It is one of life’s little coincidences: I meet Samantha Lang for our interview in
a Kings Cross hotel, and end up in the very same room where not long previously I had
interviewed Susie Porter in bed - wearing bath robes, for the record. Susie Porter with
whom I talked about her then latest film, Better Than Sex, also stars in The Monkey’s
Mask, which Lang has directed.
"she kindly offers to also try ‘doing it’ in
"That’s the bed I did Susie in," I blurt out clumsily. Journos often put
it like that when referring to doing interviews. Lang and I laugh at the coincidence (and
at my clumsiness), and she kindly offers to also try ‘doing it’ in the bed if it
helps my interview. Tough job, this.
On the eve of flying back to Paris to work on her next film, L’Idole (more on that
later), Lang is talking about The Monkey’s Mask, a project she started to work on
even before she made The Well, which stars Miranda Otto and Pamela Rabe, and which took
her to Cannes in 1997.
"that Aussie, gritty chick"
"We started shooting four years after I first read the verse novel," she
says, " so I really understood the complexities of the characters very well. It mean
I was almost too aware of the characters and had to cast it perfectly. . . .Susie manages
to really pin down her character (lesbian private investigator Jill), that Aussie, gritty
chick, yet retain the vulnerability."
Porter didn’t walk in and sign on. She had to do three screen tests for Lang,
"but she always had a good fix on her character. She did an enormous amount of work
for it, though; we talked a great deal, about what she did and why she did it.
As for US actress Kelly McGillis playing Diana, "that came about in a round about
way," Lang explains. "I did a lot of screen testing around the place, and it was
a London casting director who suggested her." After Lang sent the script, McGillis
rang her. "I get her," she told Lang. At 40, she felt she was losing her sexual
powers (but proved to herself she wasn’t) and felt an instant rapport with the
sexually predatory Diana.
The original novel, written in verse (by Dorothy Porter, no relation to Susie) was a
challenge, but not, says Lang, because of the poetry. "The poetry was not so
problematic, but the duality of the love/lust story with the detective story was a big
challenge. It needed a lot of creative juice to make it work," she says with a smile.
The sex scenes were hard, too. "The difficulty with these was that I wanted to
show them changing, and how the power shifted as Diana got more predatory. I wanted to
show the deterioration of the relationship, as Diana began to use Jill more as a sex
object. I also wanted to avoid cliches and not make it look decorative."
"highly emotive and sexually confronting"
To make things really tough, the film required 62 different locations, to be shot in
just 40 days. "That meant that sometimes we had a location for just three hours, and
we had to get the shot - or lose it entirely. That nearly killed me," she says,
offering me a wafer roll.
"But I felt it was important to show Sydney and made a point of selecting a
multicultural background. I supervised every detail…do we need a parking warden
here…etc. We even used the real customers for the scene at the Hollywood Hotel."
Indeed, the extras in The Monkey’s Mask are a notably cosmopolitan bunch, giving
the film a tangible contemporary reality for anyone familiar with Sydney’s streets.
It’s about lesbian private investigator Jill Fitzpatrick (Susie Porter), who is
between jobs and between partners when she gets a call to take on a missing person case.
The case is a literature student called Mickey (Abbie Cornish) who frequents poetry
readings and hero worships Sydney’s senior poets, to whom she also pens her own,
highly emotive and sexually confronting poems. Jill interviews Mickey’s lecturer,
Diana (Kell McGillis) but finds herself instantly attracted to this sensuous, mysterious
– and married – woman. Her passion gets in the way of her profession as Diana
becomes a suspect, and Jill risks her own life on the way to finding the awful truth.
"with books, it’s easier to find compelling
The film enjoyed a warm reception at its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival
(2000) – "People seemed genuinely interested," says Lang, "and also at
the two subsequent screenings. And then," she says with a laugh, "we won the
audience prize at the St Tropez festival!"
The Monkey’s Mask, like The Well, is an adaptation from a book. So is her third
film, L’Idole (The Idol), but "it’s not planned," she says.
"There are very few original scripts I feel I HAVE to make. With books, it’s
easier to find compelling material…As Francis Coppola says in his book, the hardest
thing to find is the idea. The best source is a short story, but books too, can identify
that essential ingredient, the idea, that is central for a film."
"sucked the idea out"
But Lang doesn’t refer to the book much after the first reading has sucked the
idea out of the novel. She describes L’Idole as "The Tenant meets The
Apartment…a 70 year old Chinese guy and a young foreign woman in a Paris apartment
block….She plans to commit suicide in 15 days. He doesn’t try and talk her out
of it, but undertakes to cook for her until, then. He’s fascinated by her preparation
for death, even as he’s waiting to die himself. It’s about the
As we talk, Lang is anxious about the casting. She’s flying back to Paris to deal
with it, because the film, financed by a "dynamic young French production
company" is set to shoot in April 2001. It is the first feature to be shot in the
brand new Aubervilliers studios (seven sound stages in the shadow of the Stade de France
football stadium) on the outskirts of Paris.
Lang, who has dual Australian/British nationality, won’t have a work visa problem
in Europe, nor a language problem: she speaks French, which she learnt at university in
France. And she is feeling confident: "I always had the idea of making three feature
films, so that would give me enough experience to know where I wanted to go from there.
Now I’m making my third, and I’m no longer scared about going to Hollywood
– it’s very hard to go there with one film and feel well armed. But I’m not
really sure where I will go after this third film."
But Lang already sees herself as a filmmaker "with lots of possibilities and not
constrained by anything. I’ll do whatever comes along…"
Published May 3, 2001