FILM IN APRIL.
We don't know about you, but this month has been a great excuse for us to dive into bags of microwave popcorn and a whole bunch of classic movies. We've been counting down IMDB's 100 Greatest Films of All Time list on Instagram, and surprising ourselves with how many of the top films we haven't seen, as well as with how much Marlon Brando has been popping up in the list.
For those of us without the spare time to knock together a feature film, there's a heap of apps on the market that let you tell your cinematic story snappily and share-ably. One of the best is Vine, which allows you to create 6 second video loops on your phone. The results can be clever, hilarious or just plain weird, and scrolling through them is extremely addictive. We recommend checking out Jamie Costa, whose Vine impressions of celebrities such as Robin Williams and Harrison Ford are eerily spot-on. And our interviewee this month has a particularly good Vine to share for when you're having a bad day!
Now, put your feet up and have a read of this week's interview with director and writer Corrie Chen, as she talks making magic like Spielberg, refusing to be categorised, real life Santa's workshops and being a woman in a man's world.
THE ART OLYMPICS jumps on Skype and talks shop with film-maker, writer and director CORRIE CHEN.
7:41 pm, two laptops, one in Melbourne, one in Sydney.
Art Olympics: So, if you’d like to start off by introducing yourself and what you do.
Corrie Chen: I am Corrie. I’m a writer/director, but more a director than I am a writer, in that I would never write for someone else. I just write for myself. I went to VCA a few years ago. Actually, a really long time ago, now.
CC: Which is scary. I finished at the end of 2010. So, I realised the other day, it’s almost been the whole of high school since I was at film school.
AO: I had the exact same revelation the other day with university. It really weirded me out.
CC: I was chatting to someone recently, and I realised that they were born in 1996.
CC: It really freaked me out. Anyway, I finished film school a number of years ago now, and I’m trying to form a path, whatever that means, in the film industry.
AO: And how would you describe the films that you make?
CC: I’ve actually been thinking about that. It’s hard to answer because of two reasons. One, I’m a little bit bipolar in my tastes, in that I like everything, from Michael Bay to Coppola or French New Wave Godard. So what I find my pattern is, is I’ll make a drama, and then immediately I’ll just be like ‘Drama’s shit! I should be doing comedies. I love comedies! I don’t know why I ever did drama!’ And then I’ll do a comedy, and be like ‘No, no! I feel like being hard hitting! I’m not moving anyone!’ It’s this awful cycle that happens repeatedly in my filmography. And the other thing is that especially in Australia, but I would say in most of the world, people really love putting you in categories. So they love going ‘Oh, she makes documentaries.’ Or ‘She makes comedy.’ And for me personally – when I talk about my career, I’m going to be referencing since I left VCA – half the time, in this period post film school, I kept classifying myself, or being classified, as a comedy director. I kind of got more opportunities because people thought they knew who I was, which wasn’t the truth. And that’s something that with confidence and experience and age, I’ve come to realise that it’s okay to not be the comedy person. Because it’s a little bit of a lie. There’s so much drama in my comedy and comedy in my drama. But you can’t say ‘dramedy’, because you can’t sell anything.
AO: I feel like there are some portmanteaus that work, and that is not one that gets you taken seriously.
CC: It’s bizarre, because that’s ‘Transparent’ and ‘Girls’, they’re dramedies, but you just can’t call them that. You just have to call them comedies, in terms of pitching purposes. So I’ve made comedies, I recently finished a sort of sci-fi drama short.
AO: Which is ‘Reg Makes Contact’?
CC: Yeah. And I made that because, I remember one of the first films that really moved me was ‘E.T.’ I grew up in Taiwan, and I remember, I would have been, like, five, and it would have been a replay. And I was in this dirty cinema, because I grew up in a country town in Taiwan, where there were rats running all around the ground, and we’d have to make sure we crossed our legs so they wouldn’t bite our feet.
AO: Oh my god.
CC: And that moment when they’re on the bikes, and they take off into the sky, it’s this combination of love and music and vision, and I was just sobbing. I made this short, where the story is hoping to capture an element of that magic. I also made an ABC doco that’s about teen suicide. So I’ve always found it really hard to define myself.
AO: I’ve always found it interesting, artists being put in boxes, because I always feel as though I’m the one person who gets bored really easily with things. I look at people who do the same thing over and over and over again, and I’m kind of like ‘Should I be finding something that I care about that much?’ I just couldn’t take that many photos of women dressed the same way. I couldn’t make that many of one type of movie. It’s nice to know that other people have that constant need for change. I think that makes sense, as an artist, to be exploring things.
CC: I find it quite exhausting. Especially with this latest film, because I’ve come out of a period of, in terms of fiction films, comedy stuff, and so everyone’s like ‘Oh, but it’s a comedy.’ And I’m like ‘No, it’s sort of a sci-fi.’ ‘But, like, a funny sci-fi.’ ‘Uh, no.’ But it’s not even just with genre. I get stuff like weird passive-aggressive comments about ‘Oh, why aren’t you writing more films about women? Why aren’t you making more films about Asians?’ And it’s just like ‘Oh my god, I can’t speak for all the minorities!’
CC: Not to say that I don’t care – I’m very passionate about all those things. But at the same time, I think there is definitely an expectation on female filmmakers to do a lot of female stories. Whereas I think that part of the movement should be that we should be able to fucking do anything we want. What if I wanted to do ‘The Fast and the Furious 10’? Which would be great. So part of that pigeonholing – the older I get, the more aware I am of my gender. And now I’m like, does that happen to guys? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t. They can probably jump between genres. I don’t know.
AO: Yeah, there’s this kind of weird thing where on the one hand, white middle-class men can kind of do whatever they want, but there’s also this movement that’s like ‘No, we should be hearing minority stories’, but then only minority people should really be telling those stories. But what if the minority people don’t really want to tell that story, because other people are doing it? It’s really complex when it comes to ‘Who can tell what stories?’ and ‘Who is obliged to tell which stories?’
CC: Definitely. It’s really hard to know where it should start. If you look at it in terms of race, screen in Australia especially - what’s happening with indigenous TV and indigenous movies is great, and that’s kind of how it should be. But I can’t quite imagine that happening for Asians, even though they came in the gold rush, and it’s been centuries. And there still hasn’t been a truly authentic Asian screen story, I don’t think. Maybe ‘The Home Song Stories.’ That’s probably one feature. What happens is, with stuff like ‘Redfern Now’, it’s indigenous actors, writers, directors, producers, and it’s like , well, no wonder there’s so much truth, and no wonder it’s so heartbreaking, because it’s so real and genuine. But with a lot of other shows, it just gets filtered, so there’s only one Asian writer, and everyone else is white. Anyway. That’s just my race rant.
AO: I feel like your Twitter presence conveys a strong interest in what it is to be a female in the film industry, and I saw that you’d retweeted that BlackMagic ad recently with the male cinematographer and the woman faffing about in art department, and it’s so sad, because it’s so true. Those stereotypes really do exist. At what point did you become aware that they existed, and that people treated you differently because you were female? Do you find that that happens?
CC: Yeah, I do. And unfortunately, it really is the case that the older I get, the more aware I am. When I was at film school, I didn’t think about it at all. I was at VCA when I was pretty young. My first year there I was like 22. And I was just so fucking stupid, and so self-involved that I don’t think I would have thought about gender at all.
CC: And also, all the gender chatter has really increased in the last two years especially. But I remember, I took a year off in between my two years at VCA because I wanted to work in the industry, and I went and worked as a 3rd AD on this American feature that was in Melbourne at the time. And the 2nd AD, who was pretty nice, on the first day – I don’t know how I got that job, by the way, because I was so inexperienced. On the first day, he pulled me aside, and he basically said ‘The grips and gaffers are really sexist, so just be really wary. And grow a really thick skin.’ And I was really petrified, because I was like 23, and I was still living at home, embarrassingly –
CC: And I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m going to get raped behind the set or something!’ But that overt sexism actually didn’t happen – everyone was genuinely really friendly, and I had a really great experience. But since then I’ve had experiences where, it’s really just the small things, for example when they bitch about other directors on other shows they’ve worked on, who they think are shit, they’re always female.
CC: And they’re talking about the A-list TV directors in Australia. They’re not just talking about a newbie from film school. And maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe they are really shit to work for. But I’ve noticed that I’m sometimes referred to as a student, which I’m really not. I mean, I’m learning, I’m willing to accept that. I’ll be 60 and I’ll still be learning. But just being referred to as a student when other crew members at my level, who are male, have people saying things like ‘Oh, so and so is going to go on to great things. They’re a gun. They’re a prodigy’ or whatever. It’s like ‘Why aren’t they a student?’ Really, there’s not that much difference in their accomplishments in their field and what I’ve done. So its something that I’m so aware of, and I’m not sure how I can change it, other than by just clinging on to this field. But I’d say that since two years ago, from my mid-twenties on, I’ve really noticed.
AO: As the conversation about gender has become so prominent, in the last couple of years, I feel like being a woman is kind of this onslaught of depressing information, where everywhere you turn is like ‘Oh, that’s fucked too.’ It’s just horrible.
CC: It’s so fucked up, being a woman. And as I’m rapidly approaching my 30s, I’m just like ‘Oh, okay, so I need to think now about if I want to have children. And I have to do something about it. And if I do want to have children, I should probably stop being single.’
CC: I should probably do something about that. But then, what if I don’t want to have children in the next five years, I’ve got so much more I want to do, and I just know that – I don’t care what people say, it will stop your life for years at least. In which case, I don’t know, my friends are talking about freezing their eggs. Over brunch.
CC: It’s not a brunch conversation I want to have! It’s really messed up. You can’t walk in parks, you can’t stay at home! No wonder men make more movies, they have more time! They’re not lying in bed petrified that they’re going to get raped in their sleep! But having said that, it’s all life experience. I have all these feelings now that I can put into my characters.
AO: So are you in post for ‘Reg Makes Contact’ now, or is that done?
CC: No, it’s finished. I finished it a few weeks ago. I’m in Sydney working on this Channel 7 miniseries about Peter Allen that’ll be out next year, which has been really, really great. I’ve learned so much. Because I’m trying to push into TV as much as I can. I’m here for another three weeks before I move back down to Melbourne.
AO: After ‘Peter Allen’ wraps, do you know what your next personal project is likely to be?
CC: The plan is to go shoot something in China at the end of the year.
CC: I’ve been lucky in that my last three, four projects have been funded. Which is great. But I kind of realised, after ‘Reg Makes Contact’, it was a really tough shoot for me, for a lot of different reasons. But I kind of went ‘I don’t know what it feels like anymore to make something because I want to. Not because ‘Oh, there’s a fund, I should apply for it.’’ So I really had this sudden desire to go back to the grassroots of filmmaking, and just make something because it’s fun, and because I have something to say, and do it as low-fi and organic as I can. Mostly because I have no money to do it.
CC: And I’ve wanted to shoot something in China for so many years now. I hope that my first feature will be in China, or a Chinese-Australian thing, so I want to go and do a short there, to prove that I can. So hopefully that’ll be December.
AO: Do you know what story that will be?
CC: Yeah, loosely. There’s this city in China – Yi Wu. They call it ‘The Commodity City.’ It’s where 70% of the world’s consumer products are made. Which is incredible. And they divide the city up into districts. Literally, they call it District 1, District 2. And I was like ‘Oh my god, I am so going there.’
CC: But there’s one district that’s know as ‘Santa’s Village’, where all the Christmas stuff is made.
CC: And I stumbled across these amazing images, where all these workers are in factories where all day long, they spray paint everything red and green. And they wear Santa hats, not because it’s jolly, but because they want to keep their hair from getting red paint on it. It’s like a real-life Santa’s workshop, but Chinese. I just thought it was amazing. So I want to go there and set something in that district, specifically. Just all these people whose job is to make decorations for an occasion they don’t understand. And we in the West, or especially you, white people, are so implicit and guilty in that process. I find that clash very interesting. So that’s the plan. I need to figure out how I get access to these factories. But yeah, it’s good. I feel excited about filmmaking again, which is refreshing. Because sometimes you get really caught up in ‘Oh, but then how will my career work?’ and ‘How does the industry work?’ Which is important, because you need to know. But it really takes the passion away.
AO: So of the work that you’ve made, what’s the one moment or scene or shot that you just feel like you totally nailed, and that you’re most proud of?
CC: I’m pretty happy with the final scene in ‘Reg Makes Contact.’ Because, as I was saying, it was my attempt to do a magical, dare I say it, Spielberg moment. And I don’t come close to it, but in terms of everything I’ve done, it’s kind of the one scene where I go ‘Well, given my chance again, I actually wouldn’t change anything.’ Which is very, very rare for me to say. Because every single one of my projects, every time I watch it, I go ‘Argh, I wish I could shoot that again, I’d do it so much better, and so differently!’ And for most of ‘Reg Makes Contact’, I’d still say that. But it was just that scene. I’m vaguely satisfied with it.
CC: I’m really apprehensive in saying ‘It’s amazing, I’m so happy with it’, because I feel like if you reach that moment, as a filmmaker, you can stop. You can retire, if you’re not always striving for something better than yourself, or better than your own abilities.
AO: And did you have an idea of a challenge to give to people?
CC: Oh, yeah! So, I don’t have a Vine account, but I sometimes watch a lot of them. They’re only six seconds, so my challenge is to make a Vine that makes people laugh. And it’s so much harder than you’d think. It doesn’t even have to be a story, because the best ones, they’re just tiny snippets of life, but so pure and beautiful. Hang on, I have to link right now to my favourite one. Whenever I’m depressed, I link to this. Okay, how do I text you? Here we go.
AO: I’m so excited.
CC: It’s really stupid.
AO: Ah! That’s so good! Look at him! He’s so tired!
AO: That’s magnificent.
CC: There is just such a genuine, undeniable purity in that, that I hope to achieve in my work. You can’t resist it. You see it, and you laugh, and it’s just joy. Sure, filmmaking is probably a little bit more complex than that Vine, but just as something that you can do on a daily basis, to keep an eye out for these moments in life, that’s really what storytelling’s about. That’s what you look for. Or, that’s what I look for. And yeah, bookmark that.
AO: That is fantastic. Well, unless there was anything else you had a burning desire to say or talk about, I reckon that’s pretty great.
CC: I guess that film, and everyone, anyone’s who’s doing an art form of any kind, it’s such an impossible dream that we try and live. So I have such an admiration for anyone who really persists. Because, you know, you only need to be vaguely good at one thing in your life. And if it happens that your gift is making art, or taking photos, or making films, then good on you. That’s incredible.
Corrie's work can be found on her website here.
Her short 'Bloomers' is screening on May 27 at St Kilda Town Hall as part of the St Kilda Film Festival. It's about a dorky teen girl who realises she's the last girl in her class without her period and does everything in her power to try and get it. Excellent good times. Tickets available here.
As part of the festival, Corrie is speaking on a panel titled 'Starting a Career in Television' on May 25, details here.
Header image by Kate Disher-Quill.
Lights, camera, April! That's right, folks, draw up your director's chair and grab your megaphone, this month's theme is FILM!
There was once a time when film-making was a pricey undertaking - film, expensive cameras, editing gear, lighting, sound - an intimidating list for the casual enthusiast. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology, if you've got a phone, you've got a movie camera. One of the films at Sundance this year was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. Magic! So if you've got a DSLR or other film camera, go nuts, but if you don't, fear not! You can still make magic.
This month, have a play around with looking at the world cinematically. Shoot some footage regularly. Think about framing, light, relationships in the frame. Find simple ways of storytelling through shots and editing. See the difference made by moving the camera a lot vs. holding it completely still. Get down low. Get up high. Add sound effects. Watch movies and try to replicate the shots.
If you're looking for editing software, you can't get much more user friendly than iMovie if you're on a Mac, and Windows Movie Maker if you're on a PC. If you're just starting out, learn to use one of these before you go nuts and shell out for Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. Play around with different shot lengths, editing styles and sound. Have fun!
Try making a fifteen second film - tell a simple story, interview someone, make a few seconds of a music video, and put it online to show us.
Now settle in for this week's interview with film-maker Jordan Prosser as he talks zombie apocalypses, product placement, Aristotle and why movies are just spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down.
THE ART OLYMPICS strolls around the National Gallery and then settles down for a chat with film-maker, writer, director, theatre-maker, actor, photographer, poet and generally overworked human JORDAN PROSSER.
6:52 pm, in Jordan's office in the Nicholson building, over a bottle of $9 pinot noir.
Art Olympics: So, Jordan Prosser. Tell me about what you make!
Jordan Prosser: Okay. I write, and then after I write, I will either put on plays, or I will perform in things, or I will make films, or do poems. Basically, I write, and then lots of different things happen. Predominantly, I film-make. Which is a verb: to make films.
AO: Thank you for sorting out the verb declension there.
JP: That’s okay.
AO: When you were a kid, did you make films at home? Did you have a movie camera?
JP: I did. Not until high school, though. To give you the whole story in a nutshell, in primary school, I desperately wanted to form a superhero team with my friends, ‘cause there were all these bank robberies in Canberra at the time, and I was like ‘We should stop that.’
AO: How old were you?
JP: Maybe six or seven. And then a year later, I was like ‘Oh, superheroes aren’t real. So the only way I can actually do that is to be an actor.’ So then I spent the better half of a decade wanting to act, and really pushing for that. Got an agent, and was always driving up to Sydney to audition for things. And as I grew to love movies more and more, and started preferring being behind the camera, or in a backstage role, and actually making up the story and orchestrating the whole thing, I began to act less and film-make more. And so, for my sixteenth birthday, my family were all huddled around our computer with our dial-up model, desperately bidding on this Canon mini-DV camera. It was a Canon MVX-150i, actually. They got me that for my birthday. And over the next two or three years, I made probably two or three dozen short films.
AO: Wow. That’s the kind of productivity you can never match as an adult.
JP: Absolutely not!
AO: So what was the first film that you ever made?
JP: It was in high school media. And I think it was called ‘The Dog Ate It.’
JP: And it was about a kid who was coming up with this really, really elaborate story for why he didn’t have his homework in on time. And so it started with him being grilled by his teacher, and then told in a series of flashbacks how he was kidnapped by a Russian spy, and then had to chase the ghost of a young girl all around the school campus. And it was like fifteen minutes long, it was this ridiculous opus and it had this full soundtrack, and stunts, and this needlessly complex story. And then at the end, after you’re like ‘Obviously he was just lying’, it’s like ‘No, he wasn’t!’ because then the Russian agent comes back.
AO: When you were younger, what were the films that made you think ‘I could do this, and I want to do this.’
JP: I try to think back on that sometimes, now. It’s hard. I always try to trace the genesis of my wanting to do that, and I guess if I had to draw one conclusion, which would lead me to the sorts of films that I make today, it’s that my mum is an American who grew up in the States in the 60s, and then she worked in film and TV and photography. And my dad’s an Aussie who worked in television news. I grew up with my mum imbuing in me a deep love for classic Hollywood, and showing me things like ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘On the Waterfront.’ Developing an appreciation for everyone from Buster Keaton through to Martin Scorsese. And then my dad would without fail take me to the Pacific 6 Cinemas in Tuggeranong to see whatever the newest, flashiest, crappiest action film was. So I grew up on American cinema. But it was what I like to think of as a healthy mix of the extremely arthouse and formal, and then the very trashy and pulpy and entertaining. And I still adore both of those things in equal measure. I’m keeping a list of every film that I watch this year, and looking at it so far, it’s literally horrible tentpole action movie next to weird obscure Armenian arthouse drama. And I’ll just love them both. It’s great. I would hate to limit myself to only one or the other. So I think having more of an arthouse aesthetic but with sort of a populist bent is still there in what I do, or what I try to do. It’s kind of what I strive for, I guess.
In terms of specific films, Disney. I loved the shit out of everything Disney. I watched ‘Beauty and the Beast’ every single day that I was home sick from school up until the end of Year 12. Because by then it was just tradition. I couldn’t not.
So I fucking loved Disney and movie musicals. And I think the moment when I became suddenly conscious of film-making – when I stopped watching movies as just a thing that existed magically, and suddenly realised ‘Wow, there are people making this’ – that moment for me was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s film ‘Magnolia.’ Which is still, to this day, despite its flaws and enormous run time, my absolute favourite film of all time. That’s one my mum showed me, on DVD, when I was probably twelve or thirteen years old. Watching that and thinking ‘This can’t just happen by accident. These aren’t just images that just came to life on their own. There’s a person, and there are people, engineering this.’ And as soon as I realised that, I wanted to be them.
AO: So what are the kinds of references that you’re drawing on for ‘Bloom’?
JP: Yeah, you’ve got me at a good time to be discussing this, because I’m about two weeks out from this shoot now. Influences for this – what I said to everyone I’ve spoken to about it, and the first thing I said to my DP was ‘It’s meant to be like Terrence Malick does The Walking Dead.’
Because it’s a genre film. The whole point was to play around with what is now an incredibly present and almost over-saturated genre, which is the zombie movie. Everywhere you look now, there’s another one coming up. And so the idea was to take that genre and treat it, like I said before, with those two different worlds – the artistic and the pulpy. And ram them together and see how they mix. The script and the camera-work and the motivations of the overall film are all straddling that line, in every sense.
AO: I was thinking about the fact that the work you make is very far removed from typical relationship films. ‘Hungry Man’ especially is so schlocky, and so big and vibrant and aggressive and dark – your stuff is always very dark. But the script for ‘Bloom’ is dealing much more with a relationship, though still not a functioning one. I feel like you went out and you did ‘Hungry Man’, and it was like ‘I want all the colours, I want all the blood effects, I want the neo-noir’, and now I feel like you’ve stepped back a bit, and it’s like ‘And now, a mature zombie film.’
JP: Oh, no. Believe me, I’d be going well over the top if I had the time or the resources that we did with ‘Hungry Man.’ This all comes back to what people use and misuse genre for, I think. Someone once pointed out to me, when I said ‘I make movies that are fun and entertaining and good to look at,’ and they said ‘No, you make relationship movies.’ And I was like ‘That’s not true!’ And I was in denial for a really long time. But I’ve come round to agreeing with that, in the sense that the best thing that you can use genre for is as a pressure cooker for relationships. Why have two people talking about their feelings in a room where there’s nothing happening, when you could have them talking about their feelings while they’re running away from an exploding volcano? It’s just going to heighten and elevate and accentuate and focus everything that happens in normal life, when you impose these fantastical obstacles upon people.
My film ‘Body Movie’ is a movie about a friendship that has run its course, and the fact that a dead body needs to be gotten rid of – that’s what’s tightening the screws. And ‘Hungry Man’ is a movie about a man’s relationship with himself, and his self-loathing and self-destructiveness. It’s just done in this ridiculous, far-out, film noir way. And ‘Bloom’ is a movie about the end of a relationship, but it’s not just people sitting around and talking about feelings, it’s them running away from monsters, and also becoming monsters. Everything is there just to turn up the pressure and make things happen faster and in more interesting visual ways. It’s all just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
AO: A spoonful of zombie apocalypse.
AO: So if someone was like ‘Hey Jordan, we’re going to give you a billion dollars–‘
AO: ‘You can just have that. You can spend as much of it as you want. You can make any film. You can do anything in it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, it doesn’t matter how many people there are, it doesn’t matter how long it will take.’ What would be the sort of film that you’d made?
JP: A billion dollars?
AO: Just, unlimited money. It doesn’t matter how much.
JP: You know the most expensive film ever made? I think this is right. This is the last I knew, maybe it’s changed. Last time I knew, the most expensive film ever made was ‘Spiderman 3.’ Sam Raimi’s ‘Spiderman 3’, and it cost five hundred million dollars. And it’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
AO: Why did it cost so much money?
JP: I have literally no idea.
AO: What did they spend all this money on? I don’t understand.
JP: What did they spend all this money on? So, you know what spends money? Laziness. People being like ‘Well, we’ve got all this money. We can take four weeks to shoot this one scene.’ When you don’t actually have any constraints, I think the work kind of suffers.
AO: Okay, say someone gives you a billion dollars, but you’ve got to make the film in a month.
JP: Hot damn! That’s ideal! I would make an incredibly high concept sci-fi action drama of some kind. I mean, I’m sure you can understand, I’ve never really sat down to write my billion dollar epic, because it’s not a particularly feasible thing.
AO: Are you always aware of budget when you’re writing?
JP: Good question. Yeah, I think you are. And that’s sort of what sucks. I mean, at this level, anyway. The dudes who write ‘Star Trek’ are probably just like ‘Hoo hoo hoo! What shall I invent today? What shall I create out of thin air and trust that someone can make it a reality?’ I think that’s the most depressing thing of all, actually. This is probably more my case than other directors, because I know whatever I write I’m also going to direct, and in most cases, finance as well. So I know that any time I put something on the page, I’m going to have to pay for it. Which is –
AO: So depressing.
JP: Yeah. It’s kind of suffocating, sometimes. You’ll write something you’ll be really happy with and then just go ‘That’ll never happen.’
AO: That’s so sad. Have you ever got a grant?
JP: No. I’ve never got any grant or support or funding of any kind.
AO: Fuck. It’s extraordinary that you manage to make films, given that. We need to get you a Medici.
AO: In Italy in the 15th century, the Medici were this family who were the rich patrons of the arts, and they’d be like ‘Hello! I’m going to pay for everything you do.’
JP: They don’t exist any more, do they?
JP: There’s always a catch these days. It’s like ‘I’ll pay for everything. If you put this brand of smartphone into every third shot.’
AO: How much would you have to be paid, to do that?
JP: Not very much.
AO: Twenty bucks. And a coffee.
JP: Yeah! Product placement? I’m all for it!
AO: When did that start?
JP: When did product placement start? Fuck, that’s a great question. It’s probably one of those things that actually started way sooner than we would imagine, and is actually far, far more insidious that we would like to believe.
AO: I reckon a lot of it is booze, because pretty much every film made before about 1960, there was so much alcohol.
JP: Booze and cigarettes, I think.
AO: Yeah, totally.
JP: Everyone would have wanted to be the brand of cigarette that so-and-so smoked. Pretty much from the moment people figured out that cinema was a form of advertising. Even in newsreels at matinees in the 20s and 30s. And yeah, it would have been cigarettes, and alcohol. That would be an interesting thing to look into. I have no idea.
Not all product placement is equal, though. One of the things I did in high school was, I was in a – good luck, you’ll never find it online – I was in a commercial for Mirinda, which was in conjunction with ‘Spiderman 2.’
AO: What is Mirinda? It sounds like a feminine hygiene product.
JP: It’s Pepsi’s version of Fanta.
AO: Oh! I’ve literally never heard of that.
JP: It’s an orange-flavoured soft drink. And they shot this commercial at Fox Studios, where they built a complete New York subway carriage, and I was a kid on the train as this robber stole a woman’s pearl necklace. And then I had a sip of Mirinda, and had a great idea, and then it cut to this whole sequence of Spiderman chasing the robber through the streets, and then when it cuts back, I’ve somehow tied up the villain in all this orange knitting twine that the old lady next to me was using to knit a jumper. And he’s suspended in the middle of this Mirinda-coloured Spiderman web. And I’m like ‘Oh.’
JP: ‘Tada!’ And then, if you watch ‘Spiderman 2’, there’s a whole bit where he jumps off a building onto a Mirinda truck! And there’s a whole chase scene where it says ‘Mirinda’ on the side of the truck, and then later when he gets fired from his job as a delivery boy, there’s a whole fridge full of Mirinda in the background.
JP: ‘Spiderman 2’ is great, by the way. Definitely the high point of that trilogy. The bit where he has his mask taken off, and all the passengers on the train pass him backwards, and they’re like (he whispers) ‘Your secret is safe with us, because you are a hero!’ It’s beautiful. It’s great. It’s awesome.
AO: What films make you cry?
JP: Oh, heaps! Heaps and heaps.
AO: What’s one that’s done it recently?
JP: I went to see ‘Magnolia’ at ACMI, at the Melbourne Cinèmathéque, just last week. Because of course, I was twelve when it came out, I’d never seen it at the cinema, and it’s my favourite film. And they had an original 35mm print of it. It was like a deeply spiritual experience for me. I cried at like the four and a half minute mark. The point where it goes through this incredible introduction outlining these three different historical coincidences, and you’ve got Ricky Jay doing this narration, basically summarising everything in the film you’re about to watch for the next three hours, and there’s this crazy shot drifting through a corridor of this mother being taken away by the cops, having accidentally murdered her son after he’d jumped from a building while she was fighting with her husband, and this music’s just building and building and building and building, and Ricky Jay’s saying ‘This can’t just be a coincidence. This can’t just be one of those things. These things happen all the time.’ And there’s just this ‘sssshhhp!’ And it cuts to black, and then the first chords of Aimee Mann’s cover of ‘One Is The Loneliest Number’ starts playing, like ‘doo doo doo doo doo.’ And I literally just sunk into my chair, and felt shivers run down my body, and I started crying like a baby.
JP: I don’t cry ‘cause things are sad. I cry ‘cause things are great.
JP: I cry because something has so perfectly combined its visual and aural and thematic and emotional elements that is just reaches this point of complete fucking nirvana, and it reduces me to a shuddering mess. I cried four or five times during that movie.
AO: What’s the closest that your work has come to that nirvana? What’s the one shot, or the one moment in something you’ve made that you’ve just nailed?
JP: Oh, god. Wow, god. That is such a good question. God, this is sad. Maybe I’ve never even come close.
JP: There is a moment at the end of ‘Hungry Man’, which even two and a half years on, I do still really, really enjoy, as a film, and I’m really proud of. Without spoiling it, the final line I really like because it’s that one kind of little grace note that combines what’s been happening visually and what’s been happening thematically, and brings a sense of closure.
But that’s a tough question. I always worry that the stuff I make and the stuff I write is actually nowhere near truthful or emotional enough to get to that kind of high point, to reach that kind of moment. It needs to be a moment that creatively intersects with a character or a human being’s catharsis. That’s the appropriate word. That’s the word I’m looking for. And I don’t know if I have achieved that and I don’t know if I ever will. Because everything I do is so cynical. It’s no good.
AO: I wonder if part of that is being Australian? We’re so afraid of being truthful and so afraid of being emotional. I think Americans are much better at it. Americans are told that their emotions are more legitimate than we are.
JP: That’s funny, though. Because I agree with you. I think that’s a really good point. But catharsis doesn’t come from simply openly talking about your feelings. And the problem, I think, at the risk of beginning a whole rant about everything that’s wrong with Australian cinema – which I don’t intend on doing – is it’s just our sense of drama is so blatant and obvious. The typical Australian kitchen sink drama – ‘my brother’s in rehab, my sister’s pregnant, my dad just got out of prison, I live in a lower socio-economic outer suburb’ – there’s no catharsis in that story it’s just the writing on the wall. You’re just looking at a shit situation and depicting it as a shit situation. You’re not mining for deeper truths. Even though it’s labelled as being really tough and emotional, it’s the writing that’s on the wall. You’re not actually having to make an effort there. Catharsis comes with effort. Catharsis comes from trying and failing and struggling, and sometimes being forced – not necessarily by your hand, but by the hand of others, or by the hand of some god, or some circumstance – to confront yourself. And realise deeper truths in spite of yourself. A moment that actually (he clicks) changes you. Not just a moment of you talking about things you and we already know. A moment that literally and figuratively changes you.
AO: Which is going back to the fundaments of Greek drama, really.
JP: Fuck yeah! Nothing’s changed since then.
AO: No, totally. You read Aristotle, and it’s all there –
JP: Exactly. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s fucking changed. Humans haven’t evolved that quickly. Everything is exactly the same. If anything we’ve just overcomplicated it.
AO: There’s this funny- the word that springs to mind is ‘conservatism’, and I don’t mean it in as negative a way as it sounds, but it’s just that we really like being told stories in a certain way.
AO: And there’s this kind of innate reaction that we have to being told stories in that certain narrative structure. The three act structure is just profoundly in us.
JP: Yeah. But all of that is there – ah! It drives me crazy, I love this stuff so much. All of that is there to get around people’s defences. Not just Australians. Everyone is cynical. No-one wants to be told what to do or think. And so you lure them in. You lure them in and you trick them and you lie to them and you cheat them, until they’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole that they can’t turn back. And then you’re like (he claps) ‘Bam! That’s the truth’, and they’re like ‘Shit!’
And there’s nowhere they can go. I said before, like a spoonful of sugar. That’s what storytelling is. As opposed to lecturing. As opposed to simply depicting the truth. It’s dressing the truth up, you know? It’s like wrapping a piece of cheese around the medication you have to feed your dog. If you say ‘I’m going to give you a thing that’s good for you’ – people will be like ‘No, I don’t need a thing that’s good for me.’ And you’re like ‘What about cheese? Cheese is bad for you’, but then within the cheese is a thing that’s good!
So it’s like ‘I’m going to give you a zombie movie, or an action film, and lots of people dying, and carnage and spectacle and sex and fantasy… And truth!’
AO: Probably the first zombie film I ever saw was ‘Shaun of the Dead.’
JP: Oof. Good start. I think that’s kind of a high point in the zombie genre. Because people generally say one of two things. They say ‘I’m going to make a genre movie’, or they’re say ‘I’m going to subvert a genre.’ If you can do both at once? If you can do what Edgar Wright does, and make a genre film that sticks to all the genre conventions that everybody knows and loves, and at the same time, kind of reinvent and redefine that genre, by simultaneously enacting and subverting these tropes, then, like, who even are you? What the fuck? ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is a great zombie movie.
AO: The transition that it makes from being so self-aware and so referential and so funny – and then, it’s still funny and you’re having a great time. And then all of a sudden, you’re in the pub, there’s five thousand zombies outside, he has to shoot his own mother –
JP: ‘How did we get here?’
AO: ‘When did that happen? We got here, and it’s real!’
JP: Genre’s just the modern word for myth. What all the really good genre films do, is they understand that these are shortcuts to people’s imagination. Why would we not exploit that? You’re just jumping in the fast lane to connecting with people. And even what is an inherently realistic or naturalistic storyline, if you imbue it with genre elements, then again, it just connects with people that much quicker. My favourite Australian film is a movie called ‘Noise.’ Which was directed by Matthew Saville, and has Brendan Cowell in it, and it’s a police procedural, and most of it takes place in a shitty caravan in a car park in outer suburban Melbourne. But it’s a Western. The way it’s shot, and the spaces that the characters inhabit in that story, it’s a Western. And so rather than just starting from scratch with these people and plot elements, you just streamline that in a way that people almost genetically recognise and understand and appreciate. And (he claps) there you go.
AO: How do you feel about CGI? CGI is a thing that just astonishes me. The things you can do with technology now just stagger me.
JP: I kind of wish I was born about ten years later. Because I am an absolute dinosaur when it comes to visual effects, and I know it’s going to bite me in the ass, and I know I should just hunker down and learn After Effects or do a short intensive and just get my head around it. But at the same time, maybe it’s good. Because right now, I’ve got this concept art done, and we’re spending an arm and a leg getting these world-class special effects makeup artists. And we’re doing it all practically. Because I’m just terrified by the thought of having to do it in post. I’d just rather it all actually be there, in-camera, on the day.
AO: With ‘Hungry Man’, with the blood effects, didn’t you end up having to call in a favour from some dude in a hamlet in France to fix it?
JP: That’s quite a fun story. So we did have this amazing special effects guy. We’d done full body casts, and created a completely 100% realistic latex stomach piece for the shoot, including individual hairs for the snail trail. And that gets cut open and obviously heaps of blood comes out. So the movement and everything of the latex looked great, but there just wasn’t enough blood. We had three makeup artists hiding just below the bottom of frame, with syringes full of blood, trying to pump it out. And there still just wasn’t enough. We were like ‘More blood! More blood! It needs more blood!’ And it still didn’t quite hit home. And we were like ‘Fuck, the whole film in a way comes down to the goriness and the impact of this scene.’ So yeah, I called up a very old friend of mine, who’s just a bit of an effects wizard, and a really great editor and graphic designer. And he was literally working freelance from his travels around France with his girlfriend, now his wife. Every day, they would just go, like, skiing in the Alps, and then they’d check into a hotel so he could use the wifi and upload some more design work. And so he shot these plate shots. He had a miniature bluescreen on a stand, and he shot it all on a Canon 7D, and he just drizzled golden syrup down this miniature bluescreen, and then comped that in over the wounds. And it’s remarkable how well it fits in with the action. So seventy-five percent of the blood in that scene is actually French golden syrup.
That’s been colour-matched to match the rest of the blood and graded with the rest of it. That stuff I’m comfortable with. Using VFX to supplement and enhance and correct mistakes, I dig. But the day I make something where there’s a completely CGI character? It’s going to freak me out.
AO: Alright. I could talk to you about this for hours, but we should probably stop. Do you have an exercise or challenge for people to do this month?
JP: The thing that came to mind was – there was this great short film by Lev Kuleshov. Very, very, very early Soviet film-maker and film theorist. And there’s a very famous – I’m sure you could find it on Youtube – there’s a very famous piece of footage where he took a shot of a man with quite a blank expression. And he had a shot of that man, and then he cut to a funeral. And then he had the same shot of that man, and then he cut to a breakfast plate. And then he had the same shot of that man, and then he cut to whatever else. And the funny thing was, at the time, showing it to people, they were like ‘Oh, well in this shot, he’s happy, and in this shot he’s sad, and in this shot, he’s this or he’s that.’ And it was the same footage. It was the exact same footage of that man. This is like film school 101, this is one of the first things that we ever did. But it is fascinating, because you realise editing and storytelling, in the visual sense, is completely about context. So in terms of an exercise, it could be fun to do that. And you can do it just with still photos. Take one photo, and then see how much meaning and subtext you can imbue that image with, just by looking at what you put next to it.
AO: That’s great. That’s a great exercise. Awesome. Good. Thank you very much.
Jordan's work can be found on his website here.
Stay tuned on the Art Olympics Instagram in the second half of April for some sneaky on-set stills from his newest film 'Bloom'!
Header image by Sarah Walker.