One of my favorite things about this gig is getting to meet wonderful people from around the globe. Yesterday I escaped the Alamo Drafthouse briefly to sit and chat with one such person, Australian filmmaker Luke Shanahan. Luke brings to Austin his first feature film, RABBIT, which screens again tomorrow (Monday) afternoon. It will also be screening at Stiges Film Festival this year as part of its “Oficial Fantástic Discovery” section. The film is atmospheric, visually striking, and intriguing – something both genre fans and traditional film fans should appreciate.
While Luke Shanahan is a fan of genre, he hadn’t really seen RABBIT as a genre film.
“It’s funny, when I set out to make RABBIT, I never thought it would be embraced by the genre world as it has been. I thought it was probably more of a conventional festival film, but the genre world is just loving it, which is great ‘cause these are the films that I love. I grew up on horror and thrillers and sci-fi”
“I used to love a really good comedy, and I still watch comedy. As I’ve grown older, I don’t know what it is, but I’ve just been drawn to darker type films and darker shows. I’ll go for David Lynch before a big, broad comedy. I like the underbelly a little more. I like what’s lurking underneath the surface of the small town rather than the pleasant surface layer.”
Having heard about Fantastic Fest for years in the festival circuit, Luke wanted the film to play here because Fantastic Fest is know as a festival for its fans. “This is why we make films. I wanted to watch it with real audiences.” He added, “Also, there’s a nice little Australian contingent here, so I feel right at home.”
Having experience with commercials and short films, Luke’s foray into feature films seemed smoother and more effortless than what many first-time feature-filmmakers experience. It only took a few years from pitching the idea in Melbourne to actually screening the film. He declared, “The experience was magical.” Filming most of it in the beautiful Kuitpo Forest outside of Adelaide, Australia, the rain seemed to be the biggest issue, but it worked in his favor.
“It rained for 26 days. It suits the type of film it is. It’s moody and atmospheric. If we’d had blue skies, if we’d had this beautiful Austin weather, I don’t think it would have that dreary, murky, fairy tale, fantastical element.”
The film, about a sister trying to find her missing twin, was first conceived after Luke had a conversation with a friend who had an estranged twin sister. She stated she would know if her sister were in danger, and that got Luke’s mind working. While he did plenty of research on identical twins and the link they shared, Luke Shanahan did not want his film to be a scientific study of the phenomenon. Instead, he focused on tone.
“I wrote an atmosphere. I put down the story” and collaborated and worked on mood boards with the DP and heads of each department who were female because “it was a female story, and I’m not a female. I wanted to get the palette. Getting the mood right was as much a part of the writing process as the actual words.”
The effectiveness of the mood is further enhanced by the composition of shots. “I proposed the frames, like paintings.” Unlike the multiple quick and choppy editing styles you may see on MTV, the film consists of longer shots. “We wanted everything to play out, a bit like a symphony.”
Luke wrote specific songs, and even camera shots, into the screenplay to ensure that it played out appropriately, but when it came to performances, his cast contributed many of their own ideas.
“Veerle [Baetens] who plays Nerida brought so much to the role, she fleshed it out.” He went on to say how there wasn’t much written into her role on the page, but her contributions really enhanced the character. He also spoke highly of Adelaide Clemens.
“Adelaide Clemens got the character. She was instinctive. We had a really good relationship in terms of our process early on. She would just sort of go, “What am I missing? What am I lacking? What does the scene need?” And I would just throw key words at her. I would say, “loss,” “hope.” Just really random things, and she would say, “thanks, got it.” I did that with all the actors. I’m not going to tell you how to act. You know what I mean? That’s not my job now. You’re here because you can act.”
RABBIT also has a definite split in tone. “I wanted the film to be in two halves, kind of like the two twins.” Audiences will experience the change and know exactly when we’ve gone into the rabbit hole.
“We’re pretty confident about the American appeal of the film.” Luke Shanahan has good reason to be confident. The marriage of music, mood, and style make RABBIT a beautiful and intriguing contribution to this year’s festival.