Mark Lewis: Cane Toads

“Cane Toads “An Unnatural History” is an iconic documentary that until recently held the record for theatrical box office grosses for a documentary in Australia. This session labelled Telling Stories presented by Mark Lewis was a standout in the program.

The ABC’s Dasha Ross introduced the session, offering the observation that while people think Mark Lewis’ films are about animals and animal behaviour, they’re actually about people.

Adding that Lewis has three Emmy awards to his name, Dasha told the session that filmmaker Werner Hertzog names Cane Toads as his number one film.

Mark began the session by returning to where it all began, with Cane Toads. And it’s still as funny and poignant as when it was made, twenty years ago.

Mark explained in some detail the way he interviews his subjects. He said that he had been influenced by a film made by Peter Greenaway calls Acts Of God, about people who had been struck by bolts of lightning and survived. Mark explained that the interviews were done very wide, with a lot of head room. The image told another story, that the subjects could be struck again by lightning, via all this head room.

Mark told the assembled that he welcomed input from the floor, and questions peppered the session for a change, which was fantastic. A few questioners asked how he actually did the interviews.

“I liked to see people?€?s houses, where they live,” Mark said. “All the
interviews were done directly down the barrel.”

He explained in some detail how he used a mirror box to give the impression that the subjects were staring down the lens of the camera. There was some discussion about how the interview subject had stuttered. “I thought it would be more discriminatory not to interview him than to interview him,” Mark said. “I always seek out characters that have
flavour to them.”

Question: often your characters are telling a very funny story but in a very dry way. Is that something that you encourage?

Mark: “I don’t encourage them either way. There’s a comedic counterpoint behind their story and what they’re talking about. These people are very serious about their stories.

Mark gave the example of an interview subject who had been attacked by a squirrel. It was obviously a very serious event in the subject’s life, but when it translated to film it was hilarious.

He showed a clip which appeared to show a driver squashing cane toads on a road, then explained how no cane toads were harmed in the making of the film. “We used brown potatoes in place of cane toads to illustrate someone running over cane toads,” Mark said.

“I make it a mandate never to look down at an animal. One always shoots from an animal’s eye view. We’re always seeing animals diminished and smaller in the frame because its easier to shoot animals from above than get down to their level.”

Lewis explained how he worked with DOP Jim Frazier on Cane Toads because he had constructed a set of film lenses that would be ideal for the project. “They were so good that Panavision picked them up and they became known as the Frazier lenses. They’re still in use today, they’re very expensive.”

“I don’t go out of my way to kill cane toads or rather I go out of my way not to kill cane toads because cane toads have been good to me, and also I don’t believe they should be killed,” Mark added.

He told us that Cane Toads was produced by Tristam Miall, who worked as an executive producer at Film Australia. “He had a contact at the BBC and Tim Slessor decided to become a co-producer. I was very lucky in that the EP at Film Australia respected my ability as a filmmaker.”

Questioned on how he finds the people for his stories, Mark explained that he feels you should cast your documentary like you cast a feature film. “If I need an academic I demand that we speak to all of the academics to find the best one. We must have talked to hundreds of synchronized swimmers in the US to find the most charismatic ones. I
think it makes the film more interesting to watch.”

Mark showed a clip from The Wonderful World of Dogs. It showed a woman worrying that her pet Chihuahua might be whisked off the beach by a pelican.

Was it all set up? Of course it was.

“I talked to a vet who told me the original story and then I recorded an interview but then the woman didn’t want to do it, so I got an actor friend of mine to be the woman with the Chihuahua.”

“As we were filming it a guy came up and told us that he had witnessed the dog being taken by a pelican. So of course we recorded an interview with him on the spot, and we used it in the film.”

Mark uses a database called Nexus Lexus that contains all of the world’s newspapers that have been digitized and put into this database. You can search it using a Boolean search.

“We also use usergroups and newsgroups over the internet. I post ads on newsgroups looking for stories.”

Mark talked about the use of sound and music in his documentaries, both of which he feels are absolutely crucial to the success of the final film.

“Your vision is dictated by what you hear. Essentially we very much apply the theatrical use of sound. We foley things, we add in sound effects. All of them come in post.”

“The music is a different thing,” he added, “and I work with a fabulous music person. Martin Amiger did the music for Cane Toads. My wife selects the music for all my films and she has great taste.”

“The most dramatic use of music is when you use music in counterpoint to the image. For example the use of opera versus death in Apocalyse Now. Using library music you are more than likely to find something that works in a funny way as opposed to using a composer. The problem with composers is that if they see an image of someone crying they are likely to bring out the violins.”

Mark Poole. Screen Hub February 2008

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