Oz director Grant Scicluna takes Downriver theatrical
First-time director Grant Scicluna has mined the depths of darkness in his new feature, Downriver.
The film was inspired by a question over a few drinks with a friend.
Scicluna was aiming for the most explosive beginning he could find.
“I went home and had drinks with a friend and we were talking about things and stories and trying to find the most dramatic explosive type of set and we inevitably stumbled upon murder, and then the murder of the child at the hands of another child seemed the most explosive place to start a story,” Scicluna said.
“I started developing it from there and it took a long time. We have been writing it for over seven or eight years, so it has changed a lot since then. That’s really where it began, that’s where ideas often do just out of a conversation and a question.
Despite the darkness of the film, which stars Reef Ireland and Kerry Fox, it aims to find light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think there is always two sides to every coin,” Scicluna said.
“When you are exploring darkness what you’re really exploring at the same time is its opposite and that’s what interests me in that type of material.
“If I am working on something much lighter part of me is also really melancholic about it and when you’re writing about death you are really writing about life.
“So for me that kind of duality is something that’s crept into my final two short films and then into this screenplay – increasingly through this development was just trying to push these two extremes.”
Ireland plays James, a young man who has served time for drowning a little boy when he was a child, although the body was never found in the river.
A visit from his victim's mother upon parole sends him on a quest for truth. With little time and danger at every turn, James risks his freedom and his life to uncover the trail of sins that might give closure to the grieving mother.
Scicluna said it was an exploration of dark and distressing material.
“But at the same time it is about a bunch of characters who are trying to make sense of their life so that they can have relationships and heal and move forward,” he said.
“At the same time as it is dark, it’s a film which is about the wonderful things in life, which are love and friendship and being able to find redemption.”
Reef Ireland in Downriver.
The film, produced by Jannine Barnes and shot by veteran cinematographer, Laszlo Baranyai, had a long gestation period.
“It’s probably 10 years from the first conversation until we were on set,” Scicluna said.
“Part of the long gestation was because Jannine and I were both first timers. I did go to RMIT screenwriting so I was studying to be a writer but I had never learnt how to direct anything. So I spent all that time working on short films and learning how to direct.
“We were going through draft by draft with funding agencies which are great and supportive and enable us to keep moving forward.
“But it takes a lot of time, because bureaucracy takes time, and so we would move forward and then take a step back. It took about eight years and then the really hardcore serious financing was two years before we started shooting.”
The major investor is Screen Australia, then Film Victoria and then the Melbourne Film Festival Fund
Downriver is distributed by Rialto with international sales agent and had a crowd fund component which brought the final budget to $1.5 million.
Scicluna said the budget placed restrictions on the shoot.
“In order for us to get the film made we had to slash a million dollars from our budget.
“For first time filmmakers two years before we made our film it was acceptable to have budgets of $2-3 million. That was considered low budget.
“We went through at that budget level and we were not able to get the film through. So when we went through at a budget of $1.5 million we were then financed.
“What that did was put a huge amount of pressure because the investors still want the same level at a much lower expenditure so that falls onto Jannine, myself, all the heads of department to pull together something incredible without people without resources .
“In a way, at that sort of budget level, you are set up to fail and the fact that we haven’t is great testament to all of those people.
“Because $1.5 million to do what we did sounds like a lot of money but it’s not. It very quickly vanishes into insurances and pay and tax and all sorts of stuff. So there’s very little to make the film with. So I definitely felt that pressure. We had to lose a week from our schedule.
“ I had to lose 10 pages from the script.”
Despite wanting to shoot on film, Scicluna shot on a digital ARRI Alexa.
“Jannine and I are film people at heart and we certainly wanted to shoot our first film on film. Our short films had all been shot on film. But at the budget level and also with the climate at the moment, film was denied to us.
The film, with a theatrical release date of May 12 on approximately 10 screens across Australia, follows Scicluna’s short The Wilding, which also starred Reef Ireland.
Scicluna said no one baulked at the idea of casting a relative newcomer in a lead role.
“I just wanted to put around him as much experience as I could. So I started thinking about the role of the mother and Kerry Fox is an actress I have always really loved. I love her films.
“We contacted her, I sent her a love letter and told her all the things I adore about her. I sent her The Wilding and sent her the script and she came back and said 'yeah'.
“She was in London and she needed to justify coming out so she worked on a little film called The Dressmaker and Holding the Man.”
Scicluna met cinematographer, Baranyai, after playing a corpse on Matt Saville’s first film Noise.
“I was a dead body on the train in the opening sequence,” he said.
“At that point I was just watching because I was still learning how a director conducts himself on set, how a director talks to a DOP and I just watched Matt and Lazlo work and I was so inspired by Lazlo in particular. I just thought he was brilliant.
“We spoke to him, we sent him a script and he asked just for a week to read the script and to meet.
“He read it overnight and then texted us in the morning and said ‘I need to meet today’ and told us his incredibly personal reaction to it.
“It was just a joy to work with him he’s an absolutely brilliant creative mind.
Scicluan told IF he was happy with the final product.
“I had this really fatalistic attitude that I better make the film as I want to make it because one of these days is going to be the final film that I make.
“There are a lot of compromises along the way but I understood why things needed to be compromised and then I pushed back against the things I didn’t want to compromise on and it was always just a negotiation.
“In the end I couldn’t be happier for Reef, he carries this film on his shoulders. I think it’s going to really launch him. We said to our investors ‘we will be a small film but we will just do our best to get it into a big overseas festival and we will do our best to get sales and I feel like we have started to do that for them."
Ireland, who has just signed on for the third season onf New Zealand TV drama Westside, said his character in Downriver was an extension of the one he played in short film The Wilding.
“We shot that maybe two years before we started shooting Downriver and I played essentially the same character.
After working on The Wilding, Downriver was a natural progression.
“Me and Grant we completely hit it off. We loved working with eachother. I feel like our creative levels are at the same frequency.” he said.
“He completely trusted me with the material – completely trusted me with the character, let me do and make choices with the character. He was totally open to ideas and, creatively, is a genius.
“It’s all in his writing and I just felt safe that as long as I trusted the writing I was going to be fine with the character.
Ireland said James was James was a dark character to play.
“I found my inner demons, my skeletons in the closet and my inner beast and just really studied what it would be like to have to deal with that from such a young age.
“This guy carried an absolute burden with him at all times – one that he just cannot shake off and I think that’s what the whole film is about. It’s about him not only putting closure in his life but putting closure in the victim’s life as well.
Ireland said the shoot was brutal.
“Everything you see in the film we really did: crawling through tunnels and getting lowered down this manhole. There was stuff that I just didn’t really expect, but it all turned out awesome and I had such a good time doing it.
“It was a fairly tight crew but everyone was there for the project. I feel like everyone went that extra 10-20 per cent for the sake of the film.
“James is this really… he has this really sad story, he this kid who is manipulated into doing something at such a young age which is now the consequences of that which I feel he did not know at that age is going to haunt him for the rest of his life.
“He will forever be known as this kid who murdered a little boy. I feel like he is this dark-horse hero. He is manning up to his actions and he goes back to the town to find out what really happened to this boy that he killed.
“The film is not a lighthearted rom-com. It’s dark, it’s broody, it’s so thought-provoking and asks more questions than I think it answers. It’s the kind of film that you will leave the cinema thinking about for days on end. “