Stage to screen: Australia’s theatre directors on turning to film

By 4 August 2015Feature, The latest

While novels have been a longstanding staple of screen material, this year sees an unprecedented number of stage plays translated to film by some of the most established names in theatre. It’s not a new phenomenon (think of Hotel Sorrento and Traveling North as vintage examples of favourite plays that made on to the screen) but the tradition has been reinvigorated by a new generation. Caroline Baum reports.

These include Jeremy Sims’ Last Cab to Darwin based on a play by Reg Cribb; Brendan Cowell’s adaptation of his own play Ruben Guthrie; Simon Stone’s The Daughter (his renamed version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck); Lally Katz’s Stories I Want To Tell You In Person and Neil Armfield’s film of Tommy Murphy’s award-winning play Holding the Man.

There are more stage to screen adaptations in the pipeline with Benedict Andrews currently shooting his adaptation of UK play Blackbird and Kate Mulvaney five years into the process of adapting her 2006 play The Seed at the suggestion of acclaimed director Peter Weir.

So what is happening?

“The producers deserve the credit,” says Stone, currently writing a new play in Munich prior to screenings of The Daughter at the Venice and Toronto festivals.

“They ( Jan Chapman and Nicole O’Donohue) not only had the faith in me as a novice to be able to take the success of the stage production to the screen, but had to trust me when I said ‘oh and by the way I am going to have to rewrite this and make it completely different.”

Jeremy Sims is characteristically outspoken in his analysis.

“We should have been doing more adaptations of plays given the paucity of skill in scriptwriting in the past thirty years. But the key is not to just put what’s on stage on film, as they did with productions like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?”

But there are no shortcuts.

Sims shared Stone’s approach saying “I had to rewrite the play with Reg (Cribb) after having originally produced and co-written it for Black Swan theatre twelve years ago. And yes, road testing the material was very valuable when it came to the film. We knew what would make people cry, which bits they would relate to. But it still took five years to get the script right and turn it into a romance comedy drama road movie. We’ve taken the classic hero structure and turned it into something anarchic and chaotic, added some characters who are amalgams of others from the play. Overall only 20% of the original stage dialogue and story has survived but the heart of it has stayed the same. The process was ruthless.”

Location is often a key point of difference. Stone’s stage version of Ibsen was performed in a glass box, symbolic of a timeless, non-specific void.  In his film, the story is set in a logging town, where the patriarch of the family (Geoffrey Rush) is a wealthy forestry industrialist about to remarry to a younger woman following the suicide of his first wife.

“The play is Scandinavian and I was brought up in Switzerland. I wanted a location that would reflect that and yet be universal. In my head it was Tasmania but then Screen NSW came on board and we decided to shoot in NSW.

“We used a location manager called Colin McDougall whom I knew from working on Jindabyne. He took us to Tumut and Batlow in the Snowy Mountains. Tumut was a logging town before that industry’s demise. In Batlow there was a cannery that had closed down, meaning there were lots of abandoned factory buildings we could use.

But the biggest find was the handsome mansion where some of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes take place.

“Would you believe it was outside Batlow and built by a Scandinavian logger in the late nineteenth century above the snowline to remind him of home? It was too perfect!” laughs Stone.

Mulvany finds the process of adding locations to her screenplay liberating: “It’s such a joy to bust apart the limitations of the stage. It’s led to a more potent complex story than the one in the theatre. I have two vastly different locations in mind, with extraordinary geography. Now there are crowd scenes, airport scenes, scenes in the Sherwood Forest.”

In adapting her one-woman show Katz has opted to stay within its original theatrical setting and magical effects.

“It’s still a stage show with a set and that was a deliberate decision on director Erin White’s part,” says Katz. “The main difference is that before, I was playing all the characters, and now I have five new characters played by other people.”

Casts rarely transfer from stage to screen, with notable exceptions. In The Daughter, Ewen Leslie reprises the role of Oliver while in Last Cab, Jacki Weaver (a member of the original cast who also helped build the sets), undergoes a radical transformation, playing a role which, in the stage version, was a man.

“She said to me ‘Darling, I’ll be there’,” says Sims. “So we wrenched her back from Hollywood for two weeks!”

Sims sees the current cluster of adaptation as nothing more than a coincidence.

“We’re all mates, we talk to each other about material but it’s just a fluke” he says.

“But everyone agrees; the play’s the thing”.

Last Cab to Darwin opens in cinemas around Australia on Thursday 5 August.

Holding the Man screens at the Melbourne Film Festival on 8 August 2015 and opens in cinemas around Australia on 27 August.

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 4 August, it screens at the festival again on 16 August before it starts on ABC on Thursday 20 August.

The Daughter screens at the Toronto Film Festival and Venice Film Festival (Venice Days) ahead of general theatrical release later early 2016.