Before South Solitary opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival, much was made of Shirley Barrett’s cinematic vanishing act. It’s been 14 years since the Australian writer-director took home the prestigious Cannes Camera d’Or for Love Serenade, and 10 since her last feature Walk the Talk. However Barrett has been no stranger to Sydney’s State Library, as the self-confessed ‘history buff’ set about meticulously researching her third feature, a 1920s drama set on a desperately remote lighthouse station.
“I do enjoy going into the library and finding the books, sitting there and just starting to let the ideas develop,” she says. “The State Library had a couple of real treasures...one of them is this 1948 film called The Lighthouse Keeper, a little, 10 minute doco that was shot on Matsika Island, which is this island south of Hobart. It rains 250 days of the year, (and that’s not exaggerating!), there’s nothing between it and Antarctica…and provisions had to be hauled up a haulage – like the one you see in our film – and often the weather was so bad that the supply ship would be delayed and delayed and delayed.”
“So that was really inspiring. It was a beautifully shot, black and white film and in it the head lightkeeper sits up knitting in his room and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll steal that idea!’ I stole a couple of ideas from it actually,” she admits with a laugh.
Barrett clearly relished the historical research, which results in the film’s beautifully authentic production design, costumes, even down to the finest sound details. “Our sound designer [Frank Lipson] went to the last remaining lighthouse with a clockwork mechanism which is Port Adelaide and recorded [it],” she says, also describing how the kerosene lamp inside the lens was the ‘real deal,’ lent to them by the Tasmanian Maritime Museum. “I knew there would be a lot of lighthouse buffs out there who would be watching very closely to see I didn’t get it too wrong.”
In finding someone to bring all this rich period detail back to life in the form of plucky thirty-something protagonist Meredith, Barrett turned to her Love Serenade star Miranda Otto. “I really enjoy the comic sensibility that Miranda has, and I think she’s astonishingly skilled as an actress too. She takes my breath away sometimes with the things she does, she’s so wonderful.”
Starring with Otto is New Zealander Marton Csokas (Romulus, My Father), with whom Barrett returned to the archives yet again, to read up on shellshock in soldiers returning from the Great War. “Marton and I did a lot of research on that. People coming back so damaged after the First World War and Australia being in no position to deal with them, of course. They’d never seen anything like it before.”
However for all the authentic visuals and performances, Barrett greatest worry was that her very location might make for stultifying symbolism. “It terrified me to be honest, because it is such a bloody whopping great symbol and it could easily become so heavy-handed. But at the same time it’s a beautiful image, the lighthouse, and it is actually just what they do; they run a lighthouse and that’s their whole purpose for being there.”
Published by Street Press Australia (p.53)
South Solitary is screening in Australian cinemas now
Click here to read my review