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.
How would you describe the message of the film?
Hell, I've never actually thought about its message. I'll have to
think about that one.
Does the film have personal relevance?
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
It is not a catharsis or something that happened to you?
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
Why did you want to view adulthood through a child's eyes?
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
"Because I have kids
of my own, I have readily accessible to me a whole amount of
How did you approach writing for a seven-year-old? Did you listen
to your own children?
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.
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
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."
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
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
Had she done any acting before?
How did you direct her: on camera and off, for the narration?
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."
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?
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
Ferguson cries very convincingly, which is something most child
actors can't do. Did she in fact cry? Was she upset?
[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."
Isn't this method acting?
[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
When you discussed the film with your cinematographer, Tony
Clark, what terms did you use to describe the way you wanted it
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,"
Was it always blue?
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
What was the original colour?
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