It’s fifth time lucky for Austria’s Jessica Hausner, who has had a strong Cannes presence since her unsettling debut Lovely Rita premiered there in 2001. After returning with the Lynchian 2004 thriller Hotel, Hausner took 2009’s provocative French religious drama Lourdes to compete in Venice before coming back to the Croisette in 2014 with the literary romance Amour Fou. Now she follows Austrian stalwarts Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl into the major league with a cautionary British-set sci-fi called Little Joe, in which Emily Beecham stars as Alice, a single mother and plant breeder who has created a flower remarkable for both its beauty and its therapeutic properties.
What’s Little Joe about?
I would say that, at the center of the film, is the idea of Frankenstein. Frankenstein invented a monster and lost control over it. And, in my film, Alice is a scientist who invents a monster and she also loses control over it. Maybe the special point about the film is that she also has a son, and the son is the second monster. So she has two monsters, and both are doing whatever they like, and she loses control over both of them. That locks her up in a situation where she can’t move backwards or forwards.
Would you call it a genre film?
I think it’s better to say that maybe it’s a film that plays around with the genre. It’s an important difference. In genre films, you obey the rules. But with Little Joe we don’t obey the rules.
Are you interested in genre?
Yes, very much. Those are the films I grew up with, and those are the films that I thought were the state of the art. And yet it’s a sort of convention that I always try to question… Yeah, I think genre is a little old-fashioned.
Was filmmaking always a goal?
Yes. At quite a young age I wanted to be a writer, and I wrote a novel when I was 12. But then, by chance, I had a friend who had a video camera. His father worked in television, so it was a huge video camera that we were able to borrow, and we made a film out of one of my short stories. After that, I suddenly realized that I definitely preferred to express myself through images rather than words.
What I like about images is the things that are unspoken, and I think I was always better with images than with words. So I found it very fulfilling to transform my stories into images.
Do you remember what that first film was about?
It was about a young man who gets lost in a maze [laughs]. I was 16. It was a kind of melodramatic and slightly surrealist story. While he’s lost in the maze he tries to escape, but he only gets deeper into it. In the end he’s playing a game of chess, and if he wins he can escape.
That’s quite intellectual for a 16 year old…
Yes [laughs]. I loved Ingmar Bergman, as I think you can tell!
I wonder how you approach each project. Let’s start with your debut, Lovely Rita. How did you approach that film, and what were you going for?
At that time I had just finished film school, and I was very much frustrated and annoyed about the fact that filmmaking was very male. And all the stories that were being told—all the heroes that I would want to be—were always men.
Also, I was always very much interested in psychology. This is maybe something that’s a bit of a red line through my films. I don’t know if you know about this theory of Sigmund Freud, that a young man tries to kill his father—it’s a psychological idea he invented or described—but I thought, Why does it have to be a young man? So the film that I wanted to make was about a young girl killing her parents. That was really the initial idea: a young girl, one that doesn’t look at all very brutal or very mean, is the one who kills her parents.
How do you approach screenwriting?
I start with a very short idea. Mostly it’s one line that I know my film will be about.
And then I start to read other stories, or do research. I do interviews. I try to investigate the surrounding areas of the topic. And then I write a very short version of it—like, two pages. That takes a year, mostly, the research and those two pages, until I think it’s all really in there in those two pages.
Hotel, my second film, was the exception—I wrote it very fast. I wrote it, and only afterwards did I start to do some research on hotels. But the film is mostly intellectual, so it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of research. It was really just the idea: a horror film without a monster. That was the logline of that film.
For Lourdes, I thought, Well, a miracle is supposed to be something positive. But what if it isn’t?
How do you relate your visual ideas to your team?
I draw a storyboard—that’s one thing—and then I work through [the shot list] with my DoP, Martin Gschlacht. He’s the cinematographer I always work with. That’s a very important point for me, because I’m really interested in film language, and I love to tell a story through the images, as I said before. And that is very much, I think, a question of the rhythm, the perspective, and the mise-en-scène of the shot list. [Laughs] I find it very banal to say “shot list”, but I think that’s the English term! And the visual style, I think it really comes from my collaboration with the costume designer—who’s my sister, Tanja Hausner—my set designer, Katharina Wöppermann, and Martin, my DOP. The four of us, we have worked on all of my films, so we know each other well. We sit together and, yes, I do bring pictures. I collect some images out of art books, out of newspapers, whatever I find. But, they do the same—Tanja also comes with a lot of images—and we select the ones we all like, or we all think could be good for the film. Sometimes the costume idea even comes first, and the set designer adapts to the costume.
How do you like to work with your actors? Do you like to leave them alone, or do you work closely with them?
Everything is quite composed. Everything on the set—every movement, every gesture—is very much on purpose.
We rehearse a scene, and then everyone knows exactly where to go and when. Sometimes actors don’t like to work like that, because it’s more like the choreography for a ballet. Some actors like it, but others feel diminished in their own possibilities. But I was lucky with Little Joe, because all of the actors were, I think, quite comfortable with that sort of method, and we had quite a lot of fun. It was a really positive atmosphere. And every one of them sort of agreed that that was the right method: we were all a group of dancers, and I was their choreographer.
You like to choose female protagonists. Is that something that is important to you or is that something that comes naturally to you?
Both. It’s natural and it’s important.
In the beginning, I didn’t plan to do it. It was not on purpose, it was just very natural. But later I understood it does have a meaning for filmmakers, and also for an audience, because for a long time those kinds of films did not exist—female characters were either intelligent but ugly, or sexy but stupid. I always thought, My God, where am I in between those different ideas?
So, for example, in Little Joe, Alice, the female protagonist, is very good-looking, but she’s also intelligent—she’s the scientist who starts it all. It’s just interesting for me to show all the very different types of female characters that there can be.