Simon Stone doesn’t shirk a challenge. Five years ago, still in his twenties, he was appointed resident director at Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre. His first move was to completely rewrite 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, resetting it into contemporary Australia. It was a hit. These drastic rewrites became something of a hallmark for Stone. He did it again in 2013 when he took on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Another hit.
Now Stone has taken his adaptation one step further and turned The Wild Duck into a film, The Daughter. It’s an extraordinarily accomplished cinematic debut – passionate, believable and utterly contemporary – it somehow moves the story about 16,000 kilometres and forward a hundred years, and feels perfectly at home in 2016 Australia.
The setting is an unnamed logging town. Christian (Paul Schneider) returns after a long exile. His old best friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie) works in the mill. His father, played by Geoffrey Rush, owns the mill, and he’s about to close it down, throwing Oliver and his family (Miranda Otto and Odessa Young) into uncertainty. Cue a cycle of resentment and decades-old secrets.
The Daughter, he says, is not an adaptation. It’s a riff on an old classic, a page-one rewrite of the same events. “It’s like John Coltrane playing My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music,” Stone says. “It’s playing with an old idea, but it’s completely new. It’s hardly a cover.”
Like Coltrane, Stone realised he could play with something that people might briefly recognise, but it’s in a totally new context.
“My catalyst is our relationship to old stories,” says Stone. “We often remember the reputation of a piece rather than the piece itself. People think about The Great Gatsby and they think about the way people talk about The Great Gatsby before they think about the book itself.”
It’s a failing in our education system, Stone says. We’re told how to interpret books before we even read them. “That frustrates me. What I try to do is cut through that.”
Stone has similar feelings about the way we analyse Australian cinema.
“I think this idea of looking for the ‘real’ Australian essence is something we need to finally let go of. Australia is nothing but the individual stories of the people who live here. The need to define Australianness always ends up in a very white, middle-class or working-class view. It’s dishonest.
“It’s only countries like Australia that have this complex. No one’s talking about how to be Russian in Russia. The next great step is to stop talking about that.”
Australian cinema has always been extraordinary, argues Stone. For a country of around 24 million people, we have an incredible tradition of cinema.
“People need to stop having this chip on the shoulder about our artistic output,” he says. “I think if people stop being so obsessed with this self-analysis… it’s like working in an office and having to go into the manager’s office for a performance analysis every two hours. How are you supposed to get your job done?
“Let’s have a moratorium on this endless discussion about the state of Australian cinema,” says Stone. “Let’s not do that for 20 years. Then maybe everyone will stop being so fucking scared of what their piece means in this whole national identity argument. Let’s just let it grow and let it be what it needs to be.”
The Daughter is in selected cinemas now.