Director Heath Davis's debut feature-length film BROKE explores themes of homelessness, addiction and redemption as it tells the story of a disgraced rugby legend who is befriended by two of his most devoted fans. Starring a high calibre of talent including Steve Le Marquand, Max Cullen, Claire van der Boom, Steve Bastoni and Brendan Cowell it is a personal film that overflows with sincerity and a deep seeded earnestness, and is easily (in my mind) one of the most powerful Australian films of the year. Heath spent some time recently to field some of my questions.
What is your background in film, and can you give us an idea of your cinematic journey so far?
Long story short I studied Communications at UWS and worked as a journalist for many years. I made a short film Spoon Man after graduating which opened a lot of doors and lead to a feature script being optioned in LA. It's since been through several options and ten years later still not made. I kept busying writing other stuff and optioned a few more. Then I made a few other shorts Bella and Bee Sting which also did well but still couldn't get the features off the ground. Then I decided to create my own fate and wrote a low budget script called BROKE and put it together myself with the team I made short films with. I should've done that years ago
Is there a time in your life where you can pinpoint the moment you decided to pursue a career in filmmaking?
I've always been into writing and would write scripts as a kid for fun. I liked to create the worlds I wish existed on the page and escaped in them. And I always loved movies. I've seen everything and used to feign illness in primary school so I could watch the midday movie. We didn't have a VCR then so couldn't tape them. And when an older mate of mine invited me to his film school grad short film I was like, hell, you can do this!
What are some of your earliest memories of cinema?
I remember we were one of the first families to get a BETA video player because a family friend went on a trip to Hong Kong. We went to the first video store to open up in St Marys in western Sydney and my dad hired Alien. I wasn't allowed to watch it as I was too young but I remember being captivated by the art work. Then I woke up early the next day and put it on silent so no one would hear me. I still have nightmares to this day lol.
Did you have a favourite film as a kid?
My dad is a Vietnam Vet so I grew up on a diet of war films. I remember seeing The Deer Hunter and was just blown away. But a couple of the big screen experiences that still resonate with me are Dances With Wolves and Born on the Fourth of July.
Broke is your first feature-length film. What were some of your most unexpected challenges?
Essentially just how precarious a film is and how one bad day, or scene, can spoil the whole thing. Also shooting massively out of sequence was a challenge. And then the lengthy post process and now the battle to get the film seen. A director's job is never done.
You have assembled an impressive cast. Can you discuss your casting process?
Well I wrote for Steve Le Marquand from the outset. I never really do that. But I had a feeling he would respond to the material and thankfully he did. Steve's what I call an actor attractor so once he was on board I knew he would be a draw card for others so whenever I would mention a name I consulted him and basically we cast it together. It was important he was invited into the process as we were shooting on a shoe string and he's in every scene.
The rugby culture plays an integral part in grounding your story. Are you an NRL fan yourself, and can you explain what inspired you to write this particular story?
I'm a huge NRL fan. Actually film and footy are my favourite things. So I guess it was only a matter of time. I was tired of seeing rugby league constantly getting smeared in the press and also seeing some of my good friends - players and fans - struggling with gambling addiction and no one really helping. The sport and gambling are synonymous now. I had an idea of a fallen league hero caught in the grips of gambling addiction a decade ago and the issue just become more and more topical, so I thought the time is right to tell this story.
What struck me most about the film was the sincerity of the three leads. There is a natural connection between them. What did you do to achieve such a rapport?
Well casting is key. Steve and Max have known each other a long time and have a similar kind of dynamic off screen. However, it was in the writing. The dynamic was on the page. I also made the cast live together under the one roof for pre and production which could've back fired but thankfully brought them together. I also never did individual rehearsals or reads. We were always an ensemble and I think that helped build a rapport.
The film features decades-old archival television footage of past games. Was this footage real, or reenacted?
Actual footage we found from a die hard fan on Facebook. In fact it's of the producer Luke Graham's father Mark who was a former Bears legend. He was a rangy backrower and looks a lot of Steve Le Marquand when he was younger.
The music is perfectly understated and never intrudes on the narrative. Can you tell us about the score and how involved you were with it?
It needed something to compliment the action and not create the emotion of the scene for realism. Also all the songs in the film play organically via radio in the background bar one. As for the score I new Sam and Heather from The Jezabels could give this film another layer in terms of atmosphere. I definitely had references and guided the direction but they are the artists - you gotta let them do their thing. And they were we never far off. From the first demos I knew we had something special. I probably new they could do it more then they did as this is their first film composition.
What were some of the biggest cinematic influences on Broke?
We looked at The Wrestler as a good prototype in terms of tone and style. Also The Fighter. Those two contemporary films did great work establishing authenticity. Also early Gus van Sant stuff like Drugstore Cowboy.
It has enjoyed a strong festival run. How has it been received by international audiences?
I've been blown away by the responses. We have won like 5 awards too. People see it as a human condition story and its themes are universal. It's cool to see Rugby League being introduced to parts of the world it never would, too.
What's next for the film?
It's now starting its theatrical run across Australia and New Zealand so hopefully good word of mouth will see it have a decent run. We are relying on the kindness of strangers to help spread the word.
What can audiences expect from you next?
I have a black comedy I'm currently kicking the tyres on called Book Week with Brendan Cowell in the lead. It's another low budget, character piece but with much more humour this time around. Well at least I think it's funny!
Heath, thank you for taking the time. Broke is an exceptional film and I wish you all the best with it.
Broke has a string of event screenings across the country throughout April and May. Click here to check for information.
In 2010 director Joseph Sims-Dennett made his feature-film debut with the impressive and intense crime thriller BAD BEHAVIOUR starring John Jarratt. The film went on to garner worldwide attention thanks to its powerful marketing campaign and a visually striking presentation.
Now comes the long awaited follow up - OBSERVANCE! With a haunting production design and a foreboding narrative, the film well and truly sets itself apart from his previous effort and affirms him to be one of the country's most audacious and exciting filmmakers. I recently took the time to throw some questions at Joseph and he graciously obliged.
Were there any fundamental lessons you took from Bad Behaviour and applied to Observance?
There certainly were! The fundamental lesson was not to make a film based upon your influences. What makes a great film is honing in on an idea that can only come from you at the moment in time that you're making it.
How would you describe Observance to our readers?
Observance is an existential horror film about a man who's hired to spy on a woman but isn't told why. He desperately needs money to pay medical bills so he goes along with it, but begins to suspect that there may be a greater purpose to him being there.
Where did the concept for the film originate?
My good friend and housemate at the time Josh Zammit and I lost our jobs quite suddenly back in November 2012. We decided to make a film over that summer as a way of exploring our own fears and anxieties, which essentially boiled down to us both feeling powerless against what we felt were invisible forces controlling our lives. The story of Observance grew from that central idea.
I'm glad you mentioned Josh Zammit. Can you explain your process and the difficulties and/or benefits of co-writing?
We'd mostly write at night, wandering around Rozelle and Balmain where we lived at the time. Josh had a tape recorder so we'd record our discussions and later listen back as we wrote the story. It was a strange way to write a film but I feel like that deeply personal approach to it certainly formed the deeply layered nature of the final film.
There is an intriguing marriage of aesthetics to the film. Some very European qualities, as well as a strong infusion of Asian cinema. Can you discuss your approach to the look of the film?
Working with our DoP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson we figured out the rules in which we'd shoot the film, it mainly being that because the character's point of view is restricted with him only be able to see her when she's in front of a window, it should be the same as the audience watch him. Lindsay who played Parker would block the scene as per what felt natural to him and then I'd pick a lens and shoot it, usually the one shot with a max of two takes for each scene as time was so limited. I'd often go close so he'd move in and out of frame, not allowing the audience to see the entirety of what was going on as a way of drawing you in closer and creating that sense of unease.
There is also this micro/macro visual language we introduced. Much of the story happens in this other space behind and inside Parker that focuses on the rising dark ocean, flesh and the walls of the apartment. We went to great lengths even smoking up the set before each take in order to give the film that textured look.
There's also an obvious (and acknowledged) homage to Hitchcock's Rear Window, and I also found myself reflecting on Kieslowsi's work, particularly A Short Film About Love. What were some of your influences?
There weren't any conscious influences here. Many of the films that Observance has very flatteringly been compared to Josh and I hadn't seen when we were making it and I still haven't seen A Short Film About Love, although it's certainly on my list!
Generally we didn't want to allow influences to muddy the film we were trying to make. We really did want it to come solely from within us.
You set the story in America with all American accents. All of the players handled the accents fabulously. Were any of them actually American and what compelled you to take this direction?
No one was American, all Aussies! They did a great job in difficult circumstances so thanks for noting their effort. The reason for US accents was to give the film a less specific location than Australia, with it being set in a vast concrete city, we felt it needed to exist in this anonymous place.
The other thing was that we have Medicare in Australia (for now) which means Parker wouldn't have a reason to be there and pay off huge medical bills.
I was impressed by the set design. Was the entire thing shot on location, and was there any studio work involved?
The entire thing was shot on location, with the bulk of the film taking place in our own apartment. The person who lived opposite us was kind enough to let us shoot there for a couple of days as well. Josh was the production designer and thought he did a brilliant job at trashing our house!
The makeup is effective and very disturbing. Were these elements written into the script or developed along the way?
It was planned and then workshopped as we went a long. Nicolle understood the physical corruption that Parker experiences and how important it was to the story so it all happened quite fluidly and were certainly the easier films to shoot believe it or not! Stephanie King who plays Tenneal endured a lot of it but I think the fact that we all understood the subtly of it we managed to make those heavy SFX moments very powerful.
The film has been enjoying a successful festival circuit. What's next for it?
We're releasing now in cinemas in Australia and will soon be followed by the UK and North America which I'm also very excited for. It's important that people get to see it in the cinema first as it's so much more of an immersive experience, particularly with the sound. So anyone who'd like to see it I'd recommend doing it whilst we've got the attention of cinema programmers!
Can you tell us a bit about your filmmaking journey?
I made a film called Bad Behaviour when I came out of University and then moved to Sydney to work in TVC's. That was when I lost my job and went on to make Observance which has changed my life and given my career opportunities I never realised I'd ever have.
What are some of your earliest memories of cinema?
My earliest memory is probably watching Bambi. Cheerful stuff!
What was one of your favourite films as a child?
Star Wars like everyone else I guess. I'm more of a New Hope kinda guy over Empire.
What can we expect from you next?
We're working on a few things and am lucky enough to be working on a project with Kristian Moliere who was one of the producers on The Babadook and another project called Raptor with an awesome producer called Raquelle David which we received some development funding from Screen Australia for.
Joseph, thank you for taking the time to chat. Good luck for the next chapter!
Thanks for all the great questions!
Observance is screening in Melbourne at ACMI on April 12 (7PM) featuring a live Q&A with Joseph. Click the image above for further details and tickets.