Stone age

Dy­namic theatre di­rec­tor Si­mon Stone has turned to film. And there’s no look­ing back

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - The Daugh­ter is in cin­e­mas na­tion­ally from March 17. The Wild Duck is cur­rently in pro­duc­tion at the Perth In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val.

Si­mon Stone may be based in Switzer­land, but he re­mains Aus­tralia’s most provoca­tive, and ar­guably its most tal­ented, theatre di­rec­tor. Af­ter es­tab­lish­ing The Hayloft Pro­ject theatre com­pany in Mel­bourne in 2007, the young di­rec­tor in equal mea­sure en­thralled and en­raged view­ers with his ex­plo­sive adap­ta­tions for the coun­try’s main stages of ven­er­ated texts — in­clud­ing Au­gust Strind­berg’s Miss Julie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Sales­man and Hen­rik Ib­sen’s The Wild Duck — be­fore mov­ing to Europe to fur­ther his ca­reer.

But theatre, he says, was only ever a “dis­trac­tion from cinema”.

It’s a bold ad­mis­sion from the 31-year-old Stone, and one that may raise the odd eye­brow — and even a laugh — in the lo­cal theatre in­dus­try where he made his name. Yet it’s a state­ment that ap­pears to be borne out by his de­but fea­ture film, The Daugh­ter.

This loose adap­ta­tion of his ac­claimed stage pro­duc­tion of The Wild Duck fea­tures Paul Schneider as a young man re­turn­ing to his fam­ily’s Tas­ma­nian home, the site of an event that changed him and oth­ers many years be­fore. It’s a beau­ti­ful drama with a cast in­clud­ing Ge­of­frey Rush, Sam Neill, Anna Torv, Odessa Young and Ewen Les­lie, and is the work not only of a tal­ented artist, but of a cinephile seem­ingly steeped in the for­mal­ism of Euro­pean cinema. And the early crit­i­cal re­sponse sug­gests it won’t be Stone’s last film.

When Re­view sug­gests that he comes across as a cinephile, the di­rec­tor leans for­ward, ex­pands his strik­ing blue eyes and grins widely, as if meet­ing a fel­low trav­eller.

“Yes,” he says. “How many years have we got to talk to each other?”

He re­calls writ­ing short film scripts as a teenager and keenly imag­in­ing mak­ing them at some point, be­fore re­al­is­ing it would be a good idea to try di­rect­ing ac­tors first.

“So I put on a play as an ex­per­i­ment, as a test of how I re­lated to per­form­ers and to prac­tise the re­la­tion­ship with per­form­ers,” he says of his foray into the theatre. “Then I got side­lined by the fact that theatre was then this sud­denly ex­cit­ing thing for me and peo­ple seemed to en­joy me mak­ing it.”

En­joy it au­di­ences did. Ac­claimed pro­duc­tions at the Malt­house Theatre (Seneca’s Thyestes), Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany ( The Cherry Orchard) and Belvoir ( The Prom­ise, Miss Julie) — and some con­tentious au­tho­rial cred­its for his plays — meant Stone’s rep­u­ta­tion as theatre’s star di­rec­tor rose rapidly, not­with­stand­ing the grow­ing pres­ence of a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­com­plished stage di­rec­tors in­clud­ing Ea­mon Flack, Lee Lewis, Ralph My­ers, Sarah Goodes and Kip Wil­liams.

It’s hardly sci­en­tific, but Stone’s promi­nence in the zeit­geist is telling: type “Aus­tralia’s best theatre di­rec­tors” into Google and there’s Stone, se­cond on the list, be­tween Michael Blake­more and Neil Arm­field. For what it’s worth, he’s ahead of Gale Ed­wards and John Bell and is con­sid­er­ably younger than all of them. Who knows how Google’s al­go­rithms work, but that place­ment is hardly a glitch.

Stone has fol­lowed Blake­more, Bar­rie Kosky and Bene­dict An­drews to Europe. He was born in Basel, Switzer­land, be­fore mov­ing to Aus­tralia as a child, and is en­sconced at present as in­house di­rec­tor at the The­ater Basel.

He may be fo­cused on film, but theatre will pull him back. He’s too good for it. Belvoir St Theatre ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Brenna Hob­son laughs — as do oth­ers — when told Stone says he only re­ally ever had eyes for cinema.

“I think Si­mon might be sell­ing him­self slightly short there,” she says of the man who was res­i­dent di­rec­tor at Belvoir for three years. “One of the things about Si­mon is he has enor­mous ca­pac­ity and a low bore­dom thresh­old, so once he con­quered theatre it was clear he’d move on to some­thing else.

“He’s too good a theatre di­rec­tor to have just used it as a step­ping stone, though.”

One of Stone’s strik­ing at­tributes, Hob­son adds, is his zest for life and vo­ra­cious con­sump­tion of cul­ture, be it the the­atri­cal canon or cinema’s broad his­tory. It pro­vides the en­ergy that fu­els his rich artis­tic en­deav­ours.

Stone re­calls as a child leav­ing video stores with arms full of rented films and from the age of 15 watch­ing up to five films a day. An early fling with act­ing al­lowed him the time to con­sume films, and he did so, head­ing to Mel­bourne’s Cine­math­eque — as so many artis­tic strivers in the south­ern cap­i­tal do — ev­ery Wed­nes­day.

He chuck­les as he re­mem­bers one night tak­ing a date there to sit through Shad­ows of For­got­ten An­ces­tors, a 1965 drama by Sergei Para­janov set in Ukraine’s Carpathian Moun­tains. “It was an in­cred­i­bly ob­scure film [ and I was] think­ing that would make me look quite in­tel­lec­tual,” he says. “I was quite young — 17 — and she was five years older than me and I thought this would be re­ally im­pres­sive to her.”

His date fell asleep, while Stone thought it was one of the great­est films he had seen, spark­ing his on­go­ing ob­ses­sion with cinema from the for­mer Soviet Union.

“The core of my ex­is­tence for the past 15 years has been go­ing on the in­ter­net and try­ing to find the ob­scurest of the ob­scure DVDs from the other side of the world, to make sure I see ev­ery­thing un­der the sun,” he says, smil­ing.

Cinema would find him. He was one of only two stage di­rec­tors (Ban­garra’s Stephen Page was the other) in­vited to di­rect a short film for the am­bi­tious om­nibus of Tim Win­ton short sto­ries, The Turn­ing. Stone’s film, Re­union,



about a stilted Christ­mas Day turn­ing into a romp, fea­tured Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Robyn Nevin and was shot by Academy Award win­ner An­drew Les­nie.

It was a high-pro­file ground­ing for pro­duc­ers Ni­cole O’Dono­hue and Jan Chapman, pro­ducer of The Pi­ano and Lan­tana, who asked him to adapt his pro­duc­tion of The Wild Duck for the screen.

It made sense; the Belvoir play was a com­mer­cial and artis­tic smash and has been per­formed ev­ery year for the past five years, in­clud­ing sea­sons in Europe and next week at the Perth In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val.

His pro­duc­tion mod­ernises Ib­sen’s tale, plac­ing his tense en­sem­ble be­hind glass and giv­ing a vis­ceral power to the Nor­we­gian play­wright’s 1884 piece about a fate­ful home­com­ing.

Stone’s first draft for his pro­duc­ers was typ­i­cally, well, Stone. He re­moved all the di­a­logue from the play, es­sen­tially, be­cause cinema is about what one sees and hears, not the words.

It was a re­ac­tive, nec­es­sary re­duc­tion be­cause, he says, his tight stage play was “just words”.

“That par­tic­u­lar play was a group of peo­ple stand­ing in a space just talk­ing to each other,” he says, not­ing one of the pro­duc­tion’s virtues was that “its sparse­ness was ev­ery­thing”.

“Ev­ery­thing that peo­ple said to each other was the meat of the en­tire pro­duc­tion and in a play that was about the rel­a­tive mer­its of truth telling, that was a very im­por­tant kind of thing to fo­cus it just on th­ese words that peo­ple are say­ing to each other.”

That has less value on screen, though, be­cause “what screen does so won­der­fully is kind of ob­serve peo­ple’s ex­is­tence”.

“In an en­sem­ble drama, the great value of that was be­ing able to ob­serve peo­ple in their own en­vi­ron­ments as much as pos­si­ble and then jux­ta­pose those en­vi­ron­ments with each other,” Stone says.

Con­se­quently, as rec­ol­lec­tions and rev­e­la­tions rock the gath­er­ing of a log­ging fam­ily (headed by Rush’s Henry Neil­son) in Tas­ma­nia, Stone used edit­ing in a man­ner he couldn’t on stage, rep­re­sent­ing time’s flu­id­ity and the over­lap­ping and in­ter­con­nec­tions be­tween ev­ery char­ac­ter’s re­al­i­ties dur­ing this fate­ful week in their lives.

“You can use tech­niques that are just not avail­able to you on stage, to ex­plode the no­tion of how peo­ple’s fates are in­ter­twined and as much as they may be­lieve they’re in con­trol of their des­tiny, their des­tiny is in con­trol of them in some ways,” he says.

The Daugh­ter is a con­fi­dent de­but. Clearly, Stone’s ex­pe­ri­ence with ac­tors in theatre — whether or not used as a step­ping stone — helps him ob­tain smart per­for­mances as a screen di­rec­tor, for a nat­u­ral­is­tic, sub­tle Aus­tralian film.

Stone con­cedes his di­rec­tion was as much about what he didn’t do, how­ever.

“I had been dy­ing to have a go at mak­ing a film for so long,” he says. “One of the big chal­lenges was ac­tu­ally go­ing: ‘ Si­mon, you need to do what’s right for this movie and don’t try to make all of your movies at once.’ Hav­ing many, many in­flu­ences can be a dan­ger­ous thing.”

His in­flu­ences sparked thought and in­ves­ti­ga­tion, though, not mimicry. One ap­pre­ci­ates his peers’ ad­mi­ra­tion for the di­rec­tor’s en­thu­si­asm and how he lights up rooms with his gan­gly phys­i­cal­ity and vi­brant ideas when he talks of film. He vividly ex­plains ob­sess­ing about how cin­e­matog­ra­phy and edit­ing are used “to ex­press the in­ex­press­ible and kind of move be­yond the lit­eral into some­thing more metaphor­i­cally uni­ver­sal”.

Con­se­quently, those lucky enough to have seen The Wild Duck on stage will see a very dif­fer­ent story on film. It is un­like most Aus­tralian films, with its low-tempo burn, and it drops the anger and in­ten­sity that made The Wild Duck so brac­ing a theatre ex­pe­ri­ence

“What cinema does is you slowly kind of get to know the char­ac­ters and you let the char­ac­ters’ sit­u­a­tions wash over you, and you don’t use lan­guage as an ar­gu­men­ta­tive tool, you use it as a tool just for the char­ac­ters,” he says.

“Lan­guage in a play is all that the au­di­ence has to rest their ex­pe­ri­ence of the char­ac­ter’s world on. They have to imag­ine ev­ery­thing based on the words they’re hear­ing.

“In film, ev­ery­thing else is coloured in, it’s all there. And so the ham­mer blows of ex­po­si­tion that were words in the play had to kind of slowly fall into the world of the char­ac­ters in film. And no­body loves a film where peo­ple are talk­ing non­stop. You want to be over­whelmed by the vis­ual el­e­ment as well.”

Stone also wanted to em­brace the genre of “re­turn”, of a lead char­ac­ter re­turn­ing to a fa­mil­iar place and peo­ple who have changed be­yond recog­ni­tion. Af­ter the es­tranged son, Chris­tian (Schneider), is sum­moned home to be best man at his father Henry’s mar­riage to his for­mer house­keeper (Torv), Chris­tian searches for a sense of mean­ing in the past and events that com­pletely trans­formed him, be­fore re­al­is­ing ev­ery­one else has es­sen­tially for­got­ten.

“The feel­ing of that is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to the film, the feel­ing of mem­ory, the feel­ing of ‘I’ve seen this be­fore but now it feels com­pletely dif­fer­ent’,” Stone says.

“The melan­choly re­flec­tion on who we have been as adults and then jux­ta­pos­ing that against a teenager’s reverie of dis­cov­er­ing the world where ev­ery­thing is new and there is no emo­tional bag­gage. So the ten­sion be­tween those two things — the melan­choly of the messed-up bag­gage adults have and the yearn­ing and sur­pris­ing re­al­ity of a teenager [Young’s Hed­vig] — is where the film lives for me.”

The irony, of course, is the man who was the light­ning rod three years ago for a dis­cus­sion, or ar­gu­ment, about the ar­ro­gance of at­tach­ing au­tho­rial cred­its to clas­sic texts has made his Ib­sen play — once cred­ited as “By Si­mon Stone with Chris Ryan af­ter Hen­rik Ib­sen” — very much his own.

The au­tho­rial de­bate, which be­gan in Re­view in 2013, split the na­tion’s theatre in­dus­try. “Adap­ta­tions” v “orig­i­nal works”: ev­ery­one had an opin­ion. At the time, Stone told Re­view of The

Wild Duck: “It’s not Ib­sen’s script. It’s my script.” Play­wright An­drew Bovell, mean­while, weighed in with, among other things, the ad­mo­ni­tion: “Write your own plays and stop eff­ing around with ev­ery­body else’s.”

The de­bate was pif­fle, Stone says, cit­ing cinema’s his­tory dur­ing the silent era, when ma­te­rial was re­quired to sate this new tech­nol­ogy. The film­mak­ers pil­fered as many old plays and books for the screen as they could. And Ib­sen’s play is very vague, even un­recog­nis­able, source ma­te­rial now.

Stone smiles, al­though he cau­tions the film’s credit re­mains: “In­spired by Hen­rik Ib­sen’s The

Wild Duck”.

“You don’t want to deny that source ma­te­rial is the seed of all the imag­i­na­tion you then have, re­sult­ing from that first en­counter with the ma­te­rial,” he says.

“And ev­ery­thing that kind of blos­soms out of it is still this play a man wrote in Italy some­where, dream­ing of his old Nor­we­gian home, in 1882-83. It’s still the thing that he brought to life.

“There’s still a duck, there’s still this kid who’s shocked and over­whelmed by rev­e­la­tions in her fam­ily. There’s still a strug­gle for a cou­ple to stay to­gether in an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult time. The core of the story is still Hen­rik Ib­sen’s.” Stone grins. “His play was the equiv­a­lent of the news­pa­per ar­ti­cle to me and it gave me ev­ery­thing I needed to go in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion,” he says.

Si­mon Stone in Ber­lin, left; Ewen Les­lie, Odessa Young and Sam Neill in The Daugh­ter, below

Stone’s theatre pro­duc­tions have in­cluded, clock­wise from left, Neigh­bour­hood Watch; Death of a Sales­man; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; The Wild Duck and The Hayloft Pro­ject

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