Usually, there is a natural order in the process of becoming a film director. A stint at filmmaking school might be involved. Perhaps even a few screenwriting credits or time on a film crew, before taking that big leap behind the camera.
Yet for Julia Leigh, playing slave to such rules is for amateurs. A critically acclaimed writer of novels The Hunter and Disquiet, Leigh has turned to another medium to tell her stories: film.
The result is Sleeping Beauty, an art house drama which stars Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) as Lucy, a university student who takes on a high paying job fulfilling the fantasies of older men while she is placed in a deep sleep.
For Leigh, the jump from literature to film was not that big at all. “For me, both films and literature come from the same place” said Leigh. “Both the filmmaker and the novelist both have something to explore, they both work with the flow of time, they create a full and detailed world, they both build characters…a feature film and a novel are both complex projects.”
The script for Sleeping Beauty was influenced by Leigh’s own struggles with the sandman, as her subconscious haunted her with a frightening dream. “I had this recurring nightmare that I was being filmed in my sleep” said Leigh. “There was a perfection in that nightmare, because I was dreaming that I was asleep in my own bed, while I actually was asleep in my own bed. It was actually quite hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t.”
“Because of that, it did occur to me that we are vulnerable enough in sleep, and when we wake up it’s almost as if we edit out our vulnerable sleeping hours and stitch one day to the next. So I guess I sort of was intrigued by the idea of how would you feel if you knew something was happening to you in your sleep, but you didn’t know exactly what it was.”
At first Leigh’s involvement with Sleeping Beauty began and ended with the script. Yet soon she began toying with the idea of directing the film.
“I didn’t immediately think I would direct this project,” said Leigh. “First I wrote the script, and it was kind of a stepping stone, if you like. But at a certain point, and I really honestly can’t remember exactly when or how, I thought that I would be the one to direct it. I guess the way that I wrote the script was that I saw the film play out in my mind’s eye, and so that gave me the confidence. That I had a clear vision for the film.”
That vision has been the subject of much praise, with Leigh’s take on the visual medium offering gorgeously shot scenes, with her camera holding on to the one frame for an extended period, almost in a voyeuristic sense.
“Even when I wrote the script, I had this idea that the camera would be a tender, steady witness”, said Leigh. “This project was always cinematic in that sense, and not novelistic. Even in the first draft of the script, there was that sort of point of few from the chamber. Almost as if the camera places you on the wall in the room, which directly involves the audience.”
Also earning praise is Browning’s portrayal of Lucy, a character Leigh describes as “quietly and wilfully reckless. She puts herself in positions that are probably not in her own best interests, and in a way her provocation toward the world is ‘my cheek is turned, try me.’”
To portrayal this wilfully reckless young woman, Browning bared her soul and body on screen, often disrobing in front of the camera. Other times her character is folly to the elder men she is servicing, with Browning subject to varied physical acts while playing the comatose beauty.
For Leigh a mutual trust was established with Browning, who knew what the role required and how to go about achieving it.
“The first thing Emily did is read the script, and she understood the script”, said Leigh. “She knew that everything she was being asked to do was in keeping with the script, and she made her own judgement about the script. So we didn’t actually have any problems.”
“I was careful, though, not to spring any surprises on my actors in those chamber scenes. But don’t forget it was also demanding of the male actors in those scenes, and I think all of us worked together in the spirit of making the best film possible, in the spirit of all of the amazing films that have gone before us.”
Sleeping Beauty is screening at the Sydney Film Festival;
Saturday 11th June 12pm at Events Cinema
For more information on Julia Leigh’s talk click here
National Australian Release Date: June 23rd
Director: Julia Leigh
Cast: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood