Lantana - 'how the hell did this become my life?'

Story by Jack Foley

THE story behind the making of Lantana is almost as complex as the plot strands which run through the movie itself.

Based on Andrew Bovell’s 1996 stage play, Speaking in Tongues, it even failed to capture its creator’s imagination, who confesses to feeling that the idea was not immediately apparent, given the theatrical nature of the story.

But director Ray Lawrence looked beyond the theatre of it to the people and stories, recognising that there was potential for a cinema experience. The resulting screenplay took three years to produce and involved a close collaboration between Bovell, Lawrence and projects producer, Jan Chapman

Bovell explains: "It seemed to me that with this adaptation, I had to re-invent the story, I had to re-tell it. The core elements were there but we had to find a new angle on it.

"And that happened with characters being dropped, new characters being created, and genders being changed. We had to get beyond the theatrical construction to the very core emotions of it."

Lawrence echoes this view: "Lantana is a mystery, a thriller, but it is also much more than that. As we move through our lives and relationships there is, for most of us, a sense of slowly becoming invisible. I think sexual identity, or the loss of it, plays a big part.

"It happens at different times, for different reasons, but it’s safe to say that it starts as we approach middle age. It’s something that for the most part happens to all of us and the audience will recognise the day to day struggle we have with ourselves."

It was only when the trio realised their collaborative interest in the essential themes within the play, that the writing of the screenplay began. And it was during this process that Bovell’s initial idea of a woman breaking down in her car and making a series of telephone calls grew into a series of interweaving and tangled stories, all connected to the woman’s disappearance, which ripples through several characters’ lives.

Bovell explains further: "I started to imagine who picked this woman up, what was his story, and what was the story of his wife, who was waiting for him to come home that night. And what was the story of the woman who lived next door and saw him come home.

"I then realised that this one little story of this woman who disappears kind of reverberated through a whole lot of peoples’ lives."

With a final draft of the script completed, the challenge then became to finance the film - which provided a different kind of challenge.

Lawrence had not made a film for 15 years, since the critically-acclaimed BLISS was hailed as a landmark in Australian films, and he had been forced to find work in adverts. But while the director was keen to get back into movies, he confesses to finding that the ‘people with money don’t seem to like the same things I do’.

Chapman found funding equally difficult to come by, even though the Australian Film Finance Corporation was extremely supportive. Eventually, assistance came in the form of Rainer Mockert, from a German company called MBP, who fell in love with the script.

Casting came next and the role of Leon Zat, the cop around which much of the plot revolves, was seen as the most important aspect.

Anthony LaPaglia’s name was put forward by casting agent, Susie Maizels, and Lawrence immediately responded to the idea, having met with the actor several years earlier when they had both expressed a desire to work with each other.

LaPaglia was smitten ‘within the first 10 pages’ and prayed he would be offered the role of Leon.

"When they did, I did a little Irish jig around the house because I just felt it was one of the best characters I’d read in a long time. I understand him, exactly what he was thinking and feeling, exactly why he’s in the place he’s in. I’ve been in that place myself. I love the restraint, he’s not loud, he has episodes of violence, but he holds everything in."

The actor continues: "Lantana is about that moment in your life when you wake up and say, ‘How the hell did this become my life?’ When your life isn’t what you thought it would be. The dreams you had never eventuated and, suddenly, you’re living a life of quiet desperation, a life of suburbia, a life of just getting by.

"And all those dreams you had as a young person seem to have gone by and suddenly you own a life you don’t want. You think there’s something more. And I think that’s a devastating moment for a lot of people."

With LaPaglia in place, the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey soon followed, along with achieving the visual style of the film which the director felt, had to come out of the ‘authenticity that I’m searching for in the performances’.

It was decided, therefore, not to use artificial lighting while filming and the actors found that this benefited them tremendously.

Cinematographer, Mandy Walker, said: "A couple of the actors said to me that it felt like they were in the actual places, they didn’t have lighting equipment sitting right next to their faces, or light staring into their faces through a window. It was more real for them."

Shooting subsequently began in October 2000 and was completed just before Christmas, the same year. Editing followed, before a final cut was produced in March 2001.

The resulting picture immediately struck a chord with audiences in Australia and was rewarded with seven Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.

For Bovell, the effort was worth it and looking back on the process, he is pleased to report that it has achieved the desired effect.

"For me, it’s about a search and a yearning for meaning. On one level, it’s a mystery, and it’s about how that mystery reverberates through a whole lot of peoples’ lives. It’s about human vulnerability and about people reaching a particular stage in their lives where they need to question and re-examine how they’re living, particularly in the nature of love and relationships,’’ he concluded.

RELATED STORIES: Click here for the Indielondon verdict on the film...
Click here to read what the US critics thought of the movie...