On the surface, a film like Una might seem a bit off-putting based on its delicate subject matter, but director Benedict Andrews has managed to weave in a significant amount of nuance into what might otherwise seem like a bleak experience. Based on the play Blackbird by David Harrower, which Andrews had also directed in the past, Una takes a stark and unflinching portrait of the relationship between Una (Rooney Mara) and Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), and how a traumatizing incident from their past still impacts their life today. I got the chance to speak with Andrews about his delicate, nuanced approach to the challenging subject matter.
Let’s start back at the beginning with how you got involved in directing Una.
Yeah, sure. It’s kind of a long story in that I had directed the play, David Harrower’s play, Blackbird, in Germany in 2005 — that’s ten years before I directed the film. Over the course of those ten years, as a theater director, I’m starting to really think about making my first film and really wanting to make my first film. When I was still living in Australia, I was attached to a couple projects that, for various reasons, I didn’t go ahead with, often because I was still really busy with very special theater projects. But I was always looking for what would be my first film. And I speculated at one point about what Blackbird would be like as a film and in about 2008 or ’09, I’d inquired about the rights thinking I would like to adapt it and they weren’t available. And I said, “Okay. Well, that’s just not meant to be. I’ll keep looking.”
Then in around 2013, I received an e-mail from one of my agents that had Blackbird listed on theirs properly. I put my hands up to the producers and said, “Look, I love this material. I’ve directed the play. I know it really well and I have some ideas about how I think it should be as a film.” They knew my theater work had taken some plays to New York and the writer David Harrower had seen some work of mine in London. So anyway, I said I would cut a long story short and it’s becoming a long one but…
I directed the play and I’d been really interested in and then the producers had had a series of different directors attached and nothing had really happened. And I understand that it’s a really tough film to get made. When I came on board the film Gods were on our side because for me, jumping on board and beginning work with David Harrower on the script and then attaching Rooney and so on, it came together very fast. We were shooting less than a year later. After that kind of long incubation period, when I jumped on board, I really felt the thing was to be working with David to kind of make it my own and it kind of went on from there.
How did it vary directing it as a film versus the work you had done putting it together as a play?
They’re very different things drawing from the same source. The nerve structure you want to be the same, but then I think they’re quite different. The play just takes place in one room. It’s a kind of verbal boxing match just between two people. It’s a very intense chamber drama between two people. I think the opportunity in the filmmaking was to explore memory and to explore time in a very different way than the theater but also to explore silence. Like you’re very reliant, as you know, on language in the theater. And the film to a degree language is very important because these two people can only say things to, the things they say they can only say to each other. They can’t say what they need to say or ask the questions they need to ask to anyone else but Una or Ray, in each other’s case. So that means they’re reliant on language to kind of get to what they need to get to.
But in cinema the interest, and in the film, the interesting thing became the kind of space of silence that you can open up, and the way the special intimacy of the camera could say so much with the kind of quiver of a lip or the flick of an eye. Interestingly, in the end I think that the film hurts a lot more than the play. Those more nerves that I talked about, I think are even rawer here.
I’m curious about how the film utilizes flashbacks to tell much of the story. The characters of Ray and Una both seem to react to them in their own way after they happen. How was that put together when you were filming?
That’s a good question because I think that touches on fundamentally what is the difference from the play. In the play when they talk about the past, the words they say activate screens in the audience’s imagination and everybody has a different version of that. And perhaps you’re even wondering is what they say true? Also, really fundamentally if they say my twelve year old body or twelve year old girl, everybody sees that in a different way. Once you choose to show that, once the film it starts to become about memory and how memory works and how the past invades the present.
That was my interest. That was one of the first things I said to the producers, the working draft that I came on board with it didn’t show the past in any way whatsoever. I said to me that’s the whole interesting thing about this is the cinema, is how it explores memory and the past. The example of that to me was a film like Hiroshima Mon Amor, which is fundamentally about how traumatic experiences in the past keep cutting into the present and how there’s a very special sense of rhythm and dynamic to that. I never wanted [them] to feel that they were filling out a story. You know, telling us things that couldn’t be said. I wanted it to be part of the fabric of the film.
So David Harrower and I began to just sort of fantasize about some of those things, take clues from the script, invent other things. And it was very tight on the page, we’re looking for triggers in the present that might give us a way to enter into the past, and create the dynamic. We’re very good on the page, but none of it is what’s in the film. They’re all but thrown up in the air, I mean none of it in terms of placement, it’s all stuff that were shot. But in terms of placement, we discovered pretty much all of that in the edit.
So that had to be very instinctive and organic and in a way emotional. So there are moments that there is a look on a character’s face, which we took as a cue to them to open up the past. But that’s also because in a way, the present is extremely linear and the past is like a kind of smashed mosaic or a kaleidoscope. It’s completely non-linear, and a puzzle for the audience. So [they] had to be very exploratory and almost improvised to find that, and there are a lot of things, even that beginning shot of her under the tree and feels almost archetypal that you should begin there. In the middle of the movie, we had to really discover that.
Was there a point where you had Ruby Stokes [who plays the young Una] meet with Rooney Mara to help the character of Una take shape a bit?
Yeah, well it just happened in two ways. Ruby joined us around the table for just a day or two. We didn’t spend a lot of time rehearsing anyway, but they kind of met. In that time we didn’t really know that, I think the two things, we modeled Rooney’s hair on Ruby’s hair and Ruby very generously recorded, in advance, a lot of Rooney’s lines. The ones that were appropriate for her to record, so that Rooney could study them for her accent. And I think that also really helped make the connection between the two of them. I’ve heard Rooney say in interviews that she had Ruby’s voice in her head while she was preparing for it. So I think that helped. But it’s this stuff that’s not necessarily useful for them to have a conversation about, not necessarily appropriate, but enough that they took each other in and went on from there.
You mentioned earlier how both Rooney and Ben sort of signed on and it started to take off from there. Were they actors that you had had in mind from the start?
Rooney was my first choice. From the moment I was doing it I couldn’t think of anybody else. Even though we knew the film would be more than likely set in the UK, she was just my first choice. She has an incredible strength, a kind of fierce intelligence that is mixed up with a deep vulnerability and a commitment on screen to being raw and truthful. And they were qualities that I’d responded to in her performances that I’d seen. But there were also things that I knew that Una had to have and that she also had to have a kind of beauty and mystery, which Rooney also brings to her work. The kind of really cool part of it was that then when we connected she had a deep love of the play and the play had kind of been on her radar as well. She had a really strong connection with it over many years, like I had as well. So that was a really good beginning point.
Then initially I’d been looking for some older guys, just cause he’s 65 in the play and so on. As soon as, with David and I, when I realized how much of the part we were going to be showing, that kind of opened the door to a younger actor, who would be able to straddle those two time periods. And it was a really liberating moment, I had sort of gone from a bit literal about him being late 50s or whatever and so it was a very liberating moment.
At that point my first thought was Ben. I knew him from directing him in the theater, but he’s also just one of my favorite actors. Again I knew we needed someone who would not be approaching it in a way where they would be trying to protect themselves by building a mask or a kind of character mask to protect themselves. So in a very different way, but from the same place as Rooney, would be in pursuit in a kind of raw performance. You need a real brave actor to take on this role, a lot of actors can second guess “Oh I’ll be judged for playing a monster” and so on. Ben is so unafraid and approaches the role with so much dignity and so much complexity. He’s just a joy
It’s interesting to hear that. When I saw the film, I went in completely blind as to the story. And you’ve clearly put together a very ornate and complicated film, but if I were to describe the plot to someone, they would automatically cast Ray as a monster. And it’s not like he isn’t — he’s done a lot of damage here — but the film gives him a nuance that might not be expected.
I think that’s one of the points of making the movie. Not in any way to condone him or his behavior, at all. And the film is very careful to not do that, to show the lasting damage in the many lives that are fucked up by this, what happened between them. But something happened between them, enough that she decided that she wanted to run away from her family and her friends and begin a new life with him. Like a piece of formidable grooming on his behalf to convince her of that, and a massive lie. Or it could be the two of them believed that they were in love with each other and this is a part of his addiction and sickness.
It’s kind of all of those things, but for whatever reasons, the young Una was willing to throw away everything in her life and is still living with the consequences of that. And in that, desire and guilt have become mixed up, and love and abuse have become mixed up. So he exists both in her imagination as the great love of her life, and as the monster who destroyed her life and many other lives. She’s trying to separate these two things. If the film gave her two easy outs to either of those positions, it would lose its power. It would maybe just be affirming something that we already know.
The beginning point its also very clear what we think about this man and he still continues to make many people angry, understandably. Audience members that they sometimes come into the set position as her father within the film who wants to kill him, or the guy who smears shit on his face.
But I think the idea of, humanizing him is the wrong word, but I think the role of drama is to take us closer into an uncomfortable closeness with people and their damage and their contradictions. And that’s certainly what happens with Una and Ray. It’s not always a comfortable place but the audience can’t look away from it. And it’s quite deliberately … it can be an uncomfortable journey that you go on with them, but you somehow care for them even when he still makes you angry because you become involved in their very special bond.
Well, and this may sound cliche, but one of the purposes of making art is to challenge these pre-conceived notions with situations like these. They might not — and maybe should not — change your overall opinion, but it gives you some nuance into something that I may have written off had I just read a plot summary before hand.
I understand why in the world and in legal situations this needs to be black and white. And you can see when we’re coming out of a culture of silence regarding various forms of abuse. And we’re at a moment where historically that silence is starting to break. And it’s important where people are drawing a black and white line in the sand over what is appropriate and inappropriate, legal and illegal, and so on. And where the stories of victims are starting to be heard. I think it’s very important that there are times where that must be absolutely black and white. It’s often when I pick up a newspaper article to read reporting on a case, it’s important that it’s black and white.
But I think you’re right, the space of literature and art and where that happens in film making, I think it’s to open up a deeper conversation and open spaces of human vulnerability. And they can be also to invite us to get close to people that we would normally think of as monsters, whether that Macbeth. In the black and white of the world, he’s a murderous tyrant. When we go to the theater we get inside his brain. And we might judge him at the end of it, but for a while we’ve got into and terribly close to that part of us that is like him.
Yeah very much so. Well, I appreciate you taking a few minutes to talk about such a challenging film. I really appreciated what you brought to it.
Thank you, that’s great to hear. It’s a tough watch, it’d be wrong if it wasn’t. But I’ve been through to see and hearing you saying that, and watching it with audiences in New York last week, is the feel there is an audience who are hungry for challenging cinema, but also that the film works by engaging people.
Una opened in New York City last Friday, and is premiering in Los Angeles this weekend.