Sarah Spillane on directing lesbian sex scenes and “Around the Block”

Tonight, out Australian director Sarah Spillane‘s new drama Around the Block opens in Los Angeles. The Aussie-based film stars Christina Ricci as an American teacher in an economically depressed, largely Aboriginal neighborhood in Sydney called Redfern, where she’s moved with her boyfriend. Ricci’s character, Dino, begins to direct her students in a production of Hamlet, hoping to inspire them and keep them from the world of crime, destitution and racism that is around them. Meanwhile, she figures out she’s living a lie, and frequently drives to see her ex-love, Kate (Andrea Demetriades), through the windows of the restaurant she works in. Ruby Rose makes an appearance in the film as a patron of a lesbian bar Dino goes to, and their several minutes-long love scene is the only sexual content in Around the Block.

We spoke with Sarah about directing that scene, the inspiration for the film, and what she thought of Blue is the Warmest Color.

_H__7264_final I know that you wrote the script for Around the Block. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the story?

Sarah Spillane; I’m an avid reader of philosophy. I wrote the script a number of years ago and was very interested in this concept in existentialism, or existential freedom. Basically asking the question: Are we, as individuals—do we have the potential to be free and make our own choices that determine our life, regardless of our background, our religions, our sexuality, all of the the kinds of thing that seem to define us?

You know, basically the idea sort of came about because I was living in Redfern at the time, which is where the story is set, and I was surrounded by predominantly an Aboriginal community that was a fairly economically disadvantaged and sort of socially disadvantaged community. So my friends and people I was living with in this neighborhood seemed to be about as far as away from this concept of personal freedom as I could imagine. So it just became a perfect backdrop to kind of look at this issue.

And then obviously there’s a certain connection between the character Christina Ricci plays and myself—I happened to be teaching in Redfern at the time so I was able to really parallel her storyline and figure out what are the social issues that are holding her back from being free. Therefore it became sort of an examination of the truth, sort of what is expected of her in her lifestyle and how she breaks through from those expectations.


AE: It becomes clear that Dino, even though she’s with a man, is in love with a woman and seems to be more interested in women, sexually. What can you say about that storyline?

SS: It was really, again, Christina’s character—the character of Dino—undergoes her own existential transformation and what that involves for her is that she finds a way to be truthful to who she really is and so what is suggested in the backstory is that Christina’s character, her true love is this woman Kate and she’s absolutely, hopelessly in love with this woman. But at certain point, she chose to end that relationship to pursue a conventional life, which is a white middle-class dream, a heterosexual marriage and they talk about buying a house in the film—they talk about closing out, she’s living a very conventional lifestyle. She reaches a certain point that is really inspired by what she’s teaching these kids, she reaches a point where she says, “You know what? I’m being a hypocrite. I need to be true to who I am, and that means being truthful to the person that I love,” which is this woman, Kate.

AE: How did you come to cast Christina Ricci?

SS: When I first wrote the script, I always knew I wanted a foreigner in that lead role. When I say foreigner, I mean foreign to Australia. It was really important that the character could approach this story and this community with no baggage, sort of a fresh perspective and almost a sense of idealism. So immediately I started thinking of American actresses and Christina is someone I admire as an actress, 100 percent. I think she chooses to be involved with, they’re always different and so interesting. Every role she plays is different. And she’s also got a certain edge that I think is believable that she would be in Redfern. There are certain actresses that I also admire, but I just couldn’t see them in a classroom in a kind of Sydney slum neighborhood. So Christina was just perfect in that sense and I was just thrilled. I was over here working in a different project. I’m not based here in Los Angeles and have been for the last five years.

We sat down and just talked through—she had some questions and we just wanted to make sure we were both on the same page and how we saw the story and her character and she was absolutely on board so I was thrilled with that.

AE: And Ruby Rose?

SS: Ruby Rose and I have been friends for a number of years now. We’re good friends and we’ve collaborated on a couple of different projects—not necessarily feature film projects but different projects we’ve been collaborating together. I kind of wrote that role for Ruby, because she—I just admire Ruby so much and I think we’ve only just seen the beginning of what she’s capable of. And she was interested in exploring acting as opposed to—she’s much more known as a presenter or personality. It’s kind of like baby steps—you don’t want to throw someone who has already got a profile in a lead role. It’s just all about creating a role that’s true and authentic, but kind of giving her a taste of drama. So I wrote that for her and she was excited about getting to work so intimately with Christina.

AE: “Here’s your first movie—now have sex with Christina Ricci!”

SS: [laughs] It’s not a bad way to start your acting career, huh?


SS: I hadn’t directed a love scene like that before. I have to be honest: it was the scariest thing in the entire film for. Because the whole story is quite personal, but that sequence it was like—I knew exactly what I wanted achieve and capture in that scene, but you’re working with Christina who is such an experience professional actress, but who is straight and working with Ruby who is not very experienced in terms of feature films and drama, but she’s gay so it was really, to be brutally honest,I was little bit scared walking in and doing that scene. But at the same time, what we ended up doing, I talked to both Christina and Ruby—I had a small rehearsal period in the lead up and I talked to them both independently, just to really remove the potential awkwardness and just talk to through the scene very technically. Like “OK, there are three very specific beats that I want to hit,” and that is when Christina enters the room, there is still a sense of resistance. And once she kind of turns around to Ruby and commits to that moment, it becomes incredibly sensual, passionate and once again, very truthful of why Christina’s character wants to be with this woman.It’s something about that feminine sensuality I really wanted to come out.

And so on the day, we ended up having a lot of fun with it and it was a closed set and we sent all the blokes out of the room. It was just the three of us on our beautiful set and we really had a good time and when the crew came in it was very professional and almost very technical to get the kind of action and once you started rolling,Christina and Ruby, pardon the pun, but really went for it and that was kind of hot.

AE: Have you seen Blue is the Warmest Color?

SS: Yes, I have.

AE: I’m wondering as a lesbian director, directing a lesbian sex scene, what do you think about the sex scene in that film, which was directed by a straight man?

SS: Look I really admire that film. I really enjoyed it. I know there’s been a bit of controversy around those sex scenes. I thought they were very authentic. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but he must have, absolutely must have, spoken to a lot of gay women and done his own research and the same with the actresses. Sex is sex, isn’t it? We all have our own styles and we all know what we like. Those actresses found the truth and there has to be some sort of connection and chemistry between actors and I think it’s about working with what is real and what is there. I don’t know the director of Blue is the Warmest Color personally, but I feel he must have created—the most important thing, and this goes for Around the Block as well, is creating a safe environment for the actors to be able to explore and find the truth in those moments. He must have done that so well to be able to evoke those performances.

AE: As an out director, do you think your projects will all have queer elements to them or does it vary story by story?

SS: It’s story by story. I’m really excited, the next project I’m doing is much, much bigger scale than this one and there’s no specifically gay characters in it, but at the same time I’m always drawn to stories about underdogs. Whether that’s underdogs due to sexuality or persecution or even sort of gender discrimination, racial, religious—whatever it is. I guess it goes back to the idea of this existential freedom: Can we overcome the obstacles that are around us?

Around the Block opens at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood tonight. It will be available nationwide via video-on-demand mid-August.