South Solitary

South Solitary

South Solitary

Cast: Miranda Otto, Barry Otto, Marton Csokas, Rohan Nichol, Reef Ireland, Essie Davis, Benson Adams, Annie Martin.
Director: Shirley Barrett
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 120 minutes

Synopsis: South Solitary follows Meredith (Miranda Otto), unmarried and 35, who arrives at a remote lighthouse island in 1927 to assist her uncle Wadsworth (Barry Otto), in his newly appointed position as head lighthouse keeper. Bad weather and misadventure leave Meredith marooned on the desolate island with only the sullen and withdrawn assistant keeper Fleet (Marton Csokas) for company. A windswept and gently comic romance about the great human need for companionship.

Written and directed by Shirley Barrett (Love My Way, Love Serenade), produced by Marian Macgowan (Two Hands, Death Defying Acts) and stars Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings, Blessed), Barry Otto (Australia), Marton Csokas (Romulus, My Father), Essie Davis (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Rohan Nichol in his first Australian feature film.

Release Date: July 29th, 2010

Director's Statement- Shirley Barrett
The idea for "South Solitary" was borne of many long happy hours in the State Library reading accounts of life on remote Tasmanian lighthouse islands - particularly Maatsuyker, Tasman and Deal Islands - before the advent of radio communications.

They were thrilling stories of homing pigeons that wouldn't home, precipitous haulage ways up which provisions were perilously landed, supply ships endlessly delayed by bad weather, and of course, the infamous tale of the body preserved in the bathtub. Insatiable for lighthouse lore after all this, I delved into the National Archives where the original logbooks kept by the lightkeepers are stored, and here their lonely isolated world opened up even more. In the "Remarks" columns of the 1927 logbooks of Maatsuyker Island, tersely worded accounts emerged of one Assistant Keeper endlessly putting locks on the doors of his quarters (who amongst the other keepers did he not trust?), and finally succumbing to a haemorrhage from the lungs. I wondered if this was the after-effects of gas, and whether this Keeper had been a returned soldier.

One aspect I found particularly touching about life on these remote outposts was how attached the keepers and their families became to their animals. The homing pigeons were so lovingly tended they showed a marked reluctance to leave, which was a problem if the message they needed to relay was urgent. One lighthouse keeper's daughter talked of doting on a chicken, which she'd put in a high chair and feed like a baby, explaining plaintively "It was something alive, you see." Idiosyncratic behaviour amongst livestock was not only tolerated, but practically indulged - a horse on Tasman Island would regularly release the taps and empty the water-tanks; a goat on South Solitary Island was well-known for his tendency to bail up the women in their own kitchens. These animals had become companions to these people in their isolation, and this general theme of our great human need for companionship began to emerge as the script took shape.

Once the script was written, Marian Macgowan and I gamely embarked on the first of several epic trips to find the perfect location. Of course, right from the outset, I doggedly insisted on shooting on Maatsuyker Island, the southernmost lighthouse island in the Southern hemisphere, known for its stunning topography and wild weather. It was helicopter access only and even then, there was no guarantee the helicopter would actually be able to land. The budget practically tripled. Finally I grudgingly conceded on this point, and after an extensive search which included England and Ireland, we finally settled on mainland Victoria - in particular, rugged Cape Nelson with its classic whitewashed lighthouse cottages and spectacular cliffs and Cape Otway, in which beautiful lighthouse we filmed the prism lens and service room interiors.

Miranda Otto and I had worked together very happily many years ago on "Love Serenade", and I had written the part of Meredith with her in mind. We had a lovely collaboration on this. We would pore over 1927 issues of the Australian Ladies Home Journal and Hobart Mercury. We would imagine what movies Meredith wanted to see, and what clothes she would be attempting to fashion for herself. We would write letters to each other in character (I was her passive-aggressive best friend, Myra). She is a wonderfully gifted actress, and I think her performance is absolutely beautiful in its detail and heart and humour. I give her all the credit, as she requires practically no direction!

But I feel very fortunate with all my wonderful cast and indeed, my crew. They threw themselves into our world with gusto and good humour, and it wasn't always easy. The haulage was referred to grimly as "The Appallage", owing to its extreme steepness and slipperiness. The lighthouse service room was every bit as awkward and cramped as it looks on film - if you were over 5 foot 8, you were perpetually smashing your head on the gantry above, and we lived in fear of plummeting down the perilous lighthouse stairwell. Cape Otway lighthouse is purported to have its own ghost, and certainly some vexatious spirit was messing about with our lanterns up there, causing our Gaffer much grief.

But mostly it was the weather that plagued us. I had a vision (always dangerous in a director) of our imaginary island being a perpetually grim and overcast place, with perhaps just a small patch of sunshine permitted at the end of the film as love blossoms between our two leads. Of course, no sooner had we unpacked the cameras from the truck and commenced arguing about where to point them when a hitherto unheard-of high pressure system moved in and settled itself tidily over a five-kilometre radius of our lighthouse. Aghast, we dived indoors and filmed every last one of our interior scenes, but still these unseasonally fine and warm conditions prevailed. Not a cloud in the sky! "We never get this weather at this time of year!" the locals informed us gleefully while pocketing the vast sums we spent drinking in their bars. Our second A.D. spent his lifeharassing weather forecasters while standing on the one patch of elevated terrain where phone reception actually worked; our First A.D.- normally a cheerful fellow - was to be found slump-shouldered at the lunch table, staring mournfully at the tattered remains of his schedule.

And yet... and yet the clouds finally came..... just enough to shoot the most critical scenes. How our spirits soared. Miranda Otto practically skipped onto set. It was a long time after the shoot before any of us were able to open our curtains in the morning and feel any kind of normal gladdening of the heart at the sight of a sunshiny day.

The animals were as much a comfort to us in these difficult times as they must have been to the original light keepers. The lambs particularly were doted upon - pin-ups of Bill, the cutest lamb of all (seen with Miranda Otto in the opening sequence) lined the make-up bus. And yet it was our older sheep, Sausage, who carried all the more demanding scenes. Oddly enough, it became apparent that Sausage saw himself as more than mere set dressing; he had given some serious thought to his performance. Keeping a wary eye on what lens we were using, he could often be seen craning his head up to ensure he remained in shot, and on more than one occasion, he would adlib a timely bleat here or there where he sensed a dull spot in my writing (sometimes virtually saving the scene in so doing). I believe Sausage has retired from the business now to pursue a more pastoral lifestyle on our grip's farm, but his performance endures onscreen.

In the end, we didn't have a lot of money to make "South Solitary", but with all that combined skill, artistry, passion and resourcefulness, it turns out we had just enough. Speaking for myself, I have to say it's been one of the most joyful and satisfying collaborative experiences of my life.

The Characters
Meredith Appleton (Miranda Otto)
Meredith Appleton is a 35 year old single woman who works unpaid as an assistant to her demanding Uncle George Wadsworth, a head lighthouse keeper who has been seconded to South Solitary Island. Meredith's past indiscretions have left her reputation tarnished in her Uncle's eyes, and travelling by his side to remote locations. Meredith finds herself alone, starved of affection and in desperate need of companionship.

When writing South Solitary, writer/director Shirley Barrett had always envisioned that actor Miranda Otto would play the role of Meredith Appleton in the film. Otto had previously starred in the 1996 feature film Love Serenade which was written and directed by Shirley Barrett and found that she was able to connect quite easily with her character Meredith, "as Shirley Barrett had written it with me in mind, I think there are things that are quite like me in some ways" says Otto.

Although the character of Meredith has endured a number of difficult incidents in her life, Miranda Otto felt that this only strengthened her character's spirit. "The thing I love about Meredith the most is that she always gets on with it. She gets plenty of blows in her life and things don't go her way but she sort of soldiers on through everything" she reflected "She is somebody who is not quite sure how to shine her light in a way. She gets overlooked a lot and is living in a time in the 1920s where she has lost her fiancée in the first world war and has come into a period where there are not many men around so her chances of getting married have sort of slipped by and an unfortunate incident has left her with this life of working for her Uncle" says Miranda Otto.

Producer Marian Macgowan was also pleased that Miranda Otto was able to take on the role of Meredith. "Shirley Barrett wrote the film for Miranda Otto and we were very lucky that ultimately we were able to use her as well, I think that was a great blessing. She has an enormous sense of comedic intelligence on the screen that you get, plus the nuances of the character and the poignancy of the predicament of this character," says Marian Macgowan.

George Wadsworth (Barry Otto)
George Wadsworth played by accomplished actor, Barry Otto, is a fiercely proud man who holds his position as head Lighthouse Keeper in the highest regard. This perfection extends to all aspects of his life including the high expectations he has for those around him including his subordinate assistant lighthouse keepers and his niece, Meredith Appleton who accompanies him on his work travels.

Wadsworth is seconded to South Solitary after the tragic death of the head lighthouse keeper. He is also there to shake things up and improve the standard of work of the assistant lighthouse keepers, Fleet and Stanley.

"Wadworth's very strict to the point of perfectionist at his job," explains Barry Otto. "There are problems on the island with both the keepers, a sort of slackness of things. The railings of the lighthouse, the brass work and of course all the glass work must be highly polished, and it's to be impeccable. It's just how the whole thing operates, so he (Wadsworth) is very fastidious about all these things," says Barry Otto.

Actor Barry Otto is also the father of Miranda Otto, who plays his niece Meredith in the film. South Solitary is not the first time father and daughter have worked together, having starred in a theatrical production Boy Gets Girl and briefly on screen in the film Dead Letter Office. Barry Otto explains that he is very comfortable working alongside his daughter. "We talk about things early and play off one another. There's nothing strange because I know her work really well and she grew up around my work and the theatre, so we know the world we're in, one of make believe," Barry Otto says.

Miranda Otto also enjoyed the experience of working alongside her father "It's always great when you are working with someone that you already have a relationship with, I think there is a shorthand, certain things come across of your own relationship," says Miranda Otto, but is quick to add "he is a lot kinder father than Wadsworth is an uncle!"

Jack Fleet (Marton Csokas)
Jack Fleet played by actor Marton Csokos, is a troubled soul suffering from shell shock and psychological trauma from his days as a soldier in the army during World War I. Since his suspected desertion, Fleet has been a lighthouse keeper on South Solitary far longer than the two year post requires.

While researching and developing his character, Marton Csokas saw Fleet as a Welshman and presented his idea to Shirley Barrett "It served the character well, as he (Fleet) does not speak a lot, so the lyrical quality that the Welsh accent has, enabled him to have much more articulation in what he says," Marton Csokas explains.

Crucial to the character of Fleet is the emotional burden he carries from his experience serving in World War I. "Fleet has the guilt, the shame and the humiliation of having deserted, and of not being about to maintain his sanity in that environment" says Marton Csokas.

Unlike the other inhabitants on the island, Fleet finds solace in the isolation that South Solitary provides. "He came to the island to get away from everything because any kind of anxiety or situation that pressures him, be it emotional or practical tends to send him into something of a spin," Marton Csokas explains. "When Meredith and Wadsworth arrive, he has to deal with an authority figure that is going to make him accountable for what he's doing which reminds him of the war."

However, it is the gentle relationship that develops over time between Fleet and Meredith, that Marton Csokas believes "enables him to see himself for whom he is, and help her (Meredith) journey, so in the end what happens is a healing process".

Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol)
Harry Stanley, played by Rohan Nichol, is the assistant lighthouse keeper on South Solitary. On the island, Stanley resides with his wife Alma and their three children. An inveterate womaniser, Stanley's wandering eye, lands him in a deal of trouble with wife Alma, and has serious consequences for all on the island. Rohan Nichol attributes his characters indiscretions and lack of responsibility to the fact that Stanley is "an optimist, cruising his way through life. I think of him as a guy who has never really had to give a whole bunch of himself to get by, he's naturally blessed with charisma," he says.

Unlike his troubled colleague Fleet, Rohan Stanley is counting down the days until he can be shipped off South Solitary and posted elsewhere. "He (Stanley) is going crazy with boredom because he has a sort of mercurial temperament," explains Rohan Nichol. "The isolation of being out there that brings the need to connect - and have some sort of rush of blood that is, Meredith opens this for him." Despite his wandering eye and recklessness, Rohan Nichol believes Stanley is a doting father that cares for his wife, saying "Alma is a match for him, he likes to be married to her, despite the fact that he is a philanderer, he still values Alma immensely and he still needs her absolutely."

Alma Stanley (Essie Davis)
Alma Stanley is married to assistant lighthouse keeper Harry Stanley and resides on South Solitary with their three young children. Actor Essie Davis, who plays Alma in the film, says of her character, "Alma is a complicated and complex and I think essentially is a very good woman."

Having to uproot her family and survive on what little South Solitary has to offer, Alma prides herself on her family and her home and voices her opinion at any opportunity she sees fit, especially with her dealings with Meredith Appleton. "It's just the way that she deals with a strange beautiful young woman who's not meant to be there - very abrupt and cold," says Essie Davis.

Essie Davis attributes her characters blunt disposition to her husband Harry Stanley's infidelity. "Unfortunately he has a roving eye so Alma is on the back foot and quite defensive when you meet her," Essie Davis explains

Essie Davis was particularly interested in the role of Alma and the character's connection to writer/director Shirley Barrett. "A lot of my character's history is based on Shirley's grandmother so it was a very personal kind of history rather than general 1920's background," Essie Davis says.

About the Production
The idea for South Solitary came unexpectedly for writer/director Shirley Barrett, "While researching another film about whaling around the Eden South Coast area, I stayed at Green Cape Lighthouse and chanced upon their log books which were really interesting. There had been a really terrible shipwreck down there, and the assistant light keepers had to go and rescue all the people who were drowning. It was fascinating reading because one of the assistant's cottages became the temporary morgue!"

Continues Shirley Barrett, "it just sort of got me interested in lighthouses and then I read further about the Tasmanian lighthouses in particular, Maatsuyker and Tasman Island and some other ones with such stories as homing pigeons that were used as means of communication and not overly successfully, and the body in the bathtub, they were all stories that were based on true events that happened in these extremely remote lighthouse islands, particularly the ones off Tasmania."

Producer Marian Macgowan was quick to come on board with the film after being sent the script by Shirley Barrett's agent. "I have always liked Shirley Barrett's work very much indeed and so I read it over the weekend, in fact I read it twice, I just thought it was so wonderful. I said yes I wanted to do it with her, so we started working on it pretty much straight away after that."

Adds Marian Macgowan, "The script is a film that I, as a human being, respond to very strongly. A lot of the scripts that we look at in a producorial way, something that we believe there is an audience for, that we believe we can finance, or that we think is an important piece of work. I mean obviously you weigh up all those factors when looking at a script, but what I think was most powerful about this one, was it just spoke directly to me about our need to find companionship. And Shirley Barrett told this story in such a humorous, poignant and truthful way."

Although both Shirley Barrett and Marian Macgowan believed in the film from the beginning, getting the film to the production stage proved to be quite a lengthy journey.

"We came on board in 2005 so it's 5 years since we have been involved and that's partly because of the ongoing attempts to make the film the way that Shirley wanted to make it," says Marian Macgowan. "Independent films are always hard to finance. The beautiful romantic story that is 'South Solitary' would be fine if it took place in your back garden, but it becomes a more expensive exercise when you have to travel an entire crew to a remote location. So it's very much a process of persuading people of the vision of the director and the beauty of the final product and finding the right price for that film."

"We were very lucky that the response to the script was so strong and that investors all loved what Shirley Barrett wanted to do. They were admirers of her films, and could see what we wanted to do, and we managed to find the budget," explains Marian Macgowan.

Shirley Barrett adds, "It really was a very long process and we had our share of really great disappointments and it almost fell over 100 times and so when it finally got up it was fantastic!"

Finding a location that would capture the essence of the solitude and harsh environment of South Solitary Island was of upmost importance to writer/director Shirley Barrett and producer Marian Macgowan.

"Our original intention was to shoot the film on Maatsukyer Island, which is the southernmost lighthouse island in Australia," says Marian Macgowan. However issues with accessibility, budget and safety concerns meant the filmmakers had to look elsewhere to find the perfect spot which turned out to be Portland, a town off the southern coast of Victoria.

Marian Macgowan explains the decision, "Portland was chosen partly because of the perfection of the lighthouse, the surrounding cottages, the beautiful wild nature of the landscape, and because Portland also had notoriously bad weather". The cold grey weather was an essential element to the story, and Marian Macgowan and Shirley Barrett believed they had the perfect location with Portland. However, whilst in production Portland enjoyed its hottest weather since 1945, much to the delight of the local residents and the disappointment of the filmmakers.

Reflecting on the unseasonably good weather, Shirley Barrett said "If you are going to make a script that is weather dependent you have to expect this kind of stuff. I think Marian s Macgowan aid "it's not so much a call sheet as a list of suggestions", we just put scenes on the page and then saw what the weather did. If there was any sign of cloud we would dive for our exterior scenes otherwise we would do something interior. So it was a really challenging film but we worked it out remarkably well". For which we owe our 1st Assistant Director a great debt of gratitude.

The blue skies and sunny days was not the only surprise for the South Solitary production. One of the most unexpected coup of the film, as Shirley Barrett recalls was "the discovery of the haulage location, which one of the locals told us about, was 5 minutes down the road from our main location. It was the way they used to have to ship supplies up in Tasmania and we had looked at locations all over Australia and the UK and never found anything! It was unbelievable luck for us" explains Shirley Barrett.

The haulage added to the authenticity of the film, which was something that was very important to the production team. "It was my main goal to try and have as much authentic detail in the story as possible. I like the historical aspect of how people lived, especially domestic life. How people do their washing and do their cooking" says Barrett.

"I was trying not to heighten it beyond what it was. I mean we are already in fantastic locations, beautiful jaw dropping settings, so I just wanted to have an epic and slightly romantic look but to keep it believable. I was really happy in the end to be able to film in the actual lighthouse service room and lantern room" adds Shirley Barrett.

Achieving a balance between the torridness of the natural elements of location and the tender nature of the story was imperative for director of photography Anna Howard. "I wanted a stillness in the camera so that the environment and the actors actually play out the movement within it," says Howard. "I think it's got a lovely pace to it and it's really very gentle and the performances are great and the landscape was magnificent" adds Anna Howard.

The decision to set the film in the 1920s allowed Shirley Barrett to explore the communication methods of the era "I chose the 1920s partly because of the proximity to the First World War and also because radio, wireless and radio communications were introduced to those Tasmanian lighthouses around 1930 so I wanted to get in before they had any means of additional communication."

"At this time, the common practice for communication was reliant on pigeons. That all stopped once they were able to communicate, their position was less isolated. It went on to be a less fraught place to live and so I was interested in those things - extreme isolation, the comedy I suppose of lighthouses, lighthouse keepers being so lonely that they would over feed the pigeons and treat them as pets" explains Shirley Barrett.

Costume designer Edie Kurzer was thrilled to be working with the 1920s. "When you get a period film you can't help but be a little bit excited about what that might mean from a costume point of view and I really felt I was in a position to do a period film." Edie Kurzer adds "There's a lot of contemporary work around at the moment, so it was really exciting to be looking at something set in the 1920s because it's such an interesting time."

"We did a lot of research - I quite like the 1920s as it is just on the edge of being able to speak to people who were alive at that time or the children of people who were alive so it was really great finding some older people to talk about their parents or what they remember from their childhood in various sorts of aspects," says Edie Kurzer.

"People would get quite excited when they're talking about their grandmothers and the pinnies they used to wear and things like the way they'd hold the vegetables in them or they'd turn them inside out when somebody was coming because it was dirty on one side, little details like that I find quite fascinating and broader ways of researching with books and the National Sound and Film archive was very helpful."

A Macgowan Films production, South Solitary was shot over six weeks at Cape Nelson and Cape Otway in southern Victoria and was financed with the assistance of Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Screen NSW, Omnilab Media and private investment.

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