From showrunner Larysa Kondracki and adapted from the iconic 1967 Australian novel by Joan Lindsay, the mini-series Picnic at Hanging Rock (streaming at Amazon Prime) tells the story of what happens when a group of schoolgirls from a local college take a day trip to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day 1900, and three of the girls and their governess go missing. The disappearance deeply affects the students family and staff of Appleyard College, none more so than enigmatic headmistress Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), who becomes increasingly fearful that her own dark and secret past will be revealed.
At the press day, held at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with director Larysa Kondracki about taking on such a complex project, creating the visual look for the mini-series, casting this talented and diverse group of women, creating an environment where people want to come play, and the biggest challenges on this production. She also talked about wanting to do more feature films, and whether she’d ever consider taking on a big blockbuster.
Collider: I thought this was so beautifully done, but at the same time, it seems like there were so many things in it that would make this a very overwhelming project to run? So, what was it that made you want to take on all of this at once?
LARYSA KONDRACKI: The scripts read so beautifully that I was like, “Got it. No problem.” Bea [Christian] is a devious but wonderful writer. She says so much with so little. The scripts were such a pleasure to read that I was like,”Yeah, no problem. I’ll just shoot that.” And then, you get there and you’re like, “Wait a second, this is really deep and complex. I’ve gotta read this again.” And the book is like that, which she went back to. Joan Lindsay really teases little things. That’s what was so amazing, just from a filmmaking point of view. Bea’s language is beautiful. Her dialogue is stunning. She’s structurally brilliant. She’s so emotionally specific, but without pigeonholing you, and allowing so much room for interpretation. It was really lovely. From a production point of view, it was a real challenge, but it was always great to just read the script and remind yourself that it’s there. It says exactly what it needs.
It also looks and feels very unexpected, for something set in this time period.
KONDRACKI: Yeah. I just related to everyone in the scripts, including Hester, or especially Hester. She’s a woman doing her very best to right a situation, to help these girls, and to do what she thinks a woman should do. She probably needed therapy and a good shag. All these girls are just trying to find the strength to be themselves. They just happen to be in corsets and there aren’t any cars. I could easily see these scripts, exactly as written, with Valentine’s Day texts and three people disappearing at Runyon Canyon, or whatever. It felt very relevant.
This is such a talented and diverse group of women. How challenging was the casting?
KONDRACKI: Aren’t they amazing?! Natalie [Dormer] my first choice. She liked the script, so we got on a 90-minute Skype call. She didn’t want to do it, but after the call, she was like, “Okay, I’m coming.” I was like, “That was easy!” With everybody else, it was both hard yet not. It’s such a highly beloved property in Australia, so casting Miranda was tough. Good grief, how many times did poor Lily [Sullivan] come in? It was like casting Jesus. We knew she was the one, but we had to go to every door, just to make sure. It was like American Idol. No stone was left unturned. Maddie [Madden] was actually the first person cast. We were like, “There’s Marion.” It was interesting because suddenly they were like, “Would there be an indigenous girl there in the 1900s?” And we were like, “Who gives a shit? Write it into the story.” I know it meant a lot for her. She was like, “I never thought I’d be in a corseted period piece.”
Lily was in early, and we saw Samara [Weaving]. But also, any of them could have played any of the three characters. They’re all so good. We did a lot of trying this role and trying that role. It was just about what felt right, and then you built a cast from there. Yael [Stone] is a genius. Natalie is a powerhouse. She’s an amazing woman, who’s incredibly intelligent and somewhat intimidating, with that hoity-toity accent. She was so supportive of these young girls and such a team player. We had no time. She would change on the move and rehearse at night, and everybody saw that. It was infectious. She’s just so experienced at stage work and she’s a dancer, so she can control her body and hit a mark. And then, we had these girls, at the beginning, where you had to be like, “Ladies, the camera is over here. Turn the scene around.” They were just so free. And then, the younger girls that were essentially extras got out of school for three months to come and play, and this amazing energy formed.
I’ve been very fortunate to work on good shows, and then I’ve learned stuff from other shows. It was Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and Melissa Bernstein on Better Call Saul, and then also working for Noah Hawley on Legion that made me realize how good shows are run. You are rigorous, thorough, polite, fun, and you ask people their opinions, and if they’re good, you take them. If you create an environment where people want to come play, then it’s not work anymore. We had so much bad luck with this. Honestly, it was like Lost in La Mancha meets The Bad News Bears. From rain floods to fire alarms to dysentery that wiped out the crew for a whole week and we didn’t shut down, there was just always something. It created this energy, not unlike the story, where you’re just rebelliously trying to do it, and do it well. Everyone carried equipment and climbed up things.