An Interview with Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Amiel Courtin-Wilson is an Australian artist and filmmaker. He is the director of five features, and over twenty shorts.

His first film, Chasing Buddha (2000), a documentary portrait of his Buddhist nun aunt, was produced at the age of 19 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, he has made Bastardy (2008), a documentary about troubled indigenous actor Jack Charles, and Hail (2011), a fictional feature inspired by the life of its star, Daniel P. Jones, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Courtin-Wilson’s work—in both documentary and fiction forms—is characterised by its combination of realist drama with trance-like poetical interludes, as well as a clear-eyed and empathetic authorial interest in lives lived on the edge. Hail begins as a kind of straightforward narrative about the difficulties of post-prison life, but it eventually dissolves into a violent swirl of impressionistic imagery and harsh soundscapes. Its centerpiece image is a mordantly beautiful shot of a dead horse hurtling through the atmosphere toward the earth’s surface.

His latest film, Ruin (2013), co-directed with Michael Cody, is a fictional narrative about two lovers on the run, set and filmed in Cambodia.

The interview took place in the wine bar Tasmanian Quartermasters in Hobart, with the assistance of the Dark Mofo festival.

– James Robert Douglas

I. On Shifting Sands

The Lifted Brow: I’m interested in the distribution process your films go through. To me it seems like your films are most visible on the festival circuit. Does that seem right to you?

Amiel Courtin-Wilson: My first documentary, Chasing Buddha, premiered at Sundance, and it’s really interesting to see how—over the course of fifteen years now—the theatrical distribution landscape has shifted so dramatically.

Back then a film like that could play at Sundance, and then have a subsequent theatrical release in Australia. We had an eight-week season at both the Nova and the old Valhalla in Sydney, and this was, interestingly, probably before that bubble of renewed theatrical interest in feature docs that Michael Moore spearheaded in the early two-thousands.

But I think now there is an increasing understanding from both the Sales Agent’s and the filmmaker’s perspective that outside of Video-on-Demand—and increasing incursion into museum spaces, like MOMA—filmmakers are having to carve out a series of niches for their work to be seen.

PULL QUOTE: Filmmakers are trying to weather the inevitable contraction of the whole industry and still get their films seen in some viable fashion.

That has a couple of effects. Films inevitably seem to have a longer shelf life. Hail travelled the festival circuit for two and a half years, almost, and I think Ruin will probably do a similar thing. But, needless to say, there are difficulties in securing theatrical distribution, certainly for a foreign language film like Ruin. In the States, for example, we are going to have a small theatrical release, but it’s a case of very quickly shifting sands. Filmmakers are trying to weather the inevitable contraction of the whole industry and still get their films seen in some viable fashion.

In Australia it feels like in the next eighteen months there’s going to be a watershed in terms of VOD platforms being offered in a more substantial way, with infrastructure that will enable filmmakers to chart the outcome of their films. Right now there’s a lot of flying blind – especially for more difficult, challenging festival product.

TLB: Is the process of taking a film around the festival circuit—like going to Venice and Sundance— a moneymaking proposition in itself? Or is it just a means of securing entry into other markets?

ACW: It’s both. Increasingly there’s discussion around smaller films―like ours, or, you know, ‘festival films’―amongst sales agents where you can secure a festival screening fee for each screening that you have.

There was a study released recently where they did an average revenue stream from a film that premiers at Sundance, and has a healthy festival life of, say, thirty to fifty festivals, and on average the screening fees alone from those thirty to fifty festivals will garner a film thirty to fifty thousand dollars US. So, for films that might not otherwise make sales in TV―and VOD sales are nominal at best, for many films―producers are finding that it’s actually sometimes viable to even bypass a sales agent altogether and go to those festivals and negotiate with them directly.

Everyone is just sort of scrambling a little bit. That’s not to say that larger sales agents like Memento or Wild Bunch don’t still have a big reach, and that their model still works, but we’re talking about the smaller, boutique end of difficult festival fare. Festival screenings can be a way to keep things ticking over in that one or two year period.

TLB: Did you work with a sales agent for Hail? I just want to know all the different places that particular movie ended up.

ACW: We worked with a Danish sales agent called Level K. The film is still screening at certain festivals, and just now, weirdly enough, we’re talking about having a US release. We’ve screened Hail theatrically in Los Angeles, but we’ve never had a theatrical season in New York. So we’re talking about the possibility of doing a double season of Ruin and Hail with a couple of smaller distributors in the States.

But, to be perfectly frank, it’s pretty slim pickings in terms of sales with a film like Hail. One interesting point was that our festival play had a weird resurgence when genre festivals like Fantastic Fest, and Fantasia, and Fantaspoa picked up the film quite late in its festival life.

TLB: I read that you got an award from Fantasia, or a commendation?

ACW: We did, and from Fantaspoa as well. That was interesting to see, because the film has genre elements, obviously, but it’s still―within the context of those festivals―very much outside the usual fare that they would program.

It was interesting to see the expansion of what is considered genre cinema. Maybe that’s been driven, at least in part, by the appetite that genre audiences have for an exploded compass of genre filmmaking: something in which they’re given tropes of their usual sugar hits, but it’s delivered in a different fashion. That’s exciting, because those audiences are really, ridiculously enthusiastic and passionate. That was an unexpected late kicker in the life of the film. But I think we’ve screened it at maybe forty-something festivals. Which is great. Sales: not so much.

I think there are certain films that filmmakers appreciate, and that people know about, even if that doesn’t translate into sales in various territories. That was the best thing that we gleaned from Hail: that there is a very wide-ranging group of people in the industry who are aware of the work, and really love the work. They just didn’t know how to monetize it.

II. On Usual Orthodoxies

TLB: Did you receive funding for Hail?

ACW: We did. I’d been through the whole rigmarole of script development on a number of projects. Some were in the cycle for three years. I worked on one feature script for seven years in development, which never happened. I kind of spent my twenties doing that. After I had this particular film fall over―I was 28, and I’d been working on it since I was 21―I was interested in finding a way to not fall into those usual orthodoxies of developing a feature. So we approached Screen Australia with a treatment for Hail, and went directly to the production funding. We didn’t engage with development at all.

The thing that enabled us to do that was the Adelaide Film Festival, who had enough faith in the project and in the team, to be first ones in with some cash. And that was really remarkable, because then there were two things: there was money on the table and there was a deadline that needed to happen. That really helped in terms of securing money from Screen Australia. So it was Screen Australia, Film Victoria, and Adelaide Film Festival. I think the budget was like $570,000, which—considering the length of the shoot, and that we shot on 16mm—we made go a long way.

Hail (2011)

TLB: Did that cover the shot with the horse?

ACW: That was hilarious, actually. We kind of fudged a little bit, in terms of how we were going to do it. On paper we said we were going to shoot it in a studio, but I was always interested in shooting it for real. We made sure to be particularly frugal with the rest of the shoot, and save that up till the end of the process. I think that single shot ended up costing us about ten percent of our whole budget. It was huge: both logistically and in terms of planning it.

Michael Cody, who was a producer on Hail, spent about nine months setting that shot up. At one point we were going to do it in Thailand, at one point we were going to do it in a drop zone in Colorado, then we were going to do it in Laos. And then, weirdly enough, a company in rural NSW came on board, and we found someone with a piece of land, and we approached a knackery and got a couple of dead horses and made it happen with an amazing old Huey helicopter.

PULL QUOTE: It was a kind of a hilarious, cataclysmic end to the shooting process.

It was a kind of a hilarious, cataclysmic end to the shooting process, and sort of appropriate to have gone though such tumult, and such chaos in making the film, and then literally on our final day of shooting we decided to drop a horse out of the sky. It was a nice punctuation mark to see it explode.

TLB: Had that been part of the proposal to Screen Australia, from the beginning?

ACW: That particular image was in the script, but we really didn’t know how we were going to execute it ourselves. If we couldn’t secure either a skydiving cinematographer or a helicopter or plane, we would have shot it in a studio. But that was another reason for leaving it till last: we knew we needed enough time to almost go back into pre-production and solely work on that shot coming into being.

I think when the funding bodies saw it in the cut, they just said “Look, we don’t want to know. We won’t ask you how you did that.” We obviously did it safely, and there was nothing illegal about it, but I don’t know if it would have been approved in the budget meeting in pre-production.

III. On Being Exposed

TLB: In Hail and Bastardy you’re working with people who have some sort of – not illness, but a social problem, like Jack Charles’ drug addiction, or in Daniel Jones’ case, there’s his time in prison and his apparent anger issues. Do you see the process of working with these people—and adapting their lives into cinema—as having any sort of therapeutic effect?

ACW: It’s something that I’ve only become aware of in retrospect, and in discussions with other people. It certainly wasn’t built in to the methodology of the work. Initially the instinct to follow both Danny and Jack was just curiosity, and a growing love for them. I think there was a key moment in both those films—whereby I know that the filmmaking process was going well—when the friendship with Danny and Jack took a front seat and the filmmaking took a back seat. The relationship was really core and film was – not an afterthought, but it was secondary to the friendship. It certainly was by no means some kind of rehabilitation, social justice, community health program.

The effect was apparent only once the films were completed, and once Danny and Jack both had enough space to see the films objectively that both their lives really altered fundamentally because of this process. I got an email from Jack about three weeks ago. It’s been six or seven years since we finished Bastardy. I met him and he was living under a bridge, and he was using heroin everyday. He hadn’t really performed substantially for ten or fifteen years. Now he’s seventy-one years old, he’s in London working on a Hollywood, Warner Brothers film, and he’s received two lifetime achievement awards in as many years.

In some way, him having to be made aware of his own trajectory in his life, and to speak to what it was to be turning sixty and still be a heroin addict, and to be going to jail for the umpteenth time, and to make the decision, upon the last time he was incarcerated, when he was released, to change his life fundamentally – for the camera to be there at that moment, and for him to know that it was recorded I think meant a lot. That’s a wonderful feeling, to know that. But it’s not something that you can have any perspective on in the moment. Or I don’t, anyway.

TLB: I was reading an interview about Hail where you were saying that the first part of the film is based directly on Daniel’s life experience, and the second half is a creative interpretation of his anger. There must be something unsettling about seeing ones own private thoughts interpreted on screen. How did Danny react?

ACW: Both Jack and Danny were really adamant in leading the charge when it came to exposing certain parts of themselves that were extraordinarily private, and difficult. I think they both have the personality to want to make sure that what they do is both honest and has an impact. Danny really wanted to affect people. For that reason it was easy for him to commit to being – candid isn’t even the word: he turned himself inside out for Hail.

The single most gratifying and moving experience we had showing the film to people―I think the moment in which it really hit home for Dan, as well―was when we had a charity screening for VACRO, which is a prison advocacy group that I initially met Dan through back in 2005.

After the screening there was a group of ex-prisoners and inmates, and there was this one particular guy in the audience who stood off to one side and was quite shy. He ended up talking to Dan right at the end of the evening, and it turned out that he was an ex-police officer, and also a veteran who’d served in Iraq. He just started bawling his eyes out and hugged Dan for about two minutes, and he said “I’ve never seen a more potent and authentic portrayal of what the inside of my head feels like with post-traumatic stress. Thank you for having the bravery to put that on screen.”

PULL QUOTE: If I had only shown the film to that person I would have been happy to make the movie.

For Dan to hear that from someone who was on the other side of the fence, to still garner that respect, and to realise that the film could speak to people who had similar experiences: that was the real moment that he and I knew it was having its desired effect. If I had only shown the film to that person I would have been happy to make the movie.

Having said that, I think Dan had certain issues early on. But that was more to do with not exposing his various friends and associates; not incriminating or shedding light on people close to him who didn’t want light shed on them. So we were very, very mindful of Dan, and Jack as well. At all stages of the process Dan could literally go up to the camera and tear the film out of the camera, or press erase on the sound recording device. He needed to know that he had that freedom at any moment, because otherwise it just would have felt like an unsafe space for him. And because there was that freedom, he chose to not even look at any edits at all, until the film was just about locked off.

Cicada (2008), a short collaboration between Courtin-Wilson and Daniel Jones, is a precursor to Hail.

TLB: In the psychoanalytic process there’s this idea called transference; that the patient, by exposing themselves so thoroughly to their analyst, comes to over-identify with them as a protective figure. During the process of making these films, when you were asking Daniel and Jack to expose themselves in such an enormous way, did your friendship with them change? Was it difficult to balance the part where you’re demanding that they put themselves out and the part where you’re just being friends?

ACW: I think the friendship was altered by that, initially. But it’s not a coincidence that both these men are much older than I am, and that I was attracted to following two men who had learned a series of life lessons, and who have―despite their obvious foibles, and shortcomings and mistakes― learnt a remarkable amount. I actually felt that the transaction was very amorphous, and worked in both directions.

As I was saying earlier, there’s a key moment where you shift from filmmaker-subject to just friends. Early on, I was going through a difficult time with some family issues, so I moved in with Danny, as he then moved in with me. In many respects Dan is like a surrogate uncle, or an older brother to me.

I would actually say in some ways that they’re the therapist, and I’m exposing myself equally. Because these two men are a lot older than I am, it’s about the humility of knowing that I can sit at their feet and learn from people who’ve had vast amounts of life experience. Jack Charles – I mean, in his equanimity, and his ability to step forward into any social interaction with the same degree of warmth and presence; he taught me how to be a better human being, and a better filmmaker, as did Daniel.

That’s priceless to me, and that’s also why the film is really secondary. It’s something that I didn’t feel as pointedly with Ruin, because of the degree of fictional content in that work. That’s also why I’m returning to a more documentary-portrait basis for my next film, because I kind of miss it.

TLB: That’s an interesting inversion of the idea of the director as someone who controls all aspects of the production, and has the ultimate voice of authority over people appearing in it. You’re identifying a kind of submissive relationship there.

PULL QUOTE: It’s about rendering yourself as transparent and as much of a conduit as possible for these people’s souls.

ACW: Totally. I think, as well, that it’s about rendering yourself as transparent and as much of a conduit as possible for these people’s souls. I lived with Jack, also, for a long period of time, and he came to live with me. That’s not to say that the entire time there isn’t a film being made, but I think it’s why Jack and Dan and I still have such strong friendships.

TLB: A lot of directors must go into a situation like that and end up, intentionally or not, being in an exploitative arrangement; where they extract a film from someone’s life and then go on their way.

ACW: Ultimately that was really informed by the fact that my first experience with documentary was being the subject. When I was seventeen I did this video diary thing for the ABC, where I was shooting and submitting video material for a year.

To have an experience where you are giving over very intimate material and expecting―naively expecting―some kind of consultation in the editorial process, and being shut out of it entirely, and literally the first time you see the film is when it’s broadcast: it was a horrendously traumatizing baptism by fire. I was already winning awards in the St Kilda film festival, I totally knew where I was going―making films―and the only elements of my life they chose to include in the episode were when I was drunk, or getting tattoos, or piercings, or being an idiot in between whatever else – juxtaposing me with a very hard working young Muslim girl who was working two jobs to support her parents. That was a great lesson in how not to treat someone that you’ve asked something from.

TLB: This morning I was reading a transcript from a show some years on, where you went back on the ABC to discuss that documentary. George Negus is asking you these questions, trying to get you to expose things about your parents, and even in the transcript it’s clear that you’re trying to back off, that Negus is trying to paint a picture of a certain kind of teenager, and a certain style of parenting.

PULL QUOTE: It was a horrendous, nightmarish experience.

ACW: Well, I was really happy to have the opportunity seven years later to even go on his program to try to re-write some of the half-truths that were broadcast initially. The hilarious thing is that I still see the producer from that initial series around at documentary conferences, and she majorly fucked me over. It was a horrendous, nightmarish experience. I certainly didn’t want to ever do that to anyone.

IV. On Preconceptions

TLB: You mentioned that during the filming of the ABC program you were already heading towards making films. How did you get started?

ACW: Well, going back even further, my father was really instrumental in turning me on to a lot of cinema at a really young age. For better or worse, I was watching Antonioni films and Dog Day Afternoon when I was eight and nine years old. I remember trying so desperately hard to impress my Dad, who’s a painter, and a big Fellini fan. I remember watching Zabriskie Point, the Antonioni film, and my Dad had said how much he loved movie, and I just did not understand why the fuck he chose to blow that house up at the end of that movie. I remember bursting into tears as a nine year old because I so desperately wanted to have an adult conversation with him about the indictment of capitalist culture.

I was a big Al Pacino fan, and I remember one of the most formative experiences for me in terms of very young film going was when I sat down in grade four to watch Dog Day Afternoon. There was something about the opening sequence of that movie. Sydney Lumet chooses to frame the rest of that very contained film with an amazing montage of documentary material of the city, before he telescopes in to the bank. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I remember feeling so strongly that there was something alive about that opening title sequence that I really responded to in a very visceral way. There was a realism or an energy at play that was unlike other things I’d seen before; unlike what I understood cinema to be. I’ve always drawn a line back to the moment of watching that film. I think it was the moment that began to inform the direction I would subsequently take, in terms of gleaning what I could from documentary to transpose into drama.

TLB: You made Chasing Buddha when you were only nineteen. How did that project get up and running?

ACW: I made my first film when I was in Grade 4. It was a gangster film called Eye Dust, about criminals smuggling cocaine in glass eyes – which was an idea that I had because I was obsessed with John Belushi at the time, and I was reading his biography, Wired, about heroin and cocaine use. That film was promptly banned by my grade four teacher for excessive violence and drug use.

But then I got a Super 8 camera and I spent about three years making a sci-fi epic on Super 8, from Year 7 to Year 9, which was an amazing way to cut my teeth. This was pre non-linear editing, so I was cutting on film, with white gloves and a shot bin, and splices and film glue and the whole bit.

Later, I had finished high school and was studying screenwriting part time at RMIT.Chasing Buddha began as part of an assignment I was doing for documentary class. I remember my lecturers there were two amazing Australian documentary makers Dennis K. Smith and Daryl Dellora, and they both had a very specific methodology, in which they came from a highly authored approached to documentaries, and script them as highly as you would any piece of drama.

At age 17 that was a watershed moment for me. I was an avid reader of screenplays from a very young age, but I was going through a big Coen Brothers period in my mid-teens, and Chasing Buddha was influenced by Raising Arizona. It was a portrait of my aunt, who was a Buddhist nun, and who at the time was teaching Buddhism to prison inmates around the United States. At the time she had a huge Buick, so she had this image as a bald-headed nun in a Buick roaming through the badlands of Colorado and Kentucky. The Super 8 segues and sequences throughout the film were about taking an impressionistic and poetic, mythical take on her character, as this figure in the American landscape.

I scripted the film entirely before I went over in February of 1998 to shoot it, with an approach whereby I would work out what characters I needed to establish a certain type of drama, or push the narrative of the film forward. For example, I knew I wanted to find a fundamentalist Christian Chaplain in a prison who would be somewhat against Robina teaching Buddhism to prison inmates. Then the methodology would involve going off to find those characters.

I went into the shoot with a fifty-page screenplay, and a very clear shot list for the road movie aspect of the narrative. We managed to find a production company to invest to the tune of a DV camera and fifty hours of tape stock, and we borrowed some money, and myself and my producing partner and cinematographer Vincent went over and shot for three months in 1998. I wrote it when I was 17, and shot when I was 18, and finished the film in time to premiere at Sundance in 2000.

Chasing Buddha (2000)

TLB: So you had the whole script written out for Chasing Buddha. When you got over there and started meeting these characters you’d planned for, did you find that getting the elements you wanted out of those real life situations required a lot of shaping on your part? Or were you confident about what you’d find?

PULL QUOTE: I came to that film with slightly too rigid a series of preconceived notions.

ACW: Another one of my aunties had written a very detailed autobiography which spoke a lot about Robina’s childhood and teenage years, and years as a political activist.. So I knew that I had all her early life charted, and that was very heavily researched. The thing that shifted, for me, was I came to that film with slightly too rigid a series of preconceived notions about what was underlying my aunt’s motivations for becoming a nun, and what her lifestyle must then be masking.

I remember that I butted heads with her over my assumption that she must be in some way lonely, leading this monastic lifestyle. And through the process of making the film this assumption unraveled and I was confronted by and had to re-assess my preconceived ideas. Really, she was buoyed and, if anything, re-vitalised by these very short interactions that she had with prisoners throughout the course of her touring for 260 of 365 days.

But in terms of the actual characters I was looking at – it’s nearly 17 years ago now, and it’s amazing to see the shift in the general landscape in terms of things as simple as getting access to people’s characters. This was well before the rise of reality television, which had pros and cons inasmuch as it was still a novelty for people to be asked to be in a documentary. It wasn’t nearly as commonplace.

The downside to that was most of the prisons said no. There was only one prison that actually gave us access to shoot within its grounds, and that was Kentucky State Penitentiary. But when Kentucky did say yes, we were extremely lucky inasmuch as the Chaplain there, who happened to be a fundamentalist Christian, was by no means happy that Robina was teaching pagan beliefs in the confines of his prison.

PULL QUOTE: The idea that two eighteen-year-old kids were basically in a private chapel reading room with a bunch of death row inmates is probably slightly problematic and dangerous.

When we were given access we were granted an unbelievable amount of free reign. We were basically allowed anywhere within the prison walls, but only for a period of fours hours in total. We interviewed about fifteen inmates, and shot two, hour-long lectures given by Robina, and all of that took place over only four hours. That was hugely high pressure. But there was no vetting of the interviews whatsoever. It was literally myself and my cinematographer admitted to a private room with these various guys on death row, and the only rule was the door had to be slightly ajar; there were no security guards accompanying us, and the prisoners weren’t in any way handcuffed.

Looking back, the idea that two eighteen-year-old kids were basically in a private chapel reading room with a bunch of death row inmates is probably slightly problematic and dangerous. But at the time we were just thankful that the warden took a shine to us. In fact, the way we got in to the prison was we wrote a series of letter saying it was a school project. Even though we went about everything officially, and got release forms and things like this, as far as they were concerned we were just a couple of high school kids.

V. On Bottle-Necking

TLB: At the Dark Mofo screening of Ruin, you mentioned that you and Michael interviewed a lot of people in Cambodia in order to collect possible stories for the project. How you end up winnowing that down to the two central characters?

ACW: We interviewed in excess of five hundred people in the course of a month. The thing that really bottle-necked proceedings to where we got to the idea of the film being a love story was that Michael had worked as a line producer on the Australian film Wish You Were Here, and he’d come across our lead, Rous Mony, in the course of making that film―where he plays a small but pivotal role―and he was really taken by Mony’s comparatively understated, naturalistic performing style. So we had him up our sleeve, I suppose, as a great potential lead. Initially we were looking for someone like Daniel Jones in Hail, who would play a role close to their actual life. But we knew that Mony was an amazing performer.

And then during the course of a tour of the University of Fine Arts―where we were meeting a series of drama students―we were given a tour of the circus school, and we found Sang Malen, our lead actress, who was in the distance doing a series of contortionist exercises. There was something very beguiling and compelling about her physicality, and we brought her in for an audition and straight away she really stood out for a number of reasons. A lot was to do with her strength of character, especially for a young Khmer girl: she’s very unusual in terms of how forthright she is, and her sense of resolve. It was like she was a woman twice her age.

So if nothing else it was kind of out of necessity. We knew that we had our crew coming over in early November, and these two performers were so streets ahead of anyone else we’d seen that it just made sense to start looking at the idea of a love story, and a story focusing on Mony and Malen.

Ruin (2013)

TLB: Did the interview process end up informing any particular elements of the narrative? I’m thinking particularly about the experience the character of Sovanna has in prostitution at the beginning of the film, and how she escapes by electrocuting her pimp with an exposed electrical chord. This felt like it could be derived from a true story.

ACW: The story of the electrical cord came from interviewing two sisters who’d been trafficked when they were thirteen-years-old. They were giving us a very extensive tour around Phnom Penh, with our Cambodian translator and producer Kulikar Sotho. I remember we stopped at a set of traffic lights and one of the girls—I think she was 22 at the time—started literally shaking next to us. Kulikar asked her what was wrong, and she pointed to this very innocent looking, homely grandmother; a women in her late seventies, standing on this street corner, at about midnight. The girl told us that that was the woman who had trafficked her, and that she hadn’t seen her since she had escaped, years prior.

So we quickly got out of the neighbourhood, and took her to a restaurant, and spoke to her about it. I was curious to know what she would do if she had a chance to confront this woman, and without hesitation she proceeded to explode with this series of expletives, and basically said that she wanted to tie her down and torture her to death. You could see it in her eyes: she was literally shaking with rage. That was absolutely confronting and, for me, it was really the single biggest catalyst for deciding to frame Malen’s character around the trauma and the rage that she unleashes against her pimp and the other men she meets. It was a really clear thing for us to look at: charting what this girl could have done had she had a chance to go back and confront her captors.

VI. On Peaks and Troughs

TLB: I’m curious about how you work with non-actors. In another interview I read you were talking about Leanne (Daniel’s partner, who co-stars in Hail) and how you kept the fact that she was going to be such a large part of the film a sort of secret from her for a while. But she’s very good in it: so exposed and so natural, as is Daniel. How did you get those kinds of performances?

ACW: We underwent a long rehearsal period that was at once an auditioning, rehearsing, and re-writing process. So while Leanne wasn’t told that she would be in the film, she was participating in these very intensive auditions for about three months. So she did have time to become acquainted with the idea of performance, and being directed and modulating your performance accordingly.

PULL QUOTE: It’s pretty impossible to not be just paying attention to Danny when he’s in front of you.

I think Danny was really instrumental in that, for both Leanne and for all the other performers in the film. It’s pretty impossible to not be just paying attention to Danny when he’s in front of you, so it was easy for him to mould or help sculpt the performance of someone he was acting alongside. He was very intuitive and very sophisticated in his ability to draw something out of someone. In a lot of the scenes with supporting actors I wouldn’t give the actor working opposite Danny any direction. I would give Dan his direction as well as the direction for them, and he would know how to bring that out of them in the moment.

But to get back to your idea about non-actors, in my experience it’s always about telling people as little as possible, and giving them as little time as possible to overthink and unnecessarily embroider any emotional beat they might be asked to perform or enact.

I’ll give you an example. For the Anthony character in Hail—the guy played by Dario Ettia—we met, I think, a hundred and fifty guys for that role. We wouldn’t just audition them solo; we’d audition them with Leanne. So she had rehearsed that scene nearly two hundred times by the time we got in to shoot, which meant that she was able to guide him.

Dario and Dan had never met previously, though. Their first meeting on screen is literally their first meeting. It’s just about trying to, wherever possible, not fabricate. “Okay, these guys are meeting for the first time, let’s actually do it”. I think you can keep things very simple, and try to be pragmatic on that level. It doesn’t always work, but for the most part you’re casting the person who is ninety-five percent of the character anyway, so their natural responses are what you want. You’re job is ostensibly kind of done; it’s just about sculpting the peaks and troughs of that, once you’ve assembled the different characters.

VII. On Texture

TLB: I wanted to ask you about film style, and how you develop, or end up choosing, the final visual language of your films. To me it seems like there is a particular stylistic similarity between Bastardy and Hail and Ruin – even though Ruin was co-directed. You have these kind of realist scenes―in Bastardy you have the scenes where you’re filming Jack; in Ruin you have these realist fictional scenes you’ve built out of collaboration with the actors―and then, interspersed with them, you have these poetic, visual moments. In Bastardy you use clips from some of Jack Charles’ earlier film work, but they’re presented in such a way that they’re disconnected, and a little surreal; in Hail you have the slow motion shots, like with the horse, or Daniel floating upside down; in Ruin you have some detailed, slow motion shots of fire and water. I’m wondering whether you approach your projects with certain stylistic conditions in mind that you’d like to achieve, or whether, in each instance, these are just solutions that have emerged out of the filmmaking process?

ACW: I obviously have a pretty strong preoccupation and fascination with the elements. There are very elemental motifs running through most of my work, going back to Chasing Buddha, with the use of fire as a recurring image. Certainly with both Hail and Ruin there’s the motif of water, which is exceptionally strong.

I think it’s kind of a mixture. It’s about coming to the work and wanting to frame these people as characters, and giving them a canvas that is panoramic in scale. In the case of Danny and Hail, for example, it was allowing a world and a series of characters who would otherwise be relegated to a social realist, kitchen sink style to be presented in a way that is really epic and operatic.

Ruin (2013)

I also think that structurally, in terms of finding solutions to narrative concerns, every filmmaker has a set of stylistic preoccupations that resurface in various guises. Aside from the content of the shots themselves, there are a couple of things in play, for me. I’ve always been fascinated by shifts in texture, and the surface of the image, and juxtaposing textures in the context of a single work. Like juxtaposing Super 8 and DV in Chasing Buddha, or the slow motion, high res material with the grittier, grainier, more alive material in Hail.

PULL QUOTE: Every filmmaker has a set of stylistic preoccupations that resurface in various guises.

There is a very personal series of associations I have with any given format. For example, the slow motion Super 8 of fire in Chasing Buddha is about using Super 8 in not the usual terms of a familial, shared memory, but using it in the context of an internal, subjective nostalgia.

I suppose you could say that those sorts of stylistic segues are really about placing the onus on the audience to open up to the narrative, to allow them to spin the kaleidoscope a little bit and to shift the prism through which the audience is seeing the character. Those sequences are always more about tone and feeling than information. You’ll never be delivered a turning point in the story in those sequences; it’s more to do with creating a space that’s ambiguous and poetic and impressionistic.

So it’s hard to say that they perform any one function. There’s a floating series of functions that they can perform. It’s funny you mention it, because I’m suspicious of my own propensity to continue using those techniques. I feel as though with my next film or films I’ve made a deal with myself to try to abide by a different kind of narrative economy, and not rely on those segues.

TLB: I like that you’re framing it as this idea of there being different textures in the material of the film.

ACW: Some filmmakers, like Bernardo Bertolucci, develop very clear schematics in terms of the psychological resonances of the colour spectrum. Like, in The Last Emperor, green equaling knowledge. I feel the same way, but about the texture of an image. That’s something that never need be discussed, but there’s an underlying logic at play for me that informs at what point certain textures are employed and not.