Andrews used a 'quintessentially Kubrickian idea' to weld his raw drama together.
What happens in Una is unequivocally wrong: A middle-aged man seduces and has a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl. But director Benedict Andrews and screenwriter David Harrower don't let us off with the easy answer. The film delves into uncharted waters of morality surrounding sexual abuse, where neither party is predator nor prey. We can't fully hate the perpetrator, nor can we fully trust or empathize with the victim and her motivations. As are all experiences that challenge our perspective, Una is unnerving.
Based on the critically-acclaimed play Blackbird, which Harrower adapted himself, the film stars Rooney Mara as Una, now a grown woman who has tracked down her abuser, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), despite the fact that he has changed his name after serving the prison sentence. Una wends its way between past and present as the unflinching confrontation plays out. What begins as a survivor's effort to reappropriate her past turns into a disquieting inquiry into the nature of truth, love, and redemption.
No Film School sat down with Andrews prior to the film's theatrical premiere to discuss approaching moral ambiguity in characters, creating claustrophobic cinematography, and how he designed the film as a labyrinth that constantly keeps the audience on a knife's edge.
"It was about walking a tightrope together every day in front of the camera."
No Film School: When you originally saw Blackbird, the play, what did you think you could bring to a film adaptation?
Benedict Andrews: I directed the play in German, actually, quite some time ago, in 2005. When I was directing it, I was really fascinated with how the characters' emotions and situations are entirely balanced on a knife-edge. You're drawn into this very complicated, very painful knot in the characters. In a way, that makes for brilliant theater because you're trapped in the room with these two characters who are trapped with each other. In the theater, you're forced to breathe the same air as them and live through their exchange in real-time.
A couple of years after directing the play, as I was beginning to think about a fun film project [to do], I was still fascinated with Blackbird and with these two characters—with everything that remained unspoken between them and the force of their encounter. I thought could make for really powerful cinema. I was interested in the difference between the closed room of the theater and how the story might open up into film. I thought the camera might be able to pursue their story in a more intimate way.
I was also interested in that the story is one fundamentally about time—an emotional experience of time. These two characters haven't seen each other for 15 years, and the events of 15 years ago have marked their lives forever. I was curious how cinema might be able to explore this question of time and memory and how the present is being corrupted by memory.
NFS: There is a strong presence of memory in the film. There's something really cinematic about the way you've translated memory into imagery—in one scene, curtains blow in Una's childhood room and the camera has a dreamlike movement to it. How did you build out that architecture of memory in the film?
Andrews: I worked with my production designer, Fiona Combe, and director of photography, Thimios Bakatakis, about the idea of the labyrinth, which is a quintessentially Kubrickian idea. Right from the first frame, when the young Una gets up from that tree and walks along the side of the house, she was stepping into a kind of labyrinth. This labyrinth, on one hand, was very concrete. The factory [where Ben's character works] behaved like a labyrinth and the two characters stalk each other through that factory. But it also worked on a more metaphoric level. Una pursues the questions of memory in her labyrinth and has to go on a ritual journey to confront her past.
"The camera draws the audience into a very special feeling of claustrophobia with the two characters."
We [gave] ourselves some quite strong rules. There's zero handheld camera in the movie. There would've been another way to shoot this that was more vérité, where you would shoot handheld and over both of their shoulders a lot, like shooting a boxing match. We quite deliberately didn't do that. Instead, the camera draws the audience into a very special feeling of claustrophobia with the two characters; we feel trapped with them in these various chambers. The sense of the various spaces that the characters found themselves in are often quite empty, banal, even oppressively empty functional rooms, which contrasted the raw drama playing out between them.
NFS: Was it difficult to block some of the scenes in the small spaces in which you shot?
Andrews: There are practical challenges in the scenes, which take place in a glass room, so there's a shit-load of reflections everywhere. But the bigger challenge was making sure that the whole filming apparatus around the camera would be able to encourage and capture the very special intimacy that the characters—and therefore the actors—have to have.
The story is about two people who can never meet in the light of day. When Una was a girl, 16 years ago, they would always be meeting in secret in the bushes or using codes to meet. In the present, it's a similar thing. They can't have the conversations they need to have in front of other people. The film follows them through a series of these exclusive spaces.
I think the challenge was dealing with this very raw, very painful exclusive relationship and making sure that the crew and the camera can support the actors in these very intimate spaces where they're having to bear everything and be extremely vulnerable. I was blessed to have a wonderful team who really got it that that's what we needed to do.
NFS: How did you work with the actors to develop that sense of complex moral ambiguity that characterizes both performances?
Andrews: We largely didn't rehearse—at least not in a traditional sense, and certainly not in the sense that I'm used to in the theater. Normally, that's what I do: I spend my time in a room with actors, thrashing through the play over six weeks until we put it in front of an audience. I'm used to, in that rehearsal room, really tearing the piece apart and trying everything. What you, then, see on the stage is the tip of the iceberg of what they've worked through to get to that point.
But this is about two people meeting again for the first time [in over a decade]. I didn't want Ben and Rooney to spend up any valuable energy of that encounter without the cameras rolling. We talked a lot beforehand, both individually and together. Both Ben and Rooney had very strong input in the script. On the day, it was a question of keeping their meeting like a powder keg.
"I go to the cinema to be taken to the edge of human behavior. I've never gone in order be taught a lesson."
What I was trying to do was distill things that I would do over weeks in a rehearsal room so that I could just go in between takes, whisper something in their ear, and see how the scene might evolve from that.
These two actors are very hungry for direction. They both really like to be pushed, but they're also both incredibly independent actors, and they were both brave enough to really go after the heart of this material. They also knew that to do that, instinctively, they had to really trust each other and make a safe place to be dangerous with each other. It was about walking a tightrope together every day in front of the camera.
NFS: What were some specific ways that you heightened or maintained that sense of knife-edge tension and vulnerability?
Andrews: This was a tension for everybody working on the film at every aspect of the filmmaking process: "How can we keep everybody on edge?" As soon as we provide an easy answer for the audience, the film loses its power. I think we also betray Una. We betray the complexity of her problem and the amount of damage that she carries from her past and the size of her questions in the present. For me, I think, it was about really following her questions right through to the very last frame. There weren't going to be easy answers for them about whether this was love, or whether this was abuse. Obviously, it is abuse, those two things are mixed up for Una.
Andrews: It began with the sheer intelligence of David's script and the way it keeps those questions up in the air. Then, we would put the camera in a place that keeps that sense of claustrophobia and tension. We also had to discover in the edit stage the way that the past and the present would interweave. Not a single moment of the filmmaking process was fixed; we discovered it on the day.
"The film had to feel like it was completely happening for the first time. One way of loosening that up was to allow the actors to improvise within a very tight structure."
NFS: Did you let the actors improvise or change the script a bit?
Andrews: Yes. They do a bit. Particularly Ben. I would never do that in theater. If I was directing David's play, Blackbird, in English, it's written like a piece of poetry or a score. It has a very distinct and strong rhythm. I would encourage the actors to go after that in the theater, the same way I would if I was staging Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare. I would use the rhythm of the language very specifically and use the grammar of the language almost like a musical score.
I think we all realized that if we were to do that as a film, it wouldn't be a film. It would be filmed theater and you would smell the theater in the wrong way. The film had to feel like it was completely happening for the first time. One way of loosening that up was to allow the actors to improvise within a very tight structure.
There was a really beautiful day where the actors had gone back to David's play and discovered some extra things in the big confessional scenes about what happened in the past. They said, "We discovered this other stuff. We'd love to work it in." I was like, "Great. Let's go while they're setting up."
It's a tension. On the one hand, the camera has a strictness. On the other hand, it wants to feel very raw. That tension interests me very much as a theater director and it certainly interests in the cinema that I love. This film is about the raw nerves, but at the same time, you feel a very strong, sometimes even claustrophobic formal tension.
NFS: Should theater and cinema explore the grey area of human interaction?
Andrews: I certainly know that I go to both places, in very different ways, to be taken to the edge of human behavior. I've never gone to the theater or the cinema in order be taught a lesson. I don't mind picking up a good magazine article and reading a polemic, but when I go to the theater or the cinema, I want to see that disturbed. I want to have my idea of the world upended, but I want to do that by getting close to people. I want to do that by getting close to people in their complexity and their vulnerability and their sorrow and their incandescence.
"When I go to the cinema, I want to have my idea of the world upended, but I want to do that by getting close to people."
The theme of Una is a very big topic in society that, thankfully, we are starting to talk about. To tell you what we already know...we know what happens between them was criminal and wrong, but to go into the gray area between that and into her genuine questions as a survivor...on the one hand, that fascinated me as a character study of a woman looking to confront her past and questions of redemption. On the other hand, I think it opens up the conversation about this topic in a way that something more polemical wouldn't.
I think, ultimately, in the theater and cinema, I go to lose myself in a deep space that touches on dreams. Dreams aren't just strange realities built from our realities. They charge us very deeply and they touch our most private, secret places inside ourselves. I think that's the context I look for when I go to really great theater or truly visionary cinema.