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DE HEER, ROLF : COLOURING THE ROOM

Talking about the making of The Quiet Room, Rolf de Heer tells Andrew L. Urban he wanted to avoid the kitchen sink.

Adults have long tended to treat children as inferior thinking and feeling beings, forgetting the complexity of their own emotions and thoughts when they were young. Writer-director Rolf de Heer hasn't forgotten and has made a powerful statement about the rights - indeed, the sanctity - of children. The Quiet Room is the story of a marriage breakdown seen through the eyes of the seven-year-old daughter (Chloe Ferguson). She doesn't speak much through the film, as a protest against her parents' fighting, but she reveals her thoughts in a striking voice-over narration which mixes childishness and emotional sophistication.

ANDREW:
How would you describe the message of the film?

ROLF:
Hell, I've never actually thought about its message. I'll have to think about that one.

ANDREW:
Does the film have personal relevance?

ROLF:
Relevance to my life? Well, I have children and, in that sense, it does. But it is not my life.

" What I was interested in was a seven-year-old's perception of adulthood."

ANDREW:
It is not a catharsis or something that happened to you?

ROLF:
No, no, no. What I was interested in was a seven-year-old's perception of adulthood. As I had to give it some sort of structural format, it seemed to me that the marriage breakdown was the thing to use. There is a dynamic, there is conflict, there are all sorts of possibilities. But where I began was with a seven-year-old's perception of adulthood.

"I've been interested in kids and the way they think a long time ... since I was four"

ANDREW:
Why did you want to view adulthood through a child's eyes?

ROLF:
I've been interested in kids and the way they think a long time ... since I was four. It has always seemed to me that adults tend to underestimate the way kids think. Kids will jump from one way of being to another as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want them to be this way, they will be. They move easily between being quite sophisticated and adult in the way they view things, and then quite childlike. I also like working with kids and this particular film, because of the way it was done, in that there was a window of opportunity in which to make it, I needed something that I could write well but quickly. Because I have kids of my own, I have readily accessible to me a whole amount of information.

"Because I have kids of my own, I have readily accessible to me a whole amount of information."

ANDREW:
How did you approach writing for a seven-year-old? Did you listen to your own children?

ROLF:
Yes. At one point when I was writing, it was the school holidays. I would talk to my kids, particularly my seven-year-old. I would have sessions with them, trying to explore what they thought and how they thought, all the time remembering how I used to think when I was a kid.

ANDREW:
Not only in Chloe is there a mix of sophistication and childlikeness, there is vulnerability and strength. Did that come naturally or was that something you consciously tried to get across?

ROLF:
It came naturally. Most kids have an extraordinary strength. You come across cases of kids who don't have the best time of life, but who adapt so quickly and find their own protective mechanisms so well, on the whole.

"I find that almost any kid can act."

ANDREW:
The crucial role of the seven-year-old in The Quiet Room is played by Chloe Ferguson. Did you have her in mind when you were writing?

ROLF:
I find that almost any kid can act. It never occurred to me that it would be a problem. I did know Chloe, but it was not an issue for me.

ANDREW:
Had she done any acting before?

ROLF:
Almost none.

ANDREW:
How did you direct her: on camera and off, for the narration?

ROLF:
The on-set stuff was a rapid learning curve as to how best to work with her. The two adult actors were profoundly influential. In casting, I had in mind that their job would be harder than normal, because it was as much to do with supporting a seven-year-old, who would be trying to do something that most seven-year-olds don't normally get to do, as it was with doing their own roles. That worked pretty well.

"If there was a scene where she is bright and joyful, we would always do that in the morning. If there was a scene where she is unhappy or tired, we always did that in the afternoon."

ANDREW:
Ferguson is required to do quite the opposite of what most child actors are asked to do: she is asked to not act. So much of the film is minimalist observation of her as we watch her face and she is narrating her thoughts. Is that even harder to do than action and dialogue?

ROLF:
Actually, it was easier, once we understood how to work this stuff. I mean, a seven-year-old's attention and energy span are necessarily less. We learnt quite quickly that Chloe would tire after so much time. You either had to stop or you rescheduled. If I'd not had a storyboard, the film would have not been as good as it is. We could schedule shot for shot. If there was a scene where she is bright and joyful, we would always do that in the morning. If there was a scene where she is unhappy or tired, we always did that in the afternoon. Some scenes she would want to understand what was going on; other scenes didn't particularly interest her, and it was just, "Tell me what to do and I'll do it." There was no one thing that any of us did to make it happen in that way. Each day was different and each day different things came to bear. The two adult actors were just fantastic. If they weren't doing shots themselves, they were helping keep her interested in life, not so much even the process of filmmaking.

"The ethics and the morality of all this stuff was absolutely foremost in our minds"

ANDREW:
Ferguson cries very convincingly, which is something most child actors can't do. Did she in fact cry? Was she upset?

ROLF:
[Laughs.] Oh, what do I want to say in situations like this? It was a question of using what was happening, but being very careful about it. The ethics and the morality of all this stuff was absolutely foremost in our minds - all of us on the crew and the other cast. What happened in one particular scene is that she knew she was meant to be upset, if not necessarily to cry. She got upset because she didn't think she could get upset. I was then left with the question of "What do I do now?" She wanted very much to do it right, but I gave her the option of, "Okay, let's stop and do something else. But the possibility is that we can go ahead and do it now because you are upset. I know you're not upset about what you're meant to be upset about, but you're upset about the fact that you can't get upset. So, do you want to do it?" And it was "Yes."

ANDREW:
Isn't this method acting?

ROLF:
[Laughs.] In a way it is ... yes, in a way it is.

"The most important issue in how to make the film look was the colour of the room."

ANDREW:
When you discussed the film with your cinematographer, Tony Clark, what terms did you use to describe the way you wanted it to look?

ROLF:
The most important issue in how to make the film look was the colour of the room. That took quite a bit of doing. I think we repainted the room twice because it wasn't right. From there, we found everything else.

"I want people to think about it on a purely emotional level,"

ANDREW:
Was it always blue?

ROLF:
No. I tend to let people get on with exploring their own areas. The art department and Tony took it and looked at colours. But in the end, just before shooting, I kept thinking, "No, it's not right; it's just not right." So I said, "Look, paint it blue ... Try this one." They did, which was a scary, radical thing to do. But pretty quickly we got used to it.

"In the Greek tragedies, no one ever knew what the gods had for breakfast."

ANDREW:
What was the original colour?

ROLF:
I can't even remember ... sort of whitey-pink, or yellow. It was a much more conventional colour. What the tests were showing was there was insufficient differentiation between the background and the main characters. It also seemed a little ordinary, a little too strongly rooted in conventional suburbia to make us think about our own lives in a different way. I want people to think about it on a purely emotional level, relating to each other, rather than, "What did I have for breakfast this morning?" The original colour was a bit "What did I have for breakfast this morning?" The film is about very ordinary things that happen in many households all over the world. I had to be very careful for it not to become what I call "kitchen-sink drama". So, I had this card pinned on the wall - I always work with cards. It had a quote from someone in a magazine I'd read before I started to write: "In the Greek tragedies, no one ever knew what the gods had for breakfast."

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Rolf de Heer on the set of The Quiet Room


writer/director Rolf de Heer


Interviewer Andrew L. Urban

Stills from The Quiet Room

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