Director Jessica Hausner talks deep character study ‘Little Joe’

Jessica Hausner has been one of the rising Australian filmmakers for close to 20 years. In 2001, 2004 and 2014 she competed in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section with her features Lovely Rita, Hotel, and Amour Fou. This year, she moved into the Cannes Palm d’Or competition (one of two women in that part of the festival competition) with her first English language film Little Joe. In the film, Emily Beecham (who won best actress at this year’s Cannes) plays Alice, a single mother and brilliant botanist who genetically engineers a plant which secretes oxytocin. Mixing Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Little Shop of Horror into a deeper character study, Hausner infuses her film with bright colors and black humor.

Lesley Coffin: Where did the inspiration for the film come from? I know Frankenstein and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been mentioned in the description of the film, but where their other things you were inspired by in pop culture or the news in general?

Jessica Hausner: The primary inspiration for me was the idea of having a female main character who was a mother and very dedicated scientist. I had the idea that Alice is torn between her son and her work, which causes her this anxiety that exists throughout the film. And I knew that I wanted to make a film which at the end, that character would free herself of that anxiety. But the ending is ironic because that freedom comes when she lets her son live with the father so she can focus on her work. The film is very dark but, in a way, it is a happy ending because in the future I’d like to see women feel like they can rid themselves of feeling of guilt when they focus on their work. I don’t know if this is true in America but in Europe it’s certainly true that women feel guilty when they choose their work over their children. 

Lesley Coffin: Part of the irony of that idea in the film is that the plant omits a pheromone which replicates the hormones from childbirth and creates this feeling of love. Where did that concept come from and why include that little nugget in this story?

Jessica Hausner: We did an investigation about smells and realized that there isn’t a single smell which would make everyone feel good. Some people like the smell of vanilla or roses, but a lot of people don’t. But if there is a hormone into the sent, like oxytocin, you will create a physical effect in the human body. So, creating that scenario allowed for a safer way of developing a plant that has that effect.

Lesley Coffin: This is your first English language film and beyond the possibility of a larger market place, was there something about this story which made you think it should be set in England?

Jessica Hausner: I think being a genre film, it helped to make it English language. A lot of films I was inspired by, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, were English language. The English language fits well with genre, compared to German which use complicated, long sentences and very methodical. English language always seems short and precise, and I felt the film would benefit from that and from the kind of British, dry humor. 

Lesley Coffin: Emily has certainly been on the rise for a few years. What made you think she’d fit the character?

Jessica Hausner: We met and started to rehearse and got the feeling that she’s able to act in a way which makes you feel her resistance. She can be polite and act the good girl, while at the same time you feel that something else going on. You feel a tension between what she’s showing and what she’s hiding. And I think that’s something I find amazing.

Lesley Coffin: One of the other things which stands out to me, especially considering the horror sci-fi elements, is how colorful it is. Most the film takes place during the day and even at night there is that red light in the greenhouse which creates this pink hue. What was the motivation for giving the film that kind of look?

Jessica Hausner: When we were coming up with the visual style of the film, the costume designer, my sister, was the one to come up with the initial color palette. She showed me all these looks from magazines she wanted to use. And she showed me a photo from I think Vogue of a model with red hair wearing a pink blouse and trench coat and thought “what a great style.” It was very 70s but also very trendy now, like the film could take place 10 years ago or 10 years int the future. And we knew Alice’s hair should be red and that the flower would be red, so that inspired a lot of the color choices we made on this film. I always work the same costume designer and production designer on my films. 

Lesley Coffin: Some of the cinematography stands out because the camera always seems to be moving horizontally or zooming in but often not on a character’s face and even cutting the characters out of the shot. Why did you choose that filming style?

Jessica Hausner: I’m always thinking about what is on and off screen on films and work with a cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, for over 20 years, we always talk about camera movements. To me, the camera is a character alone and sometimes it won’t follow the movement of the actors. I think that effect can be unsetting for the audience, but that feeling of “what am I missing” or “what does that mean” is the feeling I want to create. I wanted the film to be ambiguous. 

Lesley Coffin: Having done the film festival circuit, I’ve heard that bringing a film out which is a genre film can be more difficult for women. And you have the more difficult challenge of making a film in which the female protagonist isn’t necessarily going to be perceived as likable. How have audiences reacted to the film?

Jessica Hausner: What I found interesting was how many people didn’t react positively because the film wasn’t 100% genre. It is 50% sci-fi horror, and the other 50% is an auteur’s film. The film isn’t meant to be as pleasing to an audience as most of them are. And some people saw that as a negative, but I think it’s okay if some people don’t like your film, but others really love it. In general, I feel the reception has been very positive and a lot of people appreciate that it’s a different approach to genre. 

© Lesley Coffin (12/9/19) FF2 Media

Featured image: Ben Whishaw and Emily Beecham in Little Joe (2019)

Photo credits: Coop99 Filmproduktion, The Bureau, Essential Filmproduktion GmbH 

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