You’ll recognise Kieran Darcy-Smith from the numerous and varied roles he’s played in Australian film and television – including key performances in features like September, Animal Kingdom and the multi-award winning short film Miracle Fish. On television, he’s appeared in everything from Water Rats to Going Home to Stupid Stupid Man and My Place. Yet Darcy-Smith has always been an actor with a keen interest in working behind the camera as well as in front of it. He’s one of the co-founders of the prolific Blue-Tongue Films collective (together with Nash and Joel Edgerton, David Michôd, Luke Doolan and Spencer Susser). He’s been steadily honing his craft by writing and directing short films and several of these have been remarkably successful – Bloodlock won the Most Popular Film award at the 1999 Flickerfest International Film Festival as well as the St Kilda Film Festival prize, while The Island won the 2000 Tropfest Tropicana Award. In a few months time, we’ll see Darcy-Smith’s feature film directorial debut – Wish You Were Here, starring Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer and Felicity Price.
Right now, however, Darcy-Smith is busy preparing for the 2011 Homebake Music Film and Arts Festival, held in The Domain, in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens on Saturday, 3 December. Darcy-Smith is the curator of the short film program – an involvement stretching back ten years to 2000, when the film component was introduced.
The Homebake Cinema Pavilion is a showcase of Australian and New Zealand short filmmaking talent – and unlike competitive festivals, the films need not be premieres. This year’s line-up includes classic and well-known shorts like Nash Edgerton’s Spider, Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Cicada and Warwick Thornton’s Nana, as well as lesser-known titles – Russell Kilbey’s Rainman goes to RocKwiz; Aden Young’s The Rose of Ba Ziz; and Christopher Stollery’s Dik.
Here we chat to Darcy-Smith about the intricacies of curating the program, and the kinds of short films that he loves – and hates. He also he paints a picture of what festival-goers can expect when they enter the quiet and darkened space of the Homebake Cinema Pavilion. And for those of you wondering what shooting his feature film on location in Cambodia was like, he makes it sound like it was both heaven and hell! Read on to find out more.
AFI: For those who’ve never been to Homebake before, can you describe how the cinema pavilion will fit in with the rest of the festival? Will it be hard to hear the films with the noise factor? What is the viewing venue actually like? How many screens, how much seating? Paint us a picture.
Kieran Darcy-Smith: Well, what began as a very modest, 50 seat, single screen, Beta tape arrangement in a canvas tent has now expanded somewhat. The last few years we’ve been based in the Pavilion Restaurant in the Domain – which we take over and re-dress/re-fit-out specifically for the event. It’s a great space and we’ve managed to design a screen and seating arrangement that makes full use of it. There are two large digital rear-projection screens (with a small live stage in between), two smaller plasma screens at either end of the room, state-of-the-art projection and audio to cater for both the films and the music acts – and the entire space is blacked out, with seating for around 150, plus loads of standing room. We’ve also configured things so as to pretty much eliminate the peripheral noise from the bands outside and it just all works really nicely. It’s comfortable and just a nice space to disappear to if you need to escape the music, the crowds or the weather for a while.
AFI: How did the selection process work in terms of curating the program? Is there a call for entries? Do you have a team assisting you, or is it very much a personal project? Was it always a dead cert that a Blue Tongue film would be in there?
Kieran Darcy-Smith: The idea in the very beginning was just to provide a space for folks to relax away from the music and to enjoy some cool, locally-made short films. And of course there was always the bonus opportunity of our being able to promote any of our own work – which was something the promoters – as supporters of what we were doing and, I guess, of what we represented in terms of a local, pro-active arts collective – really encouraged us to do. So there’s always been something in the mix that’s come from Blue-Tongue, or that Blue-Tongue has some association with. It might be one or more of our short films, or the trailer and/or posters for an upcoming film. The selection process has become a little more tailored and specific over the years in terms of an overall charter I guess – but always, ultimately, it’s a clear-cut, two-way thing of keeping audiences entertained and happy throughout the day and promoting our local culture and filmmakers.
In terms of our own promotion this year we’ll be playing the trailer for my own upcoming feature, Wish You Were Here, (opening in March/April through Hopscotch) as well as repeating Nash’s Spider – which I’m repeating purely as it’s so often requested. That film is just so unbelievably popular and entertaining and people continue to want to see it, again and again. It’s kind of a bomb-proof audience pleaser. In terms of the selection process in general – I essentially keep my ear to the ground over the 12 months between each Homebake, as well as email friends and colleagues who are attending a lot of short film festivals and try to gauge what’s been working for audiences and impressing folks. Often there are great new films out there but which have premiere restrictions and so we can’t screen them until the following year. Generally though there’ll be a strong handful of recent films from local filmmakers that I feel should be given as much exposure and awareness as possible, because I think they illuminate the incredible diversity of talent we have in this country. And Homebake provides a huge audience for their work. The films play in a repeat loop, so there’s a lot of people get a chance to see them throughout the day.
As well as the more recent films and the guaranteed crowd pleasers though (and on this crowd pleaser note, I always include a couple of the most popular Tropfest crowd pleasers from over the years; people simply love seeing them again), I do like to include early short films from filmmakers who have since gone on to work successfully as feature film or TV series directors and/or producers. I think these films provide a great source of inspiration as well as show how these filmmakers got their start. Over the years I’ve had films from Gregor Jordan, Greg Mclean, Rowan Woods, Sarah Watt, David Michod, Kriv Srenders, Glendyn Ivin and others. This year I’m repeating Cicada from Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Bastardy, Hail) and for a number of reasons: I think this Melbourne filmmaker is very special and original and brave – and I want people to be aware of his work. And Cicada is just such a great film in its own right; it’s strongly representative of the filmmaker’s individual approach and aesthetic and it’s extremely powerful, effective short-form story-telling. If enough people see Cicada and respond to it then they might look up some of this guy’s feature work. But he’s just one. Nana by Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) is another great example. As is Carmichael and Shane’, by Rob Carlton and Alex Weinress (Chandon Pictures).
On the flip-side, each year there’s one or more great films by newcomers that I have just stumbled upon and simply want to get in front of people. Tarboy (James Lee) is one this year – a beautifully realised short animation. And a very special 30-min documentary from Russell Kilby – Rainman Goes To Rockwiz.
AFI: As an accomplished and very experienced short filmmaker yourself, what is it that you love about the format of short films? And what is it that you hate?
Kieran Darcy-Smith: I love short films that successfully move me (could be laughter, despair, shame, fury, warmth, inspiration… whatever) but which also illuminate something very particular about the filmmakers involved; could be their visual style, writing style, sense of rhythm/musicality, subject-matter, approach to sound design or performance… whatever. I love the personal/idiosyncratic. But I also need to be entertained on a fairly base level and not bullshitted. There are basic principles inherent in any/all good story-telling and in order for me to keep watching a story on screen, long or short, then I have a (personal this is) need for those principles to be at play; for them to have been considered and successfully integrated – even if on a purely intuitive, sub-conscious level – by the creators. I don’t like indulgence – and I have a very short attention span. A short film might be just one shot, 15 mins long, of a brick wall. But if the filmmaker has somehow managed to keep me looking at the screen and, as a result, I’ve walked away at the end of it feeling satisfied and moved in some way – then good. It’s worked. (Kinda hard to imagine that happening though.) Basically, if you want it to work well, and by that I mean that you manage to hook an audience from the get-go, suspend them and carry them along for a bit before spitting them out the other end feeling satisfied and (ideally) moved, then a short film is a very difficult thing to write and to execute. So hats off to anyone who can do that. And I guess the ones that don’t do that, for me (and we are taking about art here, so it’s all subjective anyway…), then those are the ones I don’t like.
AFI: As you mentioned before, the beauty of this program is that these films don’t have to be premieres – in fact a lot of them have done the rounds and will be seen by Homebake audiences for the second or third time. Is this a positive way of building a kind of Australasian short film canon?
Kieran Darcy-Smith: …the short answer is yes. The idea of including a handful of older, previously successful films means that those works don’t disappear. When I think of the Australian feature film canon, I think of a broad cross-section of movies from across several decades. The same obviously applies to music, literature and to most of the arts in general. I don’t think shorts should just be a one-off experience for either the filmmakers or the audience. They can be (and should be) considered to be unique, independent and personal pieces of work; snapshots representative not only of their time, both culturally and actually, but, moreover, of the filmmakers at that stage in their career.
AFI: If you could pick one film from the lineup that readers should seek out for its challenging, surprising or ground-breaking material, what would it be?
Kieran Darcy-Smith: Aden Young’s The Rose of Ba Ziz is very special and very unique; a wonderfully realised, highly stylised/idiosyncratic, ultra-resourceful and clearly personal piece of short cinematic art. One to look out for. And if you haven’t already seen it then Cicada certainly meets all of your (above) criteria. Definitely unique and effective.
AFI: We’re really looking forward to seeing your feature film Wish You Were Here. What has been the most challenging thing for you as a director in the move from shorts to features? And what can tell us about where the film is at right now?
Kieran Darcy-Smith: Thanks. Can’t wait for you to see it. I can tell you that the film will be released by Hopscotch locally, and Level K internationally, early next year (March/April at this stage) and that I’m incredibly proud of it. It’s everything I ever wanted it to be, and more, and I absolutely, honestly, don’t have a single regret. Wouldn’t change a frame. I also have to say I just relished the entire process of making it. Every bit and piece: pre-production (one of the happiest times of my life), shooting, cutting, sound, music, grading, titles, trailer, poster, the lot. Loved it. Didn’t want it to end. Of course there were challenges right throughout (fell into a sewer up to my neck on my first day in Cambodia; my Two-year-old fell out of bed onto his face on the concrete floor of our hotel room and smashed his teeth out; my wife and I both had dysentery and the flu concurrently, for a long time, umm….) but in a mad kind of way I really enjoyed them (the challenges) as well. Not sure what it was, but I really did get off on the pressure and the stakes. I’ve never felt more alive, put it that way.
But….to answer your question: the most challenging thing for me, or for any director moving from shorts to a feature film is script. You have to have one. And if you’re not being given one then you have to find a story (not easy) and write it yourself. And it takes a long time to learn how to do that well. So, you kind of have to do your laps. But if you hang in there and you’re patient and dogged and passionate about why you’re doing it (and you’ve made sure to check with objective/outside opinion re whether or not you’re deluding yourself; i.e. not everyone can write a screenplay) – then it’ll all come together eventually. Certainly it took me a long while. But yeah, script. 100%. Fundamentally the greatest challenge for anyone who wants to get a feature film off the ground.
AFI: Thanks for your time and good luck with the Homebake program!
The Homebake Classic Edition 2011 takes place Saturday, 3 December in Sydney’s Domain.
For Indiewire‘s ‘First Look’ at Wish You Were Here, click here.