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Twin Cinema: An Interview with 'Rabbit' Writer/Director Luke Shanahan

October 25, 2017Ben MK

In the psychological thriller Rabbit, Adelaide Clemens (SundanceTV's Rectify) plays Maude Ashton, an Australian medical student studying abroad who's haunted by mysterious visions and the unexplained disappearance of her identical twin sister, Cleo, one year earlier. But when a health scare has her on the next flight back home, Maude finds herself becoming a part of the puzzle, as she, Cleo's fiancé (Alex Russell) and the cop assigned to the missing persons case (Jonny Pasvolsky) attempt to retrace Cleo's last-known steps.

A slow-burning mystery that takes viewers down the deep, dark rabbit hole of the human psyche, Rabbit made its Canadian debut at this year's Toronto After Dark film festival. And I spoke with its writer/director, Luke Shanahan, about the inspirations behind the film, its themes and symbology, the cast and more.

Rabbit is fairly ambitious for a debut feature. During its first half, viewers are drawn into the mystery of this young woman who's trying to uncover the truth of what happened to her identical twin sister, but in its second half, the narrative unspools to reveal that it's all a piece of a larger psychological puzzle. Can you tell me more about your inspirations for the movie, whether they be personal experience or the work of other filmmakers?

Shanahan: The idea popped up fairly randomly at a lunch one day. I was catching up with an old friend who was an identical twin. I knew she wasn't close with her sister much anymore, yet she had chatted with her the night before. She told me that she still annoyed her but she couldn't escape her. She then went on to say — "I'd feel it if she was getting tortured, though." What a great line, and such an unusual thing to say. Essentially, I was chasing the idea of two siblings and a relationship where intimacy had essentially driven a pair of siblings apart. With that idea, my mind was suddenly filling with '70s horror imagery and Rabbit was born. What if the twins from The Shining stumbled onto Ruth Gordon and her secret coven from Rosemary's Baby?

There's no shortage of themes and symbology present throughout the film, from the title, which — aside from being a reference to a childhood game played by Maude and Cleo — I presume is an allusion to "Alice in Wonderland," to the twin symbology, to the theme of fate. When you were writing the script, how did you envision the themes and the symbology as working in unison, and did the process of bringing your script to the screen present any challenges in terms of maintaining that vision?

Shanahan: I had always seen the script (and indeed, the film) as two halves, mirroring the two twins. The first half exists as the MAUDE portion of the story and is more narrative-driven, as the studious twin tracks down her sister. The second half is CLEO — but yet seen through Maude's eyes. It's dreamlike, more a suggestion of her entrapment within the big house, and yet midway through the second half I wanted an idea that the twin stories overlap and become one. I detail this in the film when Maude cuts her hair and starts to bleed (just like her sister), as if to signify her becoming Cleo in a metaphysical sense. I wanted to suggest that both stories can come perilously close — but in the end, there are subtle differences. There is always a variable. We can alter the story, we have choice.

Have you always been fascinated with twins, especially identical twins? What do you think makes the notion of twins so compelling, especially to filmmakers in the horror genre, and what are some of your favorite twin-themed genre films?

Shanahan: An idea of "twins" gave me the imagery more than a specific tone or influence. For me, I was into a mood, and that mood was '70s horror with an almost euro-tinged visual aesthetic. But I'd be remiss to not say that Kubrick and The Shining was not a huge influence, and I don't think I'm the first director to say that. Really, if you could bottle the imagery of The Shining with Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now and The Wicker Man — you got me. And you got Rabbit. I think twin imagery is just scary. It's creepy to see a reflection of yourself and even scarier when it's standing right next to you.

Tell me about the cast of Rabbit. Adelaide Clemens is fantastic in the lead role, and obviously the movie very much relies on her performance. But the rest of the cast also had to be at the top of their game. How did you come upon this ensemble of actors, and did you strive to keep a light mood on set, particularly since the tone of the film is so serious?

Shanahan: I got very lucky with my casting, for sure. Alex Russell and I have been friends for a long time and I knew he was the guy for RALPH, and Adelaide was just remarkable and timing played a great hand in getting her. We share the same manager, and at first our schedule clashed with the last season of Rectify. But after a slight wrangling of our dates, we managed to push back and get her at the right time. As luck would have it, Veerle Baetens was also suggested to us and was available. This was her first English-speaking feature role after her amazing turn in The Broken Circle Breakdown.

What was really crucial was that we all got on the same page in regards to the tone of the film. It was to be played straight, nothing was too arch or over the top. The baddies were never to be maniacal or crazy; everyone believes that they're doing the right thing, and the tone of performance is quite measured because of that. I find it scarier that people are conducting experiments on twins yet no one raises their voice, like ever, and in a way, everyone in this crazy world has a respect and love for each other — however misguided and screwed up that is.

But on set, we laughed a lot in between takes — I put that down to the director having a 6-year-old's energy after eating a bowl of sugar.

Tell me about the music score for Rabbit. There's an abstract quality to it, and it's also quite strong and foreboding. What was the creative process like between you and the composer, Michael Darren, in crafting such an atmospheric accompaniment for the film?

Shanahan: I'm very very proud of this score. From the outset I wanted a '70s kind of John Carpenter synth score mashed up with an Dario Argento twist. A kind of Suspiria/Goblin kind of mix. I love being deliberate and loud, and the mix reflects that. Somewhere along the line, music in films has become soft — a sense of being seen and "not" heard. I didn’t want underscore. I wanted music that shouted loud, "Here I am, this is a film!"

The sense of dread that the music suggests use to be kind of indicative of the genre. Bernard Herrmann did it for Psycho, [John] Williams did it for Jaws. It was a sense of impending doom, and I liked my horror film watching experience to be guided by such aural cues. The creative process basically involved me and Mike getting together and going through my music collection. I love soundtracks, I have a million of them — and at times we just turned the pictures off and listened to the film.

A good film can still work by just hearing it.

Similarly, Anna Howard's cinematography works in conjunction with the score to really set the mood of the film. Was the look and visual language of Rabbit something that was established early on, or did it organically develop over the course of filming?

Shanahan: Anna is a dream to work with, and it was really important for me to have a female eye and perspective on the story. I also did this with Amy Baker (Production design) and Anita Seiler (Costume). This wasn't merely a gesture, as all these amazing artists were the best people for the job, but I was conscious about not making this female story be told by a bunch of guys.

Anna and I do many many commercials together, and we have a very good shorthand way of communicating. We looked at paintings to gather a visual feel for the film. I wanted long-shots, and again a throwback to 70's staging. I would set up the scene by blocking the master-shots and then we would devise coverage. We never over-covered. The actors and Anna and I would really detail the master shots so that the actors would then know that we weren't going to be exhausted with 50 close-ups that would never be used anyway.

I love the look of the film, and the weather was also a godsend. The sun didn't come out for any of the shoot (we used a few plate shots for a few scenes to level the color out) so this all helped the dreary sense of dread that we wanted in the visual. It doesn't look like the A-typical Aussie sunshine, more like a Swedish winter. I love that and I think the mood of the film works under that palette much more effectively.

Rabbit is receiving its Canadian premiere at Toronto After Dark 2017.

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