Enjoying its US premiere later tonight at the 2017 Fantastic Fest is Luke Shanahan’s haunting sci-fi-infused psychological thriller, Rabbit, which features a beautiful performance from the film’s star, Adelaide Clemens, as a twin sister named Maude whose sibling has been abducted, and a series of startling visions sets her on the path to discovering what happened to her identical twin, Cleo.
Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Shanahan in advance of the film’s premiere, and he discussed being able to represent Australia in the States with his latest project, collaborating with Clemens, paying tribute to his favorite era of genre filmmaking, and much more.
Look for our review of Rabbit in the coming week, as well as more coverage from all the great films being celebrated at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin. To catch up on our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage, visit here.
Glad you made it safely to Austin, Luke, and I'm so excited to see how fans are going to react to this film. It's really great and I think Adelaide is so great, I can't even put into words, really, how much I enjoyed her performance.
Luke Shanahan: Ah, thank you. She's a trooper, and we had an amazing time. I've said this in talking to other people about the film, and she's extraordinary and she is the film. What I didn't give her was a lot of physical props that could allow her to distinguish the twins. So there was no sort of like, "Hi, you're wearing a wig now, or put on 20 pounds, or I'm just gonna do it through wardrobe." So it was almost an emotional connection, and an emotional change and distinction she had to get to as an actor.
Because they didn't physically differ a lot, the two twins, Claire and Maude. She's such an instinctive actress, Heather, and when we just chatted about the film, we chatted about tone, and she's got siblings, so she just really related to the relationships. But when it comes to the process, you're dead right. Each day, we made her scream and cry, and bang on windows, and some days she was just wrecked. But she was magnificent.
I'd love to talk about your approach, because admittedly, in the first couple minutes, you see a girl running though the woods, and it sets a certain expectation. I love Australian films, because I think there's something really special about the energy down there and the filmmakers. But I will admit, when you first start off in a movie where you're seeing a girl running through the forest, it evokes a lot of feelings of like, "Oh, is this gonna be another other survival horror?" And then you defied expectations at every turn.
Luke Shanahan: David [Ngo], the producer and I, when we kept pitching this film, it was funny, because what you say about that first sequence is true, and we knew we had to defy expectations. When we pitched it to funding bodies, we had a package probably that didn't illustrate in terms of visuals early on. But when you read that first scene, you're dead right. Suddenly people are thinking Wolf Creek, they're thinking serial killer, they're thinking, "Is this another scantily clad woman running though the forest and stuck in a cabin?" As you alluded to, it's not that at all. I wanted deliberately to set it up, I guess with some of the tropes of the genre, but then just sort of pull the rug out and say, "This is not what you'd expect."
I remember my mother came to one of the screenings and said, " I'm gonna hate this. I'm gonna hate this." Because she was expecting me to do some sort of slasher film and it's not that at all. I wanted a visceral response, but I didn't want it in reaction to anything grotesque. I always said to David, "I want the doors shut and I want the audience to think about what's going on behind the door, as opposed to opening the door and seeing someone getting whatever done to them."
When I was watching the film, I noticed that on a visual level this movie has a very interesting sort of shift when we see Maude go back home. She's around these warmer colors, and she even wears sort of that peach sweater, but then when the story shifts, everything goes to these very muted, neutral earth tones.
Luke Shanahan: Oh, thank you. It’s so good to have interviews with people that know what they're talking about and they get what you're trying to do. That was very much my throwback to the ’70s, and when you talk about color palettes, that was a deliberate choice. The first thing is, I used all female department heads—Anna Howard shot it, Amy Baker was the production designer, Anita Seiler did the wardrobe, and so forth. And that was a conscious decision, because I felt like this being a female story, it needed to have some female eyes on it.
So the color palette was really thought-out. We looked at a lot of paintings for inspiration, so the second half of the film has this almost European texture to it. It's very muted, apart from the big primary blocks of red that we bookend the film with and also throw up in the middle for seven seconds. Those are the only primary colors in the film.
You mention the ’70s aesthetic for this, which I really picked up on and I loved how the music really reflected that, too, as well as those red blocks. Was there something about this story in particular where you felt that that kind of approach, that sort of timeless feeling, served the story, versus going for a more modern or updated approach?
Luke Shanahan: Well, I don't think I'm the first director to say that the ’70s are my favorite decade for films, and maybe it sounds a bit cliché to then bring them up as inspiration. But to be truthful, I really connected to the Funny Games-type approach to horror, where you don't actually have to have buckets of blood. You can instigate feelings and moods through technique, and that's always what we wanted to do with this film, where we suggest a mood of constant menace. Kubrick did it with The Shining. Polanski did it, too. And The Wicker Man—the original one—was a huge influence on what we did with this film, too.
Looking back at this process, how would you say the experience of making Rabbit transformed you, whether it was as a director, or as a human being, or maybe even in both respects?
Luke Shanahan: That's a great question. It's funny, I came through the film school and I came to a production company primarily, because while you're trying to get your films up, you're doing commercials and whatever you can to pay the bills. I was coming up alongside other directors like Justin Kerswell and Andrew Dominik, and other people in the system that have come through the Australian independent film scene. And you just learn while doing commercials to make decisions quickly, and I think that's why a lot of Australian filmmakers are doing well in America.
We didn't have a lot of money to make Rabbit. We had enough to make the film, but we didn't have the ability to stretch out beyond that schedule. David and myself worked really closely together up front in scheduling and making those decisions as to how to get all the dollars on screen. We didn’t want to sacrifice creativity, but obviously we had to work within our budget. As a person, I learned that a lot of the creativity and the evolution of the script still does come on set and I love that. There was a real collaborative mood on set.
In case you missed it, check here to catch up on our previous Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for more live coverage of the festival.