For emerging director Samuel Rodwell, the transition from commercial work to films didn’t happen overnight: it took more than three years, during which time he captured one of Australia’s worst natural disasters in living memory.
The bushfires that ripped through the country in the summer of 2019/20 are seen through the eyes of the first responders in Rodwell’s Inferno, a documentary short designed to go beyond the media blockade and provide a real-time snapshot from the frontlines.
It’s a journey that began almost two years prior in January 2018 when Rodwell tried to use his commercial directing experience to craft a promotional film for the NSW Rural Fire Service.
After having his project approved with the Canobolas District branch of NSW RFS in the state’s Central West region, the then 21-year-old went on to film the Mount Canobolas bushfire in February 2018, a deployment he credits with shifting his ambitions for the project.
“When we were evaluating the footage from the bushfire, I realised there was something very special about the imagery and that it deserved to be a film rather than a commercial,” he said.
“It almost felt like we would have been throwing an opportunity away by doing a commercial, so [the RFS] agreed to let me make it as a film.”
By the time the 2019/20 fire season broke out, Rodwell had developed the connections necessary to travel with the fire tankers, often going out for 18 hours at a time to film through one cinematic viewpoint.
With no script, Inferno‘s story was written with the situations that were captured.
The film received major production funding from the Orange Regional Arts Foundation, in association with the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Post-production on the film took 14 months, with Rodwell sorting through 30 hours of footage.
He maintains the short film format was the best fit for the project, which he hopes will be shown at festivals later this year.
“I wanted to tell the story in a visually-driven way with very little dialogue, and if we had decided on a feature film, we would have had to do more to maintain an audience’s attention,” he said.
“It was about creating a concise story and not becoming too self indulgent with the footage.”
Rodwell’s writing and directing skills have been recognised by Screenworks in the past couple of years. He was a recipient of the organisation’s Inside the Writers Room 2020 program, where he participated in writers’ rooms and production meetings of renowned television drama series.
Prior to that, Rodwell was selected for the Screenworks Directing Intensive in 2019, where he was mentored by Kriv Stenders, Rachel Landers, and former Australian Directors’ Guild CEO Kingston Anderson.
He said the timing was right to take the next steps in his career.
“I’m writing a lot of different dramas at the moment that stem from some of the emergency service connections that I have,” he said.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to get my next project up very quickly, whether that be another short film or something different.
“I’m hoping to get into long form but I still may have to prove myself in that regard before I get an opportunity.”