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13 FEBRUARY 2004

Planet Magazine: Don't Skimp on the Short Ends!

"Budding film directors are seen everywhere these days - playing the waiting game - poised to catch a moment with all those successful writers and others that make the Atomic their second home. At night they wander further down Ponsonby Road to 'the Lizard' to convince some adman or producer that their idea for a short thriller is going to really slay them at the Film Festival. You used to have to be a musician to have credibility on the street. Now the worm, as they say, has turned - you've got to be working on your short for some pull in the cafés and on the pavement.

So how do you get there? What it takes is a good idea. Ideas, as Peter Jackson says, are the currency of movies. Without them, you're stuffed. But just what is a good idea? Certainly not a story about your grandmother's journey back from the shops with a bag of oranges. That could be interesting if your grandmother is a gun-toting maniac who holds up the greengrocer. That would be stepping outside the bounds of decency - always good in the film medium - and if you're as clever as Quentin Tarantino, the end violence, laced with humour, could prove a real winner.

Real film-makers are too busy working to be seen holding court over endless lattes. They're working or in endless correspondence with the Film Commission. For the aspirants, there's always the Arts Council, but it's really a lottery as far as this funding body goes. A couple of years ago you'd have thought all they were into was funding 'quirky comedies'. Oh dear! Everyone likes a laugh, but really? Far better if the end product is going to comment on the film process or have some edge. Edge is big these days for such a little word. And since the Arts Council and the Film Commission endlessly review their respective positions on the types of projects they are into getting off the ground, the more experimental the better. Don't be blinded by the glam, the film is just the end result of a process fraught with so much peril that the faint-hearted would surely wilt under the demands. Just ask Simon Raby, a well-known young director of photography who's usually too busy shooting other people's films to worry about his own. But now he has his first film as a fully-fledged director, Headlong, through the usual drama of post-production and has even sent off a tape to Cannes.

Raby reckons Headlong is another in the battle-of-the-sexes genre, and who am I to argue? But I will anyway. It sounds to me more like a road-movie-westie-comedy-genre with its story of Goth Westie Jude (newcomer and Lounge Singer Meryl Main) hitching and being picked up by Eastern Suburbs computer salesman Arthur, played by Tim Balme, on State Highway One. Of course, they hate each other.

Funded out of the Short Film Fund by the Film Commission, Raby has hooked up some extra marketing opportunity for his grunged film, with a release through Warners of the Headlong soundtrack, a CDingle by Four, the band known in the film as Deathface. A video is even on the offing. You get the idea. This is not a film for the sophisticated film-goer - it's aimed plum at the kids. Raby says he wants as many blue-collar workers as possible to see it, ideally screening at the New Lynn Village 8 during lunchtimes.

While he's waiting for the call from the Film Commission to say he's been selected for un certain regard (which he doubts), Raby is behind the camera again shooting a prison reform doco and doing a freebie for Harry Sinclair in the weekends.

Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, is a project which Raby raves about. It's an example of the old ethos - if you've got a good idea, go out there and do it, before your killer script gets turned down by the Arts Council and the Film Commission. Starring the kids who just want to have fun, Danielle Cormack and Joel Tobeck, Topless Women is three-minute episodes shot on Betacam to be strung together in a serial. Everyone goes out to the suburbs, shoots for half a day, then they edit, get their episode together and do the same next weekend.

I mean face it, an illustrious film career is not generally started with your own brooding masterpiece first up. You've got to limber up, take some chances, try out stuff, see if your twisted vision will work. You do have to make sure the thing's going to cut together though; you've got to match your shots. A select few can get away with not worrying over such pedantic considerations. Case in point a not-so-youthful-filmcritic called Jean Luc Godard launching his career in 1959 with the lurching Breathless - a film that jump cuts like a 64-frame-per-second gazelle through a homage to Bogart and that peculiar French obsession with self known as existentialism.

Looking at self through sex is also big with the French and is the plot for a new short called A Little Death. It's a very French idea this un petite mort. But then the guys that made it, Paul Swadel and Simon Perkins, the latest co-directing crew, are big fans of the man before he got really weird later on. Just ask them about Alphaville - no don't! Let's hear about their little movie.

The production blurb in OnFilm read, A Little Death - two people whose relationship's in tatters, have a final sexual encounter and get trapped in the orgasm zone.

What benchmarks exist for being stranded in demon love? I'm sure there's plenty, but here it's like no other. Original. Jo Davison and Jed Brophy star. You'll know Jo. She's Gina, a much-missed character from Shortland Street. Jed on the other hand hasn't put in an appearance on the soap, but he sure does turn heads every time he performs. He's athletic, and has great energy. These two together embody 'an extreme hybrid' of Love and Hate. This is the film where the tattoos on Robert Mitchum's burly hands in Night of the Hunter become real. The knuckles are bared, there's little talk and a soundtrack that Swadel says sounds like 'Wagner crossed with Sonic Youth'.

It opens with a scene straight out of the French 60s. It's a bedroom. The lighting casts a menacing yellow glow. You know it's going to be torrid.

She's just come home. He's stewing. The ashtray is overflowing. Been sitting there smoking cigarettes all night. She's been out cheating on him. He's cheated on her. Both are very pissed off. Neither is prepared to apologise. She gets on top, intending to use him as gym equipment. They wrestle with each other. Orgasm is hit. Whiteout! Sharp flames of light! The fall through a gaping hole in the kapok mattress is the apex of a bad trip. And that's just the first scene.

From there the existential quotient climbs. The emotional barrier is extended to a physical one. He is suspended bleeding and hurt in a void. She's in a photocopied room, devoid of colour, drained of emotion, surrounded by various versions of He, and a version of Her watching on.

'The only way they're going to be able to get out is by helping each other,' says Swadel adding, 'But hey - we get to shunt them through hell first - heh heh.'

'It's a western,' says Perkins, 'as indeed all films are.' Employing his film-tutor vernacular, he elaborates on the plot.

'Gun-slinger meets ex-gun-slinger for one last shoot-out. The stare-down, the gun-down, where the best six-gun goes off to another town and the stirred- up clod-busters go back to their homesteads at sunset.'

And by hokey, 'with or without a Stetson, it's all classical narrative storytelling.'

Everyone may be just re-making westerns, as Rachel Anderson literally is with Para Recorder ... In a town called Tenacity, a lonesome bandito, recounts the story of the woman he loved and lost ... Sounds like a bit too much parmesan for my liking. Instead of hitching their wagon to territory mapped by Sergio 'the Magnificent' Leone, the directors of A Little Death, fleshed out their idea by trying to reverse the usual David Lynch scenario. Lynch is always big with budding directors. He's got young screen style, uses hip music and likes freaks. He starts with characters as innocents and puts them through hell to see what will become of them. In A Little Death, we find the characters to be inflexible, unyielding, far from innocent - they land in hell and might just get back from it innocent; if they're lucky.

Exploring the enduring theme of vexed sexuality in the age where sex is dangerous is very appealing to Swadel and Perkins and seems to be the obsession of an entire generation. Perkins and Swadel are, 'sort of straight', but had pieces placed in the gay section of last year's Auckland Film Feast. Confusing? Some weren't amused.

Maybe it has something to do with the intentions to overturn conventional film logic. Just a another co-directing team (Pardington & McKenzie made their female lead the protagonist in The Mout and The Truth, Swadel and Perkins push their female lead, and for quite similar reasons.

'We just like characters to be bastards and bitches.' She ain't no femme fatale, swooning for her lost love, but you couldn't really say she's a bitch either. She is too afraid. Still she doesn't panic. She searches for her way out, looking through his eyes.

Do they get out? What's it like to be trapped in orgasm? Could anyone really bear it? Swadel and Perkins are now both back tutoring at Waikato Polytechnic. Working in such supportive surroundings, they've had the chance to cut their film digitally on an Avid, the swanky non-linear editing system. If a band were recording in analogue, mixing in digital and then releasing vinyl, what you'd get is the process A Little Death has been through prior to its release overseas at a few select festivals before it gets seen here. This is so they'll have some pithy quotes from overseas film critics to stick on the poster for the short film festivals here.

This is where the producer steps in. The producer is the person who keeps the investors happy. That man is James Wallace, well known for making a fortune in animal by-products and getting behind those shining lights of gay cinema, Stewart Main and Peter Wells. Main has just shot a short which was produced by Michelle Fantl for Zee Films. It's a homo-erotic love story set during the land wars of the 1860s and filmed in the rain-forest bush of Honeymoon Valley, just off south of Northland’s Kaitaia.

An extremely strenuous shooting schedule requiring both actors to be naked for 10 days of pouring rain, tested both cast and crew to the limit.

Pre-production saw actors Marton Csokas and Marae presenter Greg Mayor on location, cutting scrub. Csokas, now all over Europe with the success of last year's Game With No Rules, had his hair bleached hype the contrast between he and Mayor.

Pushing his crew with Herzog-like fever, Stewart Main has gone to the extreme of his vision as a gay man and artist working in New Zealand and may well land most acclaimed short of the year. With the country focussed on the renewed resurgence of Maori grievance, this is a film that cuts to the core in an appropriation of history for its own ends. Absolutely bravura film-making, inspired by the most difficult conditions, is not easy.

Of course all short film directors want to make features. And frankly we should be grateful that Stewart Main has had the chance to limber up before he starts shooting in Sydney for You're My Venus, the feature starring Rena Owen as a trans-sexual. Already the script, written by Main, Garth Maxwell and Debra Daley, has been described by the incredibly influential William Morris Agency in New York as a radiant, exquisite jewel of a script ... an inspiring achievement ... if the film fulfills the raw potential of the script, it will certainly expand the boundaries of cinema (as for example Pulp Fiction did this year). This is a wildly, wonderfully liberated film, in every sense of the word.

Praise such as this is not lightly earned. That script had been 'in development' for five years. True genius, as they say, is 90 per cent graft and 10 per cent inspiration. But that's not to say you shouldn't just get a camera, and put it on time-lapse in the street. Call it Walk Tall. Or better still, film a fly crawling, or a man sleeping. It was enough for Warhol. Then again you could always work every weekend for two years shooting a gore-filled escapist fantasy about aliens taking over Island Bay.

The Film Commission will love it."

(Paul Shannon, 1995)

Paul Shannon (1995). "Don't Skimp on the Short Ends!", Planet (magazine) Issue 16 Autumn 1995 pp.26,27.

Fig.1 Natalie Robertson (1994). Jeanne (Jo Davison) holds a paper cut-out of Jules (Jed Brophy).

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TAGS

1860s1995A Game with No RulesA Little DeathAlphavilleAotearoa New Zealand • appropriation of history • ashtray • Atomic cafe • Auckland Film Feast • Avid Media Suite Probastard • battle-of-the-sexes • bedroomBetacam SP • bitch • budding film directors • cafe latte • cast and crew • cheating • classical narrative storytelling • clod-buster • co-directing • co-directing team • conventional logic • Creative New Zealand • Creative NZ • credibility on the street • Danielle CormackDavid Lynch • Debra Daley • demon love • devoid of colour • director of photography • drained of emotion • emotional barrier • escapist fantasy • ex-gunslinger • existentialism • expanding the boundaries of cinema • femme fatalefilm • film career • film directorfilm funding • film logic • film producerfilmmakerfreaks • Garth Maxwell • gay • Greg Mayor • gun-down • gunslinger • gym equipment • Harry Sinclairhell • hip music • hitching their wagon • hole • homestead • homoerotic • homoeroticism • Honeymoon Valley • Humphrey Bogart • Island Bay • James WallaceJean-Luc GodardJed Brophy • Jo Davison • Joel Tobeck • Kaitaia • killer script • Land Wars • love and hate • love story • Maori grievance • Marton Csokas • mattress • menacing yellow glow • Meryl Main • Michelle Fantl • mixing in digital • naked • Neil Pardington • New Lynn • New Zealand Arts Council • New Zealand Film Commission • Night of the Hunter • non-linear editing • Onfilm Magazine • orgasm • orgasm zone • Para Recorder • Paul Shannon • Paul SwadelPeter JacksonPeter Wellspetite mort • photocopied room • photocopy • physical barrier • pissed off • Planet (magazine) • playing the waiting game • Ponsonby Road • pouring rain • pulp fictionQuentin Tarantino • quirky comedy • Rachel Anderson • rainforest • re-make • recording in analogue • releasing on vinyl • Rena Owen • road-movie-westie-comedy-genre • Robert Mitchum • Sergio Leonesex • sexual encounter • shooting scheduleshootout • short ends • short film • short film directors • short film festival • Shortland Street • Simon PerkinsSimon Raby • six-gun • smoking cigarettessoap operaSonic Youth • stare-down • Stewart Main • Stuart Mckenzie • success • sunset • The Coming of Age of The New Zealand Short Film • Tim Balme • timelapse • Topless Women Talk About Their Lives • torrid • transsexual • Tuatara Bar • unyielding • versions • vexed sexuality • void • WagnerWaikatoWaikato Institute of Technology • Waikato Polytechnic • walk tall • watching • Werner Herzog • western film genre • whiteout • William Morris Agency • wrestle with • young screen style • Zee Films

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
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