Interview: Producer Paul Welsh discusses ‘Lore’, the film’s journey to the screen and director Cate Shortland
Lore is director Cate Shortland’s long-awaited follow-up to Somersault, her acclaimed 2004 drama and feature film debut that was also an international breakthrough for stars Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington. A UK/Australia/Germany co-production, the new film is similarly concerned with a young female protagonist. Following the defeat of the Nazis, teenager Lore must guide herself and her destitute siblings through Germany in the dying days of the Second World War. Her parents having been arrested by Allied Forces for their Nazi ties, Lore has assimilated many of their anti-Semitic values, and must come to terms with the horrors of Hitler’s rule now coming to light for the German population.
Ahead of its recent Glasgow Film Festival showing prior to the film’s theatrical release in the UK, I spoke to one of Lore‘s producers, Paul Welsh, about the film’s interesting, lengthy production process, its influences, and what qualities he saw in Shortland as a potential director choice.
Is this one of your first films made outside of the UK?
Yeah, I guess it is. This is my second feature film that I’ve produced. Both of them have been made and shot outside of Scotland, but I’m Scottish-based. This is my first international film.
I thought it quite impressive that your first one should be such a wide-reaching international production, with Germany and Australia involvement. How did you and the other producers become involved?
I guess I’m the originating producer so I was given the manuscript for Lore before it was published – by the author Rachel Seiffert – in 1999, and I read it, and thought immediately when I read it that this would make a great film. But I’d only been making films, at that point, for a couple of years – short films – and I really had no idea how to go about it, so I just acknowledged, to her and myself, that it would make a great film and then waited. The book was published – that features the story of Lore as part of a trilogy – as The Dark Room. It was published to great acclaim and there was a lot of interest in the material from producers internationally, but Rachel was careful about it; she knew what could happen to sensitive or delicate stories [that] in filmmaking often suffer.
She wasn’t rushing to sell it or auction it out for somebody to adapt, and about three years after it was published I had built up a bit more experience and I asked Rachel, quite seriously, if I could auction it through my company which was just beginning. I felt a bit more confident about my own ability to do something with it, and she agreed, so I formally took it on as a film project through my company. Around about the same time, within about six months of doing that, I met Cate Shortland at the Edinburgh [International] Film Festival. I hadn’t actually gone to script with the novel, I just had the novel [and] I had money from Scottish Screen at the time to develop a screenplay, and I had a screenwriter attached, Robin Mukherjee, and I didn’t have a director and was looking at films with a view to finding a director. I saw Somersault – which was Cate’s first film – at Edinburgh and it made a good impression on me, and then I met Cate and we got on really well and, putting two and two together, I hoped that she would like the material so I gave her the book. She read the book; halfway through it she got back in touch, said she really liked it, loved the writing, [and] really responded very positively to the material. I immediately agreed that I’d be happy to work with her to try to make the film.
So at that point it was a Scottish film project, if you like, with an Australian director [and] with money from Scotland to develop it but nobody else involved. But with Cate involved, there was naturally the possibility of raising money in Australia… and it’s set in Germany, so in my mind, as an independent film, it would always be, at the very least, a UK/Australian/German co-production. But at that point I didn’t have an Australian or German co-producer, but Cate introduced me to Liz Watts, a really experienced, fantastic producer in Sydney, and I met a number of German producers through a programme that I was on… and one of those German producers I met eventually became the German co-producer on the film, I think in 2009. The material and the talent involved determined the structure of the project in terms of financing, and that’s essentially what happened; it was very difficult to get all that money from those territories, but the basic structure was driven by the story and the people involved.
I gather you were obviously a fan of Somersault. I was wondering if, aside from just being a fan of the film, you approached Cate because you saw any similarities between her approach with Somersault and what you had in mind for Lore?[One of] the two things that struck me about Somersault was the moral ambiguity of the story, the psychological terrain. When I watched the film, I loved and loathed the main character… I felt very mixed feelings about her, but ultimately I still felt for her. I knew that Lore needed somebody who could negotiate that type of character, because Lore is the sort of character you can love and loathe, but ultimately have to feel for in a very direct, sort of human way.
The other thing was the sensuality of Somersault. I knew, reading Rachel’s writing, that the tactile nature of the world that the children were in, the physicality of that world [and] the immediacy of it, was something that whoever was going to direct the film needed to have [in their] sensibility… When I saw Somersault, that was what I got from it: this sensual, evocative style of direction. That combined with the psychology was what made me interested in Cate. I never spoke to any other director about it; I never approached any other director. When I saw [Somersault] I just made the decision.
In watching Lore, I was quite struck by some of its stylistic similarities to Somersault. In some ways it felt like a companion piece to the prior film despite some radically different narrative content. Did Cate ever voice such intent when she got involved?
I think initially Cate was maybe a little bit wary about taking on a story about a young woman coming of age with this burgeoning sexuality that is now a big part of Lore’s character, that wasn’t necessarily there in the early stages of the development of the project but it came more to the fore. In 2004, within a few months of releasing Somersault, she was being given a book which was about a young girl, but by the time she made the film it’s a long time since Somersault so she probably wasn’t as sensitive to that direct correlation. More importantly, I think the subject matter was challenging for her; the precise nature of the politics of that family and the time it was set, the implications of the story in terms of what they [the parents] had done and what they’d been involved with. That was a challenging aspect of it for her because of her own feelings about that, her own family history with her German-Jewish family and their experience during the war, so I think ultimately it’s sort of coincidental what Lore’s built around. I think the thing that ultimately drew her towards it was the subject, and the point of view was apt for her, but if it hadn’t been about that subject, told the way it was, she wouldn’t have been involved.
When the book was being proposed for film adaptation, was there any serious consideration to adapt the other stories within it?
I only went after the middle section. Cate had read the whole book and she wanted to do the last story, which is the story of a young man in contemporary Germany trying to find out about his grandfather’s behaviour during the war. I was only interested in doing Lore, so Cate agreed but [which story to do] was something we discussed and debated. I felt Lore was the most radical story of the three. However, out of context, [the novel’s story of] Lore doesn’t make much sense. In terms of the novel, if you read Lore, it makes more sense sitting in the trilogy than it does by itself. Each of those feeds the other, so what we tried to do when adapting for film was try to get in the emotional qualities of the first and third stories of The Dark Room, which could inform the characterisation of Lore as we developed her for the screen. Some of the fanaticism and blind commitment that the young man shows towards the regime in the first story are characteristics we wanted Lore to have, which wasn’t shown with Lore in the book. She didn’t need to show it because the first story’s protagonist had shown it. Lore doesn’t get angry in the book, but the third story’s protagonist gets angry for her. We tried to feed some of that anger into Lore’s characterisation for the screen. In a way it’s an emotional amalgamation of Rachel’s characters… that was consciously part of our thinking in the mid-stage of developing the script.
I’m sure this has come up a lot, but at what stage of production was it decided that the film would fully be in the German language, and was that a struggle at all?[Laughs] Yeah. We’d been working on it together for two or three years. Robin [Mukherjee] had been adapting the story, and myself, Robin and Cate were in Germany in 2007 on a research trip; it was the first time we’d all come together in the Northern hemisphere again after having started the thing. We went to Sachsenhausen, which is the concentration camp that’s on the very edge of Berlin… that’s how close it was to everyday [life]. We’d been there during the day, and that evening we were having our dinner in a cafe and Cate said, “Listen, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it in German because I don’t think I can tell it any other way.” We were getting deeper into the material, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that we had to make it as authentic and real as possible to try and do justice to what it was about. When she said it, I knew that was practically for me a big issue because if you rely on money from Britain, you need an English language element to generate a big part of the finance; that’s just the way it is. I knew it was creatively the right decision, but I knew practically it was going to make my job harder in trying to pull the film off. But I didn’t disagree, I agreed and we went on from there. So this was in 2007, and we shot the film in 2011, so about three to four years before we shot it, we decided to do it in German and I would say that it probably added a couple of years to the amount of time it took to finance the film. Certainly a year to a year and a half, maybe two years.
Outside of Cate’s own sensibilities, were there any other notable filmic influences on the production?
One major influence, which was also an influence for Rachel, was the [Elem] Klimov film Come and See, an unbelievably strong film about war and the experience in Belarus at the time of the Nazi invasion. [Cate] loves the sort of lyrical filmmakers; she loves people like Lynne Ramsay, and there’s a lot of work she responds to for its lyrical naturalism and sense of time and place. In terms of our practice and in our directing in a foreign language with children, we looked towards people like [Swedish filmmaker] Lukas Moodysson, who made Lilya 4-Ever in Russian with a young cast and worked hard with a dramaturge to try and manage that relationship. So some of the structure that we put in place for Lore was influenced by other filmmakers’ attempts… we talked a lot about Babel and Lilya 4-Ever where people are working in second languages, or languages they don’t speak, and still getting great performances. We looked at how they actually achieved that, and tried to create a structure for Cate which supported that.
Lore is currently playing in limited release, and is also available through some on-demand services.