The Herald Sun (2007)
Tragedy inspires Toni's new role
June 12, 2007 | Written by Peter Mitchell
In Toni Collette's stark, emotionally draining new film, her character, Arden, finds a mutilated corpse in a field near Los Angeles. Instead of being shocked at what she saw, Arden walks home and gives her abusive, invalid mother a bath. Later in The Dead Girl, audiences are introduced to Leah, a forensics graduate student played by another Australian, Rose Byrne. Leah is working in a morgue and is preparing the mutilated body for its post-mortem when she discovers a familiar birthmark. She wonders whether the unidentified murder victim could be her sister, who was abducted as a child 15 years earlier. The Dead Girl is divided into five stories, all revolving around the body, with the final chapter solving the mystery.

Made for just $US4 million ($A4.77 million) and shot around LA in a tight 25 days, the film is not light going, with the San Francisco Chronicle describing the storyline as being "mired in gloom". The script, however, was so powerful it attracted a cast of Hollywood stars willing to work for scale wages. Collette was one of the first to sign on. Joining Collette and Byrne were Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Martha Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Kerry Washington, James Franco, Josh Brolin and Giovanni Ribisi. The Dead Girl was inspired by an equally tragic real life story. A little over three years ago independent Hollywood screenwriter and director, Karen Moncrieff, spent a month in a Los Angeles court room as a jury member for a murder trial. A man had been accused of picking up a young prostitute and killing her. "A lot of my friends said 'Aren't you going to try and get out of jury duty?'," Moncrieff, 43, who for years had contemplated writing a script about violence against women, told AAP in an interview in Los Angeles. "But, I'm a writer.

"I wanted to sit in that court room and hear people tell their life stories. "The witnesses were all asked very personal questions so you get this window on to a parade of interesting characters." Moncrieff, best known for writing and directing the 2002 independent film festival favourite Blue Car, sat day after day in court listening to the dour life story of the prostitute. The testimony came from the victim's mother, another woman who babysat the victim's young daughter, the clients and other prostitutes, including one woman who had been the victim's lover. The testimony that struck Moncrieff the most was a mundane list read out in a monotone voice by a police officer involved in the case. The list contained the items found in the deceased's decrepit motel room. "They were the most mundane things, but it really hit me hard," Moncrieff said. "It included an old duffel bag, a hand puppet, a hairbrush and a hand-written card to her daughter telling her how much she loved her. "It really haunted me."

After the trial, Moncrieff went home and spent a month writing a story outline. It took just another two months to expand the outline into a script and soon after she set up a meeting with Hollywood producer and chief executive of First Look Studios, Henry Winterstern. Winterstern's response was the dream of any writer-director. "He said, 'I love it. I am going to write a cheque and do it'," Moncrieff recalled. With the production about to begin, Moncrieff, who was pregnant but still willing to shoot the film, had medical complications. It was decided to push the film's start date back until after the birth. Moncrieff feared the The Dead Girl would never be made and Collette and the other actors she had lined up would move on to other films. But, two months after the birth of her daughter, Ruby, Moncrieff was ready to go back to work. There was three months of pre-production and then the 25-day film schedule began, with Moncrieff juggling actors, a film crew and Ruby. The writer-director and her husband, Eric Karten, who was a producer on the film, had little sleep, but they did not mind. They were in awe of the actors who brought the script to life, particularly the two Australian actresses. "With Rose, I was looking for somebody who could convey the deep sadness that this character feels and still be innately sympathetic," Moncrieff said. "Rose has this beautiful soulful face.

"For Toni, what was required for her was a fearless lack of vanity. "She was required to strip it all down and show a woman who has been suffocating in this life." In one scene, Collette's character is involved in an uncomfortable to watch late-night tryst in the woods with a grocery store clerk, played by Ribisi. "I used one shot and never cut away," Moncrieff said. "It was so riveting to me. "Giovanni and Toni together played off so beautifully, I just didn't want to cut a thing." Moncrieff was well aware of Collette's resume of films, but was not so acquainted with 27-year-old, Sydney-born Byrne. Winterstern and another The Dead Girl producer, Tom Rosenberg, had produced Byrne in her 2004 thriller, Wicker Park. "She has the most beautiful eyes," Winterstern said.

"Tom and I had told Karen we had the girl to play Leah. "She said 'Who is it? Who is it?' and we said it's Rose Byrne. "She met her and really liked her. "I remember the first day Rose worked, Karen came up to us right after the first take and said 'Oh my God, this girl is fantastic'." Moncrieff remembered the moment. "It was the scene in the therapist's office," Moncrieff said. "Rose did take after take that left the camera man and I breathless. "Absolutely breathless." The Dead Girl opens in Australian cinemas on June 21.