NICK: I grew up making films with my friends. Most memorable from the early years was a Kung Fu film called Revenge of the Dragon we made when I would have been about fifteen. It was inspired by Bruce Lee films. My high school friends and I went to charity stores and bought clothes from the 70s to replicate the look. I recall wearing a skin tight mustard body shirt and flares that were so tight I could barely walk, never mind do karate moves!
We all did everything back then. Film sets were egalitarian. We all just mucked in and wrote the script as we went along, based on what we could find on the day…a cat, a toy gun, my mum, that sort of thing. For the last few months of high school, each week we had a round of multiple choice psychology testing from a career counselor…Would you rather a) paint a wall or b)plant a tree….At the end of the year in the last session we were given the results. My counselor looked at me with a hamstrung expression and handed me a computer print-out that read FILM AND TELEVISION INDUSTRIES. I think she went on to say something about “a back up plan.”
I wasn’t sure then if I wanted to act or make films so I enrolled in a bit of everything. I did an honours degree in Film, Drama, and English literature at The Flinders University in South Australia. When I had completed my studies in Australia I took off to Europe as I was a holder of a British passport. I moved first to France, where, after a stint as an English teacher to fairly unreceptive French factory workers who had compulsory classes, I ended up filming fashion parades and industrial films. I then lived in London for a few years.
My first ever proper production was the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. I was the trainee video assistant. That’s the guy who runs the cables from the monitors (for the Director to watch the action) to the cameras. It was intense, muddy, freezing cold and very very poorly paid, but quite an introduction to the industrial filmmaking machine. It’s budget was around one hundred and fifty million US we were told. I got to watch some wonderful actors, directors and technicians at work. I also saw a lot of fighting and politics, and I got to understand that English film-sets are a microcosm of British society and its class system.
For the next ten years I worked mostly in camera departments in all the various roles until I became a Director of photography somehow. I also produced an independent feature called 2:37 that I photographed and co-edited. It was selected for Un Certain Regard in Cannes in 2006 which opened a few doors and first took me to the US, and to the world of agents and managers and the dangers of the Chateau Marmont.
The last feature I shot before I moved into directing was an American kids film entitled Broken Hill, that starred Oscar winner Timothy Hutton replete with Australian accent…with traces of Irish and Scottish, and Alexa Vega from the Spykids franchise.
When I started seriously thinking about directing, I luckily got into a drunken conversation at a bar with an Editor I’d worked with, David Ngo, who wanted to move into producing. We formulated a plan.
NICK: I attended an alternative high school in the hills outside of Adelaide, and I think without knowing it I’d always wanted to explore that experience. Don’t get me wrong, It was mostly a very positive, interesting, expansive, time but there was something about its relationship with the real world that has always been a source of tension for me and perhaps for the institution too. We would get eyed off on the buses to and from school. The name of the place was Marbury. All the shiny looking kids in uniforms from regular schools would say stuff to us like “are you from that smoking school Malboro?”.
There was indeed something called “The smoking rule”. It meant that if you were sixteen (the legal age of smoking) you could have one per day. But you had to lock yourself into the toilet and smoke it whilst the teacher waited outside for you to finish. It was a wonderful way of de-glamorizing smoking. The school principal was smart and charismatic but also arrogant and stubborn and perhaps narcissistic. At times things got a little bit Lord of the Flies.
So one day I came to Craig and to Producer David with a notion of a thriller about someone in the push-pull of a cult. Craig and I had written together before, and we had, and have, a great system of sitting across from each other in the same room; “laptops at ten paces” we call it. We discuss story and then write scenes. We then send the work to each other, and we add or subtract and adapt each others work and we end up with a movie. Simple!…
NICK: We were very lucky that we were accepted into a program called Filmlab in South Australia. It was a government funded system designed to foster key creatives in a small film industry that had in recent years, become simply a service provider of crews and locations for interstate and overseas productions. There were no creators coming out of our city. The powerbrokers of our screen agency, the South Australian Film Corporation, set about changing that.
The scheme provided a modest budget to make an independent feature film. Our producer, David Ngo, then raised a little more money privately, and we were off to the races. We were also very blessed by the fact that our Producer also owned a boutique post-production facility that backed the film, in lieu of a traditional completion guarantor.
In terms of recoupment, put simply, we set about making a film that could be defined as a genre piece. Right from the beginning David and I said we wanted to make a film for an audience despite it’s fairly small budget.
Thankfully the reception has been promising so far. We’ve only just hit Australian cinemas in the last week with other territories to follow. We’re also very lucky that the budget is made principally of soft money and is sub-one million. That’s a very rare position to be in.
As a first time director, I suppose you have to be realistic that you might not make any money out of it. What you hope is that your investors get their money back and that you get another job, one you’ll pull a wage on. Things are looking promising.
NICK: Was it Woody Allen that said 90% of film directing is casting? Well I think there are a lot of things that are 90% of film directing.
What I know for sure is that if you get casting wrong, nothing can save your movie. Authenticity and suspension of disbelief are your currency. If people have that nagging feeling that they don’t quite believe, then you’ve lost them, and no amount of car chases or explosions will save your movie.
The weird thing is that when I cast One Eyed Girl I had no pressure to make commercial choices. The film’s finance was not attached to cast at all. So I set about trying to find smart actors that I could converse with, to create a group that could form the jigsaw puzzle; the world of the film.
It’s endlessly fascinating to me, making this puzzle. Sometimes great actors just don’t look right together…I suppose that’s why Hollywood has that tradition of the screen chemistry test. I didn’t have that luxury. Nor did I have a casting agent. I just went on gut feeling.
The first person I cast was Lachlan Wilson, a young guy who I knew from a local rock band in Adelaide. Somehow his face was a starting point for me. It was like the starter culture in the dish. Even though his part was small, his unusual outsider quality and charisma helped define in my head what the men on the farm (the cult) would look like. He’s only in the film for a couple of minutes (he’s seen force feeding the lead actor a herbal potion).
Strangely enough, the last character I cast was Travis, the protagonist. We got weeks away from shooting and I just could not find him. I was tearing my hair out and the Producer was having a go at it too! So many wonderful actors by this stage were keen too. But I tell you, I’m so glad I held out. I think Mark Winter who was referred to me by a mutual friend at the final hour is the real deal. I looked at his show reel and I thought it was terrible - full of horrible moments from quirky short films. But I remember just freezing the reel at one point and thinking; “I want to know this guy. I want to know what he’s thinking” (a terrible cliché I know) I remember showing him to the producer and saying “you’ll want to watch this guy getting kicked in the nuts”…which in a nutshell is what happens in the film…in a nut shell. He agreed.
It was about finding someone who has a kind of rhythm that’s off the beat a little; he’s one of those people that you have to sort of wind up and then just let him go.
The script changed a hell of a lot along the way. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The cast brought a fresh perspective to the dialogue. I think that’s one of the the tricky parts of directing…working out when you should listen to an actor who says “I don’t want to say this, can I say bla bla instead….”
You have to work out when it can work well to have an actor say something he or she doesn’t want to say. Sometimes people say things that are self destructive. Sometimes people say that sound against type. I suppose it’s also one of the joys (and hells) of being a writer and director. You’re always tweaking. And your never obeying the script as gospel. I mean sometimes you hear something you wrote and you think to yourself “that’s just bloody awful, what the hell was I thinking?!”.
That’s what’s so great about working with people like Mark and Steve Le Marquand and Tilda Coham-Hervey and Craig Behenna (who co-wrote and acted), it means the conversation keeps going until the sun’s going down. I like the expression “twitching hour” for twilight. We used to say that when I was a DP; it’s that time when everyone’s getting twitchy.
NICK: We used an ARRI ALEXA with a big box on top of it that recorded in raw. I forget the name of the thing. But it’s super quality and I suppose for someone like me that grew up with film, actually celluloid, it looks to me most like it out of any digital format I’ve seen.
For a start the camera fits with all the proper old film bits and the footage does have an almost organic feel if you put proper lenses on it like Cookes. But I miss film. I miss the smell of it and the sound of it whirring away in the camera. I miss hearing about gate checks…that wonderful moment when, as a first AC, everyone’s waiting on your word “THE GATE’S CLEAR!!!”. And everyone whoops with delight.
I suppose that’s very nostalgic isn’t it? I suppose it’s like old men talking about the sound of a WW2 Spitfire flying overhead or the clickety-clack of the horse and cart. God I’ve become one of those people. Well that’s what I hate about it. I hate that it’s not real, and that everyone hovers around the video split watching the television like the film’s ready. Working with film, people would be more present observing the actual set and using ancient knowledge to get things right. Now everyone’s jostling to watch the TV. It’s damn hard not to look but sometimes I tell myself that next time I’ll try and do a Peter Weir and just sit under the tripod and be close to the cast. Be in the moment!
Given your background as a cinematographer why did you decide to turn that job over to someone else for this movie?
NICK: I find the headspaces are very different for me. I like working with DPs now. And I’m really happy to be free to run all over the set not holding that giant heavy damn thing all day long.
It’s great to know something about lenses and lighting and blocking. It’s a great start as a Director, but my headspace needs to be principally with the cast when we’re on set. I need to be able to talk that language of being, of identity, of rigorously hunting for the truth; ”what does she want..?” or “what do you think he needs from her…?” It’s all the internal stuff. It’s believing in the characters as real people and their moments. I find that’s a very different headspace.
As a DP you are looking at people in the world you’re creating. As a director you are looking with these people at the world you’re creating. I think the great thing about learning the mechanics of film-sets before you direct is that you can be efficient in that side of it when you’re on set which leaves you with more energy for performance and the big picture.
I was lucky to be working with a sensitive DP on One Eyed Girl. Jody Muston has an eye for the gothic. We would send each other mood photos for months before shooting. It’s strange how you kind of forget them when you’re on set, but they’ve somehow seeped in, without you realizing it. So later you look at the rushes and (in the case of One Eyed Girl) think “yeh we made a Scandinavian crime drama. We got there.”
It also helps to have amazing Production Design to shoot. Our first time designer Anny Duff and I spent about a year driving around looking for locations and sourcing clothes from charity shops and working out in our heads what this world feels like. She too attended alternative schooling and she used that understanding to create a really authentic, dark and beautiful look.
I used to have a running joke when I was a DP, that when people commended me on my cinematography, I would say “It’s not me it’s the production design and the music”…I maintain that view to a large degree; when the art and wardrobe is right and the music hits the right tone, people get swept away by a simple dolly shot and they say - “Wow amazing cinematography!”.
So I’d say that cinematography does not exist in isolation. It should be appreciated as a very tricky craft but it should be appreciated as a collaboration of many elements: wonderful design, an emotionally authentic score (in our case from Michael Darren) and an edit that makes the story compelling and puts the weight where it needs to be (done brilliantly by our Editor David Ngo)
NICK: Yes it’s always easy to look back. The smartest thing I did was read every acting book on the planet. I had to get myself into that head-space and remember what that’s like to be on the other side of the camera. I hadn’t done a great deal of acting for some time. I will never stop being fascinated by that craft. I am always in awe of actors…or “be-ers” as I like to think of them. Acting should be taught in school to everyone. To be able to know what you feel and then feel safe enough to show it…this is fundamental to evolved, realised, human beings. We’d probably have fewer wars if more drama was taught. I suppose I’m ranting now…
The dumbest thing I did?…I don’t know but I’m sure some expert will tell me on the IMDB discussion forum or some such.
And finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
NICK: Well other than commercials I have not had another project yet. The producer and I have been busy releasing the film and all the palaver that comes with that.
I’m reading scripts from the US now that I have a wonderful manager there (Peter Dealbert) and I’m writing again.
The only thing I can really say to that is that what I hope is that the more work I do the more I will learn both in life and film to trust my instincts. They rarely lie. A psychotherapist from Portland that I read sometimes, the grandly named Robert Augustus Masters, says “don’t judge your judgments."
I need a t-shirt with that on it.