Director Simon Stone’s debut feature film The Daughter, lensed by Andrew Commis ACS, is a skilfully crafted offering that stays with audiences well after the lights have come on and the popcorn is being swept in the cinema.
By Garth Cecil.
Produced by the brilliant Jan Chapman and Nicole O’Donohue with Alex White the film showcases some outstanding talent from Australasian cinema heavyweights, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill and Miranda Otto to boom newcomer Odessa Young with the wonderfully talented Ewen Leslie providing the performance of the film. Import Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl, Parks and Recreation) is also solid as Christian, the reluctant prodigal son of Rush’s Henry whose return serves as the catalyst for the waking of some particularly vicious sleeping dogs.
Based on 19th-century Norwegian-playwright Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, Stone had previously adapted the original to great acclaim for the stage before almost completely re-writing for the screen.
Set in a small blue-collar town, timber baron Henry (Rush) is closing down his operations, unaffected by the nails he is driving into the town’s coffin or the timing thereof as he plans his lavish wedding to the beautiful (and just as it happens, half his age) Anna (Anna Torv).
Christian (Schneider) returns home reluctantly from his high-flying life in the US to be present at his estranged father’s nuptials. He struggles though with the memory of his mother’s death, his own relationship problems and the embarrassing cliché of his father marrying the maid.
Meanwhile Christian’s best mate from school, Oliver (Leslie) has remained in town and carved out his own slice of domestic bliss. Despite being laid off from Henry’s plant he remains upbeat, smitten with wife Charlotte (Otto) and their precocious daughter Hedvig (Young). Leslie’s fantastic dorky dad with a heart of gold has hints of Dickens’ Micawber and the incomparable Darryl Kerrigan but is entirely his own and manages to outshine some of his bigger name colleagues.
Oliver’s doting is understandable, Young’s Hedvig, a headstrong, pure of heart high school senior is fantastically lovable. Her charm and moodiness are balanced to paint a realistic portrait and while she is the instigator of some very awkward early attempts at sex she is most at peace when helping her Grandfather, Walter (Neill) with his menagerie of wounded wildlife.
Christian meets the family as he and Oliver get reacquainted but his disgust with Henry provokes some unfortunate maths to tick through his mind. Cue sleeping dogs.
Stone’s writing and directing are excellent and the acting is brilliant. What completes the film though, liberating it from being a pure character study – which would be understandable considering its stage origins – is the landscape created by Cinematographer Andrew Commis ACS, and Production Designer Steven Jones-Evans. The bleakness of the dying town and its surrounds gets into your bones and doesn’t quickly leave.
Commis is currently in Germany, attending the Berlin Film Festival for his follow up film Girl Asleep; a modestly budgeted children’s movie he says is a “polar opposite” of The Daughter. But he’s enjoying watching the beaming faces of the audiences after watching it.
The trip has also allowed him to catch up again with Stone and reminisce on The Daughter. Commis is full of praise for the young director. Although in his feature debut, Stone, he says had “strong dramatic ideas”; “he’s a very experienced director in theatre… and has possibly seen more films than anyone I know so he’s very film literate”. The theatre whiz was also adamant that the film was to be truly cinematic and not just a performance piece, Commis found this “refreshing in this time of naturalism where the performance dominates power of the images”.
The pair shared an early desire to shoot on 35mm film but the idea was eventually deemed ‘too risky’ by the film’s completion guarantors “if the film was shooting even three years ago it would be a definite decision to shoot on 35mm. The landscape has changed so radically so quickly that it’s almost a given now that you’re not”. While Commis was given license by Stone and the producers to put together a viable plan to shoot on film there were ultimately too many moving parts for the guarantors. Not that Andy minds digital he is quick to point out, “it just provides a different aesthetic”.
Once the lid was closed on a film shoot, the decision for Commis to shoot on Alexa was an easy one, saying it is “definitely my digital camera format of choice”.
Definitely my digital camera format of choice.
Without the choice of film stock, lens choice became all the more important. As always, Andy tested and researched his options extensively well before the shoot began, initially deciding on the Panavision G Series only to find out that all sets were in use. This resulted in his settling on the 1980s made E series, lenses that he feels ended up the better choice. “I wasn’t after the classic anamorphic streaky flares or big aberrations, but they kind of can happen anyway… the quality of them in combination with what we were putting in front of the camera had a nice ‘paintily’ aesthetic”.
“We chose anamorphic with a wide screen aspect ratio, I think more so for the characters, less for the landscape, although obviously it works really beautifully when you are in a landscape that is a character. It allows you to compose in a way that adds tension or leaves you hanging, not quite sure what’s around the corner. I like the idea that I can put two people on either side or I can put one person right to the edge, or what we actually did quite a bit was put someone right in the middle and have a lot of space either side. It was a natural choice in the end, the ratio”.
Commis also believes that shooting the film raw made a difference. This was also an exciting first for him; while typically more expensive due to the heavier data demands, post company Gingerbread Man were very enthusiastic in their support of shooting raw, loving that they were able to do so.
He likes getting to work early on a new project; “I take on pre-production pretty early with any production if I can. A lot of it was just finding those right locations, if you end up in the wrong location suddenly your workload is just so much more and your workload is heavy anyway, but you’re just forced into making choices that aren’t right, so I spend a huge amount of time with the designer and the director just looking for the right spots, the right feel”. Those long hours spent on scouting road trips allowed Stone, Commis and Jones-Evans a fantastic opportunity to toss around ideas for the film.
The locations settled on were forests and pine plantations with not a gum tree in sight. A deliberately non-stereotypical Australian bush provided a setting that could just have easily been in Europe or North America. The atmospherics of the area were also to be drawn on heavily in production.
Early references for the film included the works of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) who was active in the time of Henrik Ibsen, and also Jonathon Glazer’s film Birth (2004) by DOP Harris Savides ASC. Commis says these both had a strong influence on feel and tone. He confesses though to never having read Ibsen’s original work or having seen Stone’s version of the play meaning he was able to start from scratch with Simon’s script which was “very flexible”.
Timing was an important consideration in achieving the distinct feel for the landscape. The film was shot on the cusp of spring and the team was very keen to avoid having everything in flower. It is these landscape exteriors that Commis speaks of when asked about his favourite shots or sequences. True to his workhorse approach he started work a couple of weeks prior to the commencement of shooting. With Panavision able to accommodate his early start Commis took a single camera assistant and set about driving through the country of the Snowy Mountains foothills around Tumut and Tumbarumba. It was on these trips and subsequent ones on his one-day off each week during shooting that he captured the some of the stunning frames of landscape that complete the film as a cinematic work.
Many of these single shots convey as much as any dialogue scene, particularly as Commis paints Henry’s pillaging of the surrounding land for his personal gain visually while Rush and Stone combine to show his greed ruin all those around him personally. Says the young DOP, “it helped fill out the feel, the tone of that world – the township, the landscape – and give you mood as well”.
Commis isn’t short of love for his crew, “the film’s success is a lot to do with them, in terms of how it has visually turned out”. In particular he singles out Key Grip David Nichols, whom he says is “An absolute gentleman, of great wisdom, skill and humour”, Gaffer Zac Murphy for his “great eye and ability to assemble such a great team” and his 1st AC Scott Dolan whose unique approach he enjoyed witnessing, “half the time I wouldn’t actually know where Scott was, he was working wirelessly and he would often be at 90 degrees to me and just pulled focus so beautifully”. He also speaks highly of the cast, saying it was a “joy and a privilege” to work with such talent and was full of praise for the way they communicated with the camera.
On particular challenges and techniques encountered in the production Commis recalls the lighting of the wedding scene with Oliver’s long walk across the dark space between the main house and the wedding marquee as he seeks to confront Henry. A canopy of large trees along the pathway of the old Camden manor made a cherry picker impossible. Eventually no film lights at all were used for the scene, a combination of the chandeliers in the marquee, festoon lights and lanterns and Chinese lanterns on boom poles to highlight the characters’ faces sufficed instead. The resulting warm, soft light left Commis particularly pleased.
The resulting warm, soft light left Commis particularly pleased.
He also notes the deliberate choice for the camera to move with the transfer of information between characters. He adds that he particularly enjoyed some of the more cathartic moments of the film where serious information is being passed on, scenes were shot hand held and with no rehearsal, forcing him to draw on his “documentary instincts”.
Commis is also passionate about following through with post-production himself wherever possible and was able to reunite with previous collaborator and colourist Billy Wychgel (Fell, Sherpa, Spear). Wychgel, he says has “a great feel for colour and the temperament to keep crafting and crafting it”. Colour grading was done at Gingerbread Man, which is one of the first post-production houses to offer equipment able to grade in two colour spaces, one for TV and one for DCP. This allowed them to grade on a great quality monitor in complete darkness as if it were a cinema screen that made for an identical result when tested on the big screen.
There was never a career option outside of cinematography for Commis. In fact he tells of times early on when even though money was tight and jobs hard to come by he still did not want to get part time work outside of the industry to help pay the bills, preferring instead to stay available for any opportunity that might come up, even shooting music videos for free. It was at fourteen or fifteen that he knew for sure what he wanted to be. A high school teacher, Mr Wheatley-Dawson, identified a particular enthusiasm for photography in Commis and a classmate that led to him providing the pair with VHS copies of Citizen Kane (1941) by DOP Gregg Toland ASC, and Blow Up (1966) by DOP Carlo Di Palma AIC. These were like nothing Commis had seen before.
Further down the track in English he would study Witness (1985) from Australian DOP John Seale AM ACS ASC, and also Red Sorghum (1987) from Chinese DOP Changwei Gu. These were “so formative” for Commis but he still doesn’t know how they came to be subject material for high school English.
A couple of years after school he moved to Melbourne, cold calling Cinematographers whom he says were lovely and would generally help out where they could. When given the opportunity Commis dedicated himself to being a “pleasant sponge”, soaking up the knowledge he could while also not annoying anyone. He moved from loading mags to clapper loading and pulling focus before heading to AFTRS in his early 20s. It was here he learnt from the likes of Richard Wallace ACS and had guest lectures from Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC and Russell Boyd ACS ASC among others.
Outside of the classroom his influences are many and varied. He cites Dutch Cinematographer Robby Müller as a huge influence, with a love of his range and eye, the roguish stylings of Chris Doyle and subtle mastery of Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC. Müller, he says, also teamed up with Jim Jarmusch for his favourite two movies in Down by Law (1986) and Dead Man (1995).
After finishing AFTRS he found a time where he was unable to get a job in Sydney for love nor money. A friend suggested he look across the Tasman. He did and found a gap in the market he was able to successfully exploit between the highly experienced Cinematographers and the absolute beginners, leading to a lengthy stay in New Zealand. He never made any conscious decision to leave but simply follows where the work is.
Keep persevering, keep shooting stuff… it’s a war of attrition.
Looking back at Commis’ journey and work ethic it’s no surprise the advice he has for aspiring Cinematographers; “Perseverance. You’ve got to be a bit stubborn in that belief of what you can do”. A decent bluff is also important; “so much of film making is kind of a bluff, you don’t really know if you can do it but you put yourself in a position where hopefully you’ve learnt enough and got a bit of a skill set that you could do it and you surround yourself with the people that can help you achieve it and then just go ‘ok, we’re diving in and let’s see what we can do’”. Above all he urges young film makers, “keep persevering, keep shooting stuff… it’s a war of attrition”.
It’s this perseverance that led to Andy shooting one of the more complete Australian works of cinema in some time. Don’t expect Aussie larrikins or inexplicably intuitive dogs, but do go and see it. The Daughter will go down as an important piece of Australian film.
Garth Cecil is a writer and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer.