Sophie Hyde hopes ‘Animals’ has time to reach its audience

Sophie Hyde, pictured here on the set of 'Animals', has been nominated for two ADG Awards. 

Sophie Hyde (right) on the set of ‘Animals’. (Photo: Tamara Hardman)

Sophie Hyde’s Animals drew warm response from critics after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and positive box office numbers following its UK release last month.

Bonsai Films launched the film in Australia yesterday, but the director has “no idea” if local audiences will come out to see it, noting the difficulty smaller films have in getting cut through and remaining on cinema screens long enough to garner word-of-mouth.

“People have been really warm, excellent audiences so far. But it’s a limited release. I don’t know if there’s a young audience for arthouse in Australia… it’s just hard to get people into the cinemas,” Hyde told IF earlier this week.

“My hopes are that it gets enough time for people to be able to find their way to it, because every time I try and see a film that I really want to see, it’s gone before I even know it’s on. And I’m a really avid moviegoer, so that’s scary. Films like this, they just take a little bit of time. But we don’t give them time… You always hope that for some reason, people will not only hear about it, but  leave home and go and see it. But we’re all realists as well.”

Adapted by Emma Jane Unsworth from her 2014 novel of the same name, Animals stars English actress Holliday Grainger and American Alia Shawkat as Laura and Tyler, best friends and roommates in Dublin who have spent the last decade partying together.

When Laura’s younger sister Jean (Amy Molloy) announces that she and her partner are expecting a baby, Laura panics and questions if she should still be partying into her mid-30s.

Laura and Tyler’s hedonistic existence is further disrupted when Laura gets engaged to Jim (Fra Free), an ambitious pianist who decides to go teetotal. Jim’s ambition also makes Laura realise her aspiration to be an novelist has stalled; she’s only written 10 pages of her book in 10 years.

Hyde was approached to direct the film by producer Sarah Brocklehurst and Unsworth in early stages of development. She loved the novel; its depiction of female friendship, the complex, raw  characters, as well as the visceral and sensory nature of Unsworth’s storytelling.

“I really connected to the characters. I thought it wasn’t something that honestly I hadn’t seen much of on screen,” she says.

Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger in ‘Animals’.

Working Unsworth to adapt her novel was a freeing process for Hyde. She regards the writer as a witty and truthful collaborator who was comfortable with her being hands-on. “We could do whatever we wanted with the book because it belonged to her. It wasn’t like you were worried about the author all the time. Also it’s a book that’s not really about its plot; it’s something else you’re trying to adapt. She hadn’t written scripts, so she was really playful and ready to experiment with different things.”

While the book was set in Manchester, the film has shifted the narrative to Dublin. It ultimately eventuated as an official Irish-Australian co-production between Hyde’s Adelaide-based Closer Production and Vico Films, produced by Brocklehurst, Rebecca Summerton, Cormac Fox and Hyde.

The mechanics of the co-production process weren’t easy, and Hyde says it involved money and time. “There’s a lot of paperwork and red tape in co-production. And for good reason; Australia is very protective of its money and what is called ‘Australian’ – and it should be, because that’s what protects all of us as an industry.”

However, she predicts going forward, co-productions will increasingly be a means to get independent films financed. Further, they offer real creative benefits.

For instance, Hyde’s full of high praise for Irish production designer Louise Mathews and costume designer Renate Henschke, with whom she collaborated on the film’s “dilapidated glamour” aesthetic. Visual references included “glittery feet with really dirty toenails” and crusty eyeliner.

Hyde is also effusive of casting director Shaheen Baig for the suggestions of Grainger and Shawkat. The film is quite a different role for Grainger in particular, who had previously been in a lot of period and detective dramas.

“I felt really strongly that if she was really up for it, if she was ready to go meaty with a role like this, that she’d be great. So we just put it to her. The book’s set in Manchester, she’s from Manchester; she was really taken with the story, the world and ready to do this material, especially opposite another woman,” Hyde says.

“And Alia, similar. She was on lists. I’d seen her be quirky and funny a lot. But when I talked to her, she was just so – I don’t know – wicked and funny and dry; I just felt like she was perfectly suited.

“What was nice about them was that they didn’t feel immediately who you’d think of putting together. It’s not like you’ve seen them together in other things or they’re obvious choices. That felt exciting to me.”

Hyde encouraged the actors to develop a dynamic through pre-production via a series of “task-based rehearsals”. “We did loads of intimacy building stuff, and they introduced each other to Dublin through a variety of exercises I asked of them, which seemed like a lot of just going to bars, but were a little bit more detailed than that. We did lots of work just talking about all of our lives and finding the place where we all met the characters and the situation.”

Many of Hyde’s projects have been set in Adelaide, including her Berlin and Sundance award-winning debut feature 52 Tuesdays, the aptly named ABC series F*cking Adelaide and SBS’s The Hunting. But despite being set in Dublin, Hyde says Animals is still an Australian story. She argues the Australian voice can be heard in its frankness, for instance.

“Sometimes when we try and protect the Australian voice or our culture through our screen culture, we mistake it for being our accent, and I think that’s wrong. The storytellers are very important in a story, and storytellers are the thing that makes it unique. This is an interesting one, because Emma’s British, I’m Australian and it’s set in Ireland. That makes it crossover between all those places. All of us have authorship over it.”

Animals is in select cinemas now via Bonsai Films.