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.
Director PATRICK KENNELLY is a multifaceted filmmaker whose art refuses to be bound to just one medium. With a broad and eclectic body of work woven through film, theatre, music video and visual arts he is an exciting and subversive talent with a unique expression that commands attention. His debut feature-length film EXCESS FLESH has been gripping audiences around the world and taking the festival circuit by storm, and Monster Pictures Australia have just released it on Blu Ray and DVD. I took some time to throw some questions at Patrick, and he was kind enough to oblige.
I had been trying for a year to get off the ground another script - one that was quite complicated. So I was kind of hanging in limbo. Separately, co-writer Sigrid Gilmer and I had been considering this other piece that was based on the true story of a single mother who got sucked into the world of a serial killer. We were going to do it in the style of Bridget Jones Diary believe it or not! But we hadn’t progressed very far with that…
So, being stuck technically and creatively with these things, I pulled out a one-page
treatment I had written a decade-ago. There were themes within it that were calling out, particularly based on the previous big project Sigrid and I collaborated on, an
all-female live pop musical called Patty. That work used the real-life stories and myths surrounding pop cultural icons, Patty Duke and Patty Hearst, to examine contemporary issues around female identity, celebrity, cults, mental illness, and faith. The Excess Flesh treatment seemed a logical extension of that project, a deeper immersion into a lot of the ideas explored there. Also, because it was basically two characters in one space, it could be done cheaply! I pitched this idea to Sigrid and we started formulating a script, merging in a lot of the genre-play and style we were going to do with the serial killer/Bridget Jones Diary project. As ideas bounced back and forth, it started expanding, and what was originally something much smaller in scope grew to what you see onscreen.
I believe the movie is ultimately a reflection of the prison of the self. How does one occupy that prison? Through addiction, obsession, delusion, through a distorted projection of the self that one can simultaneously idealize and castigate. Its pretty brutal, but I think there is a certain transcendence at the end. If that transcendence is a *positive* thing or not… I don’t know.
Now, if any of these ideas come through to people, I’ll be supremely satisfied, but ultimately it’s an entertainment. I think people can ride with the twists and turns of the story, without taking away anything beyond that! As long as they feel they had a worthwhile experience for one hour, forty-three minutes, I will have accomplished my job.
With so many under-lying themes within the film, did you feel a particular obligation to represent the issues responsibly?
We absorbed a lot of material in the research, writing and pre-production phases. The themes became intertwined with the story and the aesthetic we chose. I didn’t feel any obligation vis-a-vis questions of representation, but that was because I was confidant that what we were doing was very honest to the situations, even if that was going to turn off a lot of individuals.
One of the stand-out aspects for me was the amount of time given to the character development before turning their world upside down. Did you pre-conceive spending so much time getting to know them, or did the pacing come naturally on paper?
This was definitely pre-conceived - it was written to start as one kind-of movie before slowly twisting into something completely different.
I’ve known Mary since school, and I knew she would go all in for this. Even though she’s naturally thin and physically fit, Mary underwent a tough workout and weight-loss regime leading up to and thru the shoot, as we were mostly shooting in chronological order. For her to maintain all of that, execute the intense physicality of the part and give a great performance is quite something.
I met Bethany in the casting for this, and it was some kind of miracle. I’d been looking
for years for a performer I could just have this telepathic communication with. Who
shared a lot of the same ideas and thinking, and Bethany was that person. She’s also
an amazing writer and director in her own right, who speaks a lot of the same creative language as I do. Because Jill is such a difficult role, such an *ugly* part, it needed this other insight into what we were trying to do. And Bethany just got it. She dove head first into this and did all of what I asked her to do without hesitation. She’s absolutely fearless as a performer, and just completely lives within her roles.
All that being said, this is a movie were making - there are detailed safety precautions taken, there is respect of boundaries, etc. It's a fiction we’re creating - not a documentation of reality. PLUS, because of our limited budget and shooting schedule, we kind of HAD to limit most of the shoots to 2 or 3 takes, sometimes even 1!
The music is arresting and really gives the film a jarring edge. Can you tell us about the composer and how the two of you worked towards the sound of the film?
I’ve been working with Jonathan Snipes since 2007. Since that time, he’s sound designed & scored practically all my projects (most of which have been theater-works), and I’ve done video design and music videos for his music projects (first Captain Ahab, then clipping.). He helped create and did all the music for that Pop musical, Patty, that I cited above (in fact, I believe Jonathan used a number of vocal bits from the sessions for that project in his scoring/sound design work for Excess Flesh).
Overall, I adopt a mostly hands-off approach with Jonathan. I give him the concept and/or script/edit, and kind of let him run with it. We’re pretty much always on the same page and I trust his instincts implicitly.
What we always do is push forward this idea of music and sound design as being one entity. It was difficult in the mixing sessions to delineate what was sound and what was score. The projects we do are always *scored* through, to immerse the audience fully in the world, and, if they closed their eyes, they would still see it. So these are the things that were again applied here - and this time we went even further by making the soundscape completely subjective. This is why there is an aggressive interiority to it and a discursive quality scene to scene.
The film takes a particularly jarring and surreal turn at once point. Tell us about the conception of that and what your intentions were
I was thinking, for a number of reasons, that there needed to be a Coup de Theatre at some point, and this seemed the perfect place for that. I’m very much into this French New Wave conceit of debunking the artifice of a movie. Not necessarily putting it in quotations, but rather reminding the audience that they’re inside of a movie. This story facilitated something of that nature - because everything that happens in Excess Flesh is completely subjective of the Jill/Jennifer’s minds - its all created from their memories. Since cinema is memory in moving pictures, one could say Excess Flesh the movie is wholly the movie that Jill/Jennifer would create - and so us, the audience, are purely witness to that. By breaking the fourth wall in the way that we did, I was seeking to get illuminate this idea.
People have cited other films and filmmakers in their reviews of the movie, and I can see where those links might be, but these are the filmmakers who most directly inspired my thinking of the movie. That being said, I never really reflect on other films or filmmakers while I’m in the process of making something. Its really about the story and the materials I have at hand, and what my gut tells me. All these ideas I’ve absorbed from these films and filmmakers come through via osmosis. The only movie I did watch while making Excess Flesh was Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, so that was *probably* the mostly directly influential…
I like to learn about the filmmaker's journey. At what age did the film bug bite you and was your family supportive from the get go?
My family’s always been supportive of my creative endeavors.
I started writing screenplays in the fifth grade, so I guess it was inevitable that I would end up making a movie some day! The path there has been pretty circuitous - through art school, then theatre school. I’ve had a lot of creative interests outside of the movies, pursued all of these - - visual art, performance, music, criticism, etc. - in one form or another but it ended up being the movies that brought all these interests together. Plus, I believe my greatest talent lies in curation - bringing together a conglomeration of ideas and great artists and forming those into a cohesive whole. And that is essentially the role of the director.
\What are your earliest memories of film?
I can’t say for sure. All I know is, my full-on obsession begin sometime in the 4th or 5th grade, which was the moment of my induction into the world of *adult* movies. The two I remember explicitly from this time were Bonnie & Clyde and Candyman. I also remember tricking a babysitter into letting me rent A Clockwork Orange. So I guess that gives you a sense of my temperament at the time … and what it formed into! heh…
I’ve never been to Australia, but I think this Outback setting and colonialist history - which is very similar to the U.S. has engendered this simultaneous bleakness and beauty. There’s this wonder with the perpetually untamed landscape, but there’s also something mysterious and dangerous about it. The Outback is the Australian version of the Wild West.
In regards to this question of landscape (which is predominant in the Weir movies cited above), I start to think of a lot of works that push pass their Ozploitation labels and become something much weirder - like Wake in Fright or Wolf Creek. And then of course there’s Romper Stomper. I can’t say enough about that movie.
I believe the best actors in Hollywood - and the ones I’ve personally worked with in the U.S. - are British, European and Australian. There’s an entirely different tradition of training and performance in these countries that engenders a real commitment to character and craft that one often finds lacking in American counterparts.
What can we expect to see from you next?
I have a number of projects in development, all works that fuck mashes together disparate genres and fucks with expectations of each. For instance, there’s an adaptation of a book myself and my co-writer on Excess Flesh are doing that combines a pitch black hostage thriller with a tender teen love triangle.
Patrick, thank you for taking the time to field these questions. Excess Flesh is a confronting and strangely hypnotic movie-going experience that has certainly stuck with me. I'm eager to revisit it soon.