Interview: Sleeping Beauty Director Julia Leigh

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One of the more controversial films that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Australian novelist turned filmmaker Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, starring Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) as Lucy, a reckless young woman who takes a high-paying job with a mysterious group that caters to rich old men who like the company of nude sleeping young women. Apparently, it’s a fairly common fetish, though fairly well-concealed from polite society and relegated mainly to the very rich.

Despite a title that implies the innocent fantasy of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, made famous by the 1959 Disney animated film, Leigh’s version of Sleeping Beauty is a dark and disturbing film and not one we can recommend whole-heartily, because it’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s quite a striking debut for Leigh and an unforgettable performance by Browning, who most moviegoers may remember as the young girl in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events seven years ago.

Leigh herself is just as enigmatic as her film, and it’s hard to tell if she’s shy or just being coy because she doesn’t want to reveal too much about the motivations behind her film, but we tried to figure that out when ComingSoon.net spoke with her a few weeks back.

ComingSoon.net: Before I saw the German movie “House of the Sleeping Beauties” I’d never even heard of this thing about old men sleeping with naked girls, so how did you first hear about it and what made you interested in making a movie about it?
Julia Leigh:
Well, here’s the thing. I had read the classic fairy tale, I’ve read the Disney version, but then I also read the Charles Perrault version, and I had read and loved two well-known novellas, one by Yasunari Kawabata, one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, both stories told from the point of view of older men who pay to spend the night alongside sleeping girls. In the bible, King David sends out to sleep alongside young virgins. I was aware of the sleeping girls on the internet, so this concept of a sleeping beauty already existed, was out there in the ether, and I guess responded to it or transformed it, and on a more personal note, after my novel was published and I had a little bit of press, I had a recurring nightmare of being filmed in my sleep. It was very compelling, to dream of a dream of sleeping in your own bed when she is in fact sleeping in her own bed. I guess I realized that we are all very vulnerable in our sleep, and it’s almost as if we edit our nights and then stitch together our waking days to form a narrative of self. I sort of wondered “What would it be like to know that something was happening to you in your sleep?” You knew that it probably wasn’t very good for you but how would that sleep into your waking life?

CS: Because of the title you immediately think of the fairy tale but as soon as you see the movie, you forget about that because it’s so grounded in reality.
Leigh:
There are fairy tale elements to it.

CS: But Lucy seems so real, and I feel like I know people like her.
Leigh:
Oh, great.

CS: I don’t know if that’s so good. They’re pretty messed up.
Leigh:
Great! (laughs)

CS: How did you end up with Emily and did she have any questions about the role or what’s involved?
Leigh:
No, really. Emily was fantastic. She really had no qualms. She put down a test and she had films before it. I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her; I found her very beautiful. I think she has a strange beauty. I also think she understood this quiet and willful recklessness of the character.

CS: Lucy is a very reckless character, which makes you want to root for good things to happen for her. As an older person, you look at her as someone clearly throwing her life in some ways. Did she have any concerns about any of it whether it’s the nudity or the sleeping scenes?
Leigh:
I think the scene she was most concerned about was actually the first scene.

CS: That first scene really creeps people out because they don’t know what’s going on there.
Leigh:
I love that scene. On a few occasions I’ve watched the film with an audience, and in that opening scene, I never watch the film, I always watch the audience and I watch their body language. (laughs) When I see people shrinking (into their seat) and responding viscerally, I’m very happy. (chuckles)

CS: I’m sure you’ve hear that there’s a lot of vagueness to the movie in terms of what we’re seeing and what is really going on or what’s going on through the characters’ heads. We don’t know what happened to her beforehand. Is all of that stuff somewhere in your head about why things are happening?
Leigh:
I think it’s there. (laughs)

CS: Do you have to explain that stuff to Emily for her to understand? Does she want to know what happened to her character to put her in this place?
Leigh:
Like what sort of stuff?

CS: One question most people would have is what happened to her before the start of this movie that’s gotten her to the point where she has problems paying her rent and is working multiple jobs…
Leigh:
Do you think that people are so shocked that sometimes young people don’t act in their own best interests?

CS: No, maybe not. I think we all know what that’s like.
Leigh:
I don’t you need too much of a special explanation. In fact, I’m the enemy of explanations rooted in childhood trauma or anything like that, and I think you all would have been quite sick if I had some kind of flashback of child abuse.

CS: The thing is that I think people who haven’t heard about this practice will wonder what brings women to be interested in doing this. Obviously there’s good money in it, but Lucy doesn’t seem to be driven by that. The whole movie you spend trying to figure Lucy out.
Leigh:
Well, maybe I think she needs money but maybe she’s not beholden to money.

CS: But she also has multiple jobs that she hates.
Leigh:
Yeah, but that’s quite common. We talked to students, and I also had to have lots of casual jobs to support myself as a student. You might do one job on Monday, then you do a different job on Thursday. Yeah, it’s pretty common.

CS: Then sleeping naked with old men on Friday? How did Emily prepare for that part of the movie?
Leigh:
By the way, I think she did a great performance.

CS: No, it is. Even to be able to stay dormant and act as if you’re sleeping while all that’s going on around her… I’m not sure how any anyone can do that.
Leigh:
It was amazing, right?

CS: It is amazing.
Leigh:
One thing I did ask her to practice meditation, so in these scenes, she was quite focused on her breath.

CS: You also do these fairly long takes so you can’t even edit if she starts laughing or anything, so how long did it take to do some of those scenes?
Leigh:
Look, we had to do a lot of preparation because with the style of the long shot and with the camera, I like to think of it as sort of a tender steady witness, we did have to marry the camera to the performances, and at the same time, I had to be really aware of the flow of time, the pace of the film on the day on set, because with the shooting style, we weren’t creating pace in the edit later, so there were three things to get right, at least three things: Performance, camera, and pace. So yeah, it took time.

CS: The flow of time is interesting in the movie because in the 90 minutes, we feel like we could be watching two years of her life, three months or six months, you never really know. There’s really no indication except for Birdman who goes through some things over the course of the film, but we’re just seeing snippets of it. Was that something very deliberate?
Leigh:
Yeah, I think novelists and filmmakers are storytellers I guess that are working with the flow of time and how you deal with time in a long narrative is something you give a lot of thought to. This elliptical feeling I guess was quite deliberate, and also with this film, I was never aiming for any sort of strict naturalism. I do feel that it’s quite far from the kitchen sink school of drama, and instead I was after something that was heightened and strange and beautiful, and it’s the same with a novel. One of the most ephemeral and important things is atmosphere and tone and it’s very hard to put your finger on what creates that. In fact, I think there’s tens of thousands of small decisions that go into that, so I hope with “Sleeping Beauty,” it does have a strong tone or atmosphere.

CS: One of the interesting things is that there is very little music.
Leigh:
There is some score. There is a minimal amount of score. Not minimal music but a minimal amount of score. There’s certainly less than ten minutes, something like eight. I can’t remember.

CS: I think it’s the most obvious when Lucy takes the drugs. Any other time it’s there, it’s so low that you can barely hear it, but that’s also a conscious decision because it makes the movie more naturalistic because when you normally have score, you know you’re watching a movie. Without it, you feel you’re just a fly on the wall watching her life.
Leigh:
I think with the sound design, I wanted the audience’s hearing to grow acute, sort of that feeling where you could have heard a pin drop in a way. I guess in that opening scene, it creates tension, and I wanted to hold this tension through the film and sound is one way to do that, and again, to have any form of long narrative have a hold and sustained tension was at the forefront of my mind. And sound is definitely one way to do that. I mean, when the score comes in, it does enhance the magical disturbing Sleeping Beauty world, it tends to bring your mind to that world.

CS: I was wondering about that, because as a novelist, when you’re writing, you have full control over every aspect of that tone and atmosphere with your words, but when you make a movie, there are a lot of other factors like the actors, so I was curious about your transition to filmmaker and why you decided to make this a film rather than another novel.
Leigh:
With this project, it came to me in cinematic form, which is to say, I never ask myself, “Should this be a book or a film?” so it was straightaway a film in my mind’s eye. In terms of making the transition, I’ve always loved literature, it’s informed me, but similarly, I’ve loved film for many many years, seen many films, so yeah, I just loved cinema. (laughs)

CS: A lot of people sit down and write, some of them better than others, but it’s much easier to get into writing than it is to get into filmmaking and decide to do something like this. Did you always have aspirations to direct or was this the first thing you felt you wanted to do?
Leigh:
It was something I chose to direct. I have written a couple other scripts before, yeah, but it was the first thing I chose to direct and I really enjoyed the process. I had great heads of department, Emily was great to work with, and in hindsight, I realize I was very lucky to work with her (laughs).

CS: It’s pretty obvious the movie would not have worked without her.
Leigh:
Yeah, yeah, and so I recognized that, and I enjoyed it. (laughs) I enjoyed these collaborations. The strange thing is that often the conversations were like this, one on one, you know? With the head of department, with the actor. There were very few occasions where I would be trying to address a whole group. In our daily lives, we’re often interacting with people, so it wasn’t so strange. (laughs)

CS: Sure, but when you’re writing a novel, you’re pretty much sitting by yourself and sometimes talking with your editor…
Leigh:
That’s true, yeah.

CS: So making movies is a very different mindset to be a director or to be a writer, but I do talk to a lot of screenwriters who make the transition to directing as well and a lot of times for them, it’s just a matter of being unhappy with the fact they have to let go of their screenplay and have someone else direct it and change what they wrote.
Leigh:
Right, that makes sense.

CS: Obviously, you had another novel “The Hunter” that was adapted, which I missed at Toronto unfortunately, but any idea what you may do next?
Leigh:
Yeah, sorry. Next up, I’m not quite sure what I’ll do, but I certainly would love to continue making films and continue writing novels, and I guess I feel that I’m trying to resist typecasting myself as one thing or another. I do believe we’re all adaptable, and you’re probably more adaptable than you realize.

CS: Do you think you’d ever want to direct a movie based on one of your novels or do you think you’d keep those worlds separate?
Leigh:
Possibly, possibly, not impossibly. (laughs)

CS: How involved were you with that other adaptation?
Leigh:
Well, the director’s a good friend of mine, but apart from that, I never read the script–I was given the opportunity–never attended a cut, but I did go down to the set for a day, so when I went to Toronto, it was great ’cause I had this intense viewing experience, seeing my book unfold as a film just like an audience member. I hadn’t seen a frame beforehand. So that was great.

Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty has been airing On Demand for the last month, but it will get a limited theatrical run on Friday, December 2.