“He really goes up there and puts everything on the line.” – Director Benedict Andrews on Ben Mendelsohn
Benedict Andrews makes an impressive directorial debut with the new film, Una. The film, written by David Harrower (based on his play, Blackbird), is about a young woman name Una (Rooney Mara), who confronts her former neighbor (Ben Mendelsohn) about their sexual relationship they had when she was thirteen.
Andrews, who is one of the top theatre directors working today (check out his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof screening via National Theatres Live), directed the play a few years ago and was eager to turn it into a film. He’s expanded the world of the play, added characters and made it fresh and new. It’s gripping and features a pair of fantastic performances from Mendelsohn and Mara.
In the interview, Andrews chats about working with his actors, moving from theatre to film and what he looks for in an actor.
This is one heck of a debut.
Benedict Andrews: Oh, thanks man.
I saw the play when it was off-Broadway. Jeff Daniels was in it, and never in a million years would I have thought this would have translated so well to film.
Benedict Andrews: Oh, thanks. Yeah.
I know you directed the play a while back. What made you think that it could be made into a film?
Benedict Andrews: I directed it in German at the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin in 2005, and it really stuck with me over the years since then.
I was curious about how it might undergo a kind of transformation to become a piece of cinema, and I think the key to that is the force of the encounter between these two people seeing each other again for the first time in 15 years and everything that is unspoken between them. And how the intimacy of the camera might be able to zero in on the unspoken thing between them.
And the other good thing is to me that there was a really big pull towards imagining it as cinema with the idea of time and memory and how film might be able to explore the past that are touched on in the play but in an entirely different way. Where in the theater, you’re listening to the characters describe what happened in the past but now we see it on the screen instead of your imagination.
Yeah, definitely, it is so well done how you opened it up. You gave it an outside world.
Benedict Andrews: Indeed.
How did you end up with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara? They’re both brilliant. How did they come to the film?
Benedict Andrews: They’re two of the most extraordinary and truthful actors working at the moment, I think. And they are very, very different actors in a way, their processes are quite different, but they are after exactly the same thing and that is to put truth and vulnerability and emotional truth on the screen and they put themselves on the line in order to do that. And I knew that we needed to have very gutsy, brave performances.
I also was quite conscious of not really wanting to have theatrical performances and not necessarily to have actors who’d done this as a play in the theater and that kind of baggage. Ben and Rooney are really very raw, very truthful … but they’re extraordinarily compassionate and tender actors.
Rooney was my first choice for Una, I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it once the idea came because of her fierce intelligence mixed with a great vulnerability. And, Ben I directed in a production of Julius Caesar in Australia ten or so years ago and he’s simply one of my favorite actors. He really goes up there and puts everything on the line.
The rest of the cast is filled out with Riz Ahmed, it’s all centered around Ben and Rooney but there’s an extraordinary cast supporting them too.
Do they really need to be directed? How do you get an even better performance, if that’s possible from them? How do you direct them?
Benedict Andrews: I don’t think they really need to be directed. But for me, at least in my experience, for great actors of the theater at least, this type of directing is in a way a kind of dance of impulses. They’re really feeding off each other, so I’m sometimes suggesting things to them which I think might take them into places they hadn’t thought of or encouraging them to go further but they’re equally filling it out with stuff that I couldn’t think of and I think that collaboration you can really feel in their performances.
But ultimately, in terms of your question, what great actors need, yeah they also need a director to guide them. And as a director, I have responsibility for every aspect of filmmaking beyond their performances but what I think great performances do, and Rooney does it in her own way in that there will always be something that is an essential mystery or essential private stake as they take us into their thoughts that no director can access. A director can encourage them to go that way, to make it safe for them to go to that place or sometimes goad them into that place, or however you get there. But that essentially private material is what this film is about and you need actors to really put it on the line.
There is a moment at the beginning of the film when Una walks in, and she sees Ray and just the look on his face, it just says everything. It’s just so wonderful.
Benedict Andrews: Yeah, there is about 15 years of thought petering through that. “Oh, fuck, she’s here.” And what that means. You’re creating a situation for that to happen as a director too, you’re creating a situation for that chemical reaction between two people.
Did you guys rehearse this at all?
Benedict Andrews: No, we didn’t. The actors hung out a little bit to get to know each other, and we spent a few days around the table unpacking it a bit and shifting a few things around.
But in a traditional sense of what I’m used to from the theater, no we quite deliberately didn’t. I didn’t want to have that kind of charge, their meeting be used up before the cameras. So, everything that we did… We made sure we had a lot of time for their scenes on the day, it was the kind of short shoot but actually we made sure we had the time to really explore and dig in those scenes on the day in front of the cameras.
Did not having that rehearsal time and just throwing yourself into it, did that energize you in a way?
Benedict Andrews: It’s a very different thing. If I have the rehearsal time in the theater for six or seven weeks, that energizes me as well but it’s a different task. In the theater rehearsal room, we rehearse the shit out of something and stretch through various possibilities and explore every day ’til it’s playable for the actor in front of hundreds of people every night. And that’s quite a task, to get it to that level and that takes all of that rehearsal. And that’s a very dynamic process for me, but it didn’t make sense for me to be doing that outside of the cameras, so in a way that sort of process became compressed into the moment of the shoot in front of the cameras.
So, yeah, I mean it was very energizing working with great actors on material like this, is very energizing and everyone set a very high bar. The material sets a very high bar but Ben and Rooney are the type of actors who set a very high bar for each other and everyone making on it and I like to do the same thing. It was very energizing.
How was the transition to working on a film set?
Benedict Andrews: For a lot of it, it was baptism of fire in that I learned a lot of things about every phase of the production process while doing them, but on the other hand it actually felt very organic and like I was drawing from a well inside myself, from my years of telling stories in the theater, working with actors to bring out, I hope exceptionally dangerous performances from them in the theater. But also my experience of unpacking the text and imagining it in a highly visual and poetic way. In the theater, I felt they were all really showing muscles to bring across to the filmmaking process.
Do you see yourself jumping back and forth now from theater to film?
Benedict Andrews: Yeah, I do. I do. It’s a tricky thing in that especially with my Opera work, the schedules can be difficult to reconcile, but the theater will always be my home and somewhere that I’ll continue to return to but I want to put a lot of my focus in the next years on making film.
When you direct something and you stay there through opening night and then you just leave for the production to run, you’re giving up your baby. When you’re away from that do you still constantly think about it? What are your thoughts after you leave a production and it’s still ongoing?
Benedict Andrews: It’s a good question and one that absorbs me a lot at the moment. My production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is still playing in London and I’ve gone backwards and forwards and visited it during the run and given the actor’s notes. And every night I get show reports and I read if a particular thing happen or didn’t happen, and this was the response from the audience. It’s quite abstract when I’m not there and over the course of the rehearsal period I’m living and breathing that 24/7 with the actors. But I guess you have to let go, and step away from that, and trust that you’ve built something that can live without you.
And then I sort of parachute back to see how they’re getting on and give notes, a new charge or a new energy. From a practical sense, that perspective is quite useful. I think if the show’s playing for 12 weeks, and if I happen have to live in the same city it’s playing in, it’s not hard to be there every night but I think most importantly what you have to also do as a director is eventually hand over the show to the actors and technicians who are keeping it alive and it’s in their hands, and let it live without you. It’s a tricky thing.
When you’re casting for something, what’s the main thing you’re looking for in an actor? Obviously if they fit the role or not.
Benedict Andrews: The appropriateness for the role is always there if you’re casting Maggie or Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there’s a certain aperture in which the actor needs to fit.
But more generally, I don’t know, you’re looking for an independent spirit. You’re looking for a kind of glint in the eyes and emotional intelligence. I don’t know, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, right? That amazing DNA. I dunno, maybe independence of spirit is a part of that.