I remember seeing Clara Law’s film Floating Life at the Sydney Film Festival in 1995. I was charmed and amused by its particular take on suburban Australia, moved by its musings on the quest for a sense of home. And drawn to its sense of poetry and design. I re-visited other films by Clara Law. The almost breathtakingly beautiful Temptation of a Monk (1993) and the intriguing Autumn Moon (1992). I spoke with Clara recently about her new film, The Goddess of 1967.
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KM: Can you tell me something about the genesis of The Goddess of 1967? Is there an image or an idea that the project began from?
CL: Well, the first thing was I finished making Floating Life (1995), and there was, as usual, an incubation period, where, you know, we were hatching new ideas, and I was thinking that I would like to do something to look into the dark side. There was something there that intrigued me, and I just wanted to explore that. So that was how it started. From there, I think it was just an idea. And then Eddie and I went on our first trip to the outback to find out more about Australia. We moved to Australia around 1994-5, and we wanted to know more about what it was like. And we had only really spent time in Melbourne and Sydney. So we took a four-wheel drive and went to the outback, and that was our first outback trip. We discovered a lot through just feeling the place, somehow having this direct dialogue with the landscape. For me it’s very important. Because I like to have that intuitive feeling for a place or what it is like and what it is kind of calling to me. With that idea I came across a place called Lightening Ridge, where people work underground. That kind of existence was very different to what I could imagine. So that was the second stage. The third stage was sitting down and talking with Eddie. We would discuss what I wanted to do, which is our usual process. For example, I would say “o.k. this is what I’d like to do” and Eddie, my writer, would be trying to look into why I wanted to do certain things and we’d have long discussions. And then you know something would spring up somehow. And so we developed two characters – one is the Japanese man and the other is the blind girl. And again the way we developed our project is that we were never story-driven. Both Eddie and I do not like a story-driven way of working, we like character-driven or theme-driven. So then we went through a certain stage of developing characters and somehow putting the things that I’d been wanting to do into that process.
KM: So it sounds like there were certain thematic preoccupations in terms of that ‘dialogue with the landscape’ and that exploration of the darkness within, and that led in some ways to thinking about character. I’m interested to talk about yours and Eddie’s preference for scripting structures that are more driven by thematic explorations and explorations of character than story-driven. as you say. I notice that in an interview accompanying your production notes for The Goddess of 1967, you talked about the fact that you and Eddie are dissatisfied with traditional 3-act script models. And your feeling is that you’re interested in the kind of stories that can’t always be fitted into those structures. I’d like to know more about that .the kinds of themes that interest you and the kinds of storytelling models you think they demand. And what kinds of storytelling models have evolved in your work?
CL: A lot of the time what I’m dissatisfied with is stories which are very cause and effect. As if there is a reason to everything and you can explain everything. I love stories that have complexities, that on first reading I feel I have not grasped it all yet and that I can go back to again and again. And I love stories that stimulate my imagination. I don’t like stories that say everything and stop me from working as a reader or a viewer, I like to be able to actively participate, I like to be able to feel that I am going away bringing with me something that actually opens up more of my world or opens up more in me, or something that I felt had been hidden for a long time and is now uncovered. So that’s the kind of books I like to read and that’s the kind of films I like to make. And probably, you know, you can compare it a bit more to poetry. Great poetry will give you that feeling, I suppose, that kind of thought-process and emotional response. It can be an intellectual and also spiritual and emotionally rich experience.
KM: Yes, that’s interesting because you’re not positing – as so many people do – intellectual and spiritual/emotional engagement as being opposed. They’re things that can co-exist side by side in your work they obviously do.
CL: Yes. Films and books that have touched me before are like this and hopefully I’m working toward that goal too.
KM: I’m interested in whether or not you have to fight for a space to make that kind of work particularly in the development of the projects and scripting and so on. Do you face any kinds of pressures .
(They both laugh)
CL: Yes, especially now. The whole climate of the film industry, and I’m not talking about Australia – Australia’s just part of it – but I think internationally film’s getting more and more depressing, conservative, a money-making machine. When I first starting out working on and making films that wasn’t the case. The thing is . a lot of the time, people mistake the film as just one thing, like entertainment and film are one and the same thing and that says it all. But I think there are at least two different kinds of drama, and I’m not talking about documentary but feature films, and they can be pure entertainment or they can be a work of art. I think film is an art form, and as Tarkovsy said it hasn’t been explored totally yet and it should be given its chance, But more and more I feel that’s harder and harder to do And of course you know at times I get really depressed, especially when it gets very hard.
KM: Fortunately not depressed enough to stop you making really interesting work, fairly consistently.
CL: Well that’s how I live, you know, otherwise I just don’t feel there is any meaning to my existence.
KM: Would it be fair to say that you’re also talking about entertainment in a much broader sense. That entertainment doesn’t have to be entertainment with a capital “E” but all kinds of other engagements with images and different sorts of stories that can also be very pleasurable.
CL: Yes, yes and I think you know when I was first in touch with cinema, when I was a kid, or when I was in my growing up period and I was thirsty/hungry for things to feed my thought and my curiosity for the world and I felt that I came across great films and great books at that time and they are still great films to me now. And I felt as much entertainment and engagement as I hope films can be and should be.
KM: Of course. To talk a little more specifically about The Goddess of 1967, I’m interested in it as a kind of road movie. I’m wondering how consciously you were working with the possibilities of the road movie as a genre and what that means to you?
CL: Well for me I think it’s more like a journey, and I believe every film, for me, is a journey if it’s a good film, because I would be carried into a world. It can exist or it can be hidden. And the film uncovers it for me. You start off with a beginning and you end up somewhere else and I think that is the journey. I would describe it more like a journey than a road movie Probably it is not the most appropriate way to describe this film but I think people like to put that in a genre and probably that’s easiest . (laughs) . and if that’s what people want to put it in, that’s fine with me . but I prefer to call it a ‘journey film’.
KM: I understand. One of the things that’s particularly interesting about The Goddess of 1967, and also very beautiful, is that it contains many very precise compositions and it pays a lot of attention to framing, colour, texture, as of course do all your films. I’m interested in how that impacts on your scripting process. And the extent to which you script around visual styles and colours?
CL: I put it into different stages. All stages of creative work have their own particularities and things specific to that process. Although, having said that, in the script stage, both Eddie and I try to not use dialogue if we don’t have to because both of us believe that cinema is something that is telling stories through images as much as through sound. We don’t like using dialogue to give information. As much as possible we try to use what is specific to cinema and that is the images. And so in the script stage we try not to use dialogue where we can. But the building up of the colour, the compositions – that is a second stage. Of course you sort of intuitively know that there is something different from your films before, that you know is particular to this film, but I think that is not so specific yet, at that stage, at the script stage. But then after the script is finished, and during the script stage, structure for us is the most important thing that we have to deal with. Because if you have a structure that you don’t like then you’re in deep trouble. But if the structure is sound and good, then everything else builds around it. So, I would say the colour, the composition, the framing – all of those come later, and that would be for me like a second stage of the creative process. I do all the research after the script is finished, of all those areas, before I go into pre-production.
KM: So you have a visual image/research process as part of your creative pre-production before you begin working with collaborators?
CL: I normally bring collaborators in after I’ve done all the research that I can do. And then I bring that in to pre-production and talk to the DOP, the Production Designer and then expand on that, but certainly not before. I need to have a very clear vision for myself before I talk to people because I don’t want to be unable to put people in the right position to go along with me. Because your process starts so much earlier than other people and of course, are layers after layers of things to build onto that before you get to stage of pre-production. So all of this you want to impart to your team so that they can go along with you and not walk in circles.
KM: I’m interested in the colour palettes that you and the designer and DOP and so on worked with in The Goddess of 1967. The use of reds, for example, and pinky reds. Did those colours have any particular associations or meanings for you?
CL: With this film I was very particular about the colour because I think this is a very strange world and I wanted colour that is very ambiguous to be able to create this world for the audience. It is certainly not black and white. It’s a world with a lot of grey eyes. I wanted very ambiguous colour, or very corrupt colour, in a way. And I was certainly not looking for black and white because black and white certainly has a different kind of connotation. So I was looking for that and I found a number of paintings and photography to show to Dion Beebe (DOP) and Nick McCallum (production designer) and Dion suggested that maybe then I should try a process on the negative, which is called bleach bypass. And so we did a test and the results immediately showed me that would really be the direction I would take because it sort of changed the colour. It made it a bit muted and also with some colours it totally changed their property and with some colours some properties were just gone but some could be retained. And also because we were using high-contrast, which is something that I really like, high-contrast lighting, that also heightened the contrast and make the black very black. And that was what I was looking for. So, from there we did a lot of tests on colours and tests on the colours on different textures – the colour on hair would be different to colour on skin. Even if it’s the same colour and on a natural or an artificial fabric, it would be very different. So we did the tests up to very detailed skin tone, makeup, walls, interior design – everything from the person to the place before we got to that stage where I felt very sure about everything I would be getting.
KM: I love the idea of ‘corrupt colours’. Is that process what you mean by that – colours being removed from the real world and not reliable or predictable?
CL: Yes. I only like to use corrupt colours in the present tense – that is, the two characters in the present time, not the past segment. I feel like I don’t want to put this onto them, rather I want to create something that isn’t a little more nostalgic, because I don’t want to pre-empt the consequence of what happens. When any beginning of that segment started it was like normal and even a little bit nostalgic and then it ended up in something, which is the present tense. The characters now carried all these wounds, bruises and damages within themselves and it became this present, which is the colour that I’ve just talked about. So in the past few segments – let’s say with the drummer boy segment, I would work with a code, like this is the red earth, muddy, murky segment, and then with the Marie segment, I said this is the sandy, whitewash segment and then with the Tokyo segment I said this is the blue city and then with Grandpa, I said this is the most colourful but a little bit muted, coloured but a little bit more positive, optimistic period in the whole film. So somehow we have this colour code for each segment and we had this big board in the room where we put in all the different scenes and place the colour on the scenes so that everyone knows it was, in a way, a journey of colours.
KM: A journey of colours and a mosaic of colours. Just as the story is a kind of mosaic. It seems to me that particularly in contrast to Floating Life the performances in this film are quite heightened and removed from the everyday. Just as the visual style is. I’m interested in what you were aiming for in that element in the film and what your process was?
CL: I think, you know, because the characters – especially the blind girl – she carries so much within herself, she can’t actually behave or act very normally. There’s an erratic side to her and I like to see that now and again coming up, so that it’s a glimpse into an enclosed world. And through those glimpses she somehow begins to pick up all the things that she’s been through. With the Japanese man, he is a disconnected person, like a lot of us modern people, and in a way he is like an extension of Grandpa to me. Not in the sense that he would commit that kind of crime but that was how it also started in grandpa when he disconnected himself from the world around him and society and everyone and shut himself into this little world that he created and that he proclaimed had its own kind of rule. Each and every one of these characters have suffered and are trying to deal with their suffering . most of the time with a lot of pain. And so I wanted to heighten that so that the audience can somehow pick up this hint and be able to enter this world which is not your normal kind of world . because I don’t feel the world is normal. there is no ‘normal’ world! I think the normal is just your surface and there a lot of things hidden and you just have to uncover that and find what’s the reality in it.
KM: Can I ask about your rehearsal process; did you have some kind of a formal rehearsal process?
CL: Yes, we had quite a long rehearsal period. Because Rose had to play the blind character, I said to her from the very beginning of the audition, that when she came in to do the rehearsal I actually wanted her to be blind . I didn’t want her to be still groping with what it is to be blind. So we set up research sessions for her to be with blind people so she could do all her practice and understanding of what a blind person is before she came into the rehearsal. So when she came into rehearsal she was actually really good; I believed her as a blind person. For Rikiya, it is his first film and it was very hard for him to be in such a disciplined environment, as opposed to coming from a fashion model background and never having to work so hard to earn money and not being able to really master the language. I had to make arrangements for him to learn the language and also get a coach for him to learn the acting. So that was one thing that he had to when he came to Australia. The rehearsal itself was 14-16 days, so it was very long for both of them and it was very intensive. What I did was talk to them about the characters. I would let them do what they felt was the character first, for one or two days. And then stop and sat down with them and went into details about their characters and then started all over again with the rehearsals and then we build – day by day – in the little details and bits and pieces of the characters. And as we went into rehearsal I also observed how they behaved in their normal, everyday life and if I could use some of them, I would put that into the character.
KM: It sounds like an interesting process. So you weren’t so much working on scenes at that point as layering the characters in the way that you’ve described.
CL: No, we used the scenes and then sometimes diverted and did workshops, especially when it became too difficult . Both of them have different difficulties and things that they had to overcome and so if we encountered those areas we would stop and do something else, say workshopping or something.
KM: To diffuse things a little?
KM: I’m interested in talking about tone in your films. Each of your films seems to have a distinctive tone. Although they’re all suffused with a kind of longing or a sense of questing, they vary considerably, from the lyrical to the comic, from the witty to the dreamlike. Is the idea of tone particularly important to you?
CL: Yes. Your choice of the word ‘tone’ is really good because I’ve been looking for the English equivalent to a word which I felt I couldn’t find in English and probably ‘tone’ is not everything of that word but at least it’s closer. I would say ‘atmosphere’ but even that is not entirely accurate, perhaps ‘atmosphere’ plus ‘tone’ would be good. In Chinese there’s a word which is two words but means one thing – in Chinese it means “hei-fen”, which actually is that you go to a level where you have an understanding of the whole thing which is inside of that situation and the character. A total of that situation, and the character and what happens, everything of the moment. And you try to put that, you try to reinterpret that in real life, which is what I’m trying to create in a film and in order to do that it means everything, all the techniques that you can employ in a film – the choreography, the composition of the shot itself, where you put the camera, the colour, the lighting – because the accumulation of all of these would put you into that situation with that tone and atmosphere. .
KM: This Chinese word you’re referring to sounds excellent. I think we need to borrow it! We need such a word for filmmakers in English!
They both laugh.
KM: I particularly enjoyed the music and soundtrack in The Goddess of 1967 and I’m wondering at what stage of the process for you does that begin to play a part? When do you have ideas about music and when do you involve the composer?
CL: When we work on the script, a lot of the time Eddie and I like to play some music. We play the music that we feel is either saying something of the inner world of this character or expressive of a yearning for a world that they do not have. And you know there can be different kinds of music. And then I put that aside and work on the film itself and then in post, I come back to the music. So there is already a direction that we’ll be heading in. Now what I don’t like about a lot of film music is that it is so formulaic . A lot of the time, Eddie notices I’m not be looking at a film from the television but I am hearing the music and I say “I know what they’re trying to say in that scene”. Because the music is saying the same thing as the scene itself. And a lot of the time it’s very clichéd and that’s what I don’t like about film music. I think film music should be able to work as independently as dialogue in a film. You can do a lot with dialogue to create that lyrical, poetic moment and music should be able to do the same, in a different space, on another layer, so that your film is layered with all sorts of things, and music is part of that. And music should be able to bring out a lot of things that you don’t say in the dialogue, which is maybe the subtext, or is just something unsaid…. and sometimes silence is music. So you know I like to use music against sound, so as you would have noticed in this film the sound is very layered. I think the music and the sound should be able to have its own very important part to play in the whole structure of the film.
KM: How does that practically affect how you work with the sound designer and the composer; at what stage are they involved?
CL: I think you know if I got the right sound designer, the right composer it would be very easy. Luckily for me I’d worked with Gareth, the sound designer, from The Temptation of a Monk to Floating Life to now so we have a good understanding, and as soon as I told him what I was looking for – the spiritual world of these people and what I was trying to do with sound – he had a very good grasp and he would then go and do bits and pieces on the first reel and he would show bits and pieces to me and I would know he’s heading down the right direction. And that’s how we built the sound. Now with the composer this time – because it was Jen Anderson’s first time working on a feature film – I liked that because she was like a piece of white paper (laughs) and I could try to talk her into things, it that was a more time-consuming process but something that I enjoyed because I felt that what I discovered with her at the same time what I was hearing in my mind was just wonderful.
KM: Any further thoughts about working in Australia? I understand that initially you and Eddie intended to spend time writing here but to actually continue producing films in Hong Kong. I’m wondering what shifted? Are there some positives about working in Australia at the moment?
CL: We were able to concentrate and relax here. Because Hong Kong was very stressed and pressured and there were a lot of distractions all the time. Also in Hong Kong films are more like entertainment and I felt that here you had more space. But then, as I said earlier that it’s getting more and more difficult to make this kind of work and I don’t think it’s just Australia I think it’s a trend in modern cinema. And I suppose I just try to ignore that in a way and continue to work on things that we feel are important, that are worth doing and we try very hard to work on that. And then when it comes to the stage when we reach the reality and we’re raising funds, we know it’s not going to be easy and maybe it’s going to be as difficult but we just do it step by step, one step after the other, and hopefully we get to that stage where we can say o.k. “we’re there, we can make the film”. I don’t feel that if I’m let’s say living in England now it would be easier, I think it would be just as difficult. .
KM: Let’s go back to that idea of continuing to do the work that you’re doing, resolutely, and doing it step by step. I think that’s a positive note to end on. So congratulations on the film and, indeed, a whole body of really distinctive work.