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Entries in Thriller (4)

Thursday
May102018

RABBIT: THE LUKE SHANAHAN INTERVIEW

Cryptophasia (noun): Language and/or transmission trends formed between twins that are comprehendible only to them.

The mysterious bond that twins share has proven fertile material for some of the world’s great film directors, from Brian De Palma (Sisters, 1972) and David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, 1988) to Spike Jonze (Adaptation, 2002) and Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, 2016). In crafting his film debut Rabbit, the story of one twin’s descent into madness as she searches for her missing sister, Australian director Luke Shanahan joins a club of fearless filmmakers willing to walk a dark, ambiguous narrative path. The combination of Shanahan’s daring storytelling and the acting bravado of a cast that boasts Adelaide Clemons, Alex Russell and Belgian star Veerle Baetens has ensured a prominent festival profile for the thriller, shot in the South Australian hinterland.

Ahead of his film’s screening in Brisbane as part of the Monster Fest Travelling Sideshow, Shanahan spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about the challenges he set himself with his first feature…  

SCREEN-SPACE: There are no easy passages, no sign-posted narrative shortcuts in Rabbit. You're not afraid to challenge, even confound your audience to tell this story…

SHANAHAN: I didn’t set out to create confusion. I’m not a fan of films that deliberately confuse. But I did see this as a film of two halves, of two twins, two stories. Then I leave it to the audience to join the puzzle together. I wrote the film as it appears and we shot the script in order. You could say the first half is more conventional than the second half and everyone seems to have a favourite half, referencing that idea of the favourite twin that Maude alludes to as her search continues. Identical twins are so intriguing that I did want the narrative journey to intrigue. Nothing is straightforward. 

SCREEN-SPACE: The film offers such a unique perspective I begrudgingly ask your influences. The 'Australian gothic' feel recalls Terry Bourke's Inn of The Damned (1975); some twists are reminiscent of Pascal Laugier's horror classic Martyrs (2008)…

SHANAHAN: You’ve nailed it in two. But I borrowed from a bunch more; throw in The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby and Wake in Fright. I like horror played fairly straight and most of my ‘mood books’ I used as influence covered films that aren’t straight horror stories, with the exception of Martyrs. Drama really, played straight. (Pictured, above, from left: producer David Ngo, actress Adelaide Clemons, Shanahan, and actor Alex Russell) 

SCREEN-SPACE: When did the complex psychology shared by twins first present itself as a story concept?

SHANAHAN: I had a friend who was an identical twin and we started talking about connections. She mentioned that although at times she isn’t close with her twin, she would feel it if she was being tortured. I thought, okay, wow, that’s a weird thing to say. I then tried to examine (a basis) for a thrilling and intriguing tale. 

SCREEN-SPACE: The shoot finally happened after some convoluted financing gelled - SAFC, MIFF Premiere Fund, the Level K team, to name a few of the 'money men' who stepped up. What lessons were learnt about the modern indie film financing landscape by the time you started rolling…?

SHANAHAN: That’s a big question. I know to raise the funds, it does sound like a committee but all (the financiers) involved gave us full reign to make a truly independent film. And the most important thing that David Ngo (producer) gave me was creative freedom. Essentially, we had final cut and throughout the entire process, David and I worked together as sounding boards for each other. That may never happen again and I am truly grateful that I got to do it. The biggest lesson I learnt was to follow your gut and your instinct. When it’s just you, that’s all you've got. I like the responsibility of living by the creative choices you make. Is the film perfect? Of course not, but it was the film I wanted to make. (Pictured, above: Shanahan on set with DOP Anna Howard; photo Ian Routledge

SCREEN-SPACE: There are some bold stylistic flourishes, reminiscent of Italian giallo cinema. Firstly, the 'big red screen', that moment when the entire screen is filled with a 'Lynch-ian red'…

SHANAHAN: That was a moment that would no doubt have been pulled up by a committee or a conservative distributor. I still can’t believe we got away with a big chunk of red in the middle of the film. That makes it sound like an indulgence, which it is, but it lends itself to the dichotomy of the film and the narrative structure of two halves. It’s crucial in that respect. That signals that we’ve gone down the ‘rabbit hole’, the moment that the film shifts. I wanted to give the audience a moment, smothered with a big fat organ chord , to take that in. It’s over the top for sure, but I like it. It’s a tip of the hat to giallo and Italian horror cinema, a broad brush stroke that makes me smile. (Pictured, above: Adelaide Clemons, as Maude, in Rabbit) 

SCREEN-SPACE: And, yes, that “big fat organ chord”, that operatic wall-of-sound that you employ... 

SHANAHAN: Mike Darren (composer) and I sat down at the start and I told him that no idea would be taken off the table. Be bold. Be loud. We’re making a wild film and I like soundtracks that aren’t just backing music or wallpaper. Music is a character for me and that’s my Kubrickian reference. I can turn the picture off and hear the film. I love that. I’m a big collector of soundtracks and I hope that we’ve reared a nice one here too. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Rabbit relies upon a very precise structure to convey the themes of memory and connectivity and loss. Do you adhere to the old adage that the editing process is the final draft of the script?

SHANAHAN: I guess I do. Stu Morley (editor) and I have been working together for many years. We always would speak about the breath and flow of the drama. It’s what we relied upon. He has such a beautiful manner when it came to working scenes in the edit. He’d make a broad cut and then we’d finesse. He told me to concentrate on what information I needed to convey from each scene. This was invaluable, as I’d sometimes get caught up with the flourishes, as you do shooting your first feature. We also had voiceover that we needed to guide the audience through a lot of the third act. It was a juggle but early preparation meant that most of what we set out to do didn’t throw too many curveballs within the edit. Our aim was to make sure we gave the audience enough information to understand the story without pulling back the curtain completely.  You’ve got to have that chat in the cafe or bar after the film, don’t you?

RABBIT will screen May 25 at Events Cinema Myer Centre as part of the 2018 Monster Fest Travelling Sideshow. Details can be found at the official website. A North American release is being planned through distributor The Orchard.

Thursday
Nov232017

SCARY MOTHER: THE ANA URUSHADZE / NATO MURVANDZE INTERVIEW

2017 ASIA PACIFIC FILM AWARDS: Ana Urushadze is a 27 year-old writer/director who hails from Tbilisi in Georgia. Her debut film, a stark and challenging drama called Scary Mother, may be the finest first effort of 2017. The titular matriarch is Manana, a mother of three whose ambition to be a published author threatens to deconstruct her middle-class existence, when she reveals the narrative of her first novel to be a brutal, thinly veiled skewering of the life she has created for herself. Working alongside Urushadze is acclaimed Georgian actress Nato Murvanidze, whose portrayal of Manana has been lauded as one of the year’s most accomplished lead turns. 

In Brisbane to attend the Asia Pacific Screen Awards as nominees in the Best Director and Best Actress categories respectively, Ana Urushadze (pictured, above) and Nato Murvanidze (below) sat with SCREEN-SPACE to talk about creating the vivid mindscape of Scary Mother…

SCREEN-SPACE: When confronted with a set of characters and a reality as maddening as that in Scary Mother, it is daunting to enquire about its origins…

Ana: The origins come from a script I wrote for a short film, a project that literally ran for about a minute. Events unfolded a bit differently, but the story was the same; it was about a wife telling her husband about her dream to tell this story. The treatment was rejected when I submitted it, but when I expanded the story and broadened the script into feature length, I resubmitted and it was approved. I was most fascinated by the idea of one character being out of the ordinary, being at odds with a normal life. Following her discoveries, watching her as she is taken out of her family life and how those around her react to this change is what developed into her story.

SCREEN-SPACE: There are authors in your family, Ana…

Ana: Yes, my sister is a writer although she refuses to call herself that because, she says, she hasn’t been published. I tell her, “You write! You’re a writer!” (Laughs) And my mother was once a writer, who went through a period where she started and stopped. So there were certainly connections to the real world, to my real world.

Nato: [The script] was a big surprise. I’ve known Ana for years, and I knew she was a very talented person, but her script surprised me very much. That such a young person could write these word and these characters is remarkable. It sounded like the voice of a much older, wiser person, with more life experiences. And I was really afraid, actually, because I was unsure if I could do it or not. Manana is a very intense character that demands you follow her 24 hours a day and it struck me as hard to be able to do that.

SCREEN-SPACE: Despite a vast body of work, Nato, had you ever encountered a woman like Manana?

Nato: I work a lot in theatre, and it is not uncommon to find these complex, difficult characters in the works of great playwrights, but you rarely get to play characters like this in movies. Ana and I met regularly and discussed at length the character, to delve deeper into her psychology. 

Ana: You know, everything with this film happened very quickly. We have a quite small group of filmmakers in Georgia and we know all the respected greats in the industry, like Nato, but we didn’t have access to young, unknown names and faces we needed to play the family. So we went through casting to secure some of the actors, and I drew on people I knew that were not names in the industry but who were perfect for the roles. If they had not done the wonderful jobs they did, the film would have turned out very differently.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the great scenes of the year in film is the single-shot slow-reveal when Manana finally reads her work to her family…

Ana: I wanted to start tight, on her face, and then reveal the whole scene as her words began to impact the family members. It felt like the most visually supportive way to capture that moment.

Nato: I said to Ana, “Give me the length of time you need for me to read this through and for you to get the shot, and I’ll do it.” (laughs) We talked about it before shooting that writers usually can’t read their own words very well. So the situation with her family, and the struggle to decide will she do it or won’t she do it, pushed us to create this staging of the scene.

Ana: And it takes a slightly exaggerated form, as much of the reality does in the film, but it works I think. (Pictured, right; the director with the Golden Leopard Best First Feature trophy from this year's Locarno Film Festival).

SCREEN-SPACE: It is also a very funny scene in a film that may not get it's due as a comedy…

Ana: It is so good to hear that, thank you. It is meant to be funny in parts; even the title, ‘Scary Mother’, is clearly meant to be funny, I think.

SCREEN-SPACE: Describe the state of the Georgian film sector for us. Is it an industry where distinctive, female voice such as yours are nurtured and encouraged?

Ana: It certainly is. Our whole industry is in agreement on the topic of women filmmakers getting their voice heard. There is a high percentage of women filmmakers, whose films are getting seen both at home and overseas. The Georgian National Film Centre runs a competition every year for debut films and, while the funding is low, applications are high. So a strong film culture does exist.

 

Thursday
Oct062016

ANIMAL INSTINCT: THE BOGDAN MIRICA INTERVIEW

At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, ‘young, handsome and talented’ chokes the footpaths. So for Romanian writer/director Bogdan Mirica to tick all those boxes and still rise above the din is no small feat. His Coen-esque debut feature Dogs (Caini) tells the story of an inheritance gone bad, when Roman (Dragos Bucur) takes control of his late grandfather’s land only to find local criminal interests need the site for their ongoing operations. Mirica’s fierce, blackly humorous western-noir earned a slot in Un Certain Regard, his command of the narrative and vision within the frame tagging him as one of international cinema’s ‘Next Big Things’. Utterly charming despite my delayed arrival, he spoke with SCREEN-SPACE on the famous Palais de Festival Balcony about mounting such an ambitious first production….

SCREEN-SPACE: What were the origins of your narrative?

MIRICA: I never start a movie with a story; I start it with a feeling. When I was a kid I would spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s home in the countryside, where I witnessed a lot of conflict between the locals; big fights, with axes and hatchets and bike chains. What I found really frightening was not the fighting itself, but the random nature of the conflict. There was no cause, no goal, no real purpose to it. With no causality, you can’t really predict what is going to happen. I kept this sense of dread, that the person in front of you might smash your face with no reason with me for a long time. After 25 years, I knew I had to make a movie to get rid of this fear. That’s what I needed to capture in the movie.

SCREEN-SPACE: The sparse landscape and the ‘good guy/bad guy’ plotting have been compared to the classic American western genre. What cinema inspired your style and storytelling?

MIRICA: Absolutely, the set-up to my film is The Good The Bad and The Ugly, the classic three-guy face-off. The vast wide shot, the cinemascope frame, is clearly taken from the great western era. But the movie is a hybrid of genres. It has western elements, but also the noir thriller, the personal drama, some social realism, some dark humour. I don’t want to be cornered as a filmmaker, as some kind of student of cinema. I am a film buff, for certain, but I am not a scholar. I watch a lot of movies but I don’t try to find theory in a film. I prefer to simply feel it, to react to it organically, especially the first time I watch a movie. If it feels right for me is the only criteria I follow when I’m looking for inspiration. (Pictured, above: Dragos Bucur as Roman)

SCREEN-SPACE: There’s plenty of praise for those ‘contemporary noir’ elements, some critics comparing the mood to classic Coen Brothers works.

MIRICA: That’s very flattering but the directors who inspire me aren’t necessarily reflected in this film. For example, John Cassavetes or Jean-Pierre Melville or Billy Wilder. These directors, amongst others, inspire a certain feeling that I then metabolise into something new, something of my own. I don’t like to quote or reference other works and use them literally.

SCREEN-SPACE: From your background in advertising, where you have lots of money to shoot over a few days, to independent filmmaking, where you have no money and shoot for 30 days. How easy was it to move between the short form and long form movie making?

MIRICA: (Laughs) You’re right! Ten years ago, I had a budget of 1millionEuro to spend in 5 days. I made my movie for 800,000Euro over 25 days. We had a lot of rehearsal time and I spent a lot of time with my DOP on the shot list. When we got on set, we knew exactly what we wanted to shoot, from what angle and with what lens. We still had to adapt to conditions and veer off those plans, of course, but at least we knew what could be changed or gotten rid of without impacting the drama. We moved lean and fast. (Pictured, above: Mirica on-set with actors, l-r, Gheorghe Visu and Vlad Ivanov)

SCREEN-SPACE: Did that help in post-production? Did having a finite amount of footage make editing easier?

MIRICA: Initially, the movie was way more epic. We shot some huge stunts and amazing scenes with lots of animals but decided to cut them out simply because the early versions were just too heavy. We went for an edgier tone that I think stemmed from the unorthodox way in which we edited. The intention was to make the first half of the film quite abrupt, to cut then cut then cut again. I wanted play with the form, to have fun and take some risks. So the editing became a huge and unique creative process that altered the DNA of the movie.

SCREEN-SPACE: Amidst all the darkness, the weighty themes dealing with machismo and violence and so on, there is the wonderfully absurd, almost surreal moment with the foot…

I’d written seven, maybe eight feature scripts and two TV series before I wrote Dogs. And all of them were comedies! It is hard to prevent myself from writing funny, silly stuff (laughs). Sometimes my sense of humour is shit, the kind of humour that has people saying, “What the fuck…?” Now, the scene with the foot, which was a very difficult tracking shot that had to be done very carefully, was initially envisioned as a series of ‘macro’ shots that captured detail and texture, like toenails and skin. But we decided that the scene should not be about the foot specifically, but how it bonds the protagonist with the nemesis. The tracking shot captures that particularly well, I think. And that sequence was originally much longer, like 10 minutes or more of tracking. But the economics of the movie dictated otherwise.

SCREEN-SPACE: What is it about the people and issues of this remote Romanian rural setting that will be relevant to international filmgoers?

(Laughs) But some Romanian people said to me, “Why are you making this movie, which is more like an American western or Australian outback film?” One of my favourite films is John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. I listened to the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis all the time while I was writing Dogs. Another favourite film of mine is Wake in Fright, which not many people in my country know about. These films were more than the sum of their elements, more than just films set in the Australian outback, and I hope my film amounts to more than just a Romanian outback story. I hope it speaks to audiences everywhere about humanity’s corrosive and corrupted nature. That is something mankind must come to terms with in all parts of the world.

Dogs (Caini) is currently in limited release in selected European cinemas; other territories to follow. 

Wednesday
Apr082015

DIRECTOR SUMMONS MIDDLE EASTERN DEMON FOR U.S. DEBUT

As a boy, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad would sit spellbound as his elders retold the story of the Jinn. Mythological creatures that have walked amongst the living since the dawn of time, they have all but disappeared, unseen to the shallow gaze of modern man. Ahmad’s fascination with the legend has led to his debut feature Jinn, in which a centuries-old curse resurfaces to terrorise the present-day descendant of an ill-fated clan. For the young auteur, bringing to life the folklore of his Middle Eastern ancestry for a modern audience proved an enormous yet rewarding challenge…

“There has not been one particular project, book or film, that has attempted to modernize the concept,” Ahmad (pictured, above) told SCREEN-SPACE from his US base. Inherent to the spiritual teachings of Arabic and Asian cultures, the legend of the Jinn speaks of supernatural entities, conjured from ‘smokeless fire’, and are referenced throughout the Islamic holy text, the Quran; thought to be the basis for the legend of the ‘Genie’, they are one of the three creations of God, alongside man (made of clay) and angels (made of light). Says Ahmad, who also wrote and edited his film, “We wanted to use ‘Jinn’ the movie to not only bring the concept to the western world but to also create a mythology that had some rules to it.”  

For Ahmad and his production team at Exxodus Pictures, crafting a modern action thriller from a centuries-old text brought with it great responsibility. “Basically, (the narrative) stayed true to the beliefs that are common around the world, and then (we) filled in the story gaps so it became more fully-realised,” he says. The central figure is Shawn (Dominic Rains), a strapping hero whose life with his beautiful wife Jasmine (Serinda Swain) becomes the focus of a vengeful demonic force. He teams with wizened cleric Father Westhoff (William Atherton, of Ghostbusters fame) and mysterious warrior-type, Gabriel (fan favourite Ray Park, pictured, right; from X-Men, G.I. Joe and Episode 1: The Phantom Menace) to see off the powerful foe. (“Ray was a big win for us,” admits the director.)

Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad cites as his filmmaking influences the great modern directors whose works combine vivid imagery and assured technique with strong, soulful characters and storytelling. “The short list, of course, is made up of Spielberg, Cameron, Ridley Scott, Lucas,” he says. “These directors were able to create new worlds for people to visit and I want to do the same thing. Jinn was a exercise in that (style of) direction.” Raised in the once thriving American industrial hub of Detroit, Ahmad was determined to shoot his first production on the streets from which he drew much inspiration over time. “Detroit and the state of Michigan were integral to the creation of Jinn and rolled out the red carpet wherever and whenever we needed them to” he states. “We are all proud to be from here and are even prouder to have been given the chance to give something back.”

Raised in strict adherence to the Islamic faith, Ahmad was aware that a film steeped in Muslim iconography and originating from a culture misunderstood by many of his fellow Americans may prove to be a tough sell. But his faith in his family’s adopted homeland was unwavering. “I'm a firm believer that America is, in general, a great place to live, made up of mostly good people with open minds. If that weren't true, I don't think my father would have chosen to come here and settle with his family,” he says. “I know that prejudice still lurks in dark corners, (but) I grew up seeing a very fair America.” As his script began to take shape, Ahmad became determined to tell his unique, original genre story in a strong voice, confident that fans would respond. “Rather than concentrate on who wouldn't like the concept of Jinn based upon those prejudices, I think I was hoping that there would be more people that were interested in learning about a new idea and making it their own,” he says. “After all, that is what the U.S. was founded on. And I think that ended up being true.” (Pictured, left; the director, on-set)

Supporting that notion is the fan base that Jinn has generated since its release. Following a limited US theatrical run, the film has played to enthusiastic international audiences, both in densely populated Muslim communities and with broader western filmgoers. “We've been very lucky in that our fan base has grown substantially around the world,” says Ahmad, citing the social media following and VOD traffic numbers as evidence. “There have been thousands asking for a sequel and we feel that Jinn could easily support more movies. With a little luck, I'm sure we'll be back in production on another Jinn concept soon.”

Jinn will be released in Australia across all platforms on April 16 via Third Millennium Entertainment.