This 2008 session, hosted by the Australian Directors Guild and the AFI with the support of AFTRS, the AWG and Screen Australia saw Elissa Down, Peter Duncan, Dee McLachlan and Nash Edgerton talking about making their films The Black Balloon, Unfinished Sky, The Jammed and The Square at ACMI.
The session ran for two hours so some highlights:
Dee McLachlan said that you have to turn every negative you get into a positive, so that you and your project keep going.
Nash Edgerton explained how one of his short films was rejected by John Polson from entering Tropfest, so he promptly made another one – starring John Polson, completed within a week, in time to enter.
Elissa Down said that you have to hold on to your goals, and so when told by a broadcaster they wouldn’t let her direct The Black Balloon as she didn’t have enough experience, she withdrew the project.
Peter Duncan recounted that when Monic Hendrickx arrived on set for the first time after a long flight, William McInnes asked her ‘so are you going to go starkers?’
The session was chaired by filmmaker, journalist and academic Lawrie Zion who asked Elissa Down about her film’s release in the US. Elissa explained that the Black Balloon is currently screening in LA and New York on four screens apiece.
“We have the Christians behind us,” Elissa added, “and so we had to take out the fucks, the pisses and the shits, so all that remains is two shits and one fuck.” However Elissa felt that it is worthwhile to be supported by the Christian community. She was concerned that she would also have to take out ‘the tampon scene and the poo scene,’ but they survived.
She described how she grew up in a household where two of her brothers have autism and the younger one is an elective mute and was the bane of Elissa’s life over her childhood, and the basis for the Charlie character in the film. “Making a film is cheaper than therapy.”
Asked what her process was for getting the cast to work as a team or ensemble, Elissa replied that she employs a bastardization of the Mike Leigh process. She got Rhys and Luke to go through a shopping centre for 8 hours in character. “Luke loved any chance he got to go into character as Charlie,” she told us. She mimicked how ‘Charlie’ made loud grunting noises as they watched the movie Aragon and then he ran off and Luke was left to find him.
“Even Toni was into this process during the rehearsals,” said Elissa. “I got her to dress Charlie and cook a meal and play scrabble and try to have a sex chat.”
Referring to the successful release of The Black Balloon, Elissa said they were lucky because they finished the film months before the release date. And without a large marketing budget, they had to rely on the media to get the film out there. “We relied on magazines doing articles on Toni, Gemma, Luke Ford, Rhys being a soap star and because we had a long lead-in we were able to generate awareness and then the word of mouth kicked in.”
Elissa said that they kept pretty much to the screenplay although she is always open to what the actors came up with, and there are times when she suggests that they use their own words. She talked about one scene shot around the table in the film where she realized she needed Rhys to be happy for a moment before becoming upset, and so she told Toni to try and get a rise out of him, but Rhys didn’t know he was supposed to laugh, and the end result worked well. “The actors really egged each other on.”
Peter Duncan explained that his films tend to be pretty much shot as scripted, and added that Monic’s character’s speech had to be translated into Dari so there wasn’t room for improing her dialogue – she had to memorise the translations.
Peter explained that he had been approached by the Dutch production company who had made the Dutch version of the film, called Polish Bride. They wanted to do an English version because they found they were making great films that failed to travel due to the language they were in.
“They came to me in late 2002 and the world was reeling after 911 and I thought there’s an interesting conceit here, as the film is about whether the farmer chooses to engage with the woman or not, and if it does, the world gets better. You saw after 911 people pulling back from things, and if people do that life gets duller.”
He added that the new production company that was set up was called New Holland Productions which Duncan thought was a cute name.
Peter described how William McInnes really inhabited the character, which was enhanced by the fact that he hails from rural Queensland. “He was concerned that the scene where he punts a football over the house would be cut from the film, and kept calling me to ask if the punt was still in.”
In Polish Bride the farmer is a sweet guy throughout the film, but with Unfinished Sky Duncan was attracted to the thriller possibilities of the story. “We wanted to create a feeling of menace in the farmer, so that the audience might feel that Monic might have gone out of the frying pan into the fire, and McInnes reveled in that, in the sense that he might be evil,” said Duncan.
Peter recounted how they only had two days for rehearsals, and the day before something major had gone wrong with William McInnes’ computer, so he was in a foul frame of mind. Monic had arrived after a long flight and she didn’t get McInnes at all. His first words to her were “So are you going to be starkers?”
“She didn’t understand him at all, she didn’t get him.”
Peter explained that in the film McInnes has two modes, one with stubble and one without. “We had to shoot the stubble mode first and this was when she didn’t get him, but when we shot the post stubble McInnes she started to get him, and suddenly she was laughing with him on the set, so they really did parallel the journey of the characters.”
Peter explained that his other films have been pretty wordy and one of the challenges with this one was how to cut the dialogue as he found the film got better the fewer words were in it. “I tried to get them to find ways of doing things without words.”
This comment was echoed by Nash Edgerton, who said that he would ask the actors to do a version of the scene without any dialogue, and he would often use parts or all of this version for the final film.
Nash said that despite having been on set countless times before, the experience of being the director of a feature film was terrifying. “Everything was kind of riding on me,” he said, “and I was extremely uncomfortable.”
Another challenge was the collaboration with brother Joel, who played a major role in the film and co-wrote the screenplay. “I locked him out of the edit suite and when I showed it to him he said what happened to this and this? He’d actually had a much bigger role and I cut a lot of it out, as there was a whole storyline that I didn’t find necessary.” Luckily Joel agreed that in the end, the film was the better for the cuts.
Lawrie asked the panel when they knew that a film was finished and Dee McLachlan responded that with The Jammed, the cut was determined in part by the available resources. Money was tight and they needed to cut it quickly so that they could send it out to film festivals around the world.
However the film was initially rejected by several festivals, so she and co-producer Andrea Buck looked at it again and chopped seven minutes out of it. “We did a sort of distributor’s cut on it,” she explained, and suddenly it was working.
“The film then went on quite an extraordinary journey and I had think that it has to do with the content of the film,” Dee added. But it was tough to get distribution. “Buena Vista brought 12 of their people to a screening and they loved it, but it just didn’t get across the line as they couldn’t justify 100 prints out there. It just didn’t crack the mark – distributors didn’t know what to do with it,” she said.
When The Jammed eventually received a limited release, it got immediate acclaim. “It became a kind of cult hit in a strange sort of way and we’re still trying to figure it out how it happened. It made a connection with people, which was so gratifying. People would call us and say they had tried to get to see it but they couldn’t get into the cinema as it was full!”
“The film has its own energy,” she said. “Last night someone told me that they had shown the film to 700 students.”
“With any movie, the gods have got to kind of align with you and it was the Howard era and there was a lack of truth and here was a little movie speaking the truth about Melbourne,” added Dee.
“When there’s a negative you’ve got to find a greater positive in this movie business.”
AFI: Meet the director
by: Mark Poole
Monday 8 December, 2008