“I almost died”: Anya Beyersdorf on helming SFF film ‘How the Light Gets In’

Tickets are now on sale for the world premiere of four short films directed by the recipients of the 2016 Lexus Australia Short Film Fellowship.

The filmmakers will screen their shorts at Dendy Opera Quays on June 13 during this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

One of the four, Anya Beyersdorf, teamed up with producer Nicole Coventry for her short How the Light Gets In, the story of a single mother who wakes up in the middle of the night to find that she’s glowing.

Beyersdorf, who worked with Coventry on her previous short, Vampir, starring director Tony Rogers (Wilfred, Bruce), describes the Sydney shoot for her latest as “very difficult”.

“I actually almost died,” Beyersdorf says. “On day two I woke up in the morning and I was so sick I couldn’t even stand up. I literally couldn’t even stand up in the shower. [DP] Warwick Field had to drive me to the doctor’s to get an anti-nausea wafer thing that they put under your tongue, because I had been vomiting all night and I had to go and shoot for four more days.”

The director’s illness coincided with a mad scramble to fill a key role after two high-profile actresses dropped out.

“One of them injured herself and couldn’t come, which was heartbreaking,” Beyersdorf says. “And the other one got stuck in Vancouver and couldn’t fly because of bad weather. And this is Wednesday, when I’m sick. And Sunday we’ve got to shoot her scenes.”

Beyersdorf tasked Coventry with bringing Maori folk singer Whirimako Black to Australia to play the role on a couple of days’ notice.

“I said to Nicole, I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to know what it costs, bring her to me. I remember seeing Nicole still on the phone at midnight to agents.”

She lived in regional New Zealand, and the agent tested her out to see if she would do it,” says Coventry.

“Friday night we were on a call in a paddock out the back of Helensburgh, trying to not disturb the shooting, because we had a night shoot. If she didn’t do it, we were fucked. And we didn’t have millions of dollars to make it happen. Luckily that agent was amenable. She’s in the film for such a short time but carries the whole weight of it.”

After her experience in the Vampir cutting room, where the director often found herself short of coverage, Beyersdorf had two cameras this time, cross-shooting throughout the five-day shoot. “On this one I was very aware of getting lots of footage, which we did.”

Editor Christine Cheung (who also edited another Fellowship film, Outbreak Generation) cut the film at Definition Films, with Jamie Hediger completing the grade. VFX was handled by Heckler while rotoscoping was done on consignment out of India.

Beyersdorf admits the central conceit, of a woman whose body begins to glow, was a big risk.

“Tony Rogers flat out told me not to do it; you can’t have a woman who glows. It’s a scary thing to do. Sometimes I had to walk away and go, oh my god we are making such a weird film right now; she’s got LED lights attached to every surface. Our shooting was so slow because our gaffer had to light the whole caravan, and then he had to physically stick lights to her. But I think it’s actually worked well.”

Coventry was in the process of negotiating the rights to the Leonard Cohen song that gives the film its name when the legendary singer-songwriter died in November.

“It took months with Sony,” recalls Coventry. “We got the rights before he died but we hadn’t signed the contract so we got very nervous. Luckily it didn’t cause a complication, but we just have the publishing rights.”

“The key moment in the film is that song,” Beyersdorf says. “We shot with that song on playback on set, Leonard Cohen blasting through the walls of the caravan, and everybody was crying.”

The song is covered in the film by the director’s nieces, Swedish-Australian pop sensations Say Lou Lou.

Beyersdorf described the finished short as “really weird” but “definitely a unique film.”

“I think it’s going to affect people. But I don’t think you feel confident ever. I think the more money they give you to make something, the more scared you feel. Knowing it was going to screen at the Sydney Film Festival… it’s so exciting, but you also think: well it had better be good (laughs).”