JACOBS, STEVE & HAINES, JESSICA – DISGRACE
Disgrace was one of three Australian films in Competition at the 2009 Sydney
Film Festival; J. M. Coetzee’s novel was identified as a terrific potential film
by Australian writer/producer Anna-Maria Monticelli, who convinced her director
husband Steve Jacobs to do it, and helped cast Jessica Haines in the crucial
role of the protagonist’s daughter, Lucy. It was a challenging experience,
Jacobs and Haines tell Andrew L. Urban in this audio interview.
Andrew L. Urban talks to Steve Jacobs and Jessica Haines
David Lurie (John Malkovich), twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as an
English professor in post-apartheid South Africa, finds his life falling apart.
When he seduces one of his students, Melanie (Antoinette Engel) and does nothing
to protect himself from the consequences, he is dismissed from his teaching
position, and goes to live with his lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who
shares a farm in the Eastern Cape with trusted black worker Petrus (Eric
Ebouaney). For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm
promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the
country is shifting. In the aftermath of a vicious attack by three black youths,
he is forced to come to terms with the changes in society – as well as his
Shooting commenced in February 2007, located in Cape Town, South Africa for two
weeks, before moving to Cedarburg for three weeks, and back to Cape Town for two
more weeks, with a final week then in Sydney, Australia. The film was shot
entirely in South Africa and Australia, with a South African and Australian cast
Disgrace is Anna-Maria’s second film with Steve Jacobs as director, the two
having previously made La Spagnola. She feels comfortable, following the writing
of a script to “hand the material over to him, I trust him, and we make the same
film. I am amazed at what he brings to it”.
"a most complex novel"
The two then became involved with South African born, Australian producer
Emile Sherman (Candy, Opal Dream, Oyster Farmer, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Night
We Called It A Day), a fan of the novel. “Disgrace is a most complex novel:
everyone has different take on it.”
Emile had independently gone to South Australia, where author J. M. Coetzee now
lives, to option the material, but the rights had already gone to an Australian
team - Anna Maria and Steve. “I contacted them and asked if we could work
together on the project. Their original plan, of working out of South Africa,
had not worked out, and I was a fan of Steve’s work in La Spagnola.”
Jacobs found the book realistic, rather than bleak, “but realist cinema is not
so popular at the moment, it’s basically escapist.” This response explains his
approach to the style of the film, “ not what I would call a modern interactive
style. I want the audience to make judgements themselves, so the camera stands
back”. Steve feels the film, like the book, will create a degree of controversy
“in a productive way, not sensationalist. It will press some buttons that are
deep in all of us”.
Cinematographer Steve Arnold, who had also worked with Jacobs on La Spagnola,
says; “It’s an intimate drama, but Steve wanted a sense of scale, and the
African landscape became a main character with that. Keeping things symmetrical
and keeping tableaux, like Ryan’s Daughter, also an epic backdrop to a very
intimate story”. He also mentioned that “a number of specific shots were quite
difficult in terms of deep focus.”
Jacobs approached the project from a design point of view. “I went to South
Africa, found the location, we built the farm. Some of the music was thought of
before we started shooting. With a tight schedule you have to be prepared. You
have to organise yourselves, but where there are problems there are solutions”.
Both Anna-Maria and Steve Jacobs had previously been award-winning actors, so
the casting was particularly important to them. Anna-Maria felt “If you cast the
film right, there is very little you have to do to your actor. Choosing the
right elements for the film makes all the difference”.
"John Malkovich is an intelligent, intense actor,
with extraordinary range"
After Ralph Fiennes had to drop out due to schedule problems, this train of
thought led them to approach John Malkovich, to star as Professor David Lurie.
Anna-Maria says “John Malkovich is such an intelligent, intense actor, with
extraordinary range. He had the right age, look and scope. So few actors are
capable of such a complex, subtle role.”
An extensive search was undertaken in South Africa, Sydney, London and Los
Angeles for a young actress to play the part of Lucy Lurie. There was pressure
to cast an actress of note. But with Anna-Maria’s insistence (as he reveals in
the audio interview) Jacobs kept coming back to a luminous young South African
actress, the relatively inexperienced – but ultimately outstanding - Jessica
Haines, who had to dig deep to understand why her character makes some of the
most extraordinary decisions.
Published June 18, 2009
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John Malkovich and Jessica Haines in Disgrace
Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli