Somersault : Direction and Cinematography

Direction & Cinematography

Shortland sees SOMERSAULT as a film that is about intimacy and how we deal with intimacy. To bring this to the foreground the film was shot in a hand-held manner. Shortland: “The way our camera works is reactive. The camera is continually moving and reacting to the actors so the camera is a part of the scene rather than just sitting back and observing it. The film is not an action/drama; it is experiential. We chose the hand held approach, to create an intimacy with the characters and to keep the images fresh and alive rather than composed.”

Shortland: “In making SOMERSAULT, I wanted to make something of beauty, where people are as vulnerable as they are in the real world. I also wanted to create a visually haunting space for the characters to exist in. These characters live in a winter wonderland. Their breath connects them, hanging in the freezing air and disappearing into each other’s skin.

Robert Humphreys, the director of photography, had worked with Shortland on her shorts Flowergirl and Joy and was also eager to shoot SOMERSAULT hand held. Humphreys: “I find shooting hand held, especially for a film like this, just adds a kind of energy and vibrancy to the story, which you can lose if the camera's locked down on a tripod or a dolly. With a hand held camera you can react to the actors. What tends to happen is the actors don't feel so locked into what they do, where they walk and where they sit, when they stand. They don't have to hit marks so precisely and they're much freer to go with whatever their character dictates.

It is a demanding approach to filmmaking as it is physically exhausting as well technically difficult. Humphreys: “The camera weighed thirty kilos and we used predominantly long lenses. As we often had available lighting only, we used wide-open lenses with very shallow depths of field, so the focus puller's job is an absolute nightmare. As the camera operator, if I lurched, the focus would change because the focus is only two inches deep at times.”

The exteriors were shot in cold and monochromatic tones, blue and pale, bordering on cold. The interiors were the opposite, very rich, very warm and saturated in colour. Humphreys: “Whenever the characters are outside, during the daytime, they're living in a pretty monochromatic, cold world. We've tried to counterpoint that with little flashes of colour, like Heidi's red gloves which feature a lot, and frames have a little flash of red or a little flash of yellow in them, rich colours which play beautifully against the monochromatic world.”

Shortland saw Heidi as “an angel with dirty wings” and so she had to look quite different to the other characters. Humphreys: “The other interesting thing about the colour is that for Abbie Cornish, who’s 21 playing the 16 year old Heidi, we did lots of tests on her and found that to depict her as a young girl it was much better if she was quite bluey pale, translucent. So you'll find through the film she's often lit with blue lights and everyone else is lit with warm lights to provide the contrast in age.”

For the direction of the actors, there were some scenes that required sheer audacity. Towards the end of the film Heidi is stepping on dangerous terrain: Shortland: “The most difficult scene was when Heidi picks up two guys in a bar, played by Toby Schmitz and Henry Nixon, and they return to her flat. There’s a fair bit of nudity and it’s a really sad scene because she’s drunk and really vulnerable. There are two guys who are going to take advantage of her in every way they can. It was quite scary because we were all really worried about how it was going to be emotionally for Abbie. After the shoot, Abbie Cornish said it was one of the most amazing experiences, because the actors were so connected to each other and could really trust each other. It was great for me as a director because they took it as far as they could. When Sam Worthington came through the door he couldn’t believe how confronting it was.”