Best of Iris Prize
Originally published in 2016
Ravaged with uncertainty, dealing with an estranged family and forced to face the dead boy’s mother, James is set upon a journey of self discovery. Shocking revelations and danger surround the boy’s death brim to the surface. Old friendships are questioned, family ties are tested and lives are put on the line as James must find his path to the truth. It’s a path that will lead him Downriver…
Hey Grant, thanks for talking to The New Current, how's things been?
Mostly pretty well. I’m just coming out of hibernation in Australia. It’s been a cold winter.
Congratulations on having Downriver selected for this years Iris Prize in Cardiff, how did you feel when you found out?
Thank you. We have a long connection with the Iris Prize, from when we won it with our short film The Wilding back in 2012. Since then I attended as a jury member, plus I made my film Hurt’s Rescue with the team, which was a wonderful experience. Winning the prize really amplified our profile back in Australia right when we needed it for financing Downriver, so I have a lot to be thankful for with Iris. So when it came time to premiere in Europe, it felt very, very good to have the film selected for this year. Plus it's the 10th anniversary!
Downriver has already picked up a coupe of festival prizes, did you ever imagine you'd get this type of response to your film?
Of course you hope for such a good response to a film, mainly for the cast and crew. To see their work recognised. It is a tough battle to cut through when you’re not a big budget feature and often there’s a crushing discrepancy between hopes and reality when you release a film. Festivals, awards, box office, all that is so outside your control as a filmmaker, so we were very happy to win prizes in Fort Lauderdale and San Diego, plus pick up nominations in Australia. It validates the whole pain and hard work of filmmaking.
What does it mean for you to be able to share Downriver at the Iris Prize in Cardiff?
I couldn’t be happier or more excited. Having attended the festival myself, I know what a wonderful audience the Iris Prize gets. It is a special festival. It feels more like a family than some kind of impersonal experience. I know the audience that come along will be excited to see the film. Some of them I know personally and also many will remember my winning short so will be keen to see what I did with my first feature. So it’s a special place to premiere.
Do you still get nervous ahead of a festival screening?
It gets easier, but yeah I get nervous wondering which way the audience will fall on it. We always knew the film would be divisive. It’s got some pretty confronting content and also the way we tell the story is unconventional. Those who like being spoon fed will be disappointed, but those who like to have their intelligence appealed to will go with it because the film holds its cards close. In the end, I cannot change the audience response once the film is finished, so I’ve learnt to be a bit more zen about every screening.
Tell me a little bit about Downriver, what was the inspiration behind the film?
Downriver is a murder mystery. The story centres around a young criminal who is released from prison having served time for a murder committed when he was just a child. The body of the victim was never found and so he sets out to find the body. Along the way he comes up against several characters who don't want that body found. It really is a film about me but also not about me at the same time. I grew up by a river in which some people went missing and also a neighbouring family went through the trauma of a murder. All of this played into my makeup as a young writer and in a way Downriver is about my relationship to those events. But at the same time, it is a complete invention of my imagination, quite simply an exploration of my wondering how a young child involved in the murder of another comes to terms with themselves and their crime.
Was it difficult to balance being both writer and director on this film?
I used to think that writing came more naturally to me than directing, but now I’m not so sure. I certainly agonise over both jobs, as well as derive huge pleasure from them. Even though they have the same end goal, that is to tell a story, they are so different in their execution. Writing is solitary and problems can be solved with the benefit of time. Directing is a team-based effort and very much driven by gut instinct. I certainly find directing more exhausting than writing. You arrive on set like a bird with a beautiful plume and you go home like a plucked hen! Writing you can do in your pyjamas.
What would you say was the most challenging scene for you to film was?
There’s a scene about half way through where everyone is in the water fishing and catching yabbies and the lead character has a seizure. It’s such an inconspicuous and gentle scene to begin with and then gets so dramatic. It was hot. We were tired. There were tiger snakes in the water, and ducks getting into shot. Everyone was literally stuck in the mud and being burnt to a crisp in the hot Australian sun. That scene is entirely made up of first takes because we just didn’t have time to keep rolling and I wanted to get everyone out of the water! It’s one of my favourite scenes in the film, which often happens with the hardest ones.
Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently?
Not really. I think the film you will see is the film I envisioned, which is often rare for a filmmaker to say. Especially one working with a low budget that requires so much pragmatism and compromise in order to just get it financed and finished. Of course given half a chance I would tinker a bit more on the edit. We had to make some compromises on a subplot because of length reasons. I wish I could have had a bit more time to smooth that out because it makes the script look like it has a weakness that it never had. Largely though, I’m pleased with the film. It is what it is. There I am being zen again.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Yes, ever since I first ventured onto a film set when I was a boy scout and this big film rolled into town and shot at our scout hall. I remember watching the director weave together this wonderful scene and he created what seemed to me such a big, operatic, whirlwind of such huge artistic import. And all the while he just sat in his chair and had cups of tea brought to him. I thought that was a marvellous thing to do as a job!
"Sometimes I invert that for a specific reason, but usually it’s a straightforward delivering of what I think the audience needs and wants in any moment."
What was the first film you saw that made you think 'yeah I want to do this?'
Oh, there have been many “turning point” films. I think I loved big budget American stuff as a child, kind of naturally I guess. Perhaps it was Jurassic Park or something like that. I also loved crime thrillers like LA Confidential, and then I discovered American indies and the Queer New Wave and that shaped me in a different direction again. I think one of the biggest inspirations on me that I could actually do this, and do it my way, was Todd Haynes’ first film Poison.
How much has your filmmaking style changed since your debut?
Quite a bit. I hope it always changes. The shorts are all very different and saw me experiment with lots of different visual languages. One film was shot entirely from the POV of the lead character, another went handheld and messy, then Hurt’s Rescue was so still and claustrophobic. Each story demands a different approach. I keep getting lumped as dark drama guy, which I hate and am always battling that with my slate of projects. I hate the way content defines you as a filmmaker. I am very anti the “auteur theory”, because it puts you in boxes which are others’ expectations of you. I much preferred the old Hollywood approach where directors just came in and did their job and that was that. The film didn’t live or die on their shoulders. They didn’t have the auras that surround them nowadays. They never had to be the face of the film. I believe a director is a technician. But they are technicians who work with hundreds of technicians. It’s as simple as that. My relationship to directing has changed with every project and I hope it continues to change.
Is it difficult hand over your films to the audience?
Not really because I’m always thinking about the audience. I think about them when I write the scene. I try and pitch the scene at what they know, what they fear, what they expect, what they need to learn. Then when I direct the scene, I try and ask myself where the audience would want to be. Do they want to be close to this or that character? Sometimes I invert that for a specific reason, but usually it’s a straightforward delivering of what I think the audience needs and wants in any moment. So I’m always in a tango with the audience and handing it over is like the final movement of a long dance.
Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell me about?
There’s a gangster love story I’m developing. It’s half set in Naples (my favourite city) and Sydney (my least favourite city). It’s a very irreverent story with lots of blood and lots of food and sex. I also want to get some Virtual Reality projects off the ground, mostly for kids. I am working with several writers on other projects set in Asia and Tasmania, but who knows what will happen next.
Do you have any advice for an up and coming filmmaker?
Never go to set assuming you know how to make a film. Bring a vision, but come with an open mind and an open heart or else I believe that what you execute will be devoid of inspiration. Never trust yourself. Believe in yourself. But never trust yourself. You must always be checking on your decisions. In an ideal world you will have people around you who will help you do this, by really interrogating your decisions. But often you are surrounded by people simply looking for instruction and so your decision can only ever be challenged by yourself. For example, don’t think that what you saw with your eye on set is what you should trust in the edit suite. You must pore over every moment of footage you have and sometimes you will discover that the take you least liked on the day may indeed be the best take for the film. You must direct yourself as much as you direct others.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your film?
I hope they take home a rich experience. Emotionally and intellectually. Be open to the fact the film continues living on after the closing frames just as a huge amount of story came before the opening frame. I have had many people tell me they had revelations about the film days after seeing it. I love that kind of experience myself, and so I hope on that for those who, like me, go to the cinema for that kind of film that gets under your skin. Hey, thanks for the chat!