78: FilmOut And 'Downriver'
June 3, 2016 3:58 a.m.
Episode 78: FilmOut And 'Downriver'
Australian director Grant Scicluna talks about embracing the darkness with "Downriver."
Related Story: Podcast Episode 78: Dark Gem 'Downriver' Screens At FilmOut
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema junkie podcast I’m Beth Accomando. On June 3rd, Film Out, San Diego's LGBT Film Festival kicks off its 18th year and will showcase some 40 films and three days. One film that stood out for me, was “Down River”. It reminded me of a film that screened at last year's Film Out called “Drown”. Both films are from Australia, and both serve up dark tails, intensified by an undercurrent of homophobia. Michael McQuiggan programed both of these films.
Michael McQuiggan: “Down River” is a beautiful film. I don’t what’s going on, Australia in the last few years has exploded in LGBT cinema. All of the films that we have received from Australia are outstanding. I mean the performances in this film by Reef Ireland, and Kerry Fox are outstanding. The cinematography is beautiful. You know, it’s a mystery. You rarely see an LGBT film that has this much depth as “Downriver” or say last year, we screened last year at “Drown”. Of all the films that are playing this year, I think a few of them that could cross over into the mainstream could be “Downriver” or of course it could be “Closet Monster”, which is another film that kind of has a darker edge to it that’s, from Canada. And they both have young protagonists. So it can be related to a lot of the LGBT youth that don’t think there are films out there for them. That have characters that are them. I mean they're relatable films.
Beth Accomando: You can check out my review of “Drown” from last year look for podcast #18 and then check the film out. This year I had the opportunity to interview the director of “Downriver”, Grant Scicluna. The film opens James, played by Reef Ireland, being released from Juvenile Detention for his role in the murder of a young boy.
Male: When I left, he was in the water.
Female: Did you push him out?
Female: How deep was he? Over his head?
Male: Not real deep.
Female: We’ve had divers search right up and down there.
Male: It’s not far from the sea there.
Female: But, you didn’t push him out.
Male: I never lied.
Female: So, this doctor saying your epilepsy made you forget things, Is not true is it? Did you weigh him down? Or did you take him to the bushes?
Male: It wasn’t just me there.
Female: I don’t know, him do I? So, you wouldn’t forget pushing him out? It's killing me. I can’t keep looking. I’m the only one that still is.
Male: The police should have found him.
Female: They didn’t need to they had you.
Beth Accomando: I Spoke with Grant by phone, earlier this week, he was in Australia. His film screened Sunday June 5, at the observatory in North Park. And, then will hopefully find wider distribution theatrically, or VOD. So here’s my interview with Grant Scicluna. Grant I wanted to find out, first of all, how did you decide on this particular story because this is your first feature film, correct?
Grant Scicluna: Yes it is, I love the inspiration for it. Ideas often get generated from me out of conversations and so, I remember a long time ago, because I had started writing this almost ten years ago. And I was talking with friends about numerous cases of children committing murder, sometimes other children, sometimes there parents, sometimes their friends. And it’s alarmingly a common scenario. And we just started talking about this idea around nature, with nature and children who are inherently evil, or was it something in their background, or if they felt trapped and felt that was the only way out in a child’s mind. And so I just started writing the script based from all of those questions and that’s where I like to write from. It’s just trying to discover how I feel about something and then I’ll just use a screenplay, or film to prove a point or premise. How I see a particular topic.
Beth Accomando: So, you’ve been carrying around this fairly dark story around with you for ten years?
Grant Scicluna: Yes, I’m not afraid of darkness. People who know me in real life there like “why do you like such dark stuff? Because you are actually a happy well-adjusted happy person.” Well I’m like “it’s me on the inside.” I feel like the darkness is always the opposite which is something about life. For me, very much, I was working on the script, which is about death and grief. At the same time, it is about the characters left behind who are trying to live and they are trying to make connections. So, I cannot whole heartedly just go into a dark story and just tell dark truths. You know at the same time, you have to look at the opposite to that. Which is for me, in this story about friendship, parenting, and love in various forms and forgiveness from all of those things which [indiscernible] [00:05:42] life happier. And that I think kept me going as I was sort of confronting some of the tougher aspects the story.
Beth Accomando: As somebody who watched a lot of films, I really appreciate people who can embrace the darkness a bit, because we get spoon-fed a lot of very kind of saccharine, stories that seem to be afraid to go anyplace dark.
Grant Scicluna: Yeah, I’m a bit of a [indiscernible] [00:06:11]
Beth Accomando: What in particular, about these kind of characters that had initially intrigued you, the sense that they were young people involved in the murders. What about that intrigued you enough to want to tell her story? And what were you hoping to kind of hit a thematically by focusing on that aspect?
Grant Scicluna: Yeah, there's a lot of elements to that question. For me I think what I was searching for in the beginning I was quite prepared to tell a very [indiscernible] [00:06:44] dark hero story. And in a way I didn't know what a challenge I was setting myself by telling this story from the point of view from this character. A character who when he was ten committed murder. You know, usually protagonists in films are sort of sympathetic or have some kind of redeeming qualities. So, I kind of wanted to break that rule and so I wanted to find a story about the worst possible place to begin a character. The mission I set for myself is to try to understand that person and hopefully bring the audience along on walking the journey of that person. So that by the end of the film my point that I’m trying to make is that you can't define a person by their actions when they're a child. I mean if somebody said “I understand the kind of person that you are because of what you did when you were nine or ten” as explained as it is. I just don't believe that you are who you are. And I also think that as you go through life that you are constantly changing. The person I am now in my thirties, is completely different from the person in my twenties. And that’s the point of life it's a point of existence. Until I get to that possibility of really asking that question. Can you really condemn this character for what he did at the age of ten? Especially now when is now trying so hard to atone for those confused few moments. Where he made the worst possible decision at the age ten. And so it was just fascinating to me, the a really fascinating territory that it’s an interesting place to start a story and a big challenge, as I said because either way how have the audience would feel, should feel, and my mission in taking their hand and walking with them through a story.
Beth Accomando: You also choose a brother complex narrative structure. In the sense that you do a lot of intercutting between action. And kind of two parallel storylines, or not complete storylines but you know two parallel things going on that you're coming back and forth between. What made you do you want to structure it like that? Because I really enjoy that I like being challenged as a viewer. Like I said I don't like having stuff just spoon-fed to me and it makes you pay attention and engages you more and I just really appreciated the way you structured it.
Grant Scicluna: Well, I’m glad to hear that. We sort of put ourselves out on a limb with that technique that you are talking about. This was not planned; the script was not scripted in that way. It was something we discovered in the editing room. You know it's very often that a scene will, in coming to a close, you’ll perceive the cut into the next scene with some lines of dialogue from the coming scene. And so that’s just normal and accepted kind of film language. But we just started to push that further and further in the edit to this point where it was this sort of destabilizing effect and I really liked what it did because suddenly a scene would end visually but, we allowed dialogue from the previous scene to continue into the next scene. So what happens is that you have this sort of destabilizing moment where you're not sure that what you're seeing is past, or present, you know whether you’ve gone back in time. Now, so there's a moment of, as you say, where you have to sit up again, and really start thinking about it and paying attention and then I also like the haunting effect that it had by hearing disembodied voices continuing over vision from other moments just instantly creates a ghostly effect. So just all of that stuff just for me get into aspects of time and then it builds and builds and has an effect until it reaches a crescendo. And a moment where you're actually sitting up in your chair and really listening, and watching, and your ear is doing one thing and your eye is doing another. You’ll miss it. You’ll miss what happens. So I wanted to pay respects to the intelligence of the audience but, I knew that you could stick with it and I knew that had you stuck with it you would be feeling satisfied. Because it’s unconventional in that regard. I can’t think of any other film. We were not necessarily inspired by any other film with that technique. Yeah but people really responding to it and saying it's a really memorable aspect of the film.
Beth Accomando: Well I think that technique make really plays into the mood that you're trying to create. As you mentioned, that the word ‘destabilizing’ and I think you go into this kind of without any bearings cause you're not quite sure, you sense that there's something he's not telling you or that he's not revealing fully. So, you feel like you don't have all the details yet. And so you're kind of hanging on everybody's word trying to figure out like “okay who's telling the truth? He’s hiding something. Where am I going to get the rest of that information I need?”
Grant Scicluna: And so from the beginning you know this is one of those films you have to pay attention to, it is not one of those films you mentioned before where you are going to be spoon-fed. And so, in accepting that challenge then I guess the techniques of the film pay respect to that as well in the structure of the film as well as in the context.
Beth Accomando: One thing that I think films under use is sound. But you sound in a really effective way. There is especially one sequence where you hear this noise and you're not sure where it's coming from. You hear sounds sometimes that doesn't seem specifically rooted in the scene you're watching and you feel it has some memory quality to it. Can you talk about how you want to use sound and music to the mood?
Grant Scicluna: Yeah, sound design is possibly one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking. It's a really underutilized and very creative part of filmmaking. And I think about the idea we were just talking about, you know that we discovered in the edit, really inspired our sound designer. She felt free to use that same idea of divorcing sounds from a visual and using it in an emotional way. And so in that same way of leading into new scenes, she would bring up sound that were coming up in five minutes time and you just feel the sound. And you are not even aware that you have been feeling these sounds or hearing these sound until suddenly you're led into this next scene. So I just encouraged her to keep exploring that idea and always go from an emotional place and never try to be heavy handed with it. So that is not trying to be clever but rather was trying to evoke new emotion or in some time deliver you light score, deliver you into a new tone, or deliver you into a new place in the story because the score in the film is very sparse. There's only three moments of music and there used only in the final half. So the other moments which are kind of score like are all sound design and there taking sounds of cars going over bridges, that she manipulated into almost a heartbeat, a rhythmic almost heartbeat sound. But you don’t recognize it as either. So its very score like rather than sound design but I’m really proud of the sound. I’m really proud of the extremes that Emma pushed herself too. She’s very experienced sound designer but she put herself out on a limb doing a sound design for our film because it wasn’t hiding behind score. And also if you recall in the film as well as the moments of real prominent sound design is also an extremely quiet film at times and there's some moments of real silence. And again for a sound designer that’s really terrifying because they can't hide behind anything. So the deliberate choices of which sound are in the same really calling attention to themselves. And yeah, so I’m really happy, I'm really-really pleased that people are noticing the sound in retrospect., I think it’s not done heavy handed, it's just like “oh wow I really do recall those moments” because of how the sound made you feel.
Beth Accomando: It was very effective.
Grant Scicluna: Cool.
Beth Accomando: The subject matter, there's a lot of really difficult material in this in terms of subject and emotions. How did you work with these young actors to get these performances out of them? Because they are all very good.
Grant Scicluna: The young actors are all different levels of experiences as actors and also different walks of life. The thing that is common between them all is that they are all really emotionally mature young men and so I set out from the beginning and even from the very first time I met them in the casting room. Just to be completely honest about all aspects of the film and all aspects of their characters. And just trying to create an atmosphere where they could talk and ask question and I would answer all the questions honestly whether it was about aspects of sexuality, or identity, or the violence in the film or you know anything that they were thinking about and they were very conversant and also with each other, so supportive to each other through the making of the film. Even though the film goes on friendships fall apart and you know there's violence involved but they were like the tightest knit little trio. And I think that's because they genuinely cared about each other through the film.
I think the trick with actors of any age and I think especially with younger actors, is you need to really identify what it is they need and I think you can’t play games with them, you just have to be real honest. So one of them wanted to talk a lot and had so many questions about his character and where he was coming from. Some of the others wanted to talk in rehearsal but then when it got to the day of the shoot then the conversation was over then it was more about the feeling the scene, and less talking. But I think that my role as a director is to recognize which kind of actor they are and there a whole set of performers and just be that mirror person for them and just be able to give them everything they need in every moment of making the film. So yeah it was tough at times there's some really consumptive scenes but yeah you know, I think if you met those young guys, or I see them on the street they run across the street to find me and hug me. We got thru it and were kind of bounded and are a substitute family for each other.
Beth Accomando: And you had worked with Reef Ireland before. You mention that you're starting this film at a difficult point, in terms of the audience identifying with his character of James. But he has such a troubled and contemplative face, that you feel sympathy for him, even though what's going on in the scene is telling you that maybe you shouldn't, and so I'm just wondering what you saw in him in particular that made you want to cast him for this.
Grant Scicluna: Yeah well, I mean, it’s that quality that you put your finger on, in Reef that is such a wonderful duality to him. His face itself, even though when he appears not to be doing anything, is a different story. And he's a really calm person in life and I think that cannot help, but see pay, especially if he allows himself which he does. I try to encourage, when I’ve lived with him on short films or on this, he shows that kindness and shows that vulnerability but at the same time he's a boy that's seen some tough stuff. He grew up in the western suburbs in Melbourne, where it's tougher. So he's got a wealth of experience to draw upon. And so when I was making the first short film I made this in [indiscernible] [00:20:45]. I just saw this wonderful duality to him which was a one time kind of like a caged animal even brutal, and then flip the coin he was the most gentle loving human being and so that for me just so suited his character and I knew when everybody else was worried about the sympathy aspect of telling the story from the point of view of the murder I knew that if you put Reef Ireland in that role with that face the audience is going to prepare to start walking with him and that’s not to say that they will always want to walk with him. Especially with revelations that come, but just that first scene and allowing the audience to start the journey with him is so important and I think it's all down to him. And who he is as a person and prepared to not close that off to the camera.
Beth Accomando: What role did you want nature to play in the film? Because that adds another layer of, at times tension to the story.
Grant Scicluna: Yeah I grew up in the Australian bush and so I was also a very imaginative child, I was always daydreaming. So nature for me and the bush and rural landscape for me is easily personified, certainly add a sense of tone and also I grew up around rivers and I grew up around rivers where bad things happened. We were always told don’t go swimming in the river it's dangerous and so you instantly start viewing nature with these bad feelings and I think I’ve always carried that and as Australians we’ve got a real relationship with the bush. And so I had to be true to that as I was writing the film and also shooting it. So we shot a whole heap of material which is of nature and we shot in isolation are kind of beautiful by nature of filmmaking as soon as you place a shot alongside another scene, or insert it into a particular point in the narrative part of what you do in the audience is bring your own feeling on to that shot and then view vision with your own feelings. And so yeah, it's very important to me to ground a story in a world especially the shots of the river I think have a really haunting effect on people because it's a sense of the river’s always traveling, it's always moving through even when the characters themselves are stuck. And also to ghostly feeling of a child's body, which is still missing, is somehow in that water is a kind of poisonous sensation. The life giving aspect of water is suddenly poisoned by this event.
Beth Accomando: There was one scene in particular, where there's a mother scolding her child, and they Kerry Fox character has sympathy for her where the character of her boyfriend doesn't and it was a great scene because it reminds you that there was this nature that was dangerous but then it gave you kind of this dual perspective on what we were witnessing from this one particular parent.
Mother: Don’t go in there. I told you no! Listen to me get in the car.
Male: That boys going to grow up terrified.
Female: [Sighs] you have to walk in someone else's shoes for a bit. A boy drowned here. That’s what that was about. That’s why she hit him because down there is where that poor boy went missing.
Male: I didn't know that.
Female: So she’s scared so that's on her mind.
Grant Scicluna: You know as much with Kerry Fox’s character is tied up in here questioning her failure as a mother and so when she witnesses that and the other mother in question is telling her son “don’t go down there” Kerry’s character, Paige, knows exactly what that is about, because down there is where her child went missing. And she reads that, and her boyfriend who doesn’t know the full extent of the situation, if much at all by that point, just reads it as a mother being uncaring and being too vicious to a child. And there is that duality of seeing a situation from two points of views. You start to really identify with Kerry Fox’s character at that point, and the pain that she is carrying with her and has carried with her through her mothering life, two thirds of her mothering life.
Beth Accomando: The boyfriend was an interesting character too because he has a surprising scene towards the end that I did not expect from him at all when he kind of leaves and tells James a few things about having been to prison, what happens to people who've been to prison.
James: I killed someone. She’s just used to lying about it.
Male: it’s not your fault man. Sorry to leave you stranded.
James: I’m not stranded.
Male: My brother went to prison, mate. Not going to pretend to know what it's like but he used to say “you go in you get punished you come out” that’s not the real punishment, it comes after. When you have to convince yourself and everyone else that you're worth something. Don’t let any bastard tell you, you don’t deserve something.
Grant Scicluna: You know what I was trying to do in that scene is suggest that ongoing pain that Reef’s character and the pain it can inflict upon his family, that it will continue to inflict. And you have this great guy who would sensibly be a great new fatherly figure to James, and he could in the circumstances and mainly because of how James’s mother is unable to reconcile, she is just so wounded. He has no option but to leave. So, the sadness to see him walk away I think is really profound. He proves, despite what you're expecting, which is as soon as he discovers that James is who he that he’s going to have a negative reaction. He actually shows a vulnerable side of him which is “I understand you because of my own family history.” and so I guess he's embodying some of the themes of the film which is about seeing past the action and trying to see through to the person. So that was a really important moment for everyone who was working on the film and many people have really highlighted that moment as being “that’s what the film is about” and I think to a degree it really is because hats thematically that’s what I’m trying to say with the film.
Beth Accomando: On the Compassion that he reveals is very different from what some of the other older male characters reveal from another family. Film Out recently screened the film “Drown” which was also Australian and also quite dark. Both your film and “Drown” reveal this kind of very ugly kind of homophobia that exists, is that coincidental that those films have dealt with that topic within the past couple years or is that something reflective of something going on in terms of what films are looking to right now and Australian culture?
Grant Scicluna: That’s a really good question, and I do think about this quite a bit having seen a number of Australian films that are still on the topic of homophobia. You know it’s a very interesting country for a long time we are seen as being very progressive, you know Mardi gras, Gay Pride March has been one of the most famous gay pride marches for 20 years. But at the same time this debate about marriage equality feels like it should have come in and been more important years and years ago but it’s hardly on the political agenda and it's very important to a lot of people but it also seems to be a divisive issue and so that speaks to an aspect of Australian culture that is still coming to terms with otherness and I think that is a great aspect of our identity that we need to interrogate and that's not just to do with gay people, it's about welcoming refugees, it’s about multiculturalism, because of the geography I guess we don’t rub up against people who are different to us enough and so we still have in part of our culture a sense of fear as the other. The films that you're talking about are still relevant in Australia because we still need to really do some work in that field.
Beth Accomando: Why do you feel that's important for your film to play at an LGBT festival? Is that an important thing for you?
Grant Scicluna: It is, you know people say to me all the time you know are you a gay filmmaker or are you a filmmaker. How do you identify? Well I am filmmaker, I’m also gay, I love to see all kinds of cinema but I especially love to go to queer film festivals. It’s my favorite film festival here in Melbourne, is our LGBT festival. So for me to have “Downriver” embraced and played to queer audiences feels to me reaching out to a sense of community that I've always had with LGBT people around the world by extension of seeing each other's films and sometimes traveling to the festival to meet audiences. It very important to me to have our film embraced in that way, at the same time I think, you know even looking at the conversation you and I have been having now, we until that last question have not really talked about sexuality or sexual identity of anything like that because I don’t think my film necessarily has that as its primary concern. So at the same time if you start to break down the sexuality with the characters there's a lot of “queerness” in inverted commas going on there. Whether it’s kind of bisexuality, homosexuality and other forms of sexuality, it's all there. But the primary concern is more about redemption and forgiveness and family and things like that, it just so happens that the characters are gay. Some of the good characters are gay and some of the bad characters are gay. So that was very important to me and I had to really cling on to that because a lot of people say “why do the characters have to be gay in your story” I used to say that the audience would be bigger, or the story would be more palatable if some of the young gay men were actually young straight women. So I had these conversations in development. To me I was like “no this is the world that I see as a gay person. You know I see gay people all around me” there's real visibility of gay people and some of them are good and some of them are not but it was very import to me to have my film be populated by a number of sexualities. So it's great that the film, despite it not being an obvious kind of queer film or LGBT film, that the LGBT festivals are embracing it and playing it just feels like a natural fit.
Beth Accomando: Well yeah your film really is first and foremost about things like guilt, and loss, and Redemption, and I mean that's primarily at the themes that you're tackling.
Grant Scicluna: Yeah that’s right, and which is not say that I’m not interested in films which are about gay identity or struggling with sexuality, or homophobia or anything like that. I think those films are still absolutely relevant to a lot of people all around the world. But at the same time I think it’s really funny to make films that are about other things and populate them with queer characters I think that's a really an exciting place to be as a filmmaker and for the audience.
Beth Accomando: It makes it a more interesting film if you put those issues of things like guilt, and loss, and redemption in the forefront and then the other issues all come up because of looking at those things.
Grant Scicluna: Yeah that’s right, sort of bleeding through the [indiscernible] [00:35:26]. Yeah I think that’s important.
Beth Accomando: And do you feel that having your film play at a LGBT Festival does that eventually help your film get to a wider audience or to wider distribution?
Grant Scicluna: Well yeah, we do have distribution in the US. And it’s very important to the distribution company to have the film play at film festivals and have a run at film festivals so that it can find an initial audience and build that worth, and have a kind of critical response and grow a sense of awareness around the film so it doesn’t just drop out of nowhere and therefore not get seen. Yeah so the film festivals that we’ve played in it's just beginning in the US, but already it's been really incredibly helpful for our distributor in sort of planning the release of the film which is the second half of this year. So for me having audiences all around the world, discover the film and I love reading the when people write about the film on blogs, or pulpal tweet about it, or tweet me, or try and tweet that cast. I just love that it's finding its audience and hopefully moving its audience.
Beth Accomando: You made a lot of short film before “Downriver” did you fill that the process of making those short films prepares you for making this feature?
Grant Scicluna: Yeah, absolutely because as I sort of hinted at in the start of this conversation. I trained as a writer and so I was working on scripts throughout that process of trying to learn how you write a script but I didn't train as a director and so all the training I got was through set through short films. All the mistakes and I made a lot of them. But also trying to really get a handle on what it is a director does, how a director should behave, how the director should communicate with crew, actors. Also it's incredibly complicated, especially for someone like me who is quite introverted and very-very shy, so I don’t naturally sort of suit the gregarious image of what a director does or how they behave. And so working on shorts really built up that confidence in me and enabled me to really breakdown the job into its parts and find what I was good at and what I was strong at and I think that that's working with actors and to a lesser degree I’m not as strong as a visual storyteller as I am in being able to communicate with actors. And so what that meant for me I put next to me a very experienced director of photography, or camera person and so they build me up in that sense and they take that responsibility and I can lean on them in that sense to pick up that weaker aspect of what I’m still discovering and still learning. I think shorts if you're properly using the shorts form as a development tool, you know, it's an invaluable way of really trying to work out what it is you are good at, what is you can be better at, make the mistakes and learn the lessons.
Beth Accomando: Now that the film is done and has been screening at festivals and elsewhere what do you feel most proud of about it?
Grant Scicluna: I’m really proud that it is the film that we set out to make. You know often times these directors are really honest with you, they’ll say, especially in a low budget realm which we are; there are so many compromises along the way. And we’ve stuck to our guns and I’ve got this sort of faithful attitude, fatalistic attitude towards film making which is you know you have to make the film exactly as it should be or else you’ll regret it and at some point the film that you are about to make will be the final film that you get to make and you have to really honor that. So I often said to my producer “this maybe our one and only shot at making the feature film” and she agreed completely and so she and I was just like it has to be as we want it. Otherwise we will regret it and not feel proud of it. So when I look at it I see despite all of the challenges and the lack of resources and you know the time constraints and all those sort of things that inherent to low budget filmmaking, I’m like it is a film that I [indiscernible] [00:40:50]. So I’m really pleased about that and I think that that’s a credit to all the crew and all of the actors. They saw the same film in the script and so were able to help me get to that end result.
Beth Accomando: Well thank you so much for taking some time to speak with me today.
Grant Scicluna: I really appreciate it. Thanks for the very insightful questions.
Beth Accomando: That was director, Grant Scicluna, whose film “Downriver” will play at Film Out at San Diego on June 5th, but get there early because there will be street closures for the Rock and Roll Marathon. Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes check out the online archive KPBS.org/junkie podcast. Next week I'll speak with first-time filmmaker [indiscernible] [00:41:50] about her look at Kenya’s music, politics and railways. So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your resident cinema junkie.