Damien directed TO BE, BOOT and BAT EYES for THE VOICES PROJECT. He sat down with Fresh Ink day after the final cuts of both BAT EYES and BOOT were locked.
Damien, tell us something about your career to this point.
I grew up in Launceston, Tasmania: pop: 60,000; cinema: 1. It was there, as a teenager at the local film society, I feel in love with movies. After completing an Arts/Law degree in Hobart, I moved to Sydney to take up a position on the Film Classification Board. I started writing and directing soon after I arrived, and after making a few short films, I did an MA in Directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS).
Last year my short film PEEKABOO was a finalist in the Dendy Awards at the Sydney Film Festival and screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It had its international premiere at the 16th Busan International Film Festival in Korea in October.
PEEKABOO has won a few awards including the Showtime Talent Assist Scheme award, Best Editing at Flickerfest and the WOW Festival, and a Best Short Film award at the BOFA Festival.
Also, in 2011 I completed the Metro Screen funded short, A BURNING THING, which is just beginning its festival run.
I’m currently developing several projects as writer/director, including a feature (now financing) and a kid’s television series.
How important is it for filmamkers to go to a film school?
Film school was great for me because I got to do a lot of work with actors and I met a lot of incredibly talented filmmakers. It’s a good place to practice/learn your craft. But the best way to learn to make films is to make films.
How did you get involved in The Voices Project?
I met Dan Prichard, manager of atyp’s Fresh Ink program, at a Metro Screen workshop he was presenting with Irish filmmaker Joe Lawlor. Their film, TIONG BAHRU, was at the Sydney Film Festival, as was my film, PEEKABOO, and I kept running into them between films at the festival.
Dan approached me with the idea of turning one of the monologues written as part of atyp’s Fresh Ink emerging playwright’s program into a film. It sounded like an exciting opportunity.
There were 10 monologues in the original show. How did you choose which ones to adapt? What was it about BOOT and BAT EYES that interested you?
When I read the BAT EYES monologue (then titled LITTLE LOVE) I there was a truthfulness to it’s depiction of the casual cruelty of teenagers and the confusion of first love/sex. And I loved how the WB Yeats poem colours the whole piece with its tone and rhythm.
I’d long been interested in representing short-sightedness on screen. It struck me that the eye test was a great way to frame the action of Jess’ story, and a great metaphor for the short-sightedness of Adam’s past behaviour.
The BOOT monologue felt like a film on the page. It was very easy to visualise. It also struck me as very dramatic – the stakes couldn’t be higher – but (importantly for a short film) contained. Dramatically I’m interested in situations that I see as pivotal moments, in which actions once taken can never be undone. This scenario had several of those moments. And yet the scenario is one that could happen to anyone. It was no surprise to later discover that Jo had been inspired by a real life incident.
I was moved by the central friendship between Dana (the narrator of the monologue) and Julia. While the monologue (and the film) tell Dana’s story, it’s very much the story of this friendship gone wrong.
How did you conceive the films?
Here’s the pitch I first gave to atyp for BAT EYES:
‘Adam delivers the monologue from an optometrist’s chair during an eye check up. The title and other significant text – the poem, for example – could appear as an eyechart. The film’s final revelation is that Adam is himself being fitted for glasses. We are all short-sighted… The plot plays as a series of flashbacks in which the action comes in and out of focus (like a memory) as the optometrist’s tests continue.’ I think the finished film is pretty true to that original pitch. In the pitch document I included an image I found on the internet of a man’s face mostly obscured by an optometrist’s mask. I open the film with essentially the same image.’
And my pitch for BOOT:
‘A series of jumpcuts. Dana in the school counsellor’s office, trying to get the words out, ‘I – did – not – I’. Flashback to the end of the party. The monologue plays over long continuous slow motion shot as car keys are handed over, last drinks are had, the kids rouse each other out the door and stumble to the car. They argue over who’s sitting where, till the boys decide to climb into the boot. As the boot slams down we are stuck in there with the boys. Inside the boot is lit a dim red by the car’s taillights. One of the boys pulls out a phone and uses it as a torch. Another pulls out his phone to film them. We stay in the boot for the entire car ride, our anxiety rising as Dana describes Julia’s wild driving. In the boot the collision registers as a violent noise and blackness. Fade up outside the car: another long continuous slow motion shot as Dana tries to find a phone. We return to Dana in the school counsellor’s office, trying to set the record straight.’
Story-wise BOOT took some twists and turns in the adaptation process, but the essential structure is very close to this early pitch document (which is close to the original monologue). I illustrated that pitch with images of drunken revellers from Vice magazine and motor accident carnage from the paper.
Very early on I thought we should show the entire car ride from the point of view of the boys in the boot. Not only did it seem to me to be more interesting, but it also meant we could shoot it in a fake boot so we didn’t have to shoot time-consuming driving scenes with a car full of teenagers at night. From a practical point of view that decision made the film possible, but it had repercussions for the adaptation process.
Can you tell us about the process of adaptation?
Jo’s challenge adapting BOOT was to find the voices of the other characters, most essentially Julia – but also the boys if we were going to spend any time with them in the boot. Her first drafts were about expanding and populating the world of the monologue. She did a great job – so much so that the draft grew to impractical proportions. There was too much good stuff. The next few drafts were about paring it back to what was essential, focusing on Dana and Julia’s story.
Along the way we made two significant changes to the plot. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) In the monologue Dana says that, in the aftermath of the crash, Julia claimed credit for calling the police, when she had been the one to call. As a result Julia received all the sympathy, becoming school captain. I felt that if Julia was a drunk driver who caused the death of three boys, it’s more likely she would be shunned at school. Our solution was to have Dana, who hadn’t been drinking, lie and say that she was driving the car. In the film Dana takes the blame for Julia, but finds the burden too much, and now wants Julia to tell the truth. It’s shocking, but not surprising when Julia refuses. As she says, ‘I never asked you to lie.’ One of the things I like the most about the finished film is that the disintegration of Dana and Julia’s relationship happens entirely in the cut between the accident site and the final scene. It’s all offscreen, but so easy to imagine.
The final confrontation between the girls was so powerful, it led to the second major change: shifting the scene from the school counsellor’s office, to the girls’ toilets. I felt that removing it from the counsellor’s office allowed the girls to speak their minds because the conversation wasn’t being mediated by an adult. This had the further benefit of removing the only adult character in the whole piece, so that the kids exist entirely in their own world.
The last drafts, written quickly in the week before the shoot, were done for practical reasons: the drinking scene was initially set in Julia’s parent’s house but we struggled to find a suitable location – strangely people were reluctant to invite a film crew into their home to shoot a teen house party! When our best location fell through a week out from the shoot, we decided to restage the drinks in the park, close to the crash site location. As the shoot grew closer and the weather forecast grew dimmer, we tweaked the script to accommodate likely wet weather. A wise move, as it turned out.
BAT EYES feels very faithful to the original monologue, but the framing device of the eye test is completely new, as is the entire classroom humiliation scene. Also, we lost all of Adam’s monologue and replaced it with the Yeats poem.
Jess’ monologue is called LITTLE LOVE. One of the first things we changed was the title. I felt LITTLE LOVE told us the theme. The title BAT EYES refers to the cruel nickname the kids call the girl. Later Jess pointed out that the new title is nearly an anagram of W.B. Yeats.
The monologue is told from Adam’s point of view in a wonderfully poetic rhythm. One of Jess’ challenges was to find a colloquial speaking voice for her characters, while preserving the strength of her voice as author. Ironically the film came full circle in the editing process and we replaced the last of Adam’s monologue as voiceover with the Yeats poem. At the outset of the process I expected that both films would retain some of the monologue as voiceover. In the end, neither did.
How did you choose your actors, and how did you work with them?
We put the actors through a pretty rigorous audition process with several callbacks, till we were satisfied that not only did we have the best actor for the role, but the cast worked well together. You don’t have a lot of time to set up relationships in a short film so often you have to rely on the chemistry between the actors.
How does it feel being on set as a director?
I love it. A thousand decisions, months of hard work all come down to that moment on set when you call ‘action’. There’s nothing like watching those words on the page come to life.
Tell us something about your relationship with your DOP?
DOP Simon Chapman and I have worked together on four short films now. I think that when you work with someone a lot, you develop a creative shorthand. Simon’s got a great eye and is a good problem solver. With him on board I knew we could get the two films in the can (or whatever the digital equivalent is) in three days. He’s also really sensitive to the actor’s needs, which is vital. It’s important that actors feel the person behind the camera has their best interests at heart.
What were the memorable moments of filming?
One of the highlights was filming the boot scene in a fake boot, constructed on a table in a classroom at Tempe High. I was laughing so hard when we filmed the vomiting scene I had to watch playback to make sure we got what we needed. Adam, Adam and Sam were hysterical. It’s given me a new perspective on gross-out comedy: those Judd Apatow/Farrelly Brothers films must be a lot of fun to make. (If you ever need to make some fake vomit I suggest lukewarm chunky vegetable soup.)
One of the boys uses an iPhone camera in the boot. I intended to use the footage in the finished film, but nobody thought to check it was actually recording. At the end of the day we realised we had no iPhone footage. Luckily we shot the boot scene on the first day, so we could pick up the missing footage on the third day. While everyone was wrapping to move between locations the two Adams jumped into a real car boot with an iPhone and did it all again – minus the actual vomit. I’m glad we went to the effort to pick up iPhone footage. It gives the scene great texture and brings a feeling of veracity.
After we shot the BOOT ‘party’ scene in the park it was time for the crash. Arriving at the crash location – a steep bend on the way up to the Tempe golf driving range – it was a strange feeling to find the car flipped, debris strewn across the road. It really felt like I was first on the scene of a horrible accident. I think everyone felt the same. It was a completely different atmosphere. Actors Meegan Warner and Lucy Coleman gave devastating performances as best friends grappling with the worst moment in their lives. It was memorable way to end a great shoot.
I’ll always remember the awkward tenderness between Mia Morrissey (playing Bat Eyes in a pair of glasses with lenses so thick they required her to wear a pair of corrective contacts just to see straight) and Ben James (playing Adam). The day we shot the scene in Bat Eyes’ room was Mia’s birthday. Probably one of the stranger ways to spend your birthday.
What’s the role of the editor in the filmmaking process? And how did Katie Flaxman and Nikki Stevens come on board?
It’s a cliché that you make a film three times: when you write it, when you shoot it and when you edit it. But it happens to be true.
I’ve worked with both Katie Flaxman and Nikki Stevens on short films recently. Because of everybody’s tight schedules we thought it would be best if we had two editors cutting at once. In the end Nikki and Katie’s schedules didn’t overlap as much as we’d anticipated because Nikki was cutting THE VOICES PROJECT trailer, TO BE (and can now recite Hamlet in her sleep). Nonetheless I think both Nikki and Katie found it useful to have someone in the next room to talk to (often about editing) while they were cutting.
The films are very different in pace and rhythm. I think both Katie and Nikki brought their different sensibilities to bear on the films.
How did producer Bec Cubitt get involved?
Bec and I are developing a feature together. The VOICES PROJECT was a great opportunity to road-test our relationship. Getting these two films from the page to the screen in less than three months (not counting the writing) is an awesome achievement and would not have been possible without Bec’s pulling together a great team, her creative input, hard work and her post-production expertise. Co-producers Eva DiBlasio and Eleanor Winkler deserve a shout-out, particularly for their work in pre-production. Eva organised all the auditions and rehearsals and stayed our liaison with the actors throughout the shoot.
How did you work with sound designer Sasha Zastavnokovic?
Both films have a fairly naturalistic soundtrack, but sometimes it’s the little things that say so much – like the mechanical click of the optometrist’s mask. In real life the operation is silent, but Sasha put in a mechanical click as the optometrist scrolls through the lenses, which adds to the rhythm and the ritual of the scene.
We could never afford to film a car crash so we had to tell it with sound. Sasha and I talked about the physics of the car crash: how it swerves, hits a curb then flips, becoming momentarily airborne before slamming down on its top. The temp sound effect we used as a placeholder in the edit gave me the chills, but Sasha took everything to a whole new level. The addition of a tire spin noise tells you the car is in the air. It’s incredibly powerful.
How did you work with composer Brendan Woithe?
I think Brendan’s score elevates both films. His end title music for BOOT somehow reminds me of the score for Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock – minus the pan pipes. The treated voice seems like the voice of the boys and evokes terrible loss. When Brendan first played it to me I thought it was amazing, but I was worried that, because of the unusual treatment of the voice, people would be listening to it, rather than feeling it. At my suggestion he wrote score for the bookending scenes in the girls toilets (which we had intended to leave without music) that subtly introduces the voice.
Brendan’s score for BAT EYES is beyond beautiful: a wash of distorted piano that comes in and out of focus like the film. Changes to the length of the final credit roll meant that Brendan had to rewrite the closing credits music in an afternoon, and he did a great job
How much of your original vision of each film is up there on the screen?
The finished films are remarkably close to how I first imagined them – but better.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently financing a feature film. The hardest part of making any film.