Seventeen film directors, choreographers, actors, animators and visual artists collaborate to transform Australia’s bestselling novel into a kaleidoscopic piece of filmic theatre.
Tim Winton’s The Turning (2005) is Australia’s bestselling novel, a hauntingly beautiful anthology of short and overlapping stories set in a small coastal community. Characters walk in and out of the different tales, as time is non-linear, while each individual section stands alone as an extraordinary turning point in its characters’ lives as well as linking to the book as a whole. This novel has been transformed into a theatrical filmic event by director Robert Connolly: a 17-chapter production, with each section directed by its own filmmaker and set in its own location with its own individual casting.
The book has been brought to the screen by Australian film director, producer and screenwriter, Robert Connolly, whose past work includes The Boys (1998), The Bank (2001), Three Dollars (2005) and Balibo (2009), all of which are Australia-based and have addressed a political agenda, whether this is the inequalities of capitalism, misogyny or injustice on an international scale. Having a less political slant, aside from its depiction of lives in poverty, The Turning is something of a departure for Connolly. However, he explains his affection for the tale simply by stating: “It’s our great book”.
He continues to describe why he came to curate the film: “In our office we have a lot of books lying around. I’ve provided a creative space of reading material, and often things just lie there for years. That’s a bit like how it was with The Turning; I’d read it years before, but I was tossing it around at lunchtime, thinking about making it a cinematic experience and a theatrical one. I’d been looking at how audiences are changing: one audience going to see blockbuster releases and the other audience that looks for films like The Turning, and who are still engaged with the idea of ‘going to the cinema.’” In its complex and maze-like structure the narrative of The Turning encourages this participatory way of going to the cinema and subjectively interpreting a film rather than simply viewing it. Connolly himself explains that he appreciates “work that becomes richer as you explore it after you’ve seen it, so we created a programme that people could take away and read about what they had seen afterwards.” Along with this theatre-style publication, the movie has also been screened as if it were a stage production – it was released in Australia as a three-hour event with an interval, so that the audience could pause halfway through to consider and discuss their own responses to and understanding of the “performance” so far.
As Australia’s bestselling book, The Turning could have been adapted for the screen in a traditional manner and still sold seats; however, Connolly chose to develop it as this multifaceted project for a plethora of reasons: the opportunity to collaborate, an experiment, and to have creative freedom. The director explains that it was “an attempt to be liberated from the traditional rules. The whole journey for us was about converting filmmaking into a process of splashing paint on a canvas creatively. Filmmaking is such an industrial process it often feels stifled, so we were looking for a methodology that was more creatively liberating.”He continues: “I saw myself as a curator putting together an exhibition of these different works under the banner of Tim Winton’s The Turning and was excited and exhilarated by the possibilities, the boldness and the liberation of this process. A linear approach would have been too much of a safe bet, and not appropriate given the crazy ambition of what we were trying to do.” Connolly also notes that the various filmmakers involved enjoyed the rare opportunity to collaborate on the same project: “A lot of directors talk about how they don’t get to work with others doing a similar job, so being able work alongside a number of their peers was quite a wonderful experience.”
The people that Connolly invited to direct included not only filmmakers, but also choreographers, photographers, actors, animators and visual artists: Marieka Walsh, Warwick Thornton, Jub Clerc, Robert Connolly, Anthony Lucas, Rhys Graham, Ashlee Page, Tony Ayres, Claire McCarthy, Stephen Page, Shaun Gladwell, Mia Wasikowska, Simon Stone, David Wenham, Jonathan auf der Heide, Justin Kurzel, Yaron Lifschitz and Ian Meadows. This combination of disciplines has led to a compendium of chapters comprising a dance work by Yaron Lifschitz, cinema that verges on video art and conventional naturalistic pieces too. “I didn’t want to work with just traditional filmmakers,” Connolly asserts. “ There are visual artists, a young actress, Mia Wasikowska, and an indigenous choreographer, Stephen Page. I sent out the book, asked them to just have a look, and it’s due to the power of Tim’s work that people found their way.” Each creative was asked to “state their claim” on which of the 17 stories they would like to work on, with Connolly also choosing to direct a part. Key for Connolly when developing this film was ensuring personal connection, and so when “stating their claim,” each director needed to prove that they had a deep subjective understanding of their chosen section rather than simply explaining how they could make it into a “good story.”
Connolly himself directed Aquifer, a short filmed in the wilderness of the Karrinyup Wetlands, which sees a school music teacher slip out of his house without a word and drive through the night to his hometown to face a secret from his past. His reason for taking on this section was deeply personal, having grown up in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney: “there was a lagoon that I used to pass on the way to school, and it used to scare me, and as I got older I started to explore it. Then one day I found this abandoned car and wondered what its story was. It had been dropped from the sky as it didn’t look as if it had been driven in and was old and rusty. When I read that story [Aquifer] about a man going back to a lagoon of his childhood to unlock his own history I couldn’t quite believe it as it spoke to me so clearly.”
Deciding upon the practitioners – filmmakers and actors – to work on the film was also based more on intimacy than formulaic success, with Connolly tending to have met or felt a pull towards the style of each director. “I wanted to have a personal reason to work with the different filmmakers, for example, the amazing actress Mia Wasikowska who is talented and young. Her parents are photographers and she comes from this visual arts world. I loved Mia’s interpretation, which was clearly heavily influenced by Jane Campion’s work, Passionless Moments (1983). I remember her pitch for that story, which she called ‘a story about a young boy given responsibility beyond his youth.’ I loved her innovative form of the story but also the playful humour which Jane Campion’s short films had too.”
Wasikowska chose to direct the Long, Clear View Young alongside producer Kath Shelper, which, beautifully shot and its cinematography reminding somewhat of Richard Ayoade’s The Double (2013), the two decided “to call our “art project” because calling it a film made it sound too scary,” as Shelper explains. The story of an arson attack on a school, narrated by an adolescent boy, the piece is truly “scary” and made increasingly disturbing as the seemingly carefree blue skies of suburban Sydney are partnered with violence and tragedy. Shelper notes that the film features “the last fibro shack on the street in a long line of imposing “McMansions”… I hope we have done it proud, that little bit of Sydney which will, no doubt, soon be history.” As with the entirety of The Turning, which is – in a strange, all-accepting way – an ode to Australian ways of life, the Long, Clear View is evidently a “long labour of love.”
The film has been entirely directed by Australians, and Connolly continues to explain where he discovered the rest of The Turning’s talented crew: “Justin Kurzel I also know. He’s an extraordinary filmmaker who just had a unique take on his story (Boner McPharlin’s Moll) , which I found very exciting. Picking the top directors would have been easy, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do; it had to feel much more surprising than that. With Ashlee Page, I’d only seen one film that she had done: a short called The Kiss, and she showed a unique and interesting viewpoint. And Sean Gladwell I’d not met, but I had seen a massive exhibition of his work at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne and I wondered what would happen if he were given a narrative to work with, as a video artist. Picking the filmmakers was an completely organic process.”
Furthermore, the film features household names Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne (Star Wars, Troy, Sunshine), but by no means relied on these, having been financed with no names attached. During its production the film became a kind of magnet for actors. Rose Byrne contacted Connolly from New York and flew herself back to take part. Cate Blanchett made herself available, as did Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving. The film’s 50-strong cast thus includes the great Australian actors of the moment.
Blanchett plays Gail Lang – a character who appears in three different stories and as three different actresses throughout the film – in Reunion, which sees her join relatives for a Christmas Day lunch but instead ends up at the wrong house and in the wrong swimming pool – an experience which brings the family together after years of strained relations. Whilst not quite on the scale of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Reunion is notable in that the three scenes are each shot in a single take. This approach from director Simon Stone meant that each scene had to be carefully choreographed and each frame precisely composed prior to shooting, as this was a film which could only be slotted together rather than edited in post-production. As a case in point, Reunion is an exemplar of how experimentation happens in each short chapter as well as being part of the film’s overarching methodology.
Although characters reappear as a number of different actors throughout the feature, the fact that these links may be missed or roles may be confused was not considered problematic. Connolly enthuses: “We set out to make a film where it didn’t matter if you made the links, where you could make as many links as you wanted but where the cinematic experience didn’t depend on it.” This was something that he put a lot of thought into: “Perhaps with the advent of the blockbuster, there’s now such a pressure an audience understands everything, and if they don’t, it is thought that they will be irritated. But I like the cryptic puzzle phenomenon with people unlocking mysteries in the cinema is what I was trying to create. It can be a pleasure to almost understand everything. You could watch the film and not need to connect things: a jigsaw puzzle which you don’t put the pieces together.”
The pieces of this filmic jigsaw puzzle are not connected by location – of which there are 17, from all over Australia – or style, and only by character if the links are made clear. There is, however, a set of clear and universal themes. For Connolly, these are elements such as the land, and how location controls the narratives of our lives, and the way that the past echoes through the present – how “the two can occupy the same moment” and how “things are hand in glove, the way that things sit and intertwine together.”
The universal and all-encompassing nature of these themes allows a film, and equally the book, which is essentially about life in coastal Australia, to travel around the world and remain relevant. Connolly could have positioned the film in a more generalised location, to ensure that American and European audiences could relate more easily to the work; however, this would conflict with his entire filmmaking rationale, which is not safe, not geared to the prescribed success, but is considered, distinctive and personal.
“For me, The Turning is a combination of universal themes that are relevant to people wherever they live, but also includes wonderful, culturally specific things about Australia and the people who live here, especially the indigenous thread, which isn’t in the book. That came out of indigenous filmmakers and creative people, who were responding to the book through indigenous eyes, which I think has made for another lovely extension of Tim’s work.
Connolly didn’t want to shy away from the culturally specific and as a director he feels that it is creatively dangerous to homogenise work. He states that one of the most exciting aspects of the film has been travelling, he says: “for example, going to the Berlin and London film festivals to see how people in different parts of the world do respond to it has been really rewarding. Tim is our great writer and although it’s ostensibly about a small Australian community, the themes within it are big and universal.”
The Turning is released in cinemas nationwide on 6 February. Find out more on the film’s website, www.theturningmovie.com.au.