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Four years after reading the book, Samantha Lang made a film of The Monkey’s Mask, originally written as a novel in verse. The film had its difficulties: two sexually charged female characters in a detective story setting – and 62 locations in a 40 days shoot. It nearly killed her, Lang tells Andrew L. Urban.

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 the bed"

"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.

"sexually predatory"

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 material"

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 relationship…"

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.

"feeling confident"

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

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Susie Porter and Kelly McGillis

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