Known as a novelist first and foremost, author and debut film-maker Julia Leigh wanted to ask the question, what would it be like to be a ‘sleeping beauty’, after reading two novellas by Yasunari Kawabata and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Officially selected at Cannes 2011, Leigh’s film, Sleeping Beauty, is a haunting portrait of Lucy (played by Emily Browning), a young university student drawn into the mysterious hidden world of beauty and desire. Lucy takes a job as a Sleeping Beauty, where drugged, Lucy must be absolutely submissive to the erotic desires of old men. But her work starts to bleed into her daily life as she develops an increasing need to find out what happens to her when she is asleep.

Julia tells us about the origins of her ideas, Jane Campion’s involvement, and working with Emily Browning, how a certain scene shocked her, and gives her reaction to the label by some of Sleeping Beauty being merely ‘exploitation porn’. 

HeyUGuys: Where did the ideas for Sleeping Beauty come from?

Julia Leigh: For me, the question of inspiration is always an exercise in hindsight because in truth, it’s completely mysterious to me why something arises? There are a number of things, of course the classic fairy tale. I had read and really loved two novellas by Kawabata and Garcia Marquez, which are stories told from the point of view of older men who pay to sleep next to drugged girls. In the Bible, King David sends out to sleep the night alongside sleeping virgins. There are sleeping girls on the Internet. So Sleeping Beauty was out there already as a concept. On a more personal note, after my novel The Hunter came out, I did have a recurring nightmare of being filmed in my sleep, and it was quite compelling because you dream you are asleep in your own bed when you are asleep in your own bed, so it’s very hard to know what’s a dream and what’s reality. I did start to think we are all vulnerable in our sleep, and it’s almost as though we like to forget that. I started to think what it would be like to know something not very good happened to you, and how would that seep down into your waking life and destabilise you.

HUG: You said you set out to make a film where audiences would say ‘Did I really see that?’ Did you set out to shock audiences with this?

JL: I didn’t because I didn’t think that far ahead. There was nothing at all calculating about it, so I can’t say I had an intention to shock.

HUG: How easy was it to get people interested in the script beforehand, and then after Jane Campion got involved?

JL: At one point the script was on the Hollywood ‘Black List’, a list of un-produced screenplays in Hollywood that often do go on to be made into films. People were aware of it. But it didn’t get made in America – and I didn’t want it to. In Australia we’ve got a really good public funding system. The principle investor in this film was Screen Australia, the funding body, and it was this body that introduced me to Jane Campion, and wisely they thought it would be good for me to have a mentor figure – someone who I could ask questions of. Jane read he script. I held my breath. Thankfully she responded to it and she agreed to come on board. She was around for most of pre-production and she was away during the shoot – I always knew that would be the case. She came back in post and I showed her an early cut. She did suggest some trims but did give encouragement that we were on the right track. That was incredible comfort to me at that time. Since then she has continued to be incredibly generous we the support of the film.

HUG: How cathartic was the actual film-making process in allowing you to visual get your ideas across?

JL: The script developed a little bit during production because you always have those exergies that you have to deal with. First of all I couldn’t afford to worry or to look down in any way. I just decided to be very vigilant about all the small things. I felt that if I held the line through production then my leap of faith was if I created these conditions then something good would come of it.

HUG: You did a long ‘director’s treatment’ describing each scene in detail. Were there any scenes that when actually acted out in front of you affected you more than expected?

JL: One of the more confronting scenes in the Sleeping Beauty Chamber involving Man 2 (the sadist) and Lucy, we did a lot of preparation, including with my DoP, because the style of the film with its longer takes and the camera as the steady witness, meant that we had to really marry the camera to the performance that was unfolding. We did a little rehearsal with a home video camera and a bed with a husband and wife couple that I know. I had to think about how long to stay in a scene, and how to maintain the pace of the film that we did as we were making it. When we were doing this first run, I did call cut pretty early because it was hard for me to watch too. But then I had to sort of still myself and become unflinching.

HUG: You said you picked up some character mannerisms during the filming period – what did you mean by that?

JL: When you’re in the edit, you see things over and over and over and over again, and you hear lines over and over, so it’s easy to. I can’t give you an example.

HUG: Was there anything Emily who plays Lucy was a little dubious about doing?

JL: I think she was concerned that I’d actually ask her… I don’t want to spoil the magic of the first scene! So I think she might have been concerned about this and what I was asking her to do, but she had no cause to worry.

HUG: Emily told us she actual felt more comfortable with no clothes on.

JL: Oh great, I love her [laughs]. She’s so great and you know what, I recognise I was very lucky to work with her. My life could have been very different

HUG: Some will see Sleeping Beauty as ‘exploitation porn’. What do you say to that, and what do you hope audiences will discover from watching it?

JL: This film has already received many different responses. Some people really love it, and then again it’s not for others. I’m aware of that and that’s fine by me. I have zero control over how people feel about the film, so I don’t feel I have to defend the film at all. My hope is that this film does allow the audience to use their own imagination. It is a memorable film.

HUG: As a female watching it with males, some were shocked that a female would produce such a film showing a female being exploited. How do you find that?

JL: Really? Why were they so easily shocked? I think this is good. I think you should write about it. I think I’m a step ahead of that game, the question of exploitation, but it is something I’m aware of.

HUG: Were there any scenes that didn’t make the final cut?

JNL: There were a couple of scenes that just showed Lucy in her everyday life that for technical reasons didn’t work. But it’s pretty faithful to the original script. We did drop some scenes, which I was amazed by, as it was a pretty short script, like Lucy walking along in an alley, for example. We did not lose anything from the Chamber world or the Sleeping Beauty world.


HUG: How do you describe Lucy’s relationship with Birdmann?

JL: They are really close friends, and I guess they’re both people who refuse to be well adjusted, if you like, so they’re kind of a safe harbour for one another. I remember in my early twenties, the friendships that I formed then were very intense, close friendships. It’s maybe because you’ve left home and you’ve left the strictures of compulsory education and you’re trying to find your own way in the world and our ‘own folk’ if you like. I do think those friendships are very important; hence Lucy and Birdmann are very close friends.

HUG: You’ve now had a taste of film-making. Any more plans to make more films, say adapting one of your own novels?

JL: I would love to. The Hunter has just been made into a film by Daniel Nettheim, starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor that premiered at Toronto Film Festival this year, and just opened on Thursday in Australia – I think it will be released here (UK) later. I’m friends with Daniel and the producer Vincent Sheehan, but I chose not to read the script or attend cuts, so I just saw it at the premiere. In terms of my other films that I could adapt, I’d have to think about it. I do want to continue making films, though.

HUG: Are you working on anything at the moment?

JL: I do have a couple of secret things [smiles] but I’m not telling…

Sleeping Beauty is in cinemas this Friday (October 14). Look out for the review, coming soon.

To read our exclusive interview with Julia Leigh’s star of the film, Emily Browning, check back on the site tomorrow.