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.