Star Geraldine Hakewill on set.
In 2010, filmmaker Tony Prescott studied directing at AFTRS, where "the education was based on making a feature, but we made short films".
"I don't think I'm very good at making short films", Prescott told IF.
In 2011 he started developing an idea for a feature that he developed over five years – and forty drafts – with fellow AFTRS student James Raue (whose own first film, Psychoanalysis, is currently touring festivals).
The Pretend One is about a young woman (Wanted's Geraldine Hakewill) and her imaginary friend (Michael Whalley).
Their relationship becomes complicated when a suitor comes to town and Whalley's character becomes jealous.
Talking to people about the kind of Australian film he wanted to make, Prescott "struggled to find a reference".
"One of the closest I could think of was Paperback Romance. [Generally] We don't do magic and we don't do romance".
One influence the director points to for its "bittersweet tone" is Lars and the Real Girl (incidentally made by another Australian, Craig Gillespie).
"It's got such a great tone – it's beautiful and it's melancholy", said Prescott.
The Pretend One's female lead dropped out shortly before shooting, and replacing her was daunting for the first-time feature director.
"She had to be a little girl but had to have a strength about her", Prescott told IF, and "it had to be sexually charged for there to be stakes".
Luckily, the in-demand Hakewill read the script and loved it.
“I cried the first time I read it, which is always a good sign – I mean, if they want you to cry" (laughs).
Hakewill was in LA when the call went out, and auditioned for Prescott over Skype, a process she describes as “always very strange. You're trying to act over Skype, and it keeps freezing, it's blurry…"
Hakewill was attracted by the script's sincere romantic streak.
"You don't often get love stories in Australian cinema, or [when you do] they're hidden in a crime story, or a thriller, or a bawdy, quirky comedy. This is quirky in a way – it's about a girl with an imaginary friend – but it's not dealt with in a stylised way. It's dealt with naturalistically".
"We like to play things down and too much sentiment can be quite confronting. But I don't think this film is sentimental, it's just dealing with emotional themes in a very real way".
"All the characters are quite broken and are covering really well. That breaks open as the film progresses. It was really important to see David Field's character [her father, a single parent still grieving his wife] do that, because I think we struggle with that. And I think a lot of that farming culture struggles with that as well".
"I had a sense reading the script it was going to be grounded very much in the real world, and that really intrigued me", said Hakewill.
"This girl has this imaginary friend, but it's dealt with by the other characters as something that's very normal".
"That made it easier, because on-set I wasn't treating Michael like he was some purple unicorn. Beyond that the main challenge was finding the tipping point of her trying to let go of this friend knowing that he's only in her mind, and the sadness that comes along with that".
Set in regional Australia, the film's three and a half-week shoot was based at a cotton farm owned by Prescott's friend.
"You'd wake up in the morning, maybe go for a swim in the dam, have breakfast together, we'd shoot all day, come back to the cabins we were staying in, make dinner, then sit around a campfire and sing songs", said Hakewill.
"It was kind of like being on camp. We were in the house all the time watching TV and making cups of tea".
That suited the veteran Field just fine.
"Much better than a bloody hotel room", he says on the phone to IF.
The actor-director recalls being struck by the youth of the filmmaking team.
"I remember looking around at the crew and thinking: Jesus, these are fucking kids, what have I done? There's no way they'll pull this off. But these kids were just so impressive".
Field was attracted by the love story, a genre that usually passes him by – "As an actor, I end up killing the girl more than I ever kiss the girl".
"The other aspect I liked about this was the surreal aspect. This poor kid who'd been misunderstood by her father because of his grief and had to create a creature who she couldn't shake".
The film was lensed by Rob Morton on the Sony FS7.
"Rob Morton is a very special guy", said Hakewill. "The landscape is so gorgeous. Shooting a smaller budget film, you need the environment you're shooting in to be interesting, and cinematic".
Hakewill found the challenge of acting with an imaginary friend easier than she expected.
"There's a scene where there's the four of us around the table, and I think I had a much easier time because my character knew he was there. It was great for me, because I always had a tension, a secret, in the scene. You always want something dramatic to grab onto".
For Michael Whalley, playing a figment of somebody else's imagination, it was a matter of degrees.
Working out where to pitch his character in any given moment was made more challenging because the film shot out of sequence.
"From scene to scene I had to work out what my function was as the imaginary friend. Was I her best friend in that scene, or romantic lead, or puppy-dog play-friend from childhood? Which parts I needed to highlight most to serve that part of the story. That was a big part of my homework: the emotional mapping".
In the group scenes with Field and others, Whalley had to act beside characters who couldn't see him. Instead of being bamboozled, the actor felt "a lot of freedom in those scenes to be whatever I wanted to be and just concentrate on Geraldine's character. Because she is my whole world. I don't exist without her imagination".
The Pretend One is produced by Prescott and Dinusha Ratnaweera, and executive produced by Causeway Films' Sam Jennings and Kristina Ceyton.
Bonsai Films is onboard as a distributor, and the film is currently chasing completion funding before a mooted release later in the year.