In this Script to Screen transcript and podcast, Alyx Duncan (The Red House), Adam Luxton and Jeremy Dumble (We Feel Fine) talk about the constraints of micro-budgets, keeping stories close to home and capturing some truths about the world we live in.
The trio of Auckland-based film makers had their feature films selected to screen in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival and the July Writer’s Room was fortunate enough to capture them for some candid conversation with MC director Briar March (There Once Was an Island, Smoke Songs).
The Red House is ‘an intimately observed drama of change in the lives of a deeply attached couple in their 60s’ revealing ‘a fundamental curiosity about human life and society.’ (Bill Gosden). We Feel Fine is described by Gosden as a ‘micro-budget, made-on-the-dash art movie (that) tracks random sets of Auckland characters linked by a bizarre video project’ with a ‘rude energy and sly disengagement from the mainstream.’
Briar introduced Alyx’s work as ‘aesthetically beautiful and intelligent, displaying a real sensibility.’ Alyx is a versatile film maker. She has worked in a range of genres including documentary and music video and has a background in dance too. “Film does inform dance and vice versa,” said Alyx. “When I choreograph, I think cinematically. Cinema is all about rhythm and composition – dance is the same. Editing is like a dance too.”
Briar admired the ten year plus collaborative relationship between Adam and Jeremy. “We have been making films together for a long time,” said Adam. “We’d watch films together and we were always very open minded.”
Bill Gosden (the director of the Film Festival) said it was ‘a challenge’ to describe what their film We Feel Fine is actually about because the multiple themes and story lines make it difficult to summarise.
“The default answer is,” said Adam, “the film is about ’shit’. That is definitely true in a literal sense but in a broader sense it is a multi-narrative film with characters who are very different to each other. The central narrative concerns a young boy who takes photos of his daily meals before he eats them and then shits them out. This is his project and it serves as a catalyst within the film for the other characters to confront their own daily lives.”
The boy’s name is Moses and his narrative holds all of the other stories together, kind of like a loose catchment for the collection of characters. Such a structure lends itself to improvisation and Briar asked how much of the script was written beforehand and how much was improvised to give the film its unique and fresh approach.
“We had worked through the script very quickly,” said Adam.” The production schedule was limited, the shoot was short, we had a budget of $5,000 and there were lots of compromises. We had to be very pragmatic about things going wrong and they did, often! But in a sense they weren’t really ‘wrong’, they were just going ‘differently’ and we wanted this to be part of the fabric of the film so allowing improvisation and giving up some control was an intrinsic part of the process.”
“Moses’ narrative is the glue,” said Jeremy. “He rubs up against all of the other characters so conceptually he is a cohesive device in the film. We took a 70 page script into the shoot. The shoot was over 12 days in a row so we always knew at project conception that certain scenes would be improvised on the day. The writing process never really stopped after the shoot because during the edit, some scenes were dropped and new ones were filmed.”
To add further challenge, Adam edited the film by himself during an 18 month stay in Berlin, confessing that one of the hardest things about that process was the need for ‘a fresh set of eyes.’
“But we have established a real trust,” said Jeremy. “We worked hard at building this up throughout the production, trusting all the collaborators to do their jobs without the micro-managing that had gone on in our other films where the budgets were bigger and the pressure was really on. Fortunately we had great collaborators who were film makers in their own right.”
The Red House displays a counterpoint between image and sound which firmly connects the audience with the film as a whole. “In my work,” said Alyx, ” I always have this question in my mind: how do you transcend reality? Previously I’ve achieved this (trancendence) using dance or animation but it has always been an ‘effect’ and becomes slightly surreal. With this film, I wondered how I could transcend reality through ‘affect’ (without relying on VFX or dance, puppertry etc), by presenting an image, then take a voice or a story that has nothing to do with that and juxtapose them, stimulating the audience to think more, use their own imagination as the story goes along. I’m really curious about that.”
The film began as a short experimental documentary but ended up as fiction with her parents playing the lead characters. “There is an honesty in the film,” said Alyx. “My parents do play a version of themselves but as a ‘real life’ couple, they are quite different to how you see them on screen. I chose not to make it a documentary and the stories within the film do not bear much resemblance to reality. Even though there is a truth in the feelings, it’s not the ‘literal truth’ you would find in a documentary – but you are still watching ‘real’ people.”
Both films were made within with limited means, presenting production constraints. Briar asked Jeremy and Adam how they would prefer to work in the future.
“We would do things a little differently next time,” said Jeremy. “We would buy more time with the money and take time off in between shooting. We wouldn’t spend more on expensive technology.”
Adam agreed. “We want more time, not just for the writing but also holistically. The process of We Feel Fine became not one of simply filming a script. It opened up possibilities at every juncture for the story to have its own life, so in the future, we want more time and to be able to pay people to make an emotional investment, have this duration and facilitate this fertile process. That’s why buy-in from the crew is so important. They need to be paid a professional wage. Cutting corners when it comes to wages isn’t on. We don’t care so much about what we shoot on but we do care about paying everyone fairly. ”
At question time, the panelists were asked about crew size.
Jeremy said there was as few crew on the shoot of We Feel Fine as was humanly possible, so much so that they even had no DOP. “It was a two camera shoot most of the time. I was behind one camera, we had a sound person and actors – that was our core crew. We had a producer organizing everything and a couple of art department people following us around.”
Alyx said her crew varied with different parts of the film shoot. ”When I started off and thought I was making a documentary, we had a crew of four or five. During the main shoot we had a two person crew – I recorded sound and Francisco Rodriguez operated camera. By the last part of shooting in New Zealand (and for pick-up shooting in China) I had no budget left to pay anyone to crew the shoot, so it was just me (operating sound and camera). I am very happy to work with a small crew and agree about putting the money toward working with people who are talented and intelligent. I really appreciate being able to develop the work with people I trust. That’s what brings quality in the end rather than the right or the best technology. It is that core group of collaborators that makes it good. I would love to not produce my next film and to work with a writer. It would be beneficial for me to collaborate with someone who has long experience of film structures and screen writing. Even though we might deviate from that, I would like to work with a writer who has more experience than I do.”
When asked about the future for their films after the Auckland screenings, Jeremy said they would go through the traditional festival submission process with We Feel Fine. “Beyond the festivals? We haven’t really thought that far ahead. Festival life goes on for about 18 months so we have time to figure it out. I suspect it may end up online.”
Alyx will go to the Melbourne Film Festival and try to sell her film at the 37 Degrees South Market. “I feel like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – I am not putting myself out there as a producer but I am looking for a sales agent or a distributor. I’m sending The Red House to lots of festivals and gauging interest in a theatrical release here.”
“We met with the NZFC today to discuss the future,” said Adam. “they are very mindful of eyeballs (the audience)…and how they ensure the films they finance get watched. Making films can be a costly business and usually the person signing the cheque wants the story to be told in a more traditional way, as a measure to ensure an audience. Both of our films are strong but not told using absolutely traditional ways of telling a story. I don’t believe sticking to a traditional approach to storytelling is the way to deal with the problem of finding an audience. It’s more about catching eyeballs by telling a story in a fresh and creative way. Both our films show that stories can be told differently … and still catch eyeballs.”