It’s Annabelle’s first day at a new school in the short film, Bunny New Girl, screening on February 20th at 8 p.m. at Cinema Village as part of the Winter Film Awards Festival in New York City. That feeling of anxiety is something that anyone whose family moved when they were a kid can relate to, but for Australian writer/director Natalie van den Dungen, it’s something she can relate to twelve times over. What sets her apart from her heroine is that she never chose to don a bunny mask on any of those first days. Here, van den Dungen lets us in on how the film came to be, and also shares a few behind-the-scenes secrets.
By Gillian Nigro
Why did you decide to tell this story?
I went to 12 schools in 12 years as a kid, so I was very familiar with being the new person and not fitting in, even though I never showed up in a rabbit mask. It was a pretty strange way to grow up because you’re always having to adapt. Now in my adult I life I feel like a chameleon that can adapt into various situations quite easily.
This is your first narrative short film, correct?
Yes, it’s my first. I’ve done about 35 music videos and a lot of them have a narrative to them and some of them even have dialogue, but yeah, this is my actual first proper dedicated narrative short.
What attracted you to this particular medium?
I want to make feature films and TV, so it’s an obvious step toward that. It’s also a great way to get a message across in a short period of time, even though it wasn’t exactly what I set out to achieve. It was more about getting my storytelling and general filmmaking skills up, and getting the confidence to take on longer projects.
The majority of the film is shot in a primary school classroom. Who are these kids? Are they actors?
Half the class is actually made up of some of the drama class kids of the school we filmed in, which was really cute to have them involved. The rest came from a free casting website. And the main girl, Annabelle [Molly Williams], is a friend of mine’s stepdaughter.
How did you know you’d found the right girl for the role?
She [Molly] came about at the last minute. We’d cast everybody else and still hadn’t found our lead girl, and she’d just been suggested as a character to be in the classroom. I told her the story, and her reaction was enough to make me think she was the right girl. She doesn’t have any dialogue, but you wanted to feel very empathetic toward her and she was able to do that with a series of looks.
She really acted a lot with her eyes.
I know! Eyes were so important to us because she was going to spend half the film behind a mask. It was really important that she had big eyes and eyes that you could really empathize with as well.
What was your biggest challenge in making this film? Did it have anything to do with corralling a bunch of school kids on a shoot?
It’s challenging with kids because you can only have them for a set period of time, and here in Australia, with that age group, it’s about 6 hours a day. You might normally do a 10 to 12-hour day shoot, so that immediately limits your schedule. We shot it over two days, so time and money were the biggest challenges for sure. Everything else—first short film, 22 7-year-olds—you’d think that would be diabolical or a recipe for disaster, but it was so much fun. They all enjoyed the process and being a part of it, so that made it a lot easier.
Who made the bunny mask?
I’d originally commissioned it from an artist, but I had explained it kind of incorrectly, so when it came back it looked like this scary bear-rabbit. So the night before the shoot, I literally got the paper plates we had for catering and my very small stash of art supplies and did a very quick job. I was trying to make it look like a kid made it too, so I just wanted to slap something together. I find it funny to think how it was just a last-minute thing before the shoot, and now it’s become the iconic image of the film.
Bunny New Girl has been invited to more than 60 film festivals, including SIFF, Traverse City, TIFF Kids and NYICFF, and has won eight awards, more notably for “Best Comedy” at the St Kilda Film Festival in Melbourne.