NZIFF must-see: The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton's first novel adapted for screen
A cast of newcomers and well-known names deliver the drama in a movie based on Eleanor Catton’s first novel.
It was going to take somebody very particular to tease the drama out of Eleanor Catton’s singular debut novel, The Rehearsal, with its herky-jerky timeline and multiple narratives: a group of high-school girls dealing with the fallout of a sex scandal; first-year drama students mining the event for their end-of-year production; the teachers and parents of both.
Alison Maclean, long resident in New York, had been hunting for a reason to come home. Her last New Zealand-made movie was the gothic revenge horror Crush, in 1992; she also helmed Kitchen Sink, a slice of noirish suburbia that’s one of the country’s most successful short films. Stories of sexual yearning and moral quandaries are her thing. No wonder she was “immediately grabbed” by The Rehearsal.
Novelist and playwright Emily Perkins made for the perfect writing partner, with her drama-school past and writing-teacher present. Over three years, the two made necessary trims and a few key changes. The scandalous saxophone teacher is now a tennis coach; the main action has shifted from the girls’ high to the drama school.
Maclean and Perkins focused the script around Stanley (played in the film by Boy lead James Rolleston), a small-town nobody who wants to become a somebody. As he says in the novel at his drama-school audition: “I want to be seen… I don’t really have a bigger answer than that. I just want to be seen… Because if somebody’s watching, you know you’re worth something.”
Rolleston brought his own background to the character, says Maclean: “The fact that he has lived in a small town, the fact that he hasn’t gone to drama school, that he’s 18 and younger than many of the other kids in the group. He’s having an experience as much as he’s acting and I think that’s exciting.”
He shares the screen with newcomer Ella Edward (daughter of Auckland theatre favourite Mike Edward) — “an exciting discovery for me”, says Maclean. Edward plays Isolde, who is Stanley’s girlfriend and, coincidentally, sister of the student caught up in the sex scandal. The “completely open” casting call delivered strong young talent, including musician Marlon Williams, Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert and NZ-Cambodian actor Michelle Ny.
Veteran actors Rachel House and Miranda Harcourt add heft as drama tutors, and Kerry Fox engulfs the screen as Hannah, the forceful and unpredictable head of acting. Her first scene with Rolleston was largely improvised. “She was just throwing stuff at him and all he could do was respond to what she was giving him,” Maclean recalls.
Maclean gave the cast a lot of space for improvisation. “I really felt I had to learn from the cast, so the script really evolved a lot in the course of rehearsals. There were a lot more surprises in this film than any film I’ve done before.”
The subject of performance is a recurring interest of Maclean’s. She admits her own foray into drama training left her feeling “squeamish”, but is fascinated by the process that actors go through. “Learning to be brave and learning to be open. I think that’s what’s interesting in the book and also in the film, where all of that can also tip into something a little harsher that has a slightly predatory side.
“It’s playing with fire a little bit because you’re working with young people who can be at quite a sensitive time in their lives, and then you’re asking them to feed on and go deep into their psyches and some painful aspects of their consciousness. And that doesn’t necessarily come without a cost.”