world? My feelings fuelled my desire to explore these things.”
To show sex as a coping mechanism
Farrant opens her director’s statement, which is contained in the press kit, with these words: “Strangerland examines how people react in times of crisis and how our deep fear of the unknown and our abhorrence of feeling pain can push us over the edge emotionally, psychologically and physically... especially sexually.”
She says there was a sexual dimension to the impact of her dad’s death too.
“When I looked at how I coped, I saw a correlation between grief and reaching out (sexually)… when what I really needed and wanted was a hug. I was astounded at the lengths I went to, to numb the pain and I was perplexed about why I put myself into vulnerable situations with strangers.”
Immediately after the world premiere of Strangerland, she received stark confirmation that her experience was not unique.
“One of most beautiful moments at the Sundance Film Festival was meeting a 75-year-old woman (after the screening),” says Farrant. “She waited for everyone around me to go then, with tears in her eyes, she asked if she could tell me something she said she had never told anyone. She said that when she was 32 years old, her husband of eight years – a beloved husband – had died. ‘I found myself on a sexual odyssey,’ she said to me. ‘I was so ashamed I never told a soul. Your film made me realise it’s time to let the guilt go’.
“A lot of us spend a lot of time plugging up the vulnerable holes within us: with drugs, with sex, with work too. Sex can be fun, it can be wild and animal but fucking can take pain away too.”
In the clip above, Catherine’s sexual frustration is clear when she unsuccessfully tries to interest Matthew in sex. Events past and pressures present mean there’s considerable tension between her and Matthew before their kids go missing. One of those pressures is, as the press kit puts it, “the constant threat of men desiring their daughter”, played by Maddison Brown in what is her feature film debut. See the clip below for a taste of Lily’s pubescent smouldering.
It is not just women’s sexuality that Farrant is interested in though.
“The allure of sex is terrifying to some people and they try to control those feelings,” she says. “It was why I was interested in having a character like Matthew. He had to keep a lid on his wife and his daughter’s sexuality because of their impact on him.”
Because of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowland
A number of films influenced Farrant’s thinking but the one she singles out is American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes’ 1974 picture A Woman Under the Influence. Both Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowland – they were married – were nominated for Academy Awards for the film.
“Gena Rowland’s performance as a woman trying to cope and trying to find herself really struck a chord with me,” says Farrant. “It was about the complexity of the character and how she had to balance so many duties: to honour her own desire and needs; to be there for others including her children; to interact with others in the world.”
Farrant said it was only when she became a stepparent that she realised the extent to which women often have to negate themselves in order to juggle all the components in their lives and to meet the expectations of others and of society.
The impact of 9/11
Farrant read somewhere that the birth rate had skyrocketed (nine months) after 9/11 and found herself googling the impact of these coordinated 2001 attacks on the US far into the night.
“There was so much uncertainty,” she says. “People didn’t know if their loved ones had been killed and… people died in a very unnatural way. But there was a lot of fucking. It’s another example of what happens when things are out of control. Sex is one way to regain control.”
And life can easily become uncontrollable in many ways.
“Poverty, tragedy, crime, racism: on a daily level how do we keep fronting up to life and having integrity, and treating people nicely?” she asks. “We are always on the phone but often live isolated, disconnected lives. Yet somehow we are meant to cope with jobs, families, social interaction. With all that pressure. how come we don’t become serial killers?
“Every 11 hours a man takes his own life,” says Farrant, who co-founded a series of public forums titled What Men Really Think About, aimed at creating male role models who inspired others to express their feelings. “They’ve got no-one to turn to. That disconnect has to have a flipside. The film is about going underneath the disconnect, about coping with uncertainty and anxiety.”
The pain of a friend, who was called in to talk to the actors
The fifth big influence on how Farrant depicted people in crisis, as nominated by here, was a “very dear” friend of hers who lost her three-year-old daughter to cancer. This friend came to set and shared her story with the three main actors.
“One day I saw her naked in the woods, wailing and naked and screaming at God to bring her (daughter) back,” says Farrant. “Her reason for living had been taken away. She could no longer put up a mask to cover up her pain, to make it palatable to people.”
Farrant says that when the script for Strangerland was being assessed for financing, some questioned whether the characters would do what they did.
“People felt confronted by the raw stark reactions... I watched my father die. Right there and then part of me died with him. I thought ‘I can’t go on, this is too much’.”
Kidman’s performance is even more compelling in the light of everything Farrant says. The film can be seen at Palace and selected regional cinemas from this Thursday for a very short season only.
Tuesday 8 June, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Kim Farrant
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Joseph Fiennes