Kim Farrant on acting, emotional health and ANGEL OF MINE – Leslie Combemale interviews

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Kim Farrant is director of the new film Angel of Mine, an intense thriller starring Noomi Rapace as Lizzy, a woman whose tenuous emotional health and is put in jeopardy when she sees someone she believes to be her daughter, who she thought died in a fire years before, living as the child of a neighbor (Yvonne Strahovski). Farrant worked with the actors on expressing both the enormity of grief and the power of healing. She injects what can rightly be seen as a female perspective in interpreting the screenplay by Luke Davies and David Regal, and shows a deft hand in balancing tension and emotional authenticity. The end result offers powerhouse performances, excitement, and a cathartic arc that should attract appreciative audiences across a variety of demographics.

AWFJ’s Leslie Combemale spoke to Farrant about her process, how approaching her craft from a very personal place creates safety and creativity in the cast and crew, and why directing other people’s words can feed an artist’s collaborative spirit.

Leslie Combemale: You said in directing Noomi Rapace and representing grief, you removed anything that made her feel stable or secure. Can you offer some examples of how that took shape? I’m especially interested in that as a woman, because often one hears about famous male directors creating risk with actors to get better performances, that cross lines. What was this part of your collaboration with her like?

Kim Farrant: My main tenant for directing, and I would also say for life, is if I want them to, y’know, open up or reveal something about themselves or be vulnerable or exposed, whether it be in my partnership with my man or in acting, I have to be willing to be that exposed and vulnerable myself, and I have to be willing to go first. And so, in creating a level playing field, I would do things like talk about all of the issues the character is experiencing, and how I relate to those issues. Y’know, how I’ve experienced huge loss in my life like Lizzy has, Noomi Rapace’s character, and in that loss are feelings that are real to me, feeling apathy, no point in living, feeling dead inside, acting out sexually on my grief, acting out with cigarettes or booze, and running from the feelings, because they make it feel untenable to be with such devastating grief.

I would talk about the issues that I let the actors know I’m working on myself. If I’m asking an actor to reveal deep grief, or to really go into the depths of their rage, then I’ll have to have processed the grief and rage through my own system, both in my life and also in the rehearsal room. I’ll let them see me acting, and I’ll let them see the depths of my pain, my suffering, my rage, my vulnerability, so they also feel safe to know, ‘Oh, this director can cope with that much feeling, that intensity of emotion running through their system. Therefore, she can hold a space with me, she can be with those emotions.’ Because my experience is how you do your life, you do your art. It’s how you do your acting, it’s how you do your directing. So, if I’m not congruent with being with the intensity of deep sadness, sorrow, anguish, insecurity, raaw lust, whatever it is, how can I hold a space in that for the actor?

The actor has to be so sensitive. That’s their currency, their emotional body, how they feel things. They’re so empathetic, that they pick up on if a director is any way shut down, or afraid for their feelings or the intensity of those feelings, and then they modulate their performance in order to feel safe. That is, unless they’re mimicking, which none of the actors I work with do. I would never hire an actor who functions on mimicking. They’re, therefore, functioning on their own traumas, their own life experiences, so they’re acting with the wounded child within. That child needs to feel safe, in order to feel open, in order not to go into fight-or-flight. They have to feel that the person they’re availing themselves to, and revealing all of this stuff to, can hold them, can be a big enough mountain to be with the immensity of their feelings.

I see my job as being very congruent with accessing those parts in myself and to do work on myself to make sure that I’m fully able to be present to them, and to hold them in that space while they unravel. A thing I said to Noomi when we first spoke on the phone, she just read the script and I said, ‘Let me be a container for you to unravel in. Let me be the walls, so that you no longer have to be in fight mode, your fight guardian protecting you, so that you can be all the soft, mushy, fragile, tender parts of yourself.’ Every actor needs different things from me as a director. For instance, with Noomi and some of the kids and some of the supporting roles, we did a sense memory before the cameras were rolling, so I’d be asking them questions about potent issues occurring in their lives relating to the characters and experiences that we’d be going into. Or have them talk to someone in their life that triggered the same objectives, desires, and wants that the character might need in that scene or in that moment. Or I’d improvise with them on set, and I’d act with them, and I’d use the demons and fodder within me to trigger whatever was necessary in the scene from them. It’s whatever the actor needs from me, and how much they want to collaborate with me in accessing those aspects of themselves, or of course I can just give them story and character notes.

LC: I’m fascinated as you’re talking, I’m thinking about grief. It sort of splits us. There’s the side of us that’s physical and there’s the side of us that doesn’t exist in real time or in the real world that kind of goes off into this other place where the time is different, the speed of the way time operates in our experiences. Grief takes you out of what feels physical. So, the fact that you’re grounding your actors in physical experience in grief, interesting things happen when you do that.

KF: Anything that ever happens to us is recorded in every cell of our body, which is why we have sense memory. We hear something, see something, we smell something, we touch something, and we get triggered, so we suddenly get flooded with feelings and little sensations and endorphins, adrenaline, or fear, whatever it is. So, the cells hold all of the memories. Just like with the memory of someone we love that we’ve lost, to depression or death or illness or whatever it is, they travel with us in the cells of our body. They get activated, so, it’s a really great way when trying to conjure that performance on set, and sometimes, you just go to where the grief lives in the body. You go to that memory, go to that person that you loved, or that you lost, or that betrayed you, or whatever the grief is grounded in, to inspire the parallel experiences the character’s going through in any given moment.

Absolutely, for me it’s a holistic experience, it’s not a heady experience. Where does it live in the body? How can I, in a safe way, unhinge the actor from the neurological defense mechanisms that want to protect them, create the fight-or-flight? How can I remove the habitual guardians, so they can fully be of service, and access those memories for the scene? I was very lucky to have my main cast of Noomi, Yvonne Strahovski, and also Luke Evans in a really strong role, to go there over and over again. It was a pretty harrowing shoot for them, because they had to stay with the immensity of those feelings, which most of us spend our time running from, numbing, or deflecting. In that way as a director, I’m very attentive to holding a space for the actor on the set that allows those people to feel cocooned and safe enough to be with those quite draining and overwhelming feelings, rather than having to constantly deflect to a more surface and palatable level in order to make everyone else feel like ‘Oh, everything is fine.’

But for the story, it’s not fine. They’re dealing with death, they’re dealing with loss, they need to feel safe to sit in those untenable feelings, whilst everyone around them is really uncomfortable because it’s triggering their own stuff, their own undigested grief, their own suffering that hasn’t been processed or claimed. Yeah, it’s a big ask of the cast and I’m so grateful that they were willing to go there.

LC: For the actor, it’s so tricky and challenging getting the viewer to want to take that journey. Noomi finds a way to bring the audience with her as she experiences her cellular-level kind of connection to what’s happening around her. That’s what makes you uncomfortable as an audience member, but at the same time, that’s what connects you to her. It’s almost like EMDR therapy. You’re connected enough, even when you’re uncomfortable, that you want to see it through. You want to watch the entire film.

(https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/)

KF: It’s funny that you say that because the world premiere was at Melbourne Film Festival and this one audience member came up to me after the opening night screening and he said, ‘That was so intense. You systematically had me so uncomfortable that I wanted to run from the cinema, and I was also completely gripped and riveted with every frame.’ He asked, ‘Why did you make me feel so uncomfortable? Couldn’t you have rewritten it in such a way that I didn’t have to feel that?’ And so I said, ‘That’s just the point. That’s what the character is going through, Lizzy having this untenable feeling, and yet she’s choosing to remain in her body, because she’s on a mission feeling everything. That’s what I wanted you to feel.’ It was such a funny interlude and exchange of wanting to feel that, but at the same time, wanting to avoid feeling so uncomfortable.

LC: And also an affirmation of the work you’ve all done together in the film.

KF: And so it’s great that Noomi was able to hold that within herself. You cited EMDR, which is very much re-experiencing a past moment in the right-now moment on a fully body level. She was so brave in that I had her doing this shaking movement practice that she did every morning of rehearsal, and every day of the shoot. So, that meant getting up at 3:30 in the morning, to do it for an hour before being ready for her pickup, and at 4:30, she would do it. The practice was designed to unearth lodged trauma in the body, and to allow her to express her true movement and sound. Then towards the end of the practice, you do a breathing meditation. And so she would do that every day. She’d never done it before in her life, but I showed her in practice and rehearsals, and she saw how it was really unearthing all this stuff. Because she prepped her character so thoroughly, she knew the structure of her character’s arc. She knew her objectives, her fears, her obstacles, and every single thing. She was then able to completely surrender to the unpredictability of the emotions that were going to come through, knowing that she had the structure of the given circumstances and feelings that were getting unearthed in her, that were the same as the character that, for her, were a simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating experience because she never knew fully what was going to come through. So, it was like, where some actors want to control the performance, and level the vulnerability, she completely unleashed to not controlling it, not knowing what was going to come through, but being open to excavating everything in her life up until this moment. It was thrilling to direct and to be in the presence of.

LC: What’s the name of the practice that you got her to do?

KF: It’s a Kundalini shaking practice.

LC: You’ve talked about your own experience with grief. I describe it as a club. We all recognize each other, but no one would ever want to join if they could help it…. How did you actively include representations of grief that weren’t in the script?

KF: There’s this one scene in the film that originally wasn’t written like that. The intention of the scene was to reveal that which is being suppressed in a character, and revealing it in their sexuality. Any of the residual grief that lives in Lizzy is being unearthed via the act of being sexual, by the act of being intimate with another human being. That was always the intention to the scene, but when Noomi and I were working together in the prep, we came to the realization that in deep grief, no one can actually take that pain away. No one can fill that gap or void, or abate the tidal wave that is grief, or the never-ending aspect of it. So, Noomi actually came up with the idea of ‘What if I try to console myself?’ because she can’t do intimacy. She tries; she goes on a date. She ends up having a sexual moment with this guy, but she can’t fully face another human being and be seen in the kind of despair and anguish and out of control need that she’s in, so she turns to herself. That’s where…well I don’t want to give it away, but she goes to self-soothe in her anguish. That was really pertinent for us that no one can save you from grief.

It is a process you have to go through and ideally express, so it doesn’t just…so you don’t just turn into a receptacle for unexpressed grief. That can lead to hardening of the heart. It has move through you. But does that mean you move on from the loss? Or the being? Grief is an honoring for how deeply you loved, via the cathartic expression of a loss of connection.

LC: Well, that’s best case scenario isn’t it?

KF: Yes. (She laughs).

LC: Every project you’ve worked on has been deeply personal to you. That’s pretty fearless, exposing your pain and personal experience in that way. What drives you to do that?

KF: I think in a way, death has really inspired me. That would be one of the reasons. I think that because death visited me at a young age, my father died of a long suffering illness when he was 25. Yeah, I did want to die. I did want to leave this body. Then something happened where that experience of loss, and how I was affected by it, really galvanized my desire to live fully and to see how deeply precious it is to be alive and how short life is. So, I think that I feel like death has hovered around me like a close friend to remind me to be true to myself. I can only be myself. I tried to contort myself, both into physical and emotion shapes, as a younger woman, to feel I was more acceptable or forgivable or likable or lovable. It was just so tiring and dishonest. Ultimately unsatisfying.

Over the years, I’ve learned to love and accept this body, and then learning to accept all the feelings that run through my body. And all the thoughts that, sometimes I think, ‘Gosh, someone knew that’s what I was thinking or how I felt. I didn’t think they could never, ever love me,’ but then of course, I see that in others, and suddenly drop into some deep compassion, and remember that I’m human. And that while I’m in this body, I get the privilege to get to feel everything. Everything that’s disgusting about myself, and rancid, and unforgivable, and everything that’s beautiful and amazing. I’m incredibly strong as a result of this. I grew up in a household of secrets, and that has kind of instilled in me such a need for honesty and truth and acceptance of all those splintering paths. And that made me, as a child, sensitive to all these secret shadows, and yet, no one was talking about them, and they were lying about them. So, the blessing in all of that, is that I have a strong commitment to truth in all my work, in myself, in my relationships. And I’ve had this disdain for superficiality, and I’ve had to find a love of the surface, and a love for things like adornment and beautification.

Yeah, I’m very much about showing the exquisite flaws and all of my capacity.

LC: You studied screenwriting and have written projects yourself. Can you talk about the difference between creating the finished product of other writers and working on your own? What specifically do you do to honor a screenwriter that you think also fits your aesthetic as a director?

KF: I write for film, for documentaries, and I also write short stories. That’s a very delicious process of allowing myself to express myself fully. But I also so respect the craft of screenwriting, and the perspective of other writers. There’s one of those human design tests that told me that I’m a ‘Leader-Shaper’ and that my strength is seeing something, and being able to feel it. It resonated with me. You give me the rules of existing material, and I feel like this strange detachment, where I can see it, and find the strength and beauty in it, and go deeper. There’s something so exciting and wonderful working with another writer, where they’re writing, centered in their own creative world, and I can bring it into the conscious realm and then take it further. I feel like it’s a complementary process where they have this incredible seed which I can help them grow, but I need them. Without that seed, I can’t help them grow.

But yeah, I love that process as much when I worked on Angel of Mine. So I ended up doing rewrites and it was this constant involvement with the editor, adding and subtracting, and you’re rewriting over and over again. (Screenwriters) Luke Davies and David Regal were so open and inquisitive and available to take on my feedback, as well as the actors, to adapt and go deeper. Then it comes time to do the directing and shooting, it really starts to fly and come off the page, then the actors bring a whole different dimension to it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Angel of Mine is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for September 13, 2019

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.