P:O.V. No.3

The Beach: An interview with Dorthe Scheffmann

Richard Raskin

How did The Beach
get started as a film project? How did it all begin?

I think it was in summer of 1994 I was on a beach in the north of New Zealand with a very close friend. And she'd been a very close friend of mine for at least ten years. We spent a lovely day in the sun, and she told me some things about her background that I was quite shocked to hear-and quite shocked that in all the intervening years of intimacy that we had never touched on. And it really just brought the story to my mind at that point. And then it took two years from then to put myself into a position to be able to do it.

Does that mean that you asked someone to do the writing of the script, but you laid out the framework of the story?

I did.

Do you recall any ways in which you changed the original story as the film project developed?

It's very hard to answer that. What I can say is that as a filmmaker, I will probably always be the originator of the story per se. But that's a very far cry from having a script that you can make into a film. And to have an idea for a film, even if the idea involves quite a lot of the detail, and even the emotional play of it all and what it is you want to say, it is still a million miles from having the skills of a writer, to actually communicate those ideas to the screen. And I think that's the great conflict a lot of directors have. If you're lucky enough to work with a really gifted writer then you're lucky, because so much can be brought to your work and your idea in ways that you can't even dream of, if you're really lucky. I think that's what you search for, that kind of collaboration.

Frances Edmond is an actress, whose work in New Zealand is well respected, and she's done a lot of work in New Zealand over the years. In the last few years, she has made the move to writing. And I think this is her first film script, and since then she's done other work. Our working relationship is fostered by friendship. It's also fostered by shared politics. And similar references to the film industry. We also have children who are the same age, and I think that has helped us enormously.

Would it be indiscreet to ask more about the politics you share?

No, not at all. I think we're both quite feministic in our thinking. We're also very interested in the way that feminism is changing. I don't think we're living in the time of the hybrid man so much any more, which was more the political rhetoric of feminism when I was a younger woman. I don't believe in that any more. I think that the challenge is to change the working place, to accommodate what women can do. And what women do is so far different from what men do. I don't think we basically use what women can really do because in many countries, we don't support them into the workplace sufficiently. In so many ways. For example in job sharing, tax assistance for child care. Denmark's a very sophisticated country in that kind of way, but in New Zealand there is no assistance at all for a woman to get back to the work place.

What about women in film-making? Are conditions good for women film-makers in New Zealand?

Yes and no. In some ways, yes, very much so. But on the other hand, we have a very young industry in New Zealand. The real thrust of our industry didn't really begin until 1976 with the film called Sleeping Dogs. And on that film I was the production assistant. It was directed by Roger Donaldson.

I think that in the first decade of film-making in New Zealand, there was an environment of benign chauvinism - which doesn't exactly assist you, as a woman, to explore your own ideology and ideas.

Certainly, on the face of it, we have a lot of young women directors in New Zealand who are doing some really interesting work. And I don't think that their progress is held up particularly by the fact that they are women. But I think that there are problems...

You look at the films that we see in mainstream cinema. I truly don't believe that those films are directed to a female audience. And I find that deeply irritating, because woman have American Express cards, they have got incomes, we're a financial demographic that ought to be respected more. But if you look at the amount of money that Hollywood spends, the machine spends on film-making, and how much of it acknowledges the female audience and their particular tastes for cinema, I find that absolutely overwhelming.

Could a man have made a film like The Beach , and if so, would it have been a very different film?

I think you'd have to say it would have been different. The key thing of The Beach for me is about suggesting to women that perhaps we should be more aggressive or more answerable to what we see. The reality is that in New Zealand, women live in the communities and on the streets and in the houses next door to where a lot of violence happens, directed towards women and children. They are very often the people who see it first, who see the signs of it first. And they are also very often the people who hide behind notions of the privacy of the family... "This is none of our business"-cliché... to not do anything.

In making The Beach, I'm raising the question: Should we not be perhaps a little bit more [aggressive] sometimes? In the case of the woman character Ann in The Beach, she's a grown-up, she's 40-odd. Yes, she's a victim, and yes the violence directed towards her is tragic, but even more tragic is the fact that this child is growing up viewing it. And he's being deeply influenced in how he turns into a young man and how he behaves as a man. There you have to put your foot down. No matter how sorry you are for Ann, she is a grown-up. But this child is truly a victim. I think that often, women don't show much courage or conviction in this area.

So the film then in a sense is proposing Margie as a model?

It's a catalyst of thought. It's a short film, and I had hoped that it would simply raise a few questions, make you think about it. I find Margie's behavior perfectly acceptable. But I don't think it happens very often.

Thinking not only about what you say in the film, but also the way in which you say it, I would like to ask whether there is such a thing as a feminine style of filmmaking?

I really don't know. For a start, what feminist filmmaking there exists, gets screened [only] in film festivals. You know, you don't have access to it, in the same way that the world as an audience doesn't have access to some of the best independent films made. That's the tragedy. I saw a fantastic film recently, called Gobay, from Iran. A wonderful film. But you know, they just don't get seen. The cinemas that we have, the exhibition places that we have, are so busy making the money back for Independence Day or whatever. It's that machine. And unfortunately, not only does it dictate what we see, but it also dictates what we don't see. So I haven't had access to feminist filmmaking. I haven't seen enough of it to actually say if there is indeed such a thing as feminist forms of filmmaking. I don't think there are.

Did you use professional actors in The Beach ?

Very professional actors. Because I've worked in the industry for so long, I think that's one of the things I feel most strongly about. You work with the best people you possibly can whenever you can. And Donogh Rees and Elizabeth Hawthorne are the best actresses New Zealand could give me to work with. Both of them have done some extraordinary work in their past. And the process of working with them is so professional, it was a pleasure.

Do you have a particular policy in directing actors?

This is the first film I've made. Since then I've made another film [ The Bar], so what policy I have is fairly unevolved, it's developing. I think that ultimately, I could spend the rest of my filmmaking life learning as much as I can about acting and directing actors. But still, it's not what I do. I don't act. I'm not a performance animal myself. And I think my instincts will always be to spend as much time as I possibly can on casting. Try and cast it wisely, in certain cases, casting to character, try and get the best girl and then try and communicate the film that I have in my mind. Because that's something that the script cannot always tell an actor. It's the nuance of what you're trying to create, it's the point you're trying to make, how you're trying to make people feel. Try and communicate all those things as clearly as you can, and then I think, let them do what they do. Try and support what they do, the process of what they do, with the atmosphere that you create around them - the tangible things to help them work. After that, having given them some reference of who you are, just communicate what you see.

Did you thoroughly storyboard The Beach before shooting?

Fairly thoroughly. We shot this on a beach in the north of North Island in New Zealand, and we had three days to shoot it. And those three days really turned into about one-and-a-half days because of weather. So it's pretty much like anything that you do. You know, you go out with a definitive view of what you're going to do, but instantly, you start modifying. You're working on your toes, and your reactions and your instincts. To start with, the first part of the film was much more developed. There was also a piece of dialogue before. At the start of the two women's dialogue there's a hunk that I cut out.

What did they talk about?

I'd have to refer to the script. I think basically, they set the tone of who they were. The fact that they were a very middle class group of two families who are spending a day together. And establishing who's children were who's.

The Beach doesn't start with a shot of the two main characters. They are introduced very gradually. First you show a bit of landscape near the beach. Then there's a tracking shot along the beach, and we see the two girls talking, with the other father nearby. And David playing cricket and so on. And then finally we get to the women. I imagine it must have been deliberate on your part to save our introduction to the main characters until a point well into the film.

I think that the whole narrative set-up that was involved in those shots was to say that it's the hottest day of summer. This is a day when the telling of secrets can happen. To try and give the audience a memory for themselves of what that hottest day in the summer involves. It's the fact that you've got two fathers on the beach, minding the children-happily doing so, each in his own little world.

And you've got these two mothers off in a very particularly delicious world of conversation and lying and sleeping. Most people who have young children would look at that scenario, I think, and relate to it quite strongly. The children are happy, the fathers are happy, the mothers are asleep, then having incredibly languid conversation. And in that atmosphere, this truth came out.

I was also trying to show that these people know each other really well. They're old friends. Which is of course why Marie is so angry with David. She's incredibly angry with him and rightly so, he's a very old friend. It's hard to know who she's more angry with: the friend, for not telling her, or her other friend for doing this. So I was trying to set the scene of the relationships and the day.

The affection and intimacy of the two women is expressed nicely when Marie runs her hand down Ann's back. Is there a flicker of a hint of an erotic relationship between the two women?

No, I don't think so. And that's the kind of subtlety in detail that [screenwriter] Frances Edmond brought to the script. I thought it was a lovely gesture and it's certainly something of which I'm capable when amongst the close group of women that I have around me. And again, it's the day. A day like that does bring out the sensual in all of us. So I think it's a reflection of the mood as much as anything else. But no, I never saw it as a reflection of the nature of their relationship.

The two little girls whisper to each other and the two adult women also talk to each other. There are no adult males that interact, the only interaction between males is playing cricket. I assume that this is part of your picture of gender specific styles of interaction?

Yes it is. It is an observation of that. But in the same breath, it is an observation that is attached to telling this particular story. So it's appropriate to include this observation. And if I've treated the male gender here with less attention to detail than I might have, it's because that's how they are in the story. It's not a story about them.

And in trying to find some action for the little girls to do - because we were working fast and hard, between clouds... I'd watched them for some time, and I had something in my mind. We had it all organized: they were going to make beautiful sand castles and there were shells everywhere. We were totally set up for something else but we didn't have time to do it. And I had been watching them, and that's what they were doing. And again I think that most people who have children, or have been around children, could relate to it... Yes. That's exactly what they do. Maybe it's the start of that inner world that I think women do have and that does start when they're little girls.

There's relatively little dialogue in the film, and relatively little action. But tremendous depth. At least that's the way I see it. Does this correspond to your sense of the film?

That was the hardest thing to achieve. The script that we shot was nine pages long. When Frances and I first started working on the script, it was about twenty pages. And if we went to six drafts, it was to try and actually pare it down... For me as a film director who would like to continue to direct films, this is the greatest challenge: to make films which involve naturalistic and perceptive and honest dialogue. I think it's also the hardest thing to do.

You were kind enough to send me a copy of The Bar, which is a very different kind of short film. Can you give me some of your thoughts on storytelling in the short film in general?

The thing about the short film format is that it is less beholden to certain narrative conventions than a feature film is. There's something about the length of the feature film... Well you simply have to be more beholden to the conventions of narrative, whether it's a three-act structure, or whatever. I think for the time that I'm working in a short film structure, which tends to be under a reel, say under fifteen minutes, you're not so beholden to those conventions. With The Beach, because it was a very narrative, straight-forward, driven story, it lent itself to a three-act structure. The Beach, from my point of view, is a very conventional piece of filming. I think it works in that convention. But I'm very challenged in my own development to explore these conventions. I don't actually like them. I hate it when I read something that sets down the set of ground rules for how the film must be structured. I'm also intensely irritated by a lot of films that I see which just seem to me to be processed through a Macintosh program. You can almost graph it! There's x amount of this component, there's x amount of that, and these things happen at certain points. I find that irritating. I don't know if I have a knee-jerk reaction against it , or what it is.

So the time that I'm working in short film, I am very driven to explore it for myself.

The Bar has no narrative structure at all. It's a situation of intercepting between six or seven conversations. One of the things I feel strongly about is that a film should be paced by the development of character, and that character development moves the narrative. And it shouldn't be paced by just the narrative, because I don't think that life's like that. What happens to us in life happens to us because of the people we are, and each of us reacts to different things in a different way. That's very individual. So in reading a story or in watching a film, what's interesting is to see how someone reacts and how that reaction has moved them irretrievably down a certain path. That's what makes us so different. It's something that I don't know enough about on a personal, instinctive level. I haven't learned to really judge my own instincts...

The Bar was for me very personal. It's a very indulgent film in a way that The Beach isn't. The Bar really for me was about working with six different writers and a large ensemble group of actors, and working quite fast and quite instinctively. In that sense it was a joy. And it definitely has encouraged me in my own thinking about film structure.

Do I understand correctly that The Beach and The Bar are two parts of a trilogy...

I'd like to make one more short film. The next one's called The Funeral. It's basically about the death of an AIDS victim. It's a personal film, and its partly the look at that kind of human condition that exists in isolation, in rural settings... I read a book-Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres-some years ago, which really talked to me about this. I'm quite intrigued by landscape and people's relationship to it.

For instance, coming to Denmark, as a sort of hybrid Dane... One of the things that is intrinsic to me about it is that I relate to the landscape in such a fundamental way. I feel so at home here. And I think people have those kinds of relationships. The Funeral is an exploration of that kind of condition and also of all sorts of others. With The Funeral, I am trying to make a film that is an exercise in telling a story in landscape and imagery that runs in parallel to dialogue and characterisation. Which I think The Beach does a little bit in the sense that the setting that I chose for The Beach and the place that the film exists in, underpins that story.

So with The Funeral, I'd like to work it more in parallel. The main piece of imagery that I have is an enormous river that runs through the middle of the North Island of New Zealand called the Waikato River, which is big and powerful and brown. And in parts it's surrounded by very flat landscape. I want to work with wide screen, and again, it's an exercise, trying to learn something and trying to feel more comfortable with certain aspects of your skills. And to try and understand your own abilities a bit more for a large project.

When we first talked about The Beach on the phone, you mentioned the overexposed look of the film. What were your reasons for choosing that look for the film?

It was simply the fact that the only reason the story could happen... Remember these people have known each other for a long time, so this domestic abuse has been going on for years within the confines of a close relationship and not been seen. And it's only on the hottest day of summer that this secret was disclosed. So it was really important for me that the audience could feel this sense of heat. And that's why I chose that look.

Was that done in the camera or in the lab?

We were a victim of the weather. We didn't have the hottest days of summer, unfortunately. So the film was exposed normally and overexposed in printing by two f-stops.

The final shot of the film is wonderful. For me, it gives the viewer a chance to reflect on the boy's experience. It reminded me a little of the end of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, only your boy isn't looking at the public, he's looking at his mother. Do you remember your thoughts on planning that final shot, and what purpose you wanted it to fulfill in the film?

It was pivotal, and I always saw it pretty much that way. I was influenced, in terms of film reference, by Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, which has an image there of the male character who's in the water, he's completely surrounded by water, and it's just always stayed with me the way some shots do.

Again, films... You can plan them down to the finite detail but they don't happen like that because it's such an organic process. And you have to be able to be fairly fluid in your thinking. We didn't get that shot in the three days that we had to shoot at this location. We just ran out of weather. So we got it at a beach quite close to Auckland and it was a cheat and we got it with the cameraman and an assistant and the two actors. It's a miracle it works as well as it does. And I think it works as well as it does because of Donogh Rees, the actress who plays the Margie character, who had that lovely business with the seaweed. Which is so humanizing. And I thought: that's not my direction, that's Donogh as an actress working. And I think that's what you get from working with actors whose intellect and ability is so evolved that they bring that kind of detail to it. Because that seaweed business distracts you totally from the fact that it's not a complete match to the earlier location. And it's also such a human thing to do. It's what you would do, remembering that this kid has just seen a piece of violence... It's exactly what you would do, you'd distract, you'd play...

Despite that distraction, there is this very long, contemplative look. Was that the final shot in all of your versions of the script?

Always. We'd come back to that face. And it was just a case of how long you could sit on it, really. How long a performance you could get from Charlie Baird who played the boy. He's not an actor, and I thought he did very well to hold it as long as he did.

This was my first film, and I chose to do it with my friends and my family and partly because I was funding it myself, I couldn't really do it any other way. But it's in trying to get a performance out of a ten year old child... I chose to do it with a child I knew really well. I don't know if I'd do that again, but it worked for me.

On The Beach, I had all my children with me and Donogh Rees's children were there and were in the film, and which is partially a practical thing of using what we had there. Also it was a great way of working... It was a very indulgent way of working, but it shouldn't be so unusual for women to be able to work like that. And for women to be able to work effectively and efficiently means that your children have to be looked after, and preferably they ought to be close to you. Because filmmaking is such an intensely absorbing process that unless they're close to you, they just don't get anything of you. And I think part of the nature of the filmmaking process is its obsessiveness. You become very obsessed. But this is also something that is good for your children to see because it gives them a context to understand why sometimes you aren't there.

I guess I've decided that it's going to be easier for them to have two very obsessed filmmaking parents if they can be part of the process.

It's unusual for that to happen, and it shouldn't be. And those are the things that make it difficult for women.

Do I understand it correctly that your husband is also a filmmaker?

Stuart [Dryburgh] shot the film.

Oh, that's your husband?

He's the father of my three children.

And he also shot Once Were Warriors ?

And The Piano.

Now I'm beginning to see how things fit together.

And I think that The Beach is a beautiful looking film. It's pretty much a reflection of Stuart, whose a very gifted cameraman. I'm very lucky to have that kind of collaboration under my own roof. But it's also very much the nature of our life together. And it always has been. Filmmaking has always been a key ingredient to the life we've had together.

You use music to frame The Beach. There's music at the very beginning and then music comes in again at the end. Was it your thought from the beginning, to frame the film in that way?

I find that the moment I start thinking about an idea for a film, very close behind that idea for a film is the fabric for the music. It's usually just a sketch-the kind of music I wanted. I knew that I was keen to have a piece of cello music. Or something like that. And I listened to virtually everything that I possibly could and at the end of the day, the Bach cello concertos were what came closest to me. And the Fauré requiem with the boy's soprano piece was the piece for the end. And these two pieces of music I gave to Keith Ballantine. And that's very much how I work with music. It comes to me very fast and it's as much part of the fabric of the film as your sense of art directions for it, as your sense of photography for it. It's such an all encompassing thing... One of the fantastic things about film, and why I'm so drawn to it, is that it touches on the things that I'm so interested in: architecture, photography, music, style, look, writing, performance. But all of those things get developed in tandem as you go up.

Are there any things that I should have asked you about and didn't? Any things you'd like to add about The Beach?

I really like The Beach. I think I was really lucky that my first film is fairly articulate-it's clear and concise. I think that's lucky. I'll be very lucky to make another film in my career which I have that kind of emotional response to. And when I say that, it's not that I think it's an excellent film, it's just that I can look at it and feel good about it.

Making a film like that has so much to do with the collaborations. It's Stuart's photography, it the wonderful performances from Donogh and Elizabeth, the music from Keith Ballantine, and the editing by David Coulson. The experience of making my first film has certainly consolidated all my instincts from working in film for twenty years, which is that the sum total, the collaboration... you know, one person's brilliance doesn't overcome a set full of mediocrity, and that part of the drive is to surround yourself with people who really challenge you-even if that makes you feel uncomfortable, because you're moving out of an arena that you feel confident in. If that happens, so much the better.

Copenhagen, 24 November 1996