For American born but New Zealand raised actress, Florence Hartigan, 2017 has been the year that has changed her life. The actress has had some small roles over the years, including in the popular New Zealand television series, Shortland Street, but now she has suddenly found herself the star of Phoenix Forgotten, a new horror thriller produced by none other than Ridley Scott.
HEAVY caught up with Florence to chat about the film, and she says that she was involved with the film from very early on. “I had worked with Justin Barber, our director, and T.S. Nowlin, our writer, on some other projects before this one, so I was lucky enough to be involved with this movie right from the initial test shoot,” she says. “I didn’t know if the project was going to get to be made into a feature, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to even audition for the role I ended up playing – there are always so many variables in the process of making a film. Obviously, in the end, I did get to audition, and it worked out for me! I’m very grateful I got to be a part of the film from beginning to end, that was a really special part of this experience for me.”
With Florence being involved with the film from the start, the chat turns to how long did it take to complete the film and whether she is nervous now the film is coming out? “Going into this project, the goal was for it to feel like you’re watching a documentary my character, Sophie, has made about her brother’s disappearance,” she explains. “So we had a great script that our director Justin Barber co-wrote with our writer, T.S. Nowlin (who also wrote The Maze Runner trilogy). But going into pretty much every scene, we also improvised a version of it – so it felt like real moments from real people. This meant that the film changed a lot as we made it because, obviously, in improvising, you’re not planning what you’re saying and you’re finding new stuff on the day. In a documentary, you never know exactly what you’re going to get – you shoot all your stuff, and you sift through, and it all comes together in the edit. However, with a real documentary, you just have to use whatever you end up with after you film. If you are making a narrative feature, you get to go back and shoot anything you feel like your story is missing later on! So we had a couple of reshoots right up until right before the release date – I think it was a month or so. I had already seen a couple of cuts of the film, so I wasn’t anxious, just excited to see it come out.”
So did the film turn out the way she expected? “Because in a way we were approaching this film as you would a documentary, that set a high bar for our acting,” she says. “Approaching this role, I felt committed to being grounded and subtle and making sure Sophie felt three dimensional and believable. One of the things I think is so cool about this film is that we weave fact and fiction together – there are real people in the film who we interview about some of their real experiences. So, personally, my goal was to live up to the example set by the wonderful moments we got out of our real interview subjects. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a great cast, and I think everyone did an amazing job. So yes, in that sense, I think what came out of that is a movie that feels like the real doc my character would have made, and that’s what I had hoped for and envisioned going in. My character initially had a love interest, who was the brother of one of the other kids who go missing. Dan still made it into the movie, but he and Sophie didn’t end up getting their walk off into the sunset together, which was the ending of an earlier edit! Sorry, Sophie!”
Having worked with the director before meant that Florence was given more responsibility on the film and that was something she relished. “Well, this project was an especially collaborative one,” she explains. “Not only with all the research and preparation we all did separately and together, and the collaboration and improv on set, but usually, you don’t get to see initial edits and stuff on a project like this. With this film, I got to see several cuts before the final version, which I love. Some actors don’t like watching themselves, but I kind of feel like it’s like an athlete watching tape of themselves swimming or playing football or whatever. I like watching it with an analytical eye and seeing what went right and where I can do better. I’m a weirdo like that! I will say though; I also like seeing the film by myself first, before I watch my giant feature film sized face in a theatre in front of everyone I know. Just so if something didn’t come out how I wanted I can work through it in my alone time and then watch it in public without feeling traumatised.”
So the big question is: was Florence a horror fan, and if so, does that mean she prefers to do horror over other genres? “I wouldn’t say I have a preferred genre regarding the film,” she says. “I love drama because you have a lot of emotional rope to play with. I love comedy because it’s so much fun – I trained at UCB and the Groundlings, and I like playing and improvising and making people laugh. And the last few features I’ve done, like Phoenix Forgotten, have happened to be horror films, or at least had a horror element to them. It just worked out that way – and I also happen to be a horror fan, both as a viewer and as an actor. I love movies like Peter Jackson’s early film, Dead Alive. Shaun of The Dead is another favourite, and I loved this year’s Get Out, and Ingrid Goes West (which I would describe as a horror movie, though I realise that’s contentious!). In horror movies, the stakes are heightened, and that’s an entertaining world for an actor to work in. And I think the best horror movies have moments of both comedy and drama, so you get the best of both worlds.”
Phoenix Forgotten is out now on VOD.