By Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
The new coming of age comedy Girl Asleep is being described as if Wes Anderson met Louis Carroll. The connection to both make perfect sense with fantastical moments within this 70s era comedy, and visual comedy which utilizes cinema’s ability to create visual depth and texture. The film, however, has its roots in theater, with the award winning Windmill Theater from Adelaide, South Australia. Part of Matthew Whittet’s teenage trilogy, the film became the theater company’s first film production. And alongside co-star and writer Whittet, the company’s artistic director and play’s original director, Rosemary Myers, made her filmmaking debut.
Girl Asleep is the story of Greta (Whitmare), a 15-year-old whose parents bombard her with a surprise birthday party despite her protests. Considering herself a loser with just one real friend, (Harrison Feldman) and already suffering from unwanted attention from the school’s mean girls, the trauma from the party throws her into an alternate, fantasy universe. Along with her work as an artistic director in Australia for several companies before the Windmill, she has directed a number of highly praised theatrical productions, and received the Helpmann nomination several times in Australia for her plays. We spoke about taking Girl Asleep from stage to screen.
Q: What was it about this play that your theater group thought would make a good film and the right one to be your first production?
A: Matthew and I had been told a few times to try to make a film, and the first time we really considered doing it was when we had a really popular production called School Dance, which was also written by Matt and directed by me. But we were already working on this as our next play when that success happened, so we had it in our heads when we premiered it on stage that we would try to make this one into a movie. It was always a given that we would do both with this script.
Q: Did you have to make big changes to the narrative structure or find things that worked on stage just weren’t going to work on screen?
A: In the play all the young are played by adults. So this was the first time we had to hold auditions and cast kids close to the characters age. It was amazing though to hear young people embody the text. Finding those two young people, our leads, I spent a lot of time with them just talking about the film and their characters. And to hear them talk about how the film relates to their own teenage experiences was so wonderful. It really confirmed for us that all these experiences Matt was writing about as a grown man were still relevant today. But we were concerned about the film feeling very cinematic. The dance sequence in the play was performed by four actors, who enter and exit as all the different characters, it’s quite a hilarious highlight from the play. And we wanted the scene to also be one of the highlights of the film, but it had to be staged different because that was such a theatrical joke.
Q: Was it hard to work with a larger ensemble of actors?
A: I was surprised, because I was concerned going into filming that we hadn’t scheduled enough time to rehearse. Because I’m used to theater, where you have lots of rehearsal time. But I only had three days of real rehearsal, so we rehearsed the opening scene, the dance scene, and the fight sequence.
Q: Was it a challenge to change your mind’s eye to think of things in terms of how the camera would perceive things you’d been watching on stage for so long?
A: I worked quite a lot with the DOP, and he mentored me and helped me adjust. When we first started work he told me something that made total sense. He said, you can make a great film without much time but a lot of money, or you can make a great film with time and no money. So he really pushed me to work with all the time we had, storyboarding the film, so when we were filming we weren’t thinking of how to film things. And that also helped me think of things as a film director, not as a theater director making a film. We adjusted as we filmed and during editing of course, but it helped with that adjustment.
Q: It’s so nice that the first scene in the film is very cinematic and has all that activity in the background. Who thought of those bits of business going on behind Bethany and Harrison?
A: Those were in the script, but Matt and I worked on which pieces to include. We share a very similar sense of humor, and kind of workshopped the ideas. Very similar to how we workshop in theater. Matthew workshops all his plays before writing the final draft. They go through a lot of development. We also worked a lot with Amber, who plays the mother and is in the play, so she contributed ideas as well.
Q: Matthew’s previous two plays about teenagers focused on boys, what motivated the group to do one specially about a girl going through that transitional period?
A: Girls’ stories were always heavily featured in the plays. The first play, Charge, was about the adrenaline involved in being a teenager. School Dance was about the alpha males and loser boys who endure them. And then we decided, we weren’t talking about the other half of being a teenager. We’d talked about the adrenaline of being a teenager, but we hadn’t talked about the quieter, self-reflective state of affairs. The fact that we spend a lot of time alone in our rooms. And Matthew also wanted to write play about a girl experiencing that side of life.
Q: Were there sides of that teenager experience that felt specific to the female gender that Girl Asleep gave you the chance to explore?
A: I certainly understood the sexual awakening she is going through. The other plays deal with sex, but in a very different way. And the way we look at violence between the girls and the boys was different. All three of our plays have touched on the violence of being a teenager. Charge had it as a primary issue, the main question being about when is it okay to fight. School Dance looked at it from the perspective of the boys that were considered losers. And Greta is the one being challenged by the mean girls, the girls who put out this image that the main collateral they have is sex. I don’t think those things go away. The film’s set in 70s, School Dance was set in the 80s, but we always have school kids in the audience and they still identify with the themes. We were pretty much all losers as teenagers, but we’re having a good life now, so it’s a message of hope. Greta is also reflective of the time, specifically how the 70s changed things for women. Janet, her mother, married after the war when women were encouraged to stay at home so men could come back and find jobs. And Janet’s losing her identity to some degree because her children aren’t at home and are growing up. And her older sister feels like a young woman embracing these changes in society that were happening in the 70s.
Q: What kind of conversations did you have with Bethany and Harrison about how they related to the characters? Did they talk about similar experiences?
A: Yeah, that was how we spent most of our rehearsal time. Harrison is quite a lot like Elliot, in his own way. But Bethany talked at length about how she understood what Greta was going through, and her interpretations were always right on. She’s so smart and really related to Greta.
Q: Did you talk with the production and design team about cinematic influences?
A: We talked about Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Wes Anderson’s films a lot. But I think coming from theater really made a huge impact on how we approached the film. Because we are keenly aware in theater that you can’t control point of view. And you’re far more capable of doing that with film, so we were keenly aware that this was the opportunity to tell this from Greta’s point of view.
Q: What about Greta’s pop culture references?
A: I assume she got a lot of that from her sister, because she sees her as very cultured. So a lot of the music would have actually been her sister’s taste that Greta just liked because those were the songs her sister played. I remember my best friends had big sisters and at that time, a big sister’s very influential. They introduce you to the artists of the times. So her sister knows all the French crooners, which would have made her very hip in the 1970s. And the decor of the house’s very similar to mine growing up.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (10/06/16)
Top Photo: Girl Asleep director Rosemary Myers
Bottom Photo: Girl Asleep actresses Bethany Whitmore, Amber McMahon & Imogen Archer
Photo Credits: Sam Barratt