Interview with Samantha Lang

Credits include The Well; The Monkey’s Mask

Photography was film director Samantha Lang’s first career choice. Was it a natural progression to film? From an early age she’d been interested in film but felt she needed life experience first. It wasn’t until after her first degree, a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication (UTS) that she began to think seriously about moving from the individualist craft of photography to collaborative filmmaking.

After a prize-winning short fiction film, Audacious (1995), and her comic short drama Out, Lang’s first feature film was invited to screen in Official Competition this year at Cannes, the only Australian film to do so. The Well, with its strenuous visual language has all the conviction of silent film, the sophisticated visual language of the films of the silent era in the late 1920s. A photographer’s control? Perhaps, but critics have applauded the lead performances of Pamela Rabe and Miranda Otto, clearly not dominated by the mise-en-scene. ‘The right balance is something you pray for’.

The lean, clean images in The Well are really arresting too. Author Elizabeth Jolley on whose book The Well is based, has a liking for the use of objects with metaphorical applications. To take things one step further, there is the visually evocative screenplay from Laura Jones and then Lang’s own aesthetic strategy which is ‘always to communicate with an image rather than words. Show, don’t tell’.

Lang’s work looks really well thought out in advance, before the shoot. ‘I’m very controlling in a way. Because I come from a background in photography, I know that an image has the opportunity to communicate so much and you shouldn’t waste that opportunity.’

‘I’ve always been very open in telling the actors how I was going to shoot the scenes. On the day, I’d think how can I get that [improvisation]. In preparing a film I’m very controlled and organised, so when I’m actually shooting I can use what happens in the moment, then the process feels more organic.’

‘Laura Jones writes dialogue very economically, precise and to the point. Pamela and Miranda found a way to be those characters, to speak in the way those characters speak….In editing I cut some of the words out – I don’t know if I should say that – but if I’ve got it in a look, then I’ll cut the words out.’

What other choices was Lang entertaining at the time she decided on the location in the Monaro region of ‘rocky outcrops and treeless plains’ near Cooma, southern NSW? There weren’t any others. Monaro was somewhere she’d visited as a child. She did a location reconnoitre on the basis of the feelings it had evoked. It was just right. The region’s shapes lent themselves to a semiotics of colour, or rather absence of it, to connote aridity and isolation.

Has there been any contact with Elizabeth Jolley? Not until after The Well was finished. When Lang got back from Cannes, Jolley had written with her response to the film. Last week in Perth they met and had dinner together after Samantha gave the Elizabeth Jolley lecture at Curtin University. ‘Jolley was wonderful.’
So, a woman novelist, a female producer (Sandra Levy), screenwriter, female leads, a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker), some of the key creative personnel – what is the sum of these female parts? ‘Yes, it is about a female world, but this (the composition) wasn’t intentional.’

So many recent Australian films focus on women. Why is women’s cultural production so fertile at the moment? ‘I’m not sure how to explain. There seems to be a confidence among women in terms of telling their own stories. And it’s of interest to men.’

The complicity of two women alone, a man is despatched – some comparison could be made with Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade. ‘It’s not a comparison that is drawn that often, but yes they are both about the disturbing side of the female psyche.’ It’s no accident that a marauding male is thrown dead down the well, a location for both horror and desire.

The Well is rather like a fable. Is it a cautionary tale? ‘I was interested in the way that here were two people who connect desperately for love but when they get it, it corrupts them. I liked that idea – We want something, and then we get it and then we’re corrupted by it – and I wanted to play with that and what basically motivates Hester to commit murder and what it is to have this relationship with this girl to the exclusion of all others.’ And later, ‘I love that passion, her intensity.’

Lang went to university in France for a year after high school. On another later occasion she was in Europe, on an arts scholarship. It was during this period that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She moved on from Germany to film school in Prague and was there during the turbulent collapse of the Czech government. She graduated from the Bachelor of Arts course in Directing at the Australian Film, and Television and Radio School in 1995.

Is she taken with German cinema? She likes Fassbinder (though there’s no mention of Fritz Lang) a lot but admits she tends to being Francophile, though she does understand ‘why Hester liked German music and culture.’

Favourite directors? ‘I very much like Spanish director Luis Bunuel for his absurd and perverse depiction of the middle class and his non-romantic portrayal of poverty. He’s probably the major one I always come back to. I also like French filmmaker Robert Bresson who had interesting ideas about cinema.’ An influence on the other side of the world is the work of Japanese director Mizoguchi, compelling and ‘exasperating’.

But why have only classic directors been nominated without mention of ‘the cinema du look’ of Luc Besson and others of the current generation of French filmmakers? ‘I guess it’s that when you’re learning it’s good to get a classical foundation. Then you can go anywhere. If your influences are based on your contemporaries, you don’t get a sense of perspective of where they’re coming from.’

Where would she like to go now? ‘I hope to continue making films, what I truly love doing, hoping to entertain people every two years or so’. Lang is currently making The Monkey’s Mask, based on a book of crime fiction told in verse by Australian writer Dorothy Porter. ‘A kind of contemporary film noir, similar to The Well as it also has strong female characters – and there’s love, lust and betrayal.’ Audience return looks guaranteed.

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