Through many scenes in “Woodshock,” the first feature from writer-directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Theresa — played by Kirsten Dunst — wears a white slip that seems to echo the character’s simultaneously expanding and unwinding mental state. The delicate undergarment, a relic from Theresa’s just-deceased mother, goes from pristine to soiled and ravaged. The more artfully dirt-caked and destroyed the slip becomes, the more it resembles the Humboldt County redwood trees that are central to the story.
“There were multiple versions. They were all hand-painted; there was even moss worked into one of the slips,” says Kate Mulleavy, 38, on the way to the film’s Los Angeles premiere. “There’s one that’s kind of transparent like a jellyfish membrane. They become more wild as she goes further into her mind.”
For moviegoers who know Kate and her sister Laura, 37, from their acclaimed fashion house, Rodarte, the importance of the undergarment is probably no surprise. The tension between the beautiful and the brutally exquisite is a central motif in their work as designers at the 12-year-old label they founded after graduating from UC Berkeley. The Mulleavys have been lauded for their approach to design, which has incorporated natural themes as diverse as the detritus found in fishing nets and the mushroom fungal shelves of their childhood in Aptos (Santa Cruz County; their father, William, is a mycologist). Tellingly, they’ve also designed gowns that incorporate faux-bois wood-ring patterns. Fashion luminaries from Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour and former editor Grace Coddington are fans of Rodarte (pronounced ro-DAR-te, the Spanish maiden name of Laura and Kate’s mother, Victoria) as well as musicians like Kim Gordon, actresses Elle and Dakota Fanning, and longtime muse Dunst. The Mulleavys also have been honored in a number of museum exhibitions, including an upcoming retrospective in fall 2018 at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., curated by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco textile arts curator Jill D’Alessandro.
The Mulleavys’ move into filmmaking is not surprising, either: The sisters are noted cinephiles who have been inspired by movies ranging from “Star Wars” to “The Godfather” as foundations for their collections. Kate and Laura have also collaborated on three short films with photographer Todd Cole and famously designed Natalie Portman’s ballet costumes for her Oscar-winning role in “Black Swan.”
Like many of the Rodarte collections, “Woodshock” has a fairy-tale feeling enhanced by the film’s forest setting. The landscape of Humboldt is shown to haunting effect by cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg. The textures of the redwoods seem to invade almost every frame of the film. The grain of the wood in Theresa’s house is obsessively focused on in slow, lingering shots. The sound and feel of marijuana flower in Dunst’s hand, lit neon green by the dispensary signage, gets its own series of closeups. The constant tension between the natural and unnatural world is felt strongly throughout the film, as is the contrast between Humboldt’s two biggest cash crops, lumber and cannabis.
“Those two worlds are linked together,” says Laura. “We wanted to give a real basis for the viewer to understand what the big industry is now and what it was before in Humboldt. It’s a place that has the largest redwoods in the world, which are the largest living organisms in the world in a county that once was defined by logging. Over time, that industry has now shifted into marijuana growing, and that became a focal point.”
These two natural worlds are equally central to “Woodshock.” In her grief and searching, Theresa recedes further into her interior realms. As she smokes poison-laced joints, that internal, forest world is unleashed on the viewer, often to disorienting effect.
To achieve a sense of Theresa’s cannabis-induced otherworldliness, the Mulleavys shot double-exposed sequences on 35mm film in a hand-cranked camera, which were then intercut with the film’s digital footage. The film also is sparse on dialogue: Much of what Dunst communicates in the film is nonverbal, upping “Woodshock’s” art-house feeling as well as the ethereal score by composer Peter Raeburn. The film’s title is a colloquial term for the sensation of wonder and disorientation that can come from being lost in the forest.
The Mulleavys call their work in the film with Dunst “an expansion of a relationship” that began for them a decade ago.
“We had such a respect for one another,” Laura says. “… I think she’s always looked at us as people who have created outside of the box. Going on this project’s journey was very long; we started working on it with her in 2012. It’s a story we lived and breathed and birthed from all of us.”
Also central to the filmmakers was telling a female-driven story that took the perspective of an imperfect protagonist. As Theresa delves further into the redwoods, she regresses into a creature that’s all at once more savage and more fairylike than is imaginable at the film’s start.
“She’s certainly not a typical heroine,” Laura says.
“One of the things Kirsten said when she was preparing for this role was, ‘I feel like she’s a wood nymph returning to nature, going back to where she came from,’” says Kate. “There’s an idea that in the knowledge of nature and the beauty, destruction and sometimes wrath of it makes her more connected to the human experience.”
Tony Bravo is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com
Woodshock: Directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy. In theaters Friday, Sept. 29. (Rated R. 100 minutes.)
[This story first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle]