TNC Archive 2020
"Making a tonne of short films really gave me the confidence that I knew what I was doing."
Elissa Down's latest film FEEL THE BEAT is the perfect type of film we need right now. Filled with heart, humour and passion FEEL THE BEAT is inspiring and touchingly funny. At its core is a simple moral that shows just how much we can miss in life if we try and speed through it. Sometimes those setbacks are just pauses that allow us to refocus and recharge.
Hi Elissa thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
I’m doing pretty well. I’ve been taking this time to write some screenplays as well as watch all the things I’ve had on my Netflix queue.
Has this time offered you some new creative inspiration?
Inspiration is pretty much the same as it always has been for me - being in front of the laptop or notebook - thinking, procrastinating, drinking tea and trying to coax words onto a page. But I suppose new creative inspiration has manifested in me getting a whole lot of house plants and cooking a killer cauliflower bake.
Congratulations on the release of Feel the Beat do you still get nervous before a new film is released and what has it meant for you to get such a positive reaction to Feel the Beat?
Thank you and yes, I do get very nervous! In the days leading up to the release I don’t get much sleep and I walk around with butterflies in my stomach.
The reaction of Feel The Beat has been incredibly wonderful. To see we are top ten (and in some cases number 1, 2 or 3) on Netflix across the world on our first weekend has been such a joy. Myself and the team have received so many lovely messages from people expressing what the film has meant to them.
Your debut feature The Black Balloon won multiple awards when it was released, did you imagine you would get such recognition for your debut feature?
No, I didn’t. My plan was to tell the story I wanted to tell as best I could because expectations can be crippling to your mindset. When I watched the film at our cast and crew screening, a weight lifted off me, because I felt I achieved that. All the accolades that The Black Balloon received after that and what the film meant to so many families were the icing on the cake.
Looking back what would you say was the most valuable lesson you took from making your The Black Balloon?
Preparation. Preparation becomes the building block to knowing that you’ll get the job done as well as ensuring that your vision is coming to life how you envisaged it.
How much did your previous short films prepare you for your first feature film?
Making a tonne of short films really gave me the confidence that I knew what I was doing. They were the training ground where I developed my craft and made mistakes. Most of my shorts were shot on film so that added restriction of having only so many rolls of film helped me to learn to ‘cut in my head’ which has saved my butt many times on set or in the edit suite.
Feel the Beat features deaf actress Shaylee Mansfield as Zuzu and you use American Sign Language throughout the film, what was the experience working with an actor like Shaylee and incorporating singing in this film?
We as a team were committed that the role of Zuzu go to a deaf actress as opposed to finding a hearing actress to pretend. When Shaylee auditioned for Zuzu I got goosebumps. I knew she was someone special.
We brought on an ASL master, Anselmo Desousa to translate the script into sign language. He then collaborated with both Shaylee and the hearing actors on what signs to use in a scene. Anselmo taught all the hearing actors how to sign and he was there on set as a resource to the actors and to ensure the ASL was correct when we were shooting.
We had an interpreter on set so everyone could communicate with Shaylee, and she with us. All the children (including the rival dance troupe the Royaltons) and the adult actors were so excited to learn how to sign in ASL so they could communicate to Shaylee.
Seeing the other children in the dance class also using sign language is incredibly powerful and inspiring, how important is it for you as a filmmaker to have this type of representation?
Representation is so powerful. As a sister who has two brothers with autism, it was a huge turning point when Rain Man came out as I could finally explain about my brothers, with having a mainstream movie as a reference. Then a few years later, I remember watching Something About Mary in the cinema and Mary (Cameron Diaz) had an intellectually disabled brother. Ben Stiller’s character was nice to him, the brother wasn’t ‘cured’ at the end and Mary was a desired character in the film. I cried watching it. I felt like I could be her. It really hit home to me how important representation is in the culture we make and consume.
What was it about Michael Armbruster & Shawn Ku screenplay that really excited you as a director?
First up, I’ve always wanted to make a dance movie so I was chomping at the bit right on page one. Secondly, it was the story. I loved the journey that April goes on. From being so self centred, having this armour and being mean to the kids - to someone who lets people in and honours her commitments. The warm hearted Miss Barb leapt off the page as someone who was going to be an awesome character and I really responded to the inclusion of the deaf character of Zuzu. I knew it could be a very special film.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
It would be most of the dance scenes. That’s because we were working with children and we would only have a few hours to shoot an entire dance. So the stress levels to get everything within the time restrictions was extremely high.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes. When I was a little girl I used to direct my mum whenever she read me a book. I’d ‘give her notes’ such as that Jack (from Jack and The Beanstalk) would have a squeaky voice and the giant would have a gruff one, for instance. So a book at bedtime required mum to go full Judi Dench. Cut to a little later - and in both high school and university I studied both film and theatre so the passion has been there for a very long time.
What was the first film you saw that made you go 'I want to do this?’
E.T. would be that film. Not in a conscious way as I was only young when I saw it but when E.T. died - I was devastated - then ten minutes later he was alive and the elation I felt and that movies could do that, really stuck with me. So now as a director, I really love making movies that make you love and cry and take you on that emotional rollercoaster.
How much has your style and your approach to your films changed since your debut short?
That’s something to really mull over as I haven’t really thought of this before. If I compared my first short to Feel The Beat I can see that the canvas I now work on is much larger. I have more people, more toys and more money to bring my vision to life. Each film gives you more experience - from the people you work with (and their experience), the mistakes you make as well as seeing the results of decisions that you made that worked well.
Do you have any advice for a filmmaker thinking about making their debut film?
I think it’s all about preparation. Know at the core what you’re trying to say with each scene so when things get extremely hectic on set - you can always remember what you need to do with the scene and get those essential elements.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Feel the Beat?
This is a fun, inclusive, heartwarming film that will make you laugh and cry. I think there’s a wonderful message for children - that it’s not about winning - it’s about trying things out, giving it your best effort, doing what you love despite the obstacles and honouring your friendships and commitments. The film tells the kids that no matter who they are or where they come from that their dreams are important and that they’re allowed to chase them down with all their passion.