Last year, he won the Directors Guild of America Award for best first-time feature film and the AACTA Award for best director. He was recently in Brisbane for a Q&A screening and it was great to chat to Garth Davis about his follow up feature, Mary Magdalene. Here’s what he had to say…
Matt: We see plenty of biopics made every year but it’s not often we see one about a person born 2,000 years ago. I know you didn’t write the screenplay but what the source material here. How did the writers come up with the script?
Garth: The writers were drawing on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mary. They also drew upon an interpretation of Mary that hasn’t been told before. We all know about the story of her as a fallen woman and prostitute which was confirmed by Pope Gregory in 591 AD but the one we’re telling is the one we believe to be more accurate.
Matt: So why this particular version?
Garth: Everyone felt it was astonishing that her story hadn’t been told before. It’s a beautiful story that acknowledges Mary Magdalene as a great spiritual leader and an incredible apostle. She played a major part in one of history’s great stories.
Matt: How did you become involved in the project?
Garth: It’s my producers’ fault (laughs). I was in post-production on Lion and Emile Sherman and Iain Canning sent over the script. I was intending to take a break but they said I’d like this. There was a bit of trepidation about making a religious movie but I read the script and fell in love with it.
Matt: We’ve seen in recent census here in Australia that the number of people who identify as being from “no religion” has increased significantly. What’s the target audience here? Is this a film for Christians or is the scope wider than that?
Garth: There’s no doubt that this will connect with a wider audience. I don’t have a religious background and I invested a chunk of my life into making this movie because I believe it is a very human, very spiritual telling. Like Lion, it celebrates the themes of unconditional love and forgiveness. They’re themes I want to help bring into the world as an artist.
Matt: It’s interesting that you say you’re not religious yourself. Did you learn a lot out of this process about the story and the way it has shaped religion?
Garth: I was intrigued by the fact it was a world I didn’t understand. That was exciting as a filmmaker. You can go in with an objective viewpoint. On getting involved, I always felt a connection with Mary and her relationship with Jesus. That came from the script. However, all the detail was the stuff that I learned and needed to understand along the way.
Matt: We’re going back 2,000 years in time – how do you go about coming up with a look for the film – from the costumes of the characters to the towns where they live?
Garth: It’s a good question. You have to draw on all the research that exists. I sat down with all my heads of departments and looked at that together. We also visited Israel and retraced the steps of Mary in her journey. That helped a lot. We went to the Sea of Galilee where just recently they’ve discovered the city of Magdala. A guy was building a hotel and dug into the foundations of Magdala town. It was incredible to stand where Mary would have been.
Matt: I remember when Mel Gibson made the Passion of the Christ 15 years ago that he used Latin as the language for the film. You’ve gone with English here which I understand makes it more accessible for the average audience but how did you come to that decision and how do you then settle on the accents and the way that characters speak?
Garth: The common language was Aramaic which we decided to use as English. It really comes down to what you want the film to do. I wanted audiences to relate to this and feel the emotion under the skin of the characters. I didn’t want them to feel like they were watching the History Channel or a documentary. It’s worth noting that the area was a very nomadic place with people moving through there. I love the idea that there were different people with different backgrounds and different accents. It mirrors the global society we’re living in today.
Matt: There’s not as much dialogue in the film as I was expecting. Was that part of the script or a conscious decision on your part?
Garth: There wasn’t much dialogue in Lion either. What’s unique in this story is the spiritual calling. Mary has an undeniable connection to something that is calling her but because of the patriarchal society that she lives in, she can’t explore it. So in a way, it is about the silence and it is about the thing she can’t express and understand just yet. When she finally musters the courage to leave home and follow Jesus, that’s when things start to liven up.
Matt: Talk me through the casting.
Garth: I’d just worked with Rooney on Lion and she’s a very unique actress. During those silences that we just mentioned, she has a worldliness and emotional atmosphere that I felt we needed for the character of Mary. You can feel her searching for something spiritual. As for Joaquin, he’s a great actor. He has so many colours and so many emotional sensitivities – compassion, burden and fear. All of those attributes helped create a Jesus that is both human and of the spirit.
Matt: This is one of the final films for composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and it’s tragic that he’s passed away so young. Can you talk to me about your working relationship with him and how you settled on the score for the film?
Garth: We did a collaboration with Jóhann and Hildur Guðnadóttir who is very close to him. Hildur is a beautiful composer who helped capture Mary’s voice. She understood her journey and found both its truth and beauty at the same time. Jóhann brought the other worldly qualities. I didn’t want the music to feel of the time. As we got closer to truth and closer to God, I wanted the music to feel like we were going into space and taking us into another realm. The two of them together was an exciting journey. They both worked out of the same studio.
It was devastating that we lost Jóhann. One of the final pieces he focused on was the piece that opens and closes the film which is about ascension and there’s a particular irony in that.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
Garth: I don’t have a project locked and loaded but I’m taking some steps with a few at the moment. The biggest project I’m working on at the moment is spending time with my family.