TIFF Interviews: The Daughter’s Simon Stone, Paul Schneider, and Geoffrey Rush

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One of the devastating films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is the Australian film The Daughter. First-time film director Simon Stone, who based the movie on Henrick Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, even admitted during his premiere introduction that hoping audiences “enjoyed the film” might not be the right term. The tragedy follows two families, linked by childhood friends Christian (Schneider) and Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who have closer links than originally thought. Costarring Miranda Otto, Sam Neill, Anna Torv, Odessa Young (who we also interviewed at the festival), and Rush, it’s a strong debut from Stone.

Fortunately, as hard as the film is to watch, stars Schneider and Rush, and writer-director Stone, were far from it during our interview.

(Sitting with Simon Stone and Geoffrey Rush)

Lesley Coffin (TMS): I saw your introduction to the film and I know you said it would be a hard watch, which it is. How did the audience reaction to the film at the screening?

Geoffrey Rush: They stood, but they might have just been applauding the Q&A. But the reaction seemed to be great. They laughed in the right moments, at least I thought. Having seen the film at the Melbourne and Sydney festivals, everyone recognizes the accents and everything. And here the film felt different. I realized that even from the start the film feels melancholy, and then it becomes deeply sad. But that is also the most hilarious kind of theater. It is the definition of camp. I mean there is foliage everywhere in this movie, even in the theater we were in last night (the Winter Garden Theater actually does have that design).

Simon Stone: I actually disagree with Geoffrey about the melancholy. The film starts with a lot of people being really lovely to one another, and watching them is quite fun. There is a very lively, light-hearted family at the heart of the film, and if you don’t have that initial investment in the people in that family, the ending wouldn’t work. Audiences won’t be afraid of losing something they haven’t invested in.

TMS: What kind of modifications needed to be made in the transition from stage to screen?

Rush: I saw it onstage, when it was initially a theatrical adaptation of the Ibsen play, and it already felt very filmic. And there was that family fun at the beginning, but then you went very tragic, so I felt in the shooting of it, it had to be a very still performance. I tend to be a little more physically boisterous, and Simon beat that out of me.

TMS: You are the only one in the movie who doesn’t get that big moment where you’re either crying or yelling.

Rush: No, my big moment is when I get smacked in the head.

Stone: But he’s the man who is trying to run away from the people reacting that way.

Rush: He’s the imploder, but he never detonates. He gave me a great note though, that I should feel horrible, horrible shame. I thought, I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me. I’ve never driven for shame.

TMS: Were you feeling that shame from the beginning of the film or is there a moment when you turned it on?

Rush: The storyline, and deception involved, you think it will be the impact of closing the logging mill, and in my head, I felt shame for that. Because it has been in my family for a hundred years, and I’m having to let go of my heritage. What we don’t know are the undercurrents which haven’t yet revealed themselves.

TMS: Did you and Paul Schneider work on the father-son relationship to establish what the specific dynamic was and where you had left things 15 years earlier?

Rush: It was all on the page, so I didn’t have to impose much of a backstory. I didn’t know Paul at all. I’d seen him in Bright Star, but I’d forgotten he was in it. And it was someone I found to be hilarious company on the film set. He has a weird mind which meanders into strange areas. And he has an incredible ear for accents, and has a very definite strata of an Australian accent which is idiosyncratic. He doesn’t just take a broad sweep at the accent. He gets them down to a particular street. So I found that highly amusing on set. So it was nice to have that antidote on set, because I don’t think he ever did a take the same way twice.

TMS: Are you the same?

Rush: No, it’s probably due to my theater experience. Once I think I’m getting something right, I tend to hone in on it and refine it. Which can sometimes be boring. But Paul was great to work with, and I probably do most of my work with him in the film.

TMS: I was struck by the way the story moves and switches focus, with things initially seeming to revolve around Geoffrey’s character, and eventually everyone’s lives actually encompassing Hedvig (Odessa Young). Did you want the movie to feel like there was this movement in who was at the center of the story?

Stone: Henry (Rush) started the seedling of the tragedy. He is the cause of all this tragedy and the girl who will ultimately have to carry the burden of a bunch of adults who were only thinking about themselves, and never considered her. So the burden is transferred slowly from Geoffrey’s character, to Paul’s, then Miranda, Ewen, and finally Odessa, until she’s finally completely on her own. That is what most people don’t realize. They are considering what everything means to them, that they never consider what it will ultimately mean to her. They are searching for their own resolution through the most naive character.

TMS: The enclosed forest is stunning. How did you build it?

Stone: The production designer Steven Jones-Evans and I, and the cinematographer Andrew Commis, did a sight visit to the house a week after discovering we could shoot there, and I suggest we should connect the forest to the water tank which was already there. And then Stephen took care of the rest. And he saw this wonderful tree and said “I think I can make the focus point of the whole thing.” And he went away and made drawing and made this wonderful thing. I remember the first time I walked into it, it just took my breath away.

(At this point, Rush and Stone move to their next interviews and Paul Schneider steps in.)

TMS: Geoffrey said that on set you did a great Australian accent.

Paul Schneider: No, not really. I was just fucking around. And one of the draw backs of the movie was that Jan Chapman (producer) got in touch with me, and she’s one of my favorite people in the entire world. When I was 17, I saw the Piano and then I worked with her and Jane Campion later, so the fact that I’m friends with her now is pretty miraculous. And for someone from a small town, you never think growing up that someone making this kind of incredible movies or music will someday be your friend. So I would happily work for her doing whatever. But there was so little time to prepare, I needed to know the character would work as someone with an American accent, my accent. I wasn’t going to do an accent that I couldn’t do properly.

TMS: Did you discuss if the character should even have an Australian accent or trace of one, or was that not even a concern for them after you agreed to do it?

Schneider: There was talk, but I said I wouldn’t do the movie if I had to do an accent. Because if you aren’t going to do it right, you shouldn’t do it.

TMS: Was filming in Australia different from filming in America?

Schneider: Well, I’ve actually rarely filmed in America. I make movies in Turkey and China and France and England and now Australia. And I make a lot of movies in Canada. So there isn’t a big difference for me.

TMS: Did your character’s decisions make sense when it came to what you revealed to Ewen’s family? Were you concerned about him coming across as a villain?

Schneider: We tried to hold pretty closely to the idea that after all the stuff that has happened in this guy’s life, he believes that telling the truth is what you have to do. Even though it hurts, after all the fires are put out, the truth will set them free. So I just had to cling to that idea and the rest is the rest. I don’t fully understand why he did those things. But I also don’t need to fully understand why he is doing all those things to act in the film

TMS: Your extended drunk performances in this film was excellent. What is the key to avoiding going over the line into a cartoonish, jokey version of acting drunk?

Schneider: I don’t really know. I just do what I think of in the moment, and we are filming so quickly, that a lot of times what we film is the first time I’ve ever done something. The only thing I have to go off of, is that at some point in my life, Sam Rockwell told me that when you have to play drunk, do your best to not act drunk, and that self-conscious “I’m not going to be drunk” comes out as the kind of over compensation in your movements which reads as drunk. But if I ever have any questions about acting I just ask Sam Rockwell and do what he says.

TMS: Geoffrey is a great actor with lots of awards and famous roles in his past. Were you ever intimidated playing his son in the film?

Schneider: Was I ever intimidated by Geoffrey? (Rush walks over upon hearing his name and Schneider grabs him to sit back down) Geoffrey come sit down and watch me? What was your question again?

TMS: Were you ever intimated acting opposite him?

Schneider: Well, I’d seen Quills, and I thought to myself, this guy has some balls on him. But, Sam Neill is in the movie too, and anytime I’m the lone American in a movie, which has happened a lot of times for me actually, I just don’t want to be the American weak link.

Rush: You don’t want to be THAT GUY!

Schneider: You never want to be THAT GUY. And you don’t want to that guy who’s never trained in the theater. When I did Bright Star, Ben Whishaw had just done Hamlet as a drug addict. And thought, what the fuck am I doing in this movie?

Rush: He’s British. He’s acting royalty.

Schneider: Exactly. I was thinking those things. But maybe it’s just been my luck. But those people also tend to be nice people, and part of what makes them good actors is the fact that they are good listeners. And thusly, they have high emotional intelligence, and because of that, they are able to incorporate new people into their group and share ideas, and because of that, I can kind of join the troupe, even if I am the odd man out.

Rush: Darling, you must WRITE! (Paul putting his head on Rush’s shoulder)

Schneider: I try so hard. But it’s just fart jokes which pore out of me.

Rush: You almost went into Rupert from Dirty Rotten Scoundel’s just then. Remember the character (does a pretty good Michael Caine impression) You’ve been banging on pots again haven’t you Rupert?

TMS: Have you done theater?

Schneider: No, never.

TMS: Would you like to?

Schneider: It scares the shit out of me, and because of that, I have a perverse attraction to it. So I think I will do it someday, because it’s a box I just have to tix. But I’ll do something like Regional Florida Theater.

Rush: It will be dinner theater.

TMS: You’ve done a lot of theater, so you can give him some pointers.

Schneider: He’s done SOME theater. He’s not fucking John Gielgud, he’s Geoffrey Rush for God’s sack.

TMS: Was it any different being directed by a theater director who hadn’t made a movie before?

Schneider: No, not at all.

Rush: Pardon the expression, but he was like a duck to water. Did you feel that?

Schneider: Yes, but also part of the reason he was able t be a duck to water was because Jan assembled an extremely qualified crew.

Rush: Oh yes.

Schneider: They were men and women who had done movies like The Lord of the Rings and Thin Red Line and Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars. So these people were way overqualified to be a doing a small, fast, indie movie. So had those people not been there, it might not have been so easy for him.

Rush: But he’s also an enthusiastic presence. He would give really accurate feedback, but would also be so excited about what he was seeing in front of the camera. And he makes discoveries that would go unseen for others. For example, I love the fact that Paul’s character laughs at some very inappropriate moments in the film. I found it unnerving. So he would often go for opposite reactions. It helps you to avoid the clichés.

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