Somersault (2006): Cate Sortland’s Directing Debut, Starring Abbie Cornish

An erotic, lyrical depiction of a young girls sexual awakening, Somersault is a breakthrough debut for both director Cate Shortland and star Abbie Cornish.

The film, winner of 13 Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film, Best Actress, and Best Director, is finally opening in the U.S. after premiering in Cannes last year.

Brief Synopsis: After making a misjudged advance towards her mother’s boyfriend, 16-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) flees her home for the small Australian ski town of Jindabyne. Entranced by the startling beauty of the wintry landscapes and falling snow, she begins to create a new life for herself. With little money or practical experience, she accepts a job at a petrol station and finds lodging with Irene (Lynette Curran). When she falls for Joe (Sam Worthington), the son of a wealthy local farmer, her self-destructive tendencies re-surface and her fragile new world threatens to tumble down.

Script Development

The script for the film began seven years before filming. Writer/director Cate Shortland, traveling regularly between Sydney and Canberra, was inspired by the haunting beauty of Lake George, and decided that she wanted to make a film around a lake. At the time, Cate was also working with emotionally disturbed children. There was one particular girl of whom she was fond and was to be the inspiration of the main character, Heidi.

Says Shortland: It was a combination of landscape and disturbed children that was the inspiration. Thats still there in the film. Shortland approached Anthony Anderson in 1996 to produce the ideas she had been working on, and they struck a deal. Anderson explains, Cate said let’s not shoot this film until both of us are happy with every scene in it. That was a fantastic invitation to me because my passion for script and story was going to be taken on board in a collaborative way. I thought that it was a much stronger story for a feature film than for a short film so I encouraged Cate to expand it and develop it.

The script was developed over various rounds of funding while Shortland and Anderson made the short films Pentuphouse and Flowergirl in 1998 and 1999 respectively. The shorts were successful internationally, which made funding for a feature easier. Shortland recalls: I dont really think of myself as a writer, so Anthony had to drag me kicking and screaming through the whole process. He kept getting us funding so I could write another draft and then hed have to talk me into writing another draft. I became addicted to the writing. Once you get into it and start thinking like the characters, you can start to create a world. But starting to think like the characters is really hard. You have to cut yourself off from everything around you and be those people in a way.

Shortland and Anderson applied for the Aurora script development scheme, which is funded by the New South Wales Film & Television Office. Under the scheme, over a six-month period mentors provide feedback at the beginning and again at the end, after a workshop with actors. Cate and Anthony were successful and joined the inaugural scheme and were mentored by renowned filmmakers including Alison Tilson (Japanese Story), Rob Festinger (In the Bedroom), Jane Campion (The Piano) and Chris Noonan (Babe). Says Shortland: The script probably changed the most through Aurora. Heidi used to be quite passive and it was suggested that I make her more active in her own destruction. That made Heidi go out and seek what was to destroy her. So Aurora was quite phenomenal with how much it shifted everything.

Jan Chapman was also a mentor on the inaugural Aurora scheme and was familiar with their short films, and already felt that Shortland had an extraordinarily strong visual confidence. Says Chapman: I thought their script was incredibly insightful about a young girl testing the boundaries, who she was, in terms of sex and love and friendship. It was particularly truthful. Weve seen coming-of-age films before, but really this time I thought we were in the mind of an adolescent girl. It was a different approach. It was much more intimate in a very picturesque setting in the mountains of New South Wales.

The Story:

Says Anderson: Somersault is about forgiveness; for Heidi to get to a point of self-forgiveness so she can move on. Underlying her behavior is a level of guilt as well as fear and the need to survive. The falling out that shes had with her mother, she sees as irredeemable and its really her relationship with Irene, and learning that Irene can still love her own son who has done something much more heinous than Heidi, and to hear from Irene that no matter what youve done your mother will want to see you. For her, thats her path to redemption and self-forgiveness. Its also a story about the experiences that we have with love that may not be about an ongoing relationship. They are often about understanding a bit more about another person and certainly understanding a bit more about ourselves. For Heidi and Joe, that interaction and the time they spend together is important for both of them in that sense.

The key to Somersault is the connections people make in life and how they are changed by them. Shortland: This film is inhabited by scared people who all want to be loved; I wanted the viewer to be intimate with them. Sometimes the film is quite dark but then I think of Heidi and she is surrounded by light. She is a survivor, resilient and tough skinned. She expects to be hurt so nothing can harm her. In that way she is incredibly calm and serene. She is a lazy, dreamy adolescent tripping up the back steps and into a sequence of bad decisions that propel her out of the family home and into the wider world.

Direction and Cinematography:

Shortland sees Somersault as a film that is about intimacy and how we deal with intimacy. To bring this to the foreground, the film was shot in a hand-held manner. Shortland observes: The way our camera works is reactive. The camera is continually moving and reacting to the actors so the camera is a part of the scene rather than just sitting back and observing it. The film is not an action/drama; it is experiential. We chose the hand held approach, to create an intimacy with the characters and to keep the images fresh and alive rather than composed.

In making Somersault, I wanted to make something of beauty, where people are as vulnerable as they are in the real world. I also wanted to create a visually haunting space for the characters to exist in. These characters live in a winter wonderland. Their breath connects them, hanging in the freezing air and disappearing into each others skin.

Robert Humphreys, the director of photography, had worked with Shortland on her shorts Flowergirl and Joy and was also eager to shoot Somersault hand-held. Humphreys notes: I find shooting hand held, especially for a film like this, just adds a kind of energy and vibrancy to the story, which you can lose if the camera is locked down on a tripod or a dolly. With a hand held camera you can react to the actors. What tends to happen is the actors don’t feel so locked into what they do, where they walk, where they sit, and when they stand. They don’t have to hit marks so precisely and they’re much freer to go with whatever their character dictates.

It is a demanding approach to filmmaking as it is physically exhausting, as well as technically difficult. Says Humphreys: The camera weighed 30 pounds and we used predominantly long lenses. As we often had available lighting only, we used wide-open lenses with very shallow depths of field, so the focus puller’s job is an absolute nightmare. As the camera operator, if I lurched, the focus would change because the focus is only two inches deep at times.

The exteriors were shot in monochromatic tones, blue and pale, bordering on cold. The interiors were the opposite, very rich, very warm and saturated in color. Humphreys: Whenever the characters are outside, during the daytime, they’re living in a pretty monochromatic, cold world. We’ve tried to counterpoint that with little flashes of color, like Heidi’s red gloves which we feature a lot, and frames that have a little flash of red or a little flash of yellow in them, rich colors which play beautifully against the monochromatic world.

Shortland saw Heidi as an angel with dirty wings so she had to look quite different from the other characters. Humphreys: The other interesting thing about the colour is that for Abbie Cornish, who is 21 playing the 16 year old Heidi, we did lots of tests on her and found that to depict her as a young girl it was much better if she was quite bluey pale, translucent. So you’ll find through the film she’s often lit with blue lights and everyone else is lit with warm lights to provide the contrast in age.

For the direction of the actors, there were some scenes that required sheer audacity. Towards the end of the film, Heidi is stepping on dangerous terrain. Shortland: The most difficult scene was when Heidi picks up two guys in a bar, played by Toby Schmitz and Henry Nixon, and they return to her flat. Theres a fair bit of nudity and its a really sad scene because shes drunk and really vulnerable. There are two guys who are going to take advantage of her in every way they can. It was quite scary because we were all really worried about how it was going to be emotionally for Abbie. After the shoot, Abbie said it was one of the most amazing experiences, because the actors were so connected to each other and could really trust each other. It was great for me as a director, because they took it as far as they could. When Sam Worthington came through the door, he couldnt believe how confronting it was.


Before shooting there was a fortnight dedicated to rehearsal. The importance of the rehearsal period was that it provided the opportunity for the director and the actors to find the necessary character definition.

Shortland notes: “If there is an awkwardness on set then hopefully its an awkwardness that the characters are feeling. It doesnt matter what happens because they are going to play it as Joe and Heidi. The rationale in rehearsals was that there must be some kind of truth in every scene that they play, rather than having to act it. Rehearsals were really about finding the characters and then we made choices about how we were going to play the scene. It was exciting because nothing was locked down. I think that shows on the screen because there is such a freshness to the performances.

Casting Abbie Cornish as Abbie:

Casting for the main role of Heidi was surprisingly straightforward since the first person to audition was Abbie Cornish. Shortland says: She thoroughly embodies the essence of Heidi, especially her fragility and toughness. She allows the audience to experience her beauty and pain. Abbie really nailed the character as soon as she walked in the door. During rehearsal it was about getting the confidence. Heidi is such an interior character, so Abbie had to really feel who Heidi was.

The background that both Cate and Abbie developed for Heidi was that her mother was possibly involved with drugs and her father left when Heidi was very young. For Cornish, Somersault is a journey of self discovery within a strange girl’s world. I think it’s like a bridge: it’s Heidi getting from one side of the bridge to the other side without even knowing how to get there or why she’s started walking across the bridge anyway. It’s just a fluke that she gets to the other side and all this stuff is probably going to influence her life in a really amazing way.

Casting Sam Worthington as Joe:

Casting Joe was much harder. On paper, the role of Joe seemed less complicated than Heidi. Anderson: In the end the chemistry between Sam and Abbie was what sealed it for us. But we were also very cautious because we had not seen Sam give on screen the complexity and the depth of emotion he does in this film. It was a real punt and Cate had a strong instinct that Sam would be right for Joe. As it turned out, Sam gave us a Joe that is much more complex and is much more interesting than what was on the page.

Shortland recalls: Sam made Joe his own character, he embodied him beautifully and with such venom. There is a real passion about the character. He was quite intimidating to Abbie, which was really good. I remember when he left the room after they had done their final casting together Abbie was quite emotional; she looked at me and said, Thats Joe. Sam was closed off and had a darkness to him that was quite scary, and that was exactly what I was looking for. Sam came in a few times because he hadnt really played emotionally vulnerable people before. We had to be sure that he was willing to expose his emotions. And he has; hes done such an amazing job.

The character of Joe was developed more strongly through the rehearsal process. Worthington says: Cate threw curve balls in rehearsals to keep it fresh and alive. It worked; I believe in rehearsing all the way even up to when you roll on film. I discovered Joe day by day. There’s a deepness and darkness in my character that we were trying to bring out and counterbalance with unbelievable charm and a likeable roguishness. We explored it thoroughly, as it’s something quite different to me; it’s a more emotional part than Ive ever played before.

Cate Shortland’s Career

After studying Fine Arts at Sydney University, Cate Shortland received a Graduate Diploma in directing from the Australian Film Television and Radio School (2000), where she was honored with the Southern Star Award for most promising student. She has written and directed four award-winning shorts: Strap on Olympia (1995), Pentuphouse (1998), Flowergirl (1999) and Joy (2000), all of them in collaboration with producer Anthony Anderson. The films have been shown with acclaim at festivals around the world, including Oberhausen, Tampere, Clermont-Ferrand, Berlin and London. Between 2001 and 2003, Cate directed episodes of The Secret Life of Us for Southern Star/Channel 4. Somersault, made in 2004, marks Cate’s feature film debut; she had been developing the screenplay with Red Carpet Productions since 1996.