Designer sisters Kate & Laura Mulleavy premiered their debut film Woodshock at the Venice Film festival this year. It is the story of a woman trying to hold her emotional balance in even while making heavy use of cannabis. There was no doubt in the sisters’ minds that they would shoot the film in the woods of Northern California. Kate, 38, and Laura, 37, grew up in the little town of Aptos, just a few miles outside of Santa Cruz. and they spent many hours playing among the tall trees when they were children. “When we wrote the script, the place we wanted to start was kind of exploring the emotion of those spaces and how majestic the woods are and those trees are,” explains Laura, the youngest of the creative sister team. “So that was the relationship we had to the woods: Just profound beauty and love for them.”
The designers, who started the design label Rodarte in 2005, began their film project in 2011 and actual filming started in the summer of 2015. They did it ‘in the middle of nowhere’ near the little port city of Eureka and about seven hours north of San Francisco. “There weren’t that many films shot where we actually shot it,” says Kate. “We were literally shooting in some of the most beautiful and protected forests in the world. And it’s really difficult I think to even express what those places are like unless you get the chance to visit them.” Humboldt County, where they shot Woodshock, is the location of some of the tallest living organisms on the planet. 95 percent of the trees were cut down from the 1800s to now. But the sisters happily point out that they have been more protected in the last 15 years.
“The opening of the film, where Kirsten is crying on those trees, was 100 percent pure emotion,” says Laura about the lead actress in the film, Kirsten Dunst. “These trees are magnificent and they are so huge.”Kate & Laura both graduated from Berkeley in 2001. Kate studied art history and Laura studied English. They both loved movies and dreamt of making movies one day. Their debut is an artsy exploration of a woman’s mental state as she suffers from loss and “woodshock” – and while she is high on cannabis. “When this character Teresa came into creation it was the idea of humanity’s connection to nature and somehow removal from nature and the duality of destruction and beauty and what destruction against mother earth. But not only mother earth but inner destruction between human beings and what that does to the psychology. “
Both Kate and Laura have been on a film set before. They did the costume design for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman in 2010. They also designed her purple Oscar gown. “It was almost like we became two different people while we were doing it,” says Laura Mulleavy about becoming directors rather than fashion designers. “But the one thing that was so helpful was that in the process of creating a film, this was a multi-year process with hundreds of people involved, and what I could bring to the table from our job as designers, is that we are creative protectors. “
The designers started their acclaimed California-based label because they had a passion for fashion. They brought the same passion to their filmmaking and wanted to have artistic freedom. “There was a desire to create that way and express ourselves in a narrative fashion. But at the same time, we didn’t really know that was the next step. Keep in mind, we started this around 2011, so this has been a long time gestating and realizing it and making it what it was.”
Kirsten Dunst, who is the sisters’ longtime friend, stars as Theresa. But the film also features director Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, Joe Cole and the Danish Game of Thrones actor Pilou Asbæk. The last mentioned plays the leading male role as Keith. “It is such a creative process to work with actors,” says Kate Mulleavy. “I think the ones that you have some soul connection with, it’s like the best thing you can do is to just let them kind of flourish and you learn all the time. We were just kind of led through the story by them. So it was an interesting thing. “