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Transforming The Wild Duck into The Daughter

The Daughter director Simon Stone talks through the challenges of adapting Ibsen’s The Wild Duck for his feature film debut and its intense 30-day shoot.

Ewen Leslie, Odessa Young and Sam Neill in The Daughter/Mark Rogers

On a sparse stage in a Sydney theatre, six actors held their audiences captivated from within a glass-walled room. Short scenes were ended with sudden blackouts. The actor’s voices were at times so unusually quiet they had to be miked-up to deliver the dialogue as the tale of family drama was woven each night.

The play was Simon Stone’s acclaimed reimaging of Henrik Ibsen’s classic The Wild Duck, and for producers Jan Chapman (The Piano) and Nicole O’Donohue (Griff the Invisible), watching it was so cinematic, they immediately saw its potential for film.

The pair tasked Stone with transporting the story to screen for The Daughter.

However, instead of keeping the same characters and dialogue, Stone reinvented The Wild Duck as he once did for the stage, retooling it this time for film.

“(The Wild Duck) was written for an empty stage,” Stone says – not for film, a world of landscapes and careful post-production sound and editing.

So he had to let that version go.

“I had to forget that I did the play,” he says. “And getting to the point where you let yourself forget that you know anything about this story is quite hard.”

Over one and a half years Stone developed the screenplay, injecting the plot with new dialogue and different characters.

For Stone, The Daughter needed to work irrespective of if you were familiar with Ibsen’s Norwegian classic or not.

“The average audience member just wants to have an experience,” he says. “They don’t care what the CliffsNotes are.”

Set in a dying logging town, The Daughter follows Christian (Paul Schneider), the estranged, troubled son of Henry (Geoffrey Rush), who returns home for his father’s wedding.

When Christian runs into his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and gets to know his close-knit family – including wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young) and father (Sam Neill) – he uncovers a secret that could rip them apart.

Leslie, who plays affable devoted father Oliver, worked with Stone in The Wild Duck and The Daughter.

But while he plays the same “archetype” in both, onstage he was a middle-class photographer living in Sydney, and this time around he’s a labourer at a timber mill who finds himself out of work.

Like Stone, it involved having to forget everything from the play.

“I thought going into the film I was going to be a step ahead of everyone,” Leslie says. “And as it turned out I was back at square one, but I just had all this baggage now from the play.”

Leslie and Stone’s working relationship harks back to more than a decade ago, when the pair first met as actors on the set of Kokoda.

Stone remarked how he hoped to direct Leslie one day – which of course happened with the 2011 production of The Wild Duck with Stone the then resident director at Belvoir Theatre. And now, Leslie and Stone have continued their collaboration with The Daughter, the former’s feature film directorial debut.

Director Simon Stone (centre) with Wilson Moore and Odessa Young on set/Mark Rogers

Filmed on a tight 30-day schedule, the main mental hurdle for Stone as a first-time director was the pressure of making snap decisions that could have huge impact later on.

“The challenge of working on a film is just finding a way to free your mind when there are people saying, ‘you’ve now got 12 minutes to make a decision’,” he says.

“And you have to get (the shot) now because this is permanently going to be the way this scene is encapsulated in your edit… There’s no second version of doing this scene.”

On top of that, was allowing himself the time to be creative and come up with out-of-the-box ideas.

“In some situations, it’s like this film is only going to be unique if you don’t listen to the people and (instead of deciding between two versions) allow yourself the possibility that there’s a third or a fourth or an eighth version in your mind,” he says.

“All when there are 100 people waiting for your decision.”

With The Daughter receiving acclaim both in Australia and internationally (where it has played at seven film festivals, including Venice, Toronto, London and Busan), Stone obviously was right in trusting his instincts.

But he’s looking forward to his next film and the moment where all the lessons learned the first time around pay off.

When he first directed a play, Stone says he felt like he was pretending he knew what he was doing until it was finished.

“Then at a certain point, there’s this beautiful moment where for the first time in your career you do know what you’re doing and you can really enjoy yourself,” he says.

“So I’m really looking forward to the next phase.”

The Daughter is in cinemas now.