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Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) co-director Katherine Berger had just launched the 7th edition of the East Coast's most provocative film event when she spoke to SCREEN-SPACE. With the 2013 programme in every storefront along the Harbour City's ultra-arty inner-west district, Berger reveals just how difficult it is to stage a niche film event and how much it means to secure the latest works from such agent provocateurs as Paul Schrader and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

“It’s not that we are a huge festival that gets to travel the world to select films,” says Berger, who has shared duities with co-director Stefan Popescu since SUFF launched in 2007. “So a lot of our time is spent researching and determining which of the current films our patrons are going to be interested in. And Stefan and I certainly pick films that appeal to us, that we find interesting and challenging.”

In 2013, their choices reveal a broadening of what is considered ‘underground’. As the arthouse venues of yesteryear all but disappear and the major chains steer clear of darker, hard-to-market fare, the SUFF schedule fills a void that allows them to program name titles that still have left-field credibility. This year, that includes Rob Zombie’s cult shocker The Lords of Salem, Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at The End with Paul Giamatti and Chase Williamson (pictured, right); and, Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic, a Sundance hit starring Michael Cera and Juno Temple.

“This year, we probably have more of a cross-section,” acknowledges Berger, pointing out that perhaps SUFF’s biggest coup, the Closing Night Australian premiere of Schrader’s The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star James Deen, came about through the global network the team has worked hard to establish. “We are friends with the Boston Underground Film festival and we heard about it through them. We had to beat an email path to the film’s producer (Braxton Pope) and plead with him,” she recalls. “We made it clear that if they passed us by then they loose the opportunity for a Sydney festival slot entirely. So I got the producer on side who then helped us get the distributor on side. We have to work really hard to get the bigger titles.”

Berger sings a similar tune about the Opening Night event, which will be the national premiere of Chilean surrealist legend Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature in 23 years, the autobiographical study The Dance of Reality. “It was required that I go through the producers in France to get the ok to screen this important work at SUFF,” she says. “We really wanted to focus on our festival as being type of an adventure, of being able to take viewers on a sort of cinematic ride and it was important that we opened with a film that embodied that.”

This year sees a surge in the factual filmmaking component, reflecting a global filmmaking community seeking truth through the medium. “Documentaries have become such a big part of festival programming over the last few years and, as lovers of the format, we think that is a very exciting development,” says Berger. This year, her team has chosen such acclaimed works as Stephen Vittoria’s lengthy account of social activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary (pictured, left); Stephen Graves’ heartbreaking physical-horror chronicle, A Body Without Organs; Sophie Huber's atmospheric insight into an iconic man's career, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction; and, two films that focus on the torturous lives of those obsessed with the male sex organ (ie; men), Brian Spitz’s Unhung Hero and Jonah Bekhor and Zac Math’s The Final Member.

Perhaps most confronting will be a very rare screening of UK director Keith Allen’s Unlawful Killing, the 2011 expose of the final hours of Princess Diana that has been all but shunned by the global film festival community. “We saw it, aware of all the controversy, and were just struck by how sad it would be that this film, because of its content matter, would just go by unseen,” reveals Berger. “And we’d had a lot of interest from people who wanted to see it. It’s probably one of our more ballsy decisions, showing that film. The film offers so much more than just stating over and over that, ‘They killed Diana!’”

If much of this year’s programme sounds a little heavy going, Berger assure us that there will, in fact, be a great deal of fun to be had, especially during the late-night Bad Movie Bingo event, featuring three classic Bad Movies – Troll 2, The Room and Birdemic: Shock and Terror. “Yeah, Stefan thought that would be a good idea,” Berger says with a laugh. “It has always been really important to us that we not only screen films but also encourage the community aspect of watching films and being together. The B-Movie Bingo concept has proved hugely popular overseas and you couldn’t have three movies that are more suited to the concept.”

The Sydney Underground Film Festival runs Thursday September 5 to Sunday September 8 at The Factory Theatre in Marrickville. Further programme and film information as well as ticket sales are available here.



With her co-director Tom Putnam, Detroit native Brenna Sanchez (pictured, below) has crafted Burn, an intimate yet exciting documentary that all but defines the term 'fly-on-the-wall' filmmaking. Together, they were not only allowed access to the grinding bureaucratic gears of a local government struggling to halt the decline of Sanchez's hometown, but were also afforded a year with the firefighters of a metropolis slowly burning to the ground. Sanchez spoke with SCREEN-SPACE only a few hours prior to the film's Australian premiere at Perth's Revelations Film Festival, filing her email responses mid-flight from Los Angeles to Australia's West Coast.   

The American firefighter has always been held in a sort of mythical regard, more so since 9/11. Your film plays to that but also reveals the very human side of the role. Was that the intention going into Burn?

Absolutely! Some of the best documentaries get beyond what we think we know about a subject. After spending five minutes with these guys, we knew there was more to firefighters than we'd ever seen on TV or in movies. Sure, firefighters are heroes. But they're more than that. We knew there was a deeper story here.

The access you achieved is quite incredible. Not only in terms of the extraordinary footage inside burning buildings but also with regard to the coverage you got of the notoriously publicity-shy local government bodies. Which of the two proved more welcoming?

Once the firefighters (pictured, right; Putnam and Sanchez, back-row centre) heard the tenor and depth of the questions we asked, they opened up. No one had ever asked them about them — who they are, what they do. What they see and deal with every day is too tough to talk about at home; they don't want to scare their wives and families. And the department doesn't have therapists. So once they felt we were there to listen, and tell their story, they were incredibly generous.

We went through four fire commissioners before Donald Austin came in. He was the first to understand what we were trying to do, and supported us. We were transparent with him, and he gave us the access we needed. He could have shut us down at any point, but he saw the good that could come from the film.

I know this may sound unusual but structurally, it reminded me of a western – real-men protectors of the people against a black-hearted villain (fire) and a ‘crooked system’ (local government), all set in a decaying ghost town. I don’t mean for that to belittle the real-world issues of Burn, but does the film embrace a kind of traditional Hollywood ethos?

You're spot on. At its core, BURN is a movie about change. Just like in the old Westerns, there's a new sheriff in town, and the railroad is coming through. Can the cowboys adapt? Does the sheriff have what it takes to lead them through the change? The story is evergreen except, instead of horses, we're talking about shifting industry and economics. We talked about Westerns constantly when we were filming, which is one of the reasons we shot the film in 2.35 widescreen, which is very unusual for a documentary. The other genre we were thinking of was a war film, where we thought of ourselves as if we were embedded with a platoon during a tour of duty in a combat zone. We get to know this tight-knit brotherhood, and we see the larger issues, but through their eyes.

How involved was executive producer Denis Leary? At what point in the production did he come on board and did he have any stipulations as to message he wanted the film to impart?

Denis Leary and Jim Serpico (pictured, above; with, from left, co-directors Putnam and Sanchez) came on about half-way through. They saw what we were doing, where we were headed, and recognized that BURN fell right in line with their work with the Leary Firefighters Foundation. They looked at late cuts of the film, and were always encouraging.

There is fascinating juxtaposition, in that these men and their families represent a classically wholesome American image that has barely altered in a century but the country around them, here represented by the plight of Detroit, is collapsing. Does the film capture the prosperous age of America’s yesteryear in its death throes?  

This is a movie about change. When you go to Detroit, you so often hear, "Detroit was once so great — it needs to be what it used to be." But the world doesn't work like that, life only moves forward. Industry in Detroit and many, many, many other once-industrial areas is gone. Everyone must create a new normal to survive. And whose job hasn't changed in 100 years? Tradition is a dangerous idea if it prevents you from evolving. Detroit, the fire department, and our individual characters are all facing the challenge of change, and learning how to adapt so they can survive it.

When developments occur on a documentary shoot such as the tragic passing of Mr Parnell’s wife or the introduction of the ‘Let It Burn’ policy, does it invariably shift the initial focus of the film? After a year’s shooting, is Burn the doco you thought it would be?

We had no idea what we were getting into, we only knew wanted to know more. We sensed the stories were there, but they were a mystery to us at the start. We began by filming a huge number of characters since we didn't know who would have something eventful happen over the course of the year. We ended up filming over a thousand hours, and were over half-way through filming before the central characters began rising to the surface. If you take the time to be still, to watch, and to really listen, really get to know people, don't the stories always reveal themselves?

BURN - Official Theatrical Trailer (2013) from BURN on Vimeo.




Far from the gaudy excesses of Hollywood is Austin, Texas, home to a small but passionate enclave of independent filmmakers producing some of the most idiosyncratic visions in American cinema. The latest is Pictures of Superheroes, a weird and wonderful slice of bizarro humour and eccentric characters from writer/diector Don Swaynos. Swaynos (pictured, below) spoke with great candor to SCREEN-SPACE about stepping into the director's chair, drawing fearless and funny performances from his cast and what life is like for an independent filmmaker deep in the heart of Texas.

Tell me about the Austin independent film scene and the film community that fosters such unique visions as Pictures of Superheroes. 

Well I definitely couldn't have made this film in this way in an industry city like New York or LA. Austin has great supply of really talented people who can find employment here in the field but aren't completely burned out and cynical about it. They're still willing to help out on a project and they're still passionate about it. I'm not sure anyone in town is making a living as an indie film auteur (is anyone anywhere?) but there are lots of production jobs around, and the cost of living is lower than LA or New York so you can actually afford to do things between jobs, spend money on making a movie, instead of just trying to find another job to pay your rent. I tend to gauge the cost of living in a city by how much a pint of beer costs, a good beer. Austin's probably around five bucks right now. I had trouble finding beer that cheap in New York.

The filmmaker community here is growing, but it's still relatively small so there's this shared energy. If a film is shot in Austin, we most likely we shared some crew members. So there's this communal spirit when something succeeds, it's good for all of us. Just last week I finally saw Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, which is one of my favorite films of the year. Chris Doubek (who plays Gil in Pictures of Superheroes) is in it, as is our colorist Brandon Thomas and some of the scenes were shot at the same house as a film I just edited called Pit Stop, which is produced by Pictures' producer Kelly Williams and co-stars John Merriman. It's all very incestuous but and it's a really great thing to be a part of.

(Above: Kerri Lindo as Marie in Pictures of Superheroes)

Though it is clearly impossible to pigeon-hole, Pictures… kind of plays like a mash-up of mumblecore comedy and Wes Anderson-type eccentricity with a dash of Monty Python. Who are the filmmakers and writers that have inspired your creativity?  

I've always like odd things. Weird music, weird movies, weird comic books, things that don't fit easily into one genre, so it makes me happy that I seem to have created something that's hard to categorize. It's probably not the most financially viable way to make a movie but I wasn't too concerned with that here. When we were making the movie I described it as " what if Luis Bunuel made mumblecore comedy" but "Monty Python mumblecore" seems like a much better way to say that.

I was initially drawn to filmmaking by really visual directors like Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers, but as I've gotten older I've explored more films and that's changed. I'd say my favorite filmmakers are Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar, Errol Morris, John Waters, Gaspar Noe... probably some others I'm forgetting. Comedically I'd say the first few years of The Simpsons and the George Carlin HBO specials I saw as a kid really had a hand in getting me to actually think about comedy and its potential to do more than just get a laugh. Mitch Hedberg was definitely a big influence. Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics are in there somewhere. Currently I really like Louis CK, but who doesn't?

It struck me that career-obsessed ‘Eric’ and self-obsessed man-child ‘John’ only became a single, more fully-formed man when they embraced a little of each other’s personality. Delve into the psychology of your lead characters for us….

I think they're both parts of me, honestly.  Right now I've kind of over-extended myself work-wise, so I basically just work and sleep, and when I talk to people, the only thing I really have to talk about is work. But since I'm a freelance editor, that'll end, and when I'm not working I can fall into a funk like Joe. Sleep late, basically get nothing done... I've definitely gotten closer to the happy medium recently. I like to think making the movie helped me get there, but it might just be getting older. I don't have the energy to get too stressed about work stuff and I can't sleep late anymore.

But the characters are also the two extremes I've seen people become as they enter adulthood. Some dive right into "being a grown-up", like this  forced adulthood, where they graduate from college, get married, get a "real job", get a house, have kids and tell themselves "this is what I'm supposed to be doing now, I'm 23.". Then there's the other extreme, where people refuse to grow up. That's definitely more common in a city like Austin. But neither of those are good, healthy ways to live your life, there's a happy medium in there somewhere. That's the goal in life. Get a real job, but leave time for some other stuff too.

In creating ‘Marie’, I imagine it would’ve been hard for Kerri Lendo, or any actress for that matter, to play so droll and so caustic for an entire shoot. How would you define the relationship between director and star?

It's funny because I wrote Joe and Eric with John Merriman and Shannon McCormick in mind. I had worked with both of them before, I knew how incredibly funny they both were, and I was hearing their voices in my head as I was writing. But I never had anyone in mind for Marie. Even when we decided to make the movie, we had no idea who to cast. I tried auditioning a few people, but that didn't really go anywhere. I was sitting with producer Tate English trying to think of what we were going to do and he suggested Kerri (based on a short she had made with John Merriman). I had seen Kerri do stand-up a few times and I just thought she would be perfect. We didn't even audition her, which seems kind of crazy in retrospect, we just offered her the part. As a first time director, I probably wasn't much help to her. Kerri gets all the credit for Marie.

All the men in your film are really quite grotesque, even idiotic, in a hilarious, playful sort of way, while your women are very sure of themselves. Marie is quirky but very quick-witted and incisive; Danu Uribe’s ‘Susan’ is actually a real-world human being. Are you suggesting that, yes, it’s true - women are the stronger sex?

Yeah, I mean, they pretty much are. I think it's easier for me to apply negative traits to male characters than to female. Maybe because there are some autobiographical elements in all of the men in this film or maybe I've just had more bad experiences dealing with men than I have with women. I'd hate to analyze it (or myself) too much but it seems like if I think, in general, about humanity as a whole, a lot of dudes are assholes, but most women seem pretty cool.

My sound re-recording mixer Eric Friend pointed out that like Joe and Eric, Marie is also a loser. She's stuck in this job that she has no interest in, that she doesn't seem to be particularly good at, and she's allowing the direction of her life to be controlled by the people around her. The difference is that, even though I'm not totally sure she's aware of it, she's at least fed up with it, while the men around her are happy stuck in their ruts. Marie can actually do something and break the cycle that her life has fallen into. Not sure what that means in terms of gender roles though...

(Above: Lendo and co-star John Merriman)

You’ve been an editor most of your professional career. What sort of learning curve did you go through when you stepped behind the camera? What surprised you most about the role of feature-film director?

I'm comfortable as an editor and I'm comfortable as a writer, but directing was a new experience. I liked the script, and I has a list of shots that I knew I needed to be able to cut scenes together but everything else was totally alien to me. Editing is such a solitary task, you do it by yourself, you can apply as much or as little time as you feel you need, but when you're on set and there are a bunch of people looking at you for a plan and you've got a schedule and something isn't working- it's really nerve-wracking. Basically the whole "interacting with other humans to make a movie" thing is new to me. I lucked out with the cast and crew that I had and if you didn't know better, watching the film you might think I'm competent. 

Editing other people's films prepared me, in a sense, to direct my own. I'd seen the problems that had arisen on other productions that we needed to fix in post and kept a tally to make sure I didn't commit any of those. But also, when you're editing, it's so easy to say "why didn't they get that shot?" or "why didn't they do another take?" but being on set actually served as a harsh reminder of why. Because you've got time constraints, and the sun's going down, and getting that angle would take too long, etc. 

How does your vision for the world and wonderful but oddball sense of character translate to studio-size budgets and Hollywood fame? Will ‘A Film by Don Swaynos’ ever adorn a multiplex screen?

Hmmm....I don't know. I think I've just come to the realization that that probably won't ever happen, but I'm totally fine with it. So many of the things I've loved have always been on the fringes that it probably makes sense that the things I make are out there too.  The film industry is going through some pretty radical changes right now and I'm not sure what's going to happen but it's a great time to be making independent films, because you can actually get them out there. So as long as I can make films that are financially sustainable that people seem to be enjoying, I'll be happy.

Picture of Superheroes has it's New South Wales premiere on Saturday 7th of September as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival. Tickets available here.



Given the recent dire efforts in the field of found footage horror, some may suggest a parody is a bit redundant. But for writer and comedian Marlon Wayans, there is still a lot that can be laughed at.

Breaking away from the big-screen act he perfected with his brothers Keenen and Shawn over the last decade in the hit films White Chicks and Little Man, Wayans has returned to the mockery of one of his franchise starter, Scary Movie, for his latest comedy, A Haunted House. “They did something special with the first Paranormal Activity film, like they did with the first Blair Witch movie. They did a really good job spinning the bullshit, making you believe the house was haunted,” Wayans tells SCREEN-SPACE while in Sydney for a series of sold-out stand-up shows. “But by the time Paranormal Activity 3 came out, I was thinking ‘Man, this is getting bad.’ It was time to make fun of them.”

The film is a typically low-brow but occasionally hilarious send-up, with elements such as set design and narrative beats taken directly from the Paranormal Activity series as well as recent hits The Devil Inside and The Last Exorcism. Wayans fans won’t be at all surprised to learn the film is full of sexual innuendo and base crudity and that’s exactly the way they like it. “I make it for the kids, who don’t care too much what’s right and what’s wrong in the eyes of grown-ups, who just want to have a good laugh,” he says. “But I also make it for the 30 and 40 year-olds who still have that little kid inside of them and who want to be a little naughty and a little crass.”

It is a formula that has proved enormously successful for Wayans; budgeted at around US$2million, the film became a sleeper hit Stateside, grossing nearly $45million. The final tally is doubly impressive given the film took a critical savaging from the mainstream media, very few of whom have ever sided with the young comic’s popular appeal. He takes their disdain philosophically. “I think sometimes critics tend to overthink comedy. I think they should watch some comedies with a paying audience and watch the audience reaction,” Wayans theorises. “Then they can say ‘Well, it wasn’t my thing, but the audience seemed to love it’. That would be the fairer thing to do with a lot of comedies, because what makes each of us laugh is such a subjective thing. Some people think themselves too intelligent, or too above, a good fart joke.”

Body functions are just one of the many avenues explored by Wayans and his co-stars David Koechner, Nick Swardson (pictured, right, with Wayans), Cedric the Entertainer and Essence Atkins (“She had a baby five weeks before we started filming, but she still got on the rig and let us pull her around. She was incredible.’) Free-wheeling their way through many improvised moments, the cast push a lot of boundaries in terms of physical humour; in one scene, Wayans enjoys a wild sexual encounter with two stuffed toys. Wayans agrees that there’s not much he won’t do for a laugh. “Oh man, I go there! I’m absolutely happy to go there,” he says with laugh. “Comedy has always got to be all or nothing. But you have to have layers, of course, and I think with this movie we accomplished that.”

He is also proud of the way he and first-time director Michael Tiddes adapted the clichéd use of the camera in found footage films for comedy impact. “The style of the movie we were sending up, all that handheld stuff and the CCTV footage, was able to be used to our comedic advantage,” he explains. “We were able to let a group of very funny people just do take after take of really funny stuff, just non sequitur, bizarrely funny shit that, if it worked, we would use it. Absolutely the aim was to do a comedy version of a found footage movie.”

A Haunted House opens in Australia on May 30. Follow Marlon Wayans on Twitter here.



One of the film world's greatest costume designers, in Australia for the launch of her exhibition Hollywood Costumes, recalls her first big-budget studio feature - Steven Spielberg's grand folly, 1941.

Steven Spielberg’s 1941 holds a very special place in film history as one of Hollywood’s most grand follies. The 1979 production, which comedically chronicled one night of mayhem when Los Angelinos were convinced Japanese forces were launching an attack on Hollywood, ran way over budget and opened to scathing reviews, leaving co-financiers Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios in the red on a film that was greenlit to give the super-hot director total creative control on a scale he had never known.

It was to be the third feature for a young costume designer named Deborah Nadoolman (pictured; right), who had honed her craft on the low-budget comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie and the surprise smash hit, Animal House (both directed by her future husband, John Landis). Now one of Hollywood’s most revered costume designers with credits that include Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the two-term President of the Costume Designers Guild spoke to SCREEN-SPACE of her experience on Spielberg’s enormous spectacle.

“The first thing I should say is that Steven really gave me carte blanche,” Nadoolman-Landis says from her West Coast home, prior for leaving for Melbourne to oversee the launch of Hollywood Costume, a collection of iconic outfits that she has spent five ears curating. “He had come to a screening of Animal House and had fallen in love with the film. So he called me to come in and talk about designing on 1941. I had never designed on a movie of that size. My entire CV at that time was Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House.”

Spielberg has since admitted that his self-belief was running rampant at the time, after the one-two box office punch of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Clearly taking its inspiration from Stanley Kramer’s frantic 1963 farce, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the director was in charge of a cast that included Hollywood bad boys John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd (both pictured; right) and Treat Williams, veterans Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates and Slim Pickens and wide-eyed stars-in-the-making Bobby Di Cicco and Dianne Kay. For Nadoolman-Landis, it was clear her director was going to need all the help even her limited experience could offer.

“He was a still very young,” she remembers. “He had Jaws and Close Encounters, both of which I had adored, but he had not had a lot of experience with costuming or with costume designers. In fact, on those films, I don’t think he had even had a costume designer!” Conversely, 1941 would use 100’s of extras, all of who required fitting for a very specific time in American history; the key characters include a troop of USO girls, a tank crew, some zoot-suiters and a Japanese submarine crew. “He was going to be making a period film and he had no idea what to do,” she says with a laugh, tempered somewhat by hindsight.

“He and I sat together, and got on very well at that first meeting. He told me that the film was going to be as Spielberg/Nadoolman co-production,” she says. Thrilled to be offered a gig on a major studio production, the breadth of her task soon dawned upon Nadoolman-Landis. “I had read the script and, at that time, I was like ‘Oh, my goodness!’, this is going to cost a fortune. At the time, the budget was like $22million, but…well you know, right. A huge film.” (pictured left; Spielberg on-set with actor Ned Beatty, centre).

“After the meeting, I was walking to my car and it just struck me, ‘How am I going to do this?’,” she recalls of a moment when the pressure to make real a vast directorial vision consumed her. “My last costume budget, on Animal House, was $50,000 out of a $2million budget. On 1941, my budget was going to be $250,000! I ran to a payphone and called my boyfriend, John Landis, and cried ‘John, this is going to be such a huge movie and I’m in way over my head’ and I really did start spinning out. And John said, ‘Just realax. It is the same job.’”

Thirty-four years later, Deborah Nadoolman-Landis would recognise it as a defining moment in her career perspective. “Costume design, whether its on Kentucky Fried Movie with $15,000 or 1941 with $250,000, is exactly the same job. And that’s what I took away from 1941. Steven and I had a fabulous time working on the movie, as we did on Raiders of the Lost Ark,” she says.

Spielberg’s costly flop went through a number of re-edits and has emerged as cult favourite for many, though still carries the stigma of being associated with a flagrant period of excess in Hollywood history (it is often spoken of in company with infamous bombs Inchon, Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar). However, Nadoolman-Landis has no regrets, emerging from the production with the utmost respect for her colleague. “I just think he is terrific and adore him as the captain of the ship,” she says, fondly recalling the production and its director. 

Deborah Nadoolman-Landis has curated Hollywood Costume, which begins a 4 month season in Melbourne on April 24 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.