At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Emily Beecham won for best actress for her work Little Joe, a film that references Frankenstein and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Beecham is the first to admit that her scientist character stems from the rarified vision of Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner (Lourdes, Lovely Rita).
Before it screened in Cannes Little Joe was one of the buzz titles of the competition. The film proved divisive with critics though for many found it the most thought-provoking competition entry. Given that the jury is permitted to only give one award per film–and Hausner is a champion of women characters–it seemed appropriate that the award for her film should go to her actress.
Hausner, who co-wrote the screenplay with Geraldine Bajard, finely calibrates every frame of her immaculately realised film, which veers between genre and the state of the planet—a bit of a horror story in itself. The film, about a scientist and single mother who develops a plant that acts as an anti-depressant—and of course has side effects–is bound to become a cult hit. The Austria/UK co-production was filmed in Austria (interiors) and the UK (exteriors).
COLLIDER: What was your inspiration for Little Joe?
JESSICA HAUSNER: I was initially inspired by the Frankenstein story to create a monster that goes out of control. I think science is an important topic in our day and I wanted to question that. In my film the scientist is a woman and we look at how she relates not only to a plant but to her child who could be seen as sort of a monster as well. Both of them develop in a strange way and she can’t control them anymore.
Why did you cast Emily Beecham?
JESSICA HAUSNER: I always have to find actors who are right for the roles. Of course you try to find well-known actors, but in the end it’s more important to find someone who’s surprising and can embody the character. I always look to cast actors who can add something to what I had thought and when I met Emily I was really intrigued because she was able to deliver that sort of nerdy character who is really focused on her work and still has the warmth of a mother even though she doesn’t look like a typical mother.
Why did you cast Ben Whishaw as her scientist colleague?
JESSICA HAUSNER: Ben has this soft, friendly appearance at first, then he can show the other side where he seems to be slightly aggressive or nerdy and not so friendly at all.
He’s good at playing insular characters.
JESSICA HAUSNER: Yes exactly, and that was important because I wouldn’t want to have characters in the film who are that obvious. If I have a character who already is quite strange then he cannot be even stranger and that’s the advantage.
Why did you choose such a strong colour scheme?
JESSICA HAUSNER: I tried to go in the direction of surrealism because when you see the sets, the costumes and the haircuts, you can’t be 100 per cent sure when or where this takes place. So it’s a world of its own but also something that holds good for different ages and different countries.
Given the visual style the film looked like it would veer into genre territory.
JESSICA HAUSNER: I don’t think it’s a genre film. It uses some genre elements and then tries to make something very special out of it. I’m interested in genre films. I love horror films a lot–I love the Body Snatcher films. But normally I prefer to watch the first half; the beginning of Body Snatchers is so funny. It’s perfect as a comedy. You say he’s not the same as he used to be and you look and he’s just the same, so it’s a lot about perception and those ideas you have in your mind. If you think somebody has changed then you see that he has changed. So that interests me. I’d been thinking of making a film until the end where you don’t suddenly see pods from outer space.
The film changes tone halfway from horror to psychological drama about her state of mind and it challenges the audience perception. So you were aiming to do that?
JESSICA HAUSNER: Yes I was. Always the challenge for me is to find that balance that you want to follow as an audience. If you want to see a horror film you mightn’t like it. That’s why in the beginning there’s also a touch of humour in it, so when the plant opens you do have that notion it’s a bit ridiculous. So people don’t expect a slasher film but something a bit different.
Little Joe marks your first film shot in English.
JESSICA HAUSNER: I made Lourdes in French and I enjoyed not to work in my mother tongue because it helped me to find a good distance. When on set I like to keep cool and see it as the audience would like to understand it and to not work in my own language helps me do that. Also genre films are typically American and I thought it works to shoot in English and also I wanted to have a bigger audience to see the film. I like the shortness of the English language. It’s precise and not banal and the German language needs three sentences to say the same thing so I think it works for the genre.
And it works for the humour.
JESSICA HAUSNER: I related strongly to the dark British humour, which was not the case when I shot Lourdes in the French language. That was more difficult to transpose the Austrian humour. Some of the jokes didn’t work but it did in English. I’d like to continue in English. I enjoyed it a lot. It felt natural for me. I have a new project, which is a continuation of the idea of Little Joe. It’s also about parenting or parents who don’t have time for their children. It’s about a teacher who takes care of the children of parents who are workaholics.
You work with the same crew.
JESSICA HAUSNER: Yes I’m very loyal. I like that over the years I go one step further in this collaboration with cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, also with the costume and set designer. I feel we even ventured further into the surreal visuals here.
You seem to have had a dream run as a woman filmmaker.
JESSICA HAUSNER: Yes I’ve had a dream run, but I’ve seen many male colleagues passing me. Still I couldn’t complain.
There are four woman directors in the Cannes competition. Do you think a quota could help to ensure there are more?
JESSICA HAUSNER: Quotas do help but you have to be careful. If everybody knows there’s a quota they will doubt the power of the decision.
Does your interest in Frankenstein stem from the fact that science is almost there with cloning?
JESSICA HAUSNER: Yes, that’s a very interesting topic. The whole body snatcher idea has always been linked to the idea of cloning. It has always been mankind’s fear. The zombie idea is a basic human fear. I think it has to do with the fear of the foreigner, the fear of people you can’t understand, who you don’t know. So zombies are actually a metaphor for the stranger.