Director Benedict Andrews on his Film4-backed drama, Una
As Una is released in the UK, director Benedict Andrews talks about making the transition from the theatre to the big screen, working with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, and adapting David Harrower’s acclaimed, Olivier Award-winning play Blackbird for a new medium.
Did directing your first feature film feel like an organic growth from your work in the theatre?
It certainly felt like it. I had wanted to make a film for a very long time. I’d studied cinema studies at university, so was used to thinking about cinema. The process began very organically because I’d directed Blackbird, the play, before. But it meant that I could be very clear that I didn’t want to make filmed theatre; I wanted to find out how the play could become something uniquely cinematic.
So when I worked with David [Harrower], working through the screenplay, I think the fact that I knew every beat of the play meant that I could be deeply respectful by not trying to do the play one-for-one as a film, but to dig into its nervous system.
How did that process pan out once production began, and you went on set?
At each stage of the process, I was going through a baptism of fire. I was learning on the job, and I would joke with Ben [Mendelsohn] that I had my L-plates on. The first time I went into an editing studio was literally the first day I’d ever spent in an editing studio; the days in the sound mix were the first days I’d spent on a sound mix. So I was blessed to work with colleagues who were relishing that discovery process with me.
But I felt that at each point I was going into a deep well inside my own practice as a theatre practitioner, that I was digging into that same place, and the muscle was already there. I’m not pretending that I knew how to do certain things — literally, on the first day on set, I didn’t know when you should call ‘action!’ — but very quickly I was able to learn the machinery.
Now I feel like I’ve just learned how to play the scales, and I’m really excited about what I might go on to do next, going into a film where I know the machinery a lot more.
Was there a particular part of that machinery that surprised or excited you?
I’d heard before this thing people would say, that you made the film three times: once in the script, once in the shoot, and once in the edit. And I thought, ‘yeah, sure, we’ve got a really good script, and it’s going to stay like that’ — but that was absolutely true. So I loved the deep, long, slow preparation time we gave it, but right through the shoot we were willing to throw away what we had, to improvise things. I loved the raw rush of the shoot, that incredible intensity where you’re living inside a dream, all your senses are so sharp and you’re living entirely in the moment.
Equally, the edit was a real discovery for me, it was closer to what I know from writing, but I love the relationship I had with Nick Fenton, who edited the film. Again, we gave ourselves the permission not to make something we thought we would make, on the basis of the script, and each day we would come together and would try to follow the film. And this is another thing that mates of mine who are filmmakers have talked about: it tells you what it wants to become.
Did moving from the stage to the screen change how you worked with actors?
In a very simple way. In the theatre rehearsal room, that time is purely exploratory. For six weeks, you shred through the impulses, you do things over and over again. I’m the first audience for that, sometimes the only audience if it’s something that’s being edited as we go along — because then they have to do this thing at the end of the day, in front of the charge of an audience, in front of 400, 500 people. They have to go out there as actors night after night and be real again, do it as if for the first time. So you need to have explored everything within that.
But it was very clear to me, making the film, that it didn’t make sense if we’d have weeks of rehearsal where all this really truthful work ended up between us. It’s different in the theatre, because that will hopefully become a diamond under the pressure of the audience. Here, that has to happen in front of the camera, so we workshopped the script individually and together. We respected the depths that were there, and occasionally we touched on them, but we didn’t try to go beyond the tip of that iceberg, and I had to trust them that they knew that was there, and that they were getting ready to jump in the deep end together. My job was to trust them to do that in front of the camera.
Stuff that may be happening over six weeks in a theatre rehearsal room — where I’m suggesting things, goading at other times, being a devil’s advocate, being a boxing trainer at times — that was happening between takes in front of the camera. But that’s what these guys do all the time in their film work. I learned so much about being on a film set from watching both Ben and Rooney work. Seeing how they made sure they had the conditions that they need to shoot this kind of truth.