Shanghai: Jessica Hausner on Directing Her "Female Frankenstein Story"
The Austrian helmer also talks about researching for 'Little Joe,' making her first film in English and why it’s taken too long to talk about gender parity in the film industry: "Back then I thought it would change."
After presenting three celebrated films in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section — her 2001 debut, Lovely Rita, its follow-up Hotel in 2004 and, her last feature, Amour Fou in 2014 — Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner has finally graduated to festival competition with her English-language debut, Little Joe. The science fiction-esque drama stars Emily Beecham as a scientist who genetically engineers a plant — nicknamed Little Joe after her teenage son — that can alter emotions to make its owner happy. But as the flower grows and Alice and the people around her appear to change for the worse, they fear Little Joe might not be as harmless as they once thought. Ben Whishaw and Lindsay Duncan co-star. Hausner spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Cannes about the thin line between science and religion, gender parity in the competition lineup and the real science behind her modern-day fairy tale.
Excuse the pun, but how did the idea for Little Joe germinate?
The idea was to do a female Frankenstein story. A female scientist, who loves her work, who creates something that then takes on a life of its own. But with a different ending, a more ironic, forgiving end, where the monster and its creator don’t have to destroy each other. Because I feel the current discussion, about science, about genetic engineering, is very ambivalent — scientific innovation is both good and bad. And it was precisely this ambivalence that interested me.
How did you build this ambivalence into the film?
It was there from the start. When I wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard (Lourdes, Amour Fou), we were concerned with seeing which scenes could be left open to different interpretations. There’s the scientific interpretation — that this new plant is changing people’s behavior. Or there’s the psychological interpretation: Maybe these people are paranoid and their fears are altering their subjective perception of reality. It’s difficult to determine who’s right. That made the directing interesting. Normally, in a movie, you give the viewer the answer. At least subconsciously. Forty minutes into every body-snatcher film and you know which guys are right and which are crazy. That’s not the case here. This film keeps up its ambivalence, its uncertainty, until the end.
Did you do much research into the science behind genetic engineering?
We did a lot of research. With plant scientists and geneticists, but also with neurologists. We wanted to find out if the idea at the core of the movie — that a plant could infect people and alter their psychological state — would be scientifically plausible.
You even spoke to famed U.S. neuroscientist James Fallon. What did he say about the idea?
I asked him if it would be possible that a substance, that you inhaled through your nose, could change your behavior. And if so, how exactly would it happen. He spoke about how certain substances could be transported via the nose to a certain brain region and affix themselves to it — and so could influence behavior.
This is your first English-language film. How did you find the experience?
Very enjoyable. I like how short and precise English can be. There are things that, if you said them in German, they would sound banal, and you’d have to say them in a more ponderous way to convey nuance. English is more direct and, I have to say, is ideal for cinema that plays with genre, like this one does. I find English clear and pithy without being banal. It’s like with pop music. You could translate the lyrics of The Beatles into German but they would be just banal, cheesy love songs.
You are one of just four female directors in competition at Cannes this year. What do you think of the debate around female representation in the film industry?
I think it’s a positive step that we are talking about it. It’s taken far too long. I remember when I was 16, I thought it was so unjust that so many men were famous or acclaimed artists and that there were so few women. Back then, I thought it would change. But for a long time it didn’t. The public discussion now taking place, which is in part driven by #MeToo, is a good one. As a female filmmaker, it’s incredibly important to see it is possible to make it, that there are people like you at the top of your industry. It can give you the self-confidence to follow this path, even when it gets hard.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 18 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.