Stills by Ben Baker
About 20 seconds into watching Luke Shanahan’s debut film, Rabbit, my nerves were completely shot.
When I relay this fact to Shanahan, his face lights up, and I quickly learn that, to him, my stress spells his success. “From the first time we see the logo, I wanted edge-of-the-seat, I wanted that heartbeat to start up, and I didn’t want that to dissipate until the last frame of the credits,” he says.
Part horror, part psychological thriller, Rabbit explores the telepathic powers of a pair of identical twins, Maude and Cleo, who find each other through a series of visions and nightmares. One returns from Germany to Adelaide to attempt to locate her twin, who has been missing for a year after disappearing without a trace. Though Rabbit was filmed before the hugely successful The Handmaid’s Tale series, both share a deep sense of impending dystopian doom, their plausibility only strengthened by today’s extremely unstable political climate. “It’s funny because when we go to market the film, some people call it a horror film and some people call it a psychological thriller because there’s no huge horror moments—but the film is horrific, and I think that’s the same with Handmaid’s Tale, too. I think there’s an idea around the world at the moment—and I don’t know if it’s anything to do with governments in some certain countries—that everyone’s sort of a bit cynical and fearing this idea that things are going on behind closed doors.”
Shanahan has so far enjoyed a successful career writing and directing short films and commercials, but revelled in the opportunity to commit to a feature-length film. “It gave me the opportunity to just take my time with it, and really develop it. I’d been writing the script for about two to three years, and so when it came to the whole planning of it, I guess having only a few voices as opposed to a collection of people involved…the beauty is that it was my vision from the outset,” he explains.
A huge part of this vision centred around the film’s score (composed by Michael Darren), which plays an integral role in maintaining a palpable, pervading suspense throughout its duration. “I was driven by Dario Argento, and Italian horror films of the 70s, and then John Carpenter and those synth scores, and the way Kubrick used sound in The Shining. Music is a character in this film, and music is absolutely there to fill in those gaps and be the light and shade.” Personally, I’d say the music provides more shade than light, but again, that could just be my fried nerves talking. “For the whole film, there’s that sort of feeling that you’re on the edge of your seat, and I like films like that. I love those films of the 70s and 80s where you sense, whether it be through music or the mise-en-scène or the way that it’s shot, that there’s this sense of impending doom.”
If you’re paying attention, it’s not hard to trace a common thread through Shanahan’s work. In almost all of his shorts, and a handful of his commercial work, there’s a dark sibling element to them. Like, really dark. In The News, a pregnant woman discovers her boyfriend killed her sister. In It Takes Two To Tango, a woman murders her sister after eating dinner at her house. Now, in Rabbit, two twin sisters find themselves prisoners at a human testing facility where they endure torturous examinations. Surely, something seriously fucked up must have happened to Shanahan in his childhood. “I had a beautiful childhood,” he shrugs. “It was like The Brady Bunch, and I’m so close with my two sisters, and my family are all incredibly close. A mainstay of my work has been that idea that siblings don’t like each other, which couldn’t be further from my truth, so I guess I’ve just tried to inhabit a world where siblings don’t get along because I have this perfect relationship with my sisters. I guess I created the antithesis of what I came from.”
So then where on Earth did he get the idea for this film? “The idea came from a set of twins that didn’t get on. With identical twins, you assume they’re connected at the hip, and most are. I managed to find a couple who weren’t, that didn’t like each other. We were sitting at lunch with one twin and I said, ‘How’s your sister?’ and she said, ‘I hate her. She’s on the other side of the world, but I can feel her, and if she was being tortured, I would feel it.’ And that was the initial line that got me going. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a really weird thing to say,’ but I just thought of that idea that it’s almost the intimacy of this set of twins that has driven them apart. And that’s sort of what I tried to do with Maude and Cleo,” he says.
Once you’ve watched—and genuinely laughed—at some of Shanahan’s other work, one thing that comes as a surprise in Rabbit is how serious it is. Shanahan’s love of dark comedy has vanished, and in its place is a foreboding creepiness that threatens to steal hours from your sleep. “It’s funny, when I shoot commercials I do a lot of visual comedy, and my shorts are very visual but have this dark undercurrent, so it’s weird because for some commercial pitches I can’t show my drama work, and vice versa. But look, I’ve always been fascinated by the dark underbelly and undercurrent, and you know, a Lynchian-type feeling. I came from the Sutherland Shire, where everything’s pretty Australian and white and middle class, and I’m fascinated by what lurks under the surface of that.”
Not only is the cinematography in Rabbit utterly stunning, the film was also blessed with the presence of Ben Baker as its on-set photographer. “Ben is actually, fortuitously, the brother of our production designer. An Adelaide boy done good,” says Shanahan. “He jumped from a four-day shoot with Donald Trump to coming to an indie horror genre film in Adelaide.” No wonder the stills turned out so good. He’d just experienced the horror of a dystopian society first-hand.
Rabbit is set for release later this year.