<I>Una</i>: Director Benedict Andrews moves from stage to screen
Issue: October 1, 2017

Una: Director Benedict Andrews moves from stage to screen

Rooney Mara stars in Una, a new film about a young woman’s journey to reclaim her past. As a 13-year-old, Una ran away with an older neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), who was later arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Fifteen years later, a photo in a magazine inspires her to track Ray down and confront him about their relationship and his intentions. Her surprise visit to his job at a warehouse, where she finds out he’s changed his name and moved on with his life, threatens to derail her own stability.

Una is based on “Blackbird,” a play written by David Harrower. More than 10 years ago, Benedict Andrews directed the play in Germany. Years later, the story stuck with him, and when the opportunity came to direct a feature version, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to take the leap into filmmaking, making his directorial debut. 

Andrews (pictured below) took time the night of Una’s premiere to sit down with Post and talk about his experience on the film and how both he and “Blackbird” made the transition to the big screen.

You directed this story as a play. How get you involved in the film version?

“Well, I guess I'm quite interested - and I always have been - in the history of cinema. The role models for me are great, great directors who walked between and work between both worlds. Ingmar Bergman is a great example of it. And there are other modern examples for me, but Bergman is a big, great example. He was a man of the theater. He loved literature and he loved the theater as a space to investigate the complexities of human existence. 

“But everytime he made a film, he was questioning what film storytelling was. He was innovating in both mediums and it was a kind of conversation between the two of them. He’s probably more famous as a filmmaker now, but he’s considered the greatest Swedish theater director as well.” 

Tell us about the play?

“I directed Blackbird, the play, on which this is based, in Germany in 2005. So, 10 years before I made the film. And it really stuck with me. The producers had the rights for the play for quite a few years…Then I found out there were directors that had been attached to it, and I still had a kind of really strong passion for this story, and a curiosity about how it might translate into to film.”

Were you curious as to how a film would break from the limitations of a stage setting?
“Yeah. For me, those limitations are good. They're wonderful. They belong to what the theater space is. You know we're all sitting in the same room together. There's the two characters are there. We are all sitting here. The lights go down and the curtains come up. That limitation is very creative for me. I like working with that limitation in the theater and I like creating within that fixed frame of the theater and exploring what that can do. But the interesting thing to me is how might I shift. How might you use all the different apparatus of filmmaking - the intimacy of the camera, the choice of lens size, the way a camera moves…How might that open up the story help us to get intimate and close with the characters, but also how might we open up everything that in the play happens in the audience's imaginations, when they describe the past. You see it on the screens of your imagination. How might film be able to talk about how the past intrudes on the present?” 

What did you shoot on?

“It was shot on the Arri and the DP [was] Thimios Bakatakis. I met with a lot of different DP and had good conversations, and they were all people whose whose work I admired and found the highly original. As you probably know, he shot, amongst other things, Dogtooth for Yorgos Lanthimos, and he recently shot The Lobster for him, and also The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I also saw this beautiful Norwegian film he'd done called Blind. 

It sounds like you were very familiar with his work? 

“To me, the DP is an essential collaborator. All of the heads of department who I invited to make the film, I had to do that because I loved and respected something in their body of work, and I was curious about what they would bring to the film. Thimios and I - I think we did different tests with the ratios and settled on anamorphic because we were interested in the having this epic look at this intimate situation and the contrast of that. There's very interesting framing in there.”

How long was the shoot? 

“It was shot in 26 days.”

I would imagine things were shot out of sequence?

“Yeah. All Ben and Rooney's stuff was grouped together, and it began with Rooney's memory stuff with her mother - the scenes when she's at her mother's house. And then her and Ben’s stuff was grouped together, and we tried to do a lot of that chronologically. The party came at the end. It's about two people seeing each other again after 15 years and each step of that is important. So most of their encounter was show chronologically. The stuff in the past with the girl and Ben was not shot chronologically.”

Talk about editorial. How closely were you working with editor Nick Fenton?

“Every single day I was with him…Because it's my first film - and it was extremely collaborative - he wanted every frame of the film to pass through me as well. So we looked at pretty much everything we had - every take together. We had an extremely - let's say experimental - approach to it…He said one thing he really appreciated was, most first time directors hold on the script a like a bible or life raft for a drowning person, and they say, ‘This has to happen here because it happened here.’ And for him it was very liberating because from the first moment I said, ‘Let's see what happens. What if we put this here?’ So it was very very creative, over the course of however many weeks - eight or 12 weeks - whatever that was for the edit.”

Was he working closely behind the production schedule? 

“Yes he was. We didn't have time for reshoots, but he said, ‘If you can, you should go back to those toilets with Rooney and get a reverse of that shot of Rooney.’ He flagged a couple of things where he said, ‘I think we're going to be in trouble coverage-wise later on.’ Very subtle. He visited set once, but he doesn't like to be too close to it or to know the actors too much. He likes to have some distance. He came down to the sea when we were dong night shoots, when the young Una is distressed and looking for [Ray]. It's also a particularly nice part of the world to visit. It was a very collaborative process between the two of us - very intimate, very creative and really finding the film again in the edit.”

Do you recall what editing system he was using? 

“I think he was using Avid. I would not want to speak on his behalf, but I think it was Avid [on] the Mac. He's [an] independent. We were set up at a post facility that's no longer there on Dean Street in London called Edit Spaces. Actually, across the hallway was a film being cut with Rooney's sister. The son of Ridley Scott made a film with her sister!” 

Music plays an interesting role in this film. Talk about working with composer Jed Kurzel and the goal, musically?

“The goal in a way, [was] to honor and keep alive the ambiguity of their relationships, so any music that told you what to feel - as good film music often should - that was wrong for this film. It was to keep this ambiguous, emotional feeling, yet pulls the audience through and sort of keep the tension. He an I are very old friends. We were at drama school together, I directed him as an actor in several plays. Speaking of Ridley Scott, he just did the score for the last Alien. And he's done the score for quite a few of his brother Justin Krezel's films - Assasin's Creed, Macbeth - so we knew each other well. I spoke to a lot of different composers, but in the end, the fact that he and I had his trust. He's just done the music for my latest play in London, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there. Having that trust was important, and in our first meeting he told me he felt it should be 'shimmering' and that it needed to be beautiful. I think he was the only person who said it should be beautiful, not just tense.”

Are there any visual effects? It’s not visual effects film, but is there something that the audience might not be aware of? 

“Yeah, you were shooting in a room that's three sides of glass, and as careful as the crew of the DP were, we caught a couple of reflections. So we erased a few things that. I think that's about it.”

Being so close to the story and the play, and this being your first time as a filmmaker, did the film ultimately turn out as you had envisioned?

“It became that sort of thing that has to be a voyage of discovery. It's the same way I make something in theater - you put down very strong foundations. I put down a very strong aesthetic foundation with a lot of references for my team, both for photographs and showing them films. We worked intensively. But you have to discover it at each point. And some of that was down to locations - those things down in in Dungeness, by the sea. A lot of those guys who are in the pub - the guys who chase him out of the pub - they drink in that pub there! That's a discovery. There's an authenticity to it. But yeah, the architecture of the film and the key ideas of the film are all stuff that we planted there. The one thing that I learned during the whole filmmaking process was, the film tells you what it wants to be. You have to listen to the film and that's where the surprise of adventure and discovery of it was. So if it just looks like what you've already thought about when you're sitting at home and drawing funny little squiggles, half a year or a year before you make it, there's no point in making it.”