The Quiet Room

A story of conception

One morning at my office, I was faced the problem of paying next month's rent. I was, at the time, without an income, and we were waiting for money to come through from Miramax for the re-working of "Epsilon".

I pondered from whence to source some funds, and came up against a blank wall. I knew the bank would not lend me any...they'd recently refused me a housing loan for a $37,000 house which would have meant repayments less than half the rent I'd been paying the previous half-dozen years. And there was no point getting a conventional job...first I had to find one, and then by the time the rent was due I still wouldn't have been paid enough to cover the rent, which was due in three weeks.

There was only one thing for it, and that was to make a film, and we had to have cashflow in three weeks. Assuming this film to be of very low budget (it had to be to have any chance of raising the money quickly enough), one would guess for a pre-production period of five weeks, which meant we'd have to be shooting in eight weeks. I rang Sharon and David, production people I was close to and said, you'd better come in, we're going to be doing a film that starts shooting in eight weeks.

I put the phone down and considered some more. At this point I realised I now had to think of a film to actually make. I thought it had better be in the studio next to where my office was, in case the Miramax money came through and we had to start on that instead. So I figured a cheap set, a very "inner" film.

First thought was a film that took place largely in a prison cell, but I'd already done that some years before, as my second-year film at Film School. Next thought was a siege, in a house, just three characters inside an empty house set that you never leave and all the big siege stuff is done by lights and sound and voices on loud hailers and so on, but I doubted my ability to write anything of quality in the time available and besides, my friend Tim Nicholls had a script that had a siege as part of it, and I didn't want to get in the way of that.

But the writing it fast enough did make me think...what do I know well enough, what do I really care about, that I could turn into a film?

And the answer was childhood. I'd been a child and had strong memories of it. I'd always been fascinated by the thought processes of children. And now I had children of my own, I was right in the middle of these fascinations. And thus "The Quiet Room" was born.

A story from scripting

Though raising the money had come in only four days from conception, my initial dabbles with the script were not so promising. I'd decided it would be a seven-year-old girl's perspective of adulthood, but that's a concept or a theme, it's not drama. I also had the beginnings of a own daughter.

I'd created "Epsilon" partly to have a shoot that would allow me to spend more time with my children, but in fact the opposite had happened and I had been away for more time than usual. I figured if I cast my seven-year-old, the I couldn't be separated from them.

But the seven-year-old had had a tiny part in Epsilon, and it hadn't come out very well...she was simply not a very natural actor, though she had to carry the film. And because we had such a low budget, there was only a tiny allocation of film stock, with none to waste on takes that didn't work. It was a huge problem.

My solution to this was to not have the character of the child speak...not at all, and then I thought I could get away it. But then comes the next problem...why doesn't she speak? Being born that way I found not very interesting. What if she had decided herself not to speak? That could be interesting, if we knew why...and then something started clicking in me...she didn't speak as a form of protest...maybe a protest against her parents...maybe because her parents were fighting with each other and there it is, the solution, the film becomes a seven year-old's perception of adulthood through a marriage breakdown and finally I have the conflict I've been looking for, and the script begins to form.

As it turned out, of course, the seven-year-old showed herself to be an absolutely splendid actress...

A story from pre-production

Formal pre-production started just as I was beginning to get a handle on the script, which is not the easiest way to make a film. First day I had to answer Beverley's questions about the set that we were going to build.

On that fateful conception day, I'd instructed David and Sharon to budget a set of two rooms only. I hadn't specified which two rooms, nor had I decided in the intervening time...I wanted to leave my options open. Now was the day of reckoning, because without knowing which rooms, no work could be done.

I asked for an hour or so to make decisions, then sat in my little room under the stairs where the cards were going up onto the wall and pondered.

On of the issues in thinking about how to make the film was how domestic it could end up being if we weren't careful, how easy it would be to drift into the area of TV soap. I had recalled judging a set of twenty short films, and in five of them there was a closeup of a kettle going down on a gas stove.

I was so determined to avoid that pitfall that a couple of days earlier I'd stuck a card up, against which I was going to be judging all the cards I wrote, all the scenes that would come into existence. On that card was written a quote I'd come across recently: "In the Greek tragedies, no one ever knew what the gods had for breakfast". It seemed to me to utterly sum up how I had to think for the cinema, rather than get trapped by the domesticity that is possible on television.

So I applied the quote to my choice of rooms for the set. The kitchen dining area had been a great temptation because so much of family life takes place there. But it would also be the area where it would be the most difficult to avoid visual references to domesticity and ordinariness, to avoid us thinking about our own lives. And cinema should be a journey into another place. So out went any thought of the kitchen/dining room.

By that same logic, out went the living room. You'd expect to see a television set in there, you'd expect a seven-year-old girl who doesn't speak to be watching tv, and it'd be hard to avoid writing scenes like that. But a television set, in that context, reminds us of our own lives, so no living room.

What remained was fairly simple...the girl's room and her parents' bedroom, and Beverley could begin to draw the plans (and we ended up re-painting the girl's room three times, until we got rid of that knowing what the gods had for breakfast feeling).

A story from the shoot

We were shooting one of the tracking shots of the girl in bed one day. We'd learnt to schedule the shots according to the flow of the girl's energy during the day...sleepy time type shots usually first thing after lunch, unless something fun and energetic could be found to overcome post lunch lethargy, that sort of thing.

The shot in question was a slow move into the girl's face as she is lying in bed, awake and thinking, moving so close as to go right into her eye. This shot needed calm, but intense concentration, and was happening in the morning, when she was still fresh. It was also a technically complicated shot, particularly for the focus puller, as there was little depth of field to play with.

I sat on the side of the bed and talked to my daughter as preparations started. I explained that Hedgehog (Darryl, the focus puller) had to measure very carefully the distance between the camera lens and her eye, at many points along the path the camera was to take, and that she therefore had to lie very still...if she moved even so much as half a centimetre, it all had to start again.

We spent a mesmeric half hour together like that, where she lay very still, eyes looking out at what was happening on set, while I held her and spoke softly and calmly to her. For that half an hour, she was absolutely still. Then we began to shoot, three takes altogether, with a fair amount of reset time in between, and as little blinking as possible during each take. Still she hadn't moved, not so much as half a centimetre. It was breathtaking, and somehow deeply moving.

The gate was checked, all was clear and she was released to move now. She sat up shaking her head. "Gee Dad, I love working with you but I don't think I'll make any more movies. It's so boring."

A story from post-production

We struggled quite a bit with the girl's "thought track" in the film, both performance and sonic quality. Her thoughts needed to sound different to normal dialogue and be clearly differentiated from them. And the seven year old who'd been so capable on set had quite some trouble standing still enough for long enough in front of a microphone to get any sort of coherent sequence.

Early recordings were terrible. They were not strong on performance, they varied in quality as the performer of them fidgeted about and they sat oddly easily with the rest of the dialogue, as if the girl, although her lips weren't moving, was still saying the words out loud. It was clearly time for a rethink.

The solutions to all the different problems came from one source. We went adapted a technique we'd pioneered on "Bad Boy Bubby"...binaural sound.

Binaural sound tries to replicate as closely as possible the way a human might hear sound. Conventionally microphones are placed on a piece of Styrofoam the shape of a human head, where the ears are. In the case of "Bad Boy Bubby" we'd taken this a step further, and put the microphones on Nicholas Hope's head, very close to each ear.

Now on "The Quiet Room" we taped the little microphones to a baseball cap, which the seven-year-old wore during the recording session. It meant that she was free to move and to fidget and to look sideways or up, the microphones always stayed in the correct position relative to her mouth. The ability to fidget relaxed her, and her performance was much, much better. And the binaural sound, a sort of living stereo for dialogue, sounds quite different to conventionally recorded dialogue, and formed the perfect thought track.

A story from the festival circuit

Somehow, somehow, the little film we'd made was selected for Competition at the Cannes Film Festival. In deference to the children involved, and to protect the film from the weight of too much expectation, the Committee had wisely scheduled its screening to be an afternoon rather than night screening.

It's a circus, just before a screening. Fleets of vehicles collect the filmmakers and entourage from a nominated hotel and a funeral-like cortege travels to the base of the red carpet. There the momentarily famous ones are gawked at by thousands and professionally photographed by hundreds as they make their way up the stairs and into the cinema.

But that afternoon, there was an unforeseen snag, in the shape of a catastrophic traffic jam between our hotel and the Palais, where the screening is held. The eight or ten vehicles in our procession was stuck fast, despite the best efforts of dozens of angry gendarmes.

By Walkie Talkie, they were shouting in French for us to get out and RUN!... the screening was already so late that the crowd had begun to slow-handclap. They would start the screening without us! Equally loudly shouted back in French from our end was that there was no way that little children were going to RUN! And that they couldn't start the screening because they jury was in the same traffic jam that we were in and they were certainly not going to RUN!

Eventually the gendarmes got us through, but the damage seemed to have been done...there was hissing and booing as we entered the completely full 2,000 seat cinema. But the film started in some sort of respectful silence, and the screening went seemingly well enough.

At the end though, the place pretty well erupted. People with tears streaming down their faces clapped as hard as they could. As the place emptied out, our sales agent made the first sale, to Japan, for over half the budget of the film. By that night, a sale to America had been closed, for substantially more than the budget of the film. And buyers from other territories were lining up. Within twelve hours of its very first public screening, "The Quiet Room" was seriously in profit.

A story from the release

The American distributor was very keen on the film. It had, according to them, "talkability". The early reviews were sensational. They had some screenings after which they conducted exit polls, and the film rated through the roof, higher than "Shine", which they also distributed in America. They were setting themselves for a box office bonanza.

The film opened, and the reviews continued to be wonderful. But almost nobody turned up to see the film. Anywhere. It was a complete disaster.

Normally that's the end for a film. In this case, however, the distributor simply couldn't believe what had happened. They figured they must have done something wrong. Wrong sorts of cinemas booked, the key artwork was wrong, different trailer...they completely retooled their approach and went out again. They gave the film that rare thing, a second chance.

This time was no different. No one came to the new cinemas to see the film either.

In Australia, the story was hardly different. Reviews were good and the film had a very strong emotional impact on most of those who did see it. But hardly anybody did. Strange, for the most profitable film I've done.