Although until now they’ve only been known as fashion designers, cinema has always been part of Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s work. The siblings often use films as inspiration for their collections and have delivered runway shows dedicated to the likes of Japanese horror movie Kuroneko among others, their elaborate, stunning designs are also staples of awards season red carpets with actresses like Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman wearing them to festivals and ceremonies. In fact, Portman collected her first Best Actress Oscar in a purple Rodarte gown, after Kate and Laura had designed many of the costumes for Black Swan. After being so immersed in the world of cinema, it seems that making a film was the logical next step, and so they’ve done with Woodshock, a hallucinatory journey into the mind of Theresa (Dunst) a young woman battling depression after the death of her mother.
The universe the film takes place in seems straight out of Steve Klein photography, and Lars von Trier’s cinema with some dashes of Hitchcock thrown in for good measure, a gothic neon playground in which Theresa’s fears are manifested through the threatening indifference of nature. Dunst gives a marvelous performance and considering she’s featured in almost every scene, she’s the Alice guiding us in this wonderland. I spoke to Kate and Laura Mulleavy about how their work in fashion shaped their film, their influences, and how Dunst almost became the third sibling.
You’ve done music videos with Beach House and other artists, so you’re no strangers to audiovisual work.
Laura Mulleavy: Yeah, with our company Rodarte we worked with Todd Cole, who’s a dear friend of ours. We did three shorts, he was the director and basically what we did was take the idea of the collection and map out the feeling of that which we turned into short films. Those were fully Todd’s vision, we worked with Beach House on one, No Age on the other, and also Deerhunter.
One of my favorite things about Rodarte is that magical juxtaposition of materials you use to make clothes. You bring this sensibility to Woodshock and I hope this doesn’t sound too mystical, but I wondered if writing the screenplay you first envisioned the images and then transformed that into a screenplay?
Laura Mulleavy: The script was actually very descriptive. I don’t know if we would have known it at the time, but looking back on it I would say “this is what it means that this was meant to be.” The script could’ve looked any way, if someone else had directed they might have used a more straightforward visual language, but to us the idea of turning this internal world external, made it very important that the language of the film had to be descriptive to the audience. In order to do that, if Theresa is communicating through touch, or what she’s hearing, she’s communicating to the audience by the way we portray her emotions, that needs to be in mental landscape you guys can hop into and see as her own world. We didn’t want it to feel objective. The movie is about what she’s feeling. Based on your own experience, hopefully you can latch onto some parts of the story, the idea was to say Theresa undergoes an extreme form of death at the beginning and she is reactive to that. The story unfolds as she internalizes and looks inward, that asks questions of the audience about themselves. It’s a very immersive, interactive story.
Kate Mulleavy: From the script writing process we were also very descriptive. We took description further, we described light for instance. Then we shot the whole film on camera except for the scene where the house floats which was the only thing we did in post-production.
Even the scene where Theresa floats is real?
Kate Mulleavy: We actually rigged Kirsten and had her go up 100 feet through the air.
That’s so scary!
Kate Mulleavy: I wish she was here to tell you some stories. I think that like you pointed out there is something mystical, because Laura and I grew up on the edge of a beautiful old, redwood forest. Where we shot the film was north of where we grew up, the trees there get to be bigger than the Statue of Liberty, they’re the largest living organisms on the planet. I feel when we were kids in some of these forests. There was something that stayed with us our whole life. Being in the presence of those trees makes you think how small you are in the whole scheme of life. We have so much impact and there are so many opportunities for humanity to achieve beauty, but there’s the flipside where it can be very destructive.
Laura Mulleavy: The trees inspire, that river you see in the movie for instance made me think of something like a great mythical Greek birth. You see Theresa become part of the landscape. I always think those trees make you feel there is another presence. What does a tree that’s 400 feet tall, four thousand years old, say to you? It’s not just an object, their power speaks to Theresa, she is aware of their energy.
Kate Mulleavy: In a way the film that came to life onscreen comes from that feeling. What we were trying to do is say if she’s born out of this landscape. There is a psychic vibration to this place. We go on a journey with her and Kirsten had a tremendous task as an actor, which was to take the things in her mind, heart, and soul and just get that onscreen with not a lot of dialogue. What was exciting for us as women, was to have these huge existential ideas of man as an artist or creator, questioning the meaning of life, and we responded to the idea of creating a female character who would go through those emotions.
Laura Mulleavy: That’s interesting Kate, because elements of creation like Mother Nature are described as women. In this day and age there is a complicated dialogue about gender, but I felt this could be explored in a mystical way, and that’s why this voice had to be Theresa’s.
Kate Mulleavy: There’s no good or bad in the film. We wanted to explore sides of humanity we don’t always connect to. In an interesting way Theresa always interacts with characters who ask her questions.
The trees are also in films like Vertigo, so people know them well.
Laura Mulleavy: Yeah! We wanted to explore this mystical realm with them.
Kate Mulleavy: If you ask me what I feel when I’m there I can’t give you logic, and as human beings we often want that. I can only give you the poetic.
I’m always fascinated by people who go into art after having done something else in their lives. Kate, you were an art history major and Laura you started off in biology, so in a way the movie is a perfect marriage of both your visions.
Kate Mulleavy: Cinema to me is communication through narrative which is a traditional form coming from novel, plays, and picture making which comes from art. Historical paintings told a story, someone would go to watch them, that was their cinema.
The movie starts off with what I think is our biggest fear which is losing our mothers. Did putting this fear onscreen make it feel less scary?
Kate Mulleavy: That’s such a poetic thing, because I think something this film does is show what our fears are. I don’t think we knew when we were doing it that this was what it was about. I wouldn’t want to even think about that, but when it happens people say your world stops. That’s the feeling we wanted to capture in the film. I think the two of us as partners making something together makes us work in an intuitive way. Laura and I have a shared memory bank. When she says something I immediately understand it, we both have a real sensitivity to the things around us. Working with Kirsten added to that level; she’s almost a third sister in the process. Sometimes she’d pull something she knew about us to put in Theresa. We got to open up to her which made for a very creative process.
Laura, you mentioned touch earlier. Watching the film I kept being hypnotized by the textures of the fabric, the tree barks, hair etc. I wanted to touch into the screen.
Laura Mulleavy: I love that so much. I hoped that would translate to the audience, because one of the ways Theresa feels grounded is through her connectivity with things. Kirsten’s acts of touching are incredibly performed but we needed to add a layer to make you feel what she felt. Everything in the film is about textures. Her sweaters are angora. We had layers that made you feel you were part of a tridimensional world. All those things allow you to be part of something immersive, that feeling of wanting to touch is what you feel when you see a redwood. Touch is a great way of communication. The first paintings were done with hands, language started as hand signs. We wanted the film to feel like you could touch it because it was made by someone.
Kate Mulleavy: The house in the movie was built from those trees, we don’t need to tell you that because when you watch the house you can feel it.
Laura Mulleavy: I can’t think of many films that use texture that way. I wondered where that came from and I don’t know. I don’t even have a reference, maybe just in art. The idea of Gerhard Richter is where we started — he smeared his canvases and wipe out this history, I think even the idea of rubbing your hand on something came from his paintings.
Watching the film’s textures made me think of a couple of things, John Waters’ Polyester with the Odorama cards you’d scratch and sniff…
Kate Mulleavy: They reissued it when I was in school. They did a screening with the scratch and sniff, so I went to see it in San Francisco.
Laura Mulleavy: I love that!
Also those books for little kids with the different textures. Also, how in fashion sketches you have little fabric samples. Cinema itself has a very “designery” lingo, people cut film like fabric, we hear about threads too. I thought maybe that’s where that came from, so I’m curious: where did you feel that fashion and film intersected?
Laura Mulleavy: I thought they intersected in two ways: we’ve always maintained our company as independent. We did that in order to protect our creativity and to say this is our vision and this is what we want to do, we want to share with the world what we have to say. That’s what we wanted to carry into the film. A runway show for instance is like pure theatre. We do it once and whatever happens happens. Working on a film is about perfection. The thing that we were trained is to go on set, have a voice, and let people know we were 100% there to protect our vision. That I learned from design, that our voice is the voice we have to offer. I don’t need to be that other person’s voice, because there’s that other person making it. I need to be us, hopefully that can create an idea people connect to, but I learned it’s important to protect that space. Our purpose is to guide the ship and make sure the people on board care about the project as much as you do, and that their language matches yours.
Kate Mulleavy: You find a way to tell a story and you learn to use all the elements. Coming from design I learned that you can do so much in the smallest gesture. I think that’s thrilling. With the smallest gesture you can make people cry. I’ve seen it in our shows. I felt taking that and expanding that into filmmaker made me realize it’s as much about the biggest understanding as much as the small moments. We lived in those details.
Woodshock is now in limited release.