Feature: Accident Prone
by Adam Coleman
On a balmy summer’s afternoon in a quiet American suburb in 1974, stirring sprinklers preserve the neatly trimmed lawns in front of cookie cutter homes. Aside from the occasional dog barking, life feels uneventful, constant and secure. But even in this seemingly safe haven, out of nowhere, danger even death can descend.
It is this premise – that we cannot insulate ourselves from accidents – that forms the basis of Accidents Happen – a darkly humorous Australian feature that charts the dysfunctional and accident-prone Conway family and their struggle to face up to their own misfortune.
Starring Academy Award winner, Geena Davis, as the acerbic but witty Gloria Conway, and newcomer Harrison Gilbertson as her mischievous and accident-prone son Billy, Accidents Happen is the feature debut of composer and short filmmaker, Andrew Lancaster.
Eight years on from the car accident that killed one family member and left another in a catatonic state, we find the surviving members of the Conway family emotionally paralysed and unable to confront their grief.
Hardly comic material some might say, but for Lancaster, it was a “beautiful balancing act” and the opportunity “to celebrate the inappropriate behavior” that he says can be so fundamental to the healing process.
“I think a lot of people in grief try to feel nothing and laughter and joy is expressing an emotion. It really is about that idea of people expressing, rather than suppressing their emotions.”
Accidents Happen was originally inspired by a one-man theatre show performed by the film’s screenwriter Brian Carbee, who is also an actor and dancer.
Lancaster approached Carbee after his show one night in Sydney and asked if he could turn his performance into a short film.
The collaboration led to In Search of Mike – a short film that became a hit on the international film festival circuit. Carbee later decided In Search Of Mike was a slightly unfair representation of a character that was based loosely on his mother, so he wrote a book to set the record straight.
While on a long-haul flight to the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival in Paris, he presented Lancaster with a draft. “He gave it to me while we were on the flight and every time I laughed he would check what page I was on,” Lancaster recalls. “There was such irreverence and unusually comic dialogue, yet the dramatic journey was so heart wrenchingly real.
“I knew immediately that I wanted this to be my debut feature.”
However, life would take a surreal turn for Lancaster, when a series of real-life tragedies befell people surrounding the project.
First P.J. Vanderboom – a 21 year-old actor who played the role of Brian in In Search of Mike – was tragically killed by a bus about a month or two after shooting the short film. Then Carbee’s mother and inspiration for the central character of Gloria, died from complications relating to a fall.
The accidental overdose of one of Lancaster’s musical associates concluded the macabre series of events that lent some influence to the final script.
“We didn’t think ‘oh well, all these people have died let’s do a film about accidents’,” says Lancaster. “But, it was sort of strange how that came into play.
“It was somehow in the ether of dealing with tragedy and grief. I also felt that having a character that is accident prone is a great way to drive the story.”
Drawing inspiration from the suburban American photography of Gregory Crewdson, Lancaster had a clear vision for the “hyper-realistic” style he wanted for Accidents Happen.
“I can’t direct something that is plain and mid-shot, wide-shot. It has to be cinematic. I like amping up the grade to give it a very cinematic feel. I like that balance between cinema and real emotion,” he says.
The director collaborated closely with cinematographer Ben Nott (Daybreakers) and production designer, Elizabeth Mary Moore (Russian Doll) to transform Sydney’s North Shore into suburban America in the 70s and 80s.
American-style houses were sought and atmospheric effects such as smoke machines and light diffraction were used to create a nostalgic tone reminiscent of lazy afternoons after school.
“The film was shot not far from where I grew up in the 1980s,” says Lancaster. “It was nice to recreate that world, even though it was the East Coast of America,” he says.
Location manager Chris Reynolds recalls finding the house that would be the Conway home as a “Bingo moment”. The house was a ready-made set that was so untouched he described it as “a 70s museum.”
Accidents Happen producer Anthony Anderson (Somersault) knew a film, which delicately balances tragedy, profound loss, teenage mischief and irreverent humour – would not be easy to finance.
Had it not been for the introduction of a new Australian funding initiative called the Producer Offset – which replaced the existing 10BA tax incentive scheme – the film might never have been made.
Committed to shooting in North America, the filmmakers almost had the funding completed, before it collapsed when “some equity funds toppled over”, just prior to the financial crisis.
“We had set a challenge for ourselves to make the film in the US, which is extremely difficult when you don’t have an established network of contacts,” says Anderson. When the Offset was announced in 2007, Anderson met with producer Heather Ogilvie (The Blackwater Lightship) to discuss a funding strategy.
Following that meeting, Ogilvie was attached to the film as executive producer and the filmmakers realised that returning to Australia and embracing the Offset was the most viable financing strategy to make the film. Ogilvie also came on board as managing director of Abacus Film Fund, which in turn cash-flowed the Offset and provided nearly $1 million as distribution guarantees.
“[Financing in Australia] was much less difficult than the years I spent attempting to finance the film in the US,” says Anderson.
He says the “support we thought returning to Australia would give us, being able to work with crew that we knew, as well as funding agencies we knew” helped return the film to Australia.
Anderson was on his way to the INSIDEFILM Awards in Sydney when he was first approached to be involved in the project.
“It was the same year that Somersault was up for a few awards. I told my agent I wouldn’t have a chance to read it until after the awards. I just said ‘courier the script over tomorrow’.”
That night, Accidents Happen won the Best Unproduced Screenplay award and the next day Anderson says he was “very happy to get it on my desk”.
Anderson was immediately impressed with the script’s “original voice”.
“Brian is very irreverent and yet he has passion in the way he treats characters and that combination really appealed to me.”
A few weeks later, the filmmakers received news they had been accepted into the Aurora Script Workshop, run by Screen NSW. There Lancaster, Carbee and Anderson benefited from the guidance of such film luminaries as writer/director Gus Van Sant, (Milk) and screenwriters John Sayles, (Sunshine State) and Alison Tilson (Japanese Story).
“I brought my guitar down and was playing with Gus Van Sant every night. I think he was more interested in playing guitar than actually giving out any film advice [laughs],” Lancaster says.
Casting Accidents Happen began with a search for the matriarch of the Conways, Gloria Conway. The filmmakers needed “a financeable actor” who could bring warmth to the character’s unusual mix of bravado, wit and vulnerability.
Anderson says a catch 22 in film financing is to have a name cast attached to a project in order to secure financial commitment.
“While at the same time, the actor’s agents require confirmation that the money is definitely in place, before they will commit.”
Shown a list of prospective candidates, Carbee remarked that Geena Davis looked a lot like his real-life mother, on whom the character of Gloria was based. Lancaster says he had always admired Geena Davis’ “combination of toughness and congeniality”.
“Geena is capable of moving between hilarity and humanity, which made me think she would be perfect to portray Gloria.”
Lancaster recalls he was in San Francisco and about to return to Australia to declare “we nearly got the film up”, when Davis contacted him to say she loved the script.
In casting Billy – a character that drives much of the film’s emotional impact – the filmmakers knew they needed a boy with both talent and sensitivity.
Committed to having two American leads, Lancaster thought he had already found his Billy from an earlier search in New York. However, with the film in limbo during financing, the actor had “gone from a 16 year-old kid to a 19 year-old”.
“When I flew over for a final meeting it was like man, he’s just lost all of his innocence,” he says.
With the help of casting agent Anousha Zarkesh, the filmmakers saw hundreds of kids from all around Australia. They cast the roles of Billy’s brother Larry (Harry Cook) and his partner in mischief, Doug (Sebastian Gregory) before stumbling across an audition tape by 14 year-old Harrison Gilbertson.
“Here was this kid in a tank top going ‘aw I’ve done a bit of Stanislavski (laughs)’. He was just so engaging and innocent but could play the mischievous character as well,” he says.
Casting Gilbertson was a gamble admits Lancaster, as “he is only 14 years old and has the huge responsibility of carrying the film”.
During pre-production and now with a predominantly Australian cast, Lancaster began to have second thoughts.
“I realised I have these actors in their first film, they are really inexperienced and they also have to do American accents. I couldn’t have chosen a harder thing to shoot,” he says. “I thought, ‘what the hell have I done? I’ve really set myself up. But, I think everyone really rose to the occasion,” he says.
Accidents Happen’s ensemble also includes New Zealand actor Joel Tobeck, as Gloria’s long-suffering husband, Ray. Lancaster allocated extra rehearsal time in a bid to foster a family atmosphere on set and “to teach the kids how to act and how to be comfortable with the crew”.
“It was a big challenge for me as a director because I really had to immerse myself and become very much an actors’ director.”
The distribution strategy for Accidents Happen will likely be open, small and word-of-mouth,” says Anderson. “I see this as more as an art-house film with crossover appeal, than a film that is easily marketable to the mainstream."
Accidents Happen is released in cinemas on April 22. This is an expanded version of the original article which appeared in the April issue of INSIDEFILM magazine. Subscribe here.