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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 disgrace.

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 and crew.

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

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