It’s been a long road from your first film, Ned, to Down Under. Were you developing other things in the meantime?
I was. I finished Ned in 2003 [when] it was released, but the actual birth of that movie to its release was incredibly quick. Part of that was due to the subject matter of that film and the genre it was, and [also] the age that I was. There was a lot about that experience that was really great and a lot about it that was exactly the opposite. I look back on that film… I was going to say [it was] my film school but I’ve learned a lot since then as well. It taught me a lot about the industry, and it actually got me used to failing. Developing anything and wanting to make films, you’ve got to get used to failure and build up a resilience to it. And make sure you’re learning from your failures, because then you start getting a little surer about what actually works. In the interim I did a lot of acting, and that was just a way of licking my wounds a little bit after the release of Ned. I had a bunch of things in development. I had something that fell over before pre-production started that was very painful at the time, but in retrospect it was actually a good thing. I’m glad I didn’t make that movie. That was in about 2007-8, and then it wasn’t really until the Tropfest film [Shock, winner of Tropfest 2010] that I started to feel that I was figuring out how to tell a story, and then that led to me writing Down Under.
What did you learn making Ned?
The main thing is that if you’re directing a film, you have to believe in your subject matter, to the point where you’re convincing everyone to come along with you, from investors to cast and crew. If everyone feels that they’re part of something where somebody is so passionate that they just have to get the story out, it just makes everything a lot easier. In order to be in that position, I guess you need to believe it yourself. You can’t manufacture that, because if you are manufacturing it either people are going to [be able to] tell or you’re going to get yourself in a situation where something doesn’t work. Making a film is hard enough, that even at the difficult moment, you need to make sure you can tap back into that well of feeling that this story really does need to be told. This has been a six-year journey, this film.
When did you have that initial idea for the film?
2010. It was a confluence of things. One was winning Tropfest that year. I was thinking about the next step, and felt like: I’m probably ready to have another crack at a feature now. I also saw Four Lions, Chris Morris’ film, at the Sydney Film Festival. Four Lions starts with a sequence that – at the time, I could have sworn he’d got a hold of a short film that I’d made and ripped it off. This was a feeling that lasted for about thirty seconds but it was so similar. And then as the movie progressed, [I thought] no, no, he’s just making the kind of film I would make – the same subject matter that I find really appealing. The other thing was that I found out I was going to be a father around that time, and [I had] that sense of panic: I need to get my shit together right now, because it’s going to be out in nine months. I started to feel a responsibility that I was bringing a child into the world. It feels like the world that we’re finding ourselves in now was actually a lot better six years ago, but [at the time] I was feeling the responsibility of doing something that was actually saying something about where we were as a nation, but also [about] the world as well. So it all just fell into place. For me it felt like the Cronulla riots were really fertile ground to make something that we as Australians could all relate to because we all experienced it, but I also I felt like it had international relevance beyond the riot itself. And then within three weeks, I had a first draft.
I imagine the question of tone must have made a few financiers a bit worried. Was it difficult getting it funded?
Yes and no. Any film obviously is difficult to get funded. If I write another script which has a difficult tonal area, I can at least show the feature [now] and say, well there you go, there’s how you do it. [But] I didn’t have the feature [then], I had a handful of short films that were in a similar world. It took me going in and just talking people through it, and making it clear that even though it is a comedy, it’s also not a comedy as well. It needed to be both those things equally and I needed people to be aware that while obviously the funny stuff reads funny, the dark stuff is going to be quite dark and it needs to be that way handling this subject matter. I think once people were aware that that’s what we were doing with it, we actually didn’t have that many problems. Once people were on-board they were really on-board.
Where’d the money come from?
Screen bodies, private investment. We also had [the UK’s] Ealing Studios. They were putting in quite a bit of money, but the person who ran Ealing Studios ended up not being able to get the money, which then caused us to refinance the movie as we were shooting. They’d signed contracts with everyone, and technically they totally breached their contract, but they just couldn’t get the money into the bank. So we refinanced as we were shooting in order to stop it being shut down, which was particularly interesting. It’s a fairly low budget, too. My producer Jodi [Matterson] has done a number of films. I’ve been working in commercials for five years now and obviously making short films, and I’ve worked in television as well. I’ve watched other people work from afar, and I know Jodi’s similar. There’s way that you can get more money on screen while still paying people, just being a little bit clever about how you work your budgets. I feel quite proud of the level of the production we were able to bring to this movie on what is quite a low budget.
What was the budget?
Under $3 million.
When it came to casting, did you have your eye on these guys like Alexander England and Josh McConville or were they recommended by the casting director?
Half and half. That was the interesting part of losing the money from Ealing. The amount Ealing was putting into the movie meant that they were one of the main investors, and they agreed with us that the event of this movie was the star and that we didn’t need your Jai Courtneys in order to get the financing. And my opinion with Australian movies too is that someone like a Jai Courtney or those sorts of people – they don’t bring people into the cinemas anyway. So we were given permission to cast who was right for all of the roles, and as soon as we had that permission there was a number of people like Damon Herriman [that we cast]. Damon’s role was on offer to someone else, a name, and as soon as we had the opportunity to cast whoever we wanted, I put Damon straight in. And Alex England’s certainly someone who’s been on my radar for a long time. I had worked with him and Josh McConville before. I’d never worked with Rahel [Romahn] or Lincoln [Younes], so I found them through casting. It was a daunting movie to cast, because there were so many roles, but it was so great to be able to just find the characters who were out there rather than shoehorn people in.
How long was the shoot, and what did you shoot on?
We shot for about five and a half weeks. Four weeks of night shoots, which was tough. We shot on the ALEXA. Lachy Milne, the DP, was someone I’d worked with a little bit in commercials. He’s amazing. He shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople as well. Lochy, the cinematographer, Drew Thompson, the editor, and Piers [Burbrook de Vere], the composer, those three guys in particular, really brought something to the movie which elevated it into the place it needed to be.
Four Lions felt to me like a feature-length TV episode, in terms of what the camera’s doing – or not doing. This felt much more cinematic. Do you feel you’ve developed a lot since your last feature?
No question. Working in commercials for five years is a good way of learning how to use all the toys, but then you’ve got to apply that kind of knowledge into a narrative. How do you best express something a character’s going through, or something that needs to be conveyed without words? Certainly working with Lachy during the shoot, he and I are very like-minded in the films we like and the way we think movies should be shot in terms of coverage. For us it was a big thing to only shoot on one camera. For me, you can tell when something’s shot on more than one camera, because the more cameras you have the less thought goes into each shot. You really need to be sure about what each shot is conveying to the audience. I feel like a lot of films, both internationally and locally, you watch them and think: if you’ve got the opportunity to make a film for the big screen, why wouldn’t you make it as cinematic as possible?
The film’s such a tonal tightrope walk. Especially that ending, which is so dark. How long were you in post?
We cut for about twelve weeks. My relationship to Drew [Thompson] is similar to [that with] Lachy. He’s a key collaborator for me and I wouldn’t want to do a film without him now. Drew helped the movie find the tone that it ended up in. We did a test screening about ten weeks in, and I think if any outsider had seen that test screening, they would have thought it was a disaster. But the edit actually wasn’t that different to what we ended up with. What it taught Drew and I was [that] you really needed to walk the audience through the tone of each scene and each moment, and where we really did that was through sound and music. The audience needed help: we had to let them know, it’s okay to laugh in this scene. Or not. As soon as that was laid in there, it was like a totally different movie for the audience.
Some of those punches at the end sound very gory, even though we don’t see the impact.
I didn’t want to show the violence. It was more about how people reacted to it, and that’s where sound was key. It needed to not sound like movie sound effects. These people get themselves involved in a situation, and then when they have to act beyond the verbal posturing, they’re immediately confronted with what they’ve done. Which is why the fight scene at the end is so messy. As soon as those moments come in via sound, the audience is immediately pulled away from comedy, which is always what I wanted. It makes it that much more shocking and really puts the audience in the points of view of those characters at each of those points.
I’ve got a couple of scripts I’ve been working on. It’s coming up six years now I’ve been working on this film. I’d like some time off, but I’m aware that after a film comes out you’ve only got a short window to get things happening. I’ve learnt so much through the process of making this film, and even if I never get the chance to make another one, I feel good now having made this one. I’m happy with this one, [and] I know I’ll always be happy with this one. I went in to this film thinking I’d be happy if I could get sixty percent of what was in my head onto the screen. But to be honest at some point during the making of this film that percentage went up quite a great deal. I’ll probably just try and have a bit of a break. One thing I do need to do is go back to commercials and make some money, because I haven’t made any money for six years.