The script for a horror film about past lives starring Scotch College and NIDA graduate Sarah Snook – better known as Shiv from Succession ­­– was a deep dive into genre writing for Adelaide author Hannah Kent.

The idea for a story about a child who remembers an earlier life was planted in Kent’s mind after seeing a documentary about a boy in Glasgow who, from the time he was a toddler, talked about his previous life and his other mummy, how he missed her and the home they shared.

“She just put it down to kids saying the strange things that they sometimes do,” says Kent, whose first book, Burial Rites, written after a visit to Iceland, was a runaway international success.

“However, as time progressed, his desire to go back to this house became even more acute. He was homesick, he missed his other family – and he was able to add a lot more detail about the place where he said he had been living.”

The boy said the house was on a beach on the remote island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, part of an island chain off the Scottish coast, and that he had fallen through a hole and ended up in Glasgow. When the documentary crew went with the boy to Barra for the first time, it was just as he described.

“I know – terrifying, isn’t it?” Kent says from her home in the Adelaide Hills. “It was utterly eerie, and incredible to watch.”

The case sparked the idea for a book and she began researching children who reported past lives. It was only when Carver Films producers Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw asked if she had any ideas for a screenplay that Kent suggested it might work as a film.

“What was really interesting to me was what it would be like to be a parent of this child,” she says. “I was interested in the mother and the alienation she would feel when a child didn’t want her.”

The script became Run Rabbit Run, which was bought by Netflix to screen internationally and goes to air in Australia on June 28.

Sarah Snook in Run Rabbit Run. Photo: Netflix

Sarah Snook, whose screen character is also called Sarah, plays a fertility doctor and single mother of a young girl who claims to have memories of another life. In the role of her ex-husband is Damon Herriman, also from Adelaide, who approaches her child’s unravelling from a background in science.

Kent, who has two children with her wife, Heidi, was drawn to examining some of the darker aspects of motherhood, which she says are rarely spoken about.

“We started to pull all these questions and curiosities into the central figure of Sarah.

“We started to think, ‘What if you had someone who had a deeply traumatic background, who struggled with things like self-loathing and who was estranged from her own mother?’.”

The role of Sarah initially went to The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss, but the shoot was delayed because of COVID and Moss was forced to drop out. After that, Snook was cast, just as she was rocketing up the most-wanted list in the United States through her performance as Shiv Roy in Succession, widely seen as one of the best television shows of its generation.

Snook had returned to Australia during the pandemic and filmed Run Rabbit Run early last year in the South Australian Riverland town of Waikerie, whose distinctive and sometimes bleak topography contributes to the sombre atmosphere.

Young actor Lily LaTorre play’s the daughter of Sarah Snook’s character. Photo: Netflix

Kent says it was incredible to have such a gifted performer bring the role of Sarah to life. The author treats her script as part of a much larger collaboration and describes it as a gesture towards the way a character would be portrayed on screen. In this case, the final product was in the hands of the director, Daina Reid, and Snook.

“Sarah is incredibly intelligent and it was very rewarding for me to see her take a character that was on paper – a screenplay is only around 100 pages, it’s not particularly long – and to make her manifest in the way I had imagined, but also to then build on that,” Kent explains.

“So it is wonderful to see the completion of that through performance. She is extraordinary and there are very good reasons why everyone is mad about Sarah Snook!”

Away from her role as the daughter of a billionaire media baron, Snook has done off-beat, independent films in the past, including the sci-fi gender mash-up Predestination, with Ethan Hawke. Here, she gives an intense performance in the unglamorous role of the tortured mother whose daughter not only rejects her but claims the identity of Alice, Sarah’s sister who was lost in the Riverland years before.

Kent was already a Snook fan but now even more so.

“I had the privilege of visiting the set in Waikerie when they were shooting there, and I was able to see her, take after take, bring this incredible, raw emotion and emotional intensity to the role,” she says. “I had an appreciation of her as an actress because I had seen her work, but it was another thing entirely to see her working. It was incredible.”

Run Rabbit Run began as a psychological drama but leans into the horror genre as through the eyes of the mother. The resulting film explains some things, but not all, and veers into the paranormal in ways not dissimilar to the 2014 South Australian horror hit The Babadook.

While Kent knows about The Babadook, she was too scared to see it.

“I am actually terrified of watching horror films,” she says, admitting she jumped in her seat during the Sundance screening of Run Rabbit Run, even though she wrote it.

“What I do instead is I read the screenplays, if I can find them, or I’ll watch sections out of order because I am so hugely affected.”

Kent thrived on the creative collaboration of screenwriting, which was so different to the solitary nature of writing a novel.

“This was built a lot more on conversations and it went down a few different roads. I think that is the nature of screenwriting generally, because it is always a collaborative process… you’re always aware of the screenplay being a malleable object.”

She is particularly enjoying adapting for the screen two of her novels, The Good People, about an Irish woman accused of murder who claims the victim was a changeling, and Devotion, which explores the loving relationship between two young women who leave their home in Prussia and settle in the Barossa Valley.

“It gives me the chance as a creative practitioner to return to those central questions which motivated me to write the books and to look at the ways in which you can retain the soul of a project while presenting it very differently,” she says.

The only one of her books she is not re-writing for screen is Burial Rites, the harrowing story of the last women to be hanged in Iceland, which brought her international renown. It has been optioned by Hollywood producers to be made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Run Rabbit Run is on Netflix from June 28.

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