Adelaide Clemens, director Luke Shanahan and Veerle Baetens on the set of ‘Rabbit’.

Writer-director Luke Shanahan’s debut feature Rabbit, set to premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, stars Adelaide Clemens (Rectify), Alex Russell (Goldstone) and Belgian actress Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown).

Clemens plays medical student Maude Ashton, who is haunted by visions of her identical twin Cleo almost a year after her sister’s disappearance.

Prolific commercials director Shanahan started writing the script around three years ago, after another, larger film he was developing stalled.

“It got a lot of interest from overseas but it was going to be a tough road to get it up and then I had Rabbit sitting in my back pocket and Rabbit is actually more of a first film,” the director tells IF.

“That’s not to say that Rabbit was an easy film, [but] it was a more contained environment. It was something that made sense to shoot first.”

To produce his first feature, Shanahan enlisted producer David Ngo of Adelaide’s Projector Films.

Shanahan and Ngo met as Tropfest finalists eight years ago and have since formed new production company Longshot.

“I was working on a commercial with Luke in South Australia and I’d just finished my previous film One-Eyed Girl,” recalls Ngo.

“And he gave me the Rabbit script, and I’d never quite read anything like it. It was the most unique thing I’ve read, after having read hundreds and hundreds of scripts that year alone that were being sent from all over the world.”

Ngo and Shanahan worked on the script for months before pitching it at MIFF’s 37°South Market in 2015, where it was voted best pitch by international sales agents and distributors, with Ngo selected to attend London’s Production Finance Market.

It turned into a world tour that Luke and I did starting in Singapore, going to London, then Rome, New York, Los Angeles and Sydney, and by the time we got back we basically had the film financed. In each place we stopped we got a little piece of the puzzle.”

The film is financed with the support of the South Australian Film Corporation, MIFF Premiere Fund, LevelK and Vendetta Films, as well as private financing, a revenue stream Ngo points to as increasingly crucial.

For the past few years I’ve been very active in building relationships with various private bodies. More and more in independent film we’re going to be more reliant on private money and therefore have to be producing slightly more commercial product, I would say.”

Danish outfit LevelK came on board for international sales after sparking to the script, says Ngo.

“They said it was the first script that had come along in quite some time where everyone in the company loved it. Which they said was extremely rare. And the South Australian Film Corporation was always behind it; they were really waiting for us to put together the other pieces of the puzzle.”

The film marks a reunion for Russell and Clemens, who both starred in 2010’s Wasted on the Young. 

Adelaide Clemens, Will Sheridan (sound recordist), Pete Guiliana (gaffer), Glen Clayton (steadicam) and Matt Richardson (covered – key grip).

Clemens stepped in after Fury Road actress Abbey Lee dropped out, a hiccup that didn’t affect the film’s budget, says Ngo.

“The financing was more based on the script than it was on anything else, so it didn’t have a huge effect. Adelaide was actually quite a drawcard, particularly for the private financiers.”

Shanahan is effusive about his star, whose credits include The Great Gatsby and Parade’s End.

“Adelaide was always on the list and she was not available because she was doing the last season of Rectify. She’s never had the big profile here. She went to America pretty much after Wasted but she wasn’t the in-your-face type of Aussie actress who just went to LA. She lived in New York.”

“On set, she’s the girl sitting there with the electrics and the gaffers and the grips. She’s just got no airs and graces, man. And she just manages to just say so much with that face.”

The shoot lasted six weeks, with Shanahan never going beyond six or seven takes. Tonally, the director describes Rabbit as “a very sparse film, but the idea is sort of fantastical.”

“The actors were all very instinctive, and I told them to play it straight: let’s just deliver it as if we’re doing a Mike Leigh film, as if it’s a kitchen sink drama.”

“I would be writing through the night and sometimes doing changes. And all those actors had been versed in the American system, so they were really good at getting the script and workshopping it at night. We were evolving as we went.”

Shanahan brought on veteran DP Anna Howard, with whom he’d worked on numerous ads, to capture the film’s austere locations.

“I liked her stuff because she’s got a sort of dark aesthetic,” says Shanahan. “It wasn’t bright and bubbly. So the colours of this film I wanted to be very European and bleak. I wanted this Scandinavian feel in the middle of outback Australia. This wasn’t gum trees, it was pine forests.”

South Australia’s drizzly weather helped, the filmmaker tells IF, with one day of sun in the course of a six week shoot.

“If it wasn’t raining it was close to rain the whole time. And it just suited the aesthetic completely. It’s about this girl that returns home from Europe to track down her sister and she gets these visions and she follows them out to this world that’s sort of a fairy tale world, tweaked just left of centre to reality. So the bright blue skies of Australia and the red dusk, all that sort of stuff, wouldn’t have worked.”

The vagaries of the SA weather meant there were a few days where the production had to shoot exterior scenes indoors. “We got to a stage in the last week where we had no other way to go with the schedule,” remembers Shanahan. “We had to stay outside. And luckily the weather stayed off.”

Shooting in South Australia had other virtues, chief among them proximity of one location to the next, says the director.

“I shoot quite a bit down there because there are good crews and when you do car ads you can be in the desert and you’re only half an hour from the city, which you can’t do in Sydney and Melbourne,” says Shanahan.

Ngo agrees: “It’s so easy, particularly for a location-based shoot. We have locations ranging from a pine-forest to a mansion in the hills to an airport to suburban houses, and all of those locations were pretty much within half an hour of each other. And our access to those locations was brilliant. I mean, imagine trying to shoot Sydney airport. In South Australia locations like that are accessible.”

The production’s crew, many of whom had worked on Girl Asleep, were invaluable to getting the film in the can, says Shanahan.

“They’re used to working with not a lot of money. That’s not to say that you cut corners creatively but they’ve got a better way of looking at it – the glass is not half empty. We were still an Indie film and we would have loved another week but talking to the actors at the wrap party, they were saying the momentum helped. If we had another week, that would have been great. A few more days of rehearsal, great, but I don’t know if it would have made it infinitely better.”

‘Rabbit’ is set to screen at Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) August 5 and 9. Tickets here. 

This article was originally published in IF #177 June – July.

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