If you want to be an independent Australian filmmaker, it pays to have allies, friends – and even spouses – who are working in the industry. All the better if your friends and lovers are able to perform multiple roles in this low-budget environment. Sophie Hyde and Brian Mayson (Life In Movement) and Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond (Mrs Carey’s Concert) come to mind, but there are many others, stretching all the way back to Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell. Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price are just the latest couple to make a film together, and as they’re keen to point out, the filmmaking life is an adventure, a creative partnership and a wild ride that they want to be on with each other, and with their young family.
Darcy-Smith and Price are the co-writers of the new Australian feature film Wish You Were Here. Darcy-Smith is also the director, and Price is lead actress, in a career-making performance alongside Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer and Antony Starr. Wish You Were Here, which is produced by Angie Fielder of Aquarius Films, and premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, released in Australia this week. It’s a taut contemporary thriller following four 30-something Australians who travel to Cambodia for a carefree holiday. When only three of them return, there’s escalating turmoil, and the secrets surrounding the disappearance are slowly and shockingly revealed.
The film works so well, in part, because the Australian characters, played by Price and Edgerton in particular, seem like just the kind of attractive middle-class fellow tourists we might run into on a holiday in Asia— the kind who love their kids but are still keen for the odd party drug or night on the town. Alice and Dave are the busy married couple of two young children, with another baby on the way. They leave their two kids at home with granny while they take off for one last stab at freedom, invited by Alice’s younger sister (Teresa Palmer) who has a charismatic new boyfriend (Antony Starr) with business to conduct in the beautiful and tropical Southern Cambodia.
“When we were writing the script we were looking at our own world, our own friends, our own generation who were having kids but still partying, still keeping one foot in that other world,” says Price. “I was interested in exploring responsiblity and how parenthood changes you, and how you can sometimes long to be that person you were before you had kids. As parents you love your kids more than anything, but you still adore freedom. As Gen X-ers I think we’ve kind of paved a different way to parenthood where we want to have our cake and eat it too.”
Price and Darcy-Smith have two young children, who were born as the script took shape. The kids accompanied them on the Cambodian shoot (which Darcy-Smith insists was both hellish and wonderful) and the US promotional trip.
“Felicity fell pregnant not long after we started the first draft,” says Darcy-Smith, “and the whole story of Wish You Were Here became this incredible opportunity for us to expose and express ourselves and what we were going through as a couple. It was like a play-room, in a sense, and we’d come to it to express everything we felt about the human condition, about our place in the world at that point in our lives.”
Price is keen to point out that the story is purely fictional – but that “the world of the characters is very familiar to us, and we poured a lot of our own experiences, and what we’d witnessed with friends, into the film, and we’d constantly ask ourselves and each other, ‘what would you do right now in that situation?’.”
Price is a revelation in the role of Alice, the feisty pregnant wife who’s prepared to fight for her family. She manages to be convincingly loving and angry, yet without being wholly sympathetic. An actress whose credits including playing the young Florence Broadhurst in Gillian Armstrong’s Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst, as well as extensive theatre and television credits, this is arguably the first screen role to fully feature her talent. Of course the fact that she wrote the role for herself, and that she gets to play the wife of long-time friend Edgerton (who was best man at her wedding and godfather of one of her children) certainly helps to add authenticity to the performance.
“Joel and Kieran have been best mates for ages and they went to drama school together,” says Price, “so I’ve known Joel for a long time. Also, he had read more drafts of the script than almost anyone, right back to the first draft. That kind of familiarity was helpful. Also, as an audience we enter this relationship at a point where these two people are very familiar with each other – it’s not the first flush of love, but a very solid relationship. And Joel’s a very good actor, who’s 100 per cent there emotionally, so it was easy to create this couple.”
Darcy-Smith is himself a recognisable actor, appearing in films like September, Animal Kingdom and the multi-award winning short film Miracle Fish, yet has has always been an actor with a keen interest in working behind the camera as well as in front of it. He is one of the co-founders of the prolific Blue-Tongue Films collective (established in 1995), together with Nash and Joel Edgerton, David Michôd, Luke Doolan and Spencer Susser. Although Wish You Were Here is Darcy-Smith’s first feature film as director, he’s been honing his craft with a number of award-winning short films, as well as curating the short film program of Sydney’s Homebake Festival since 2000.
Now aged in his late forties, Darcy-Smith admits in his director’s notes that he was frustrated to be one of the last of his colleagues to make the jump from short films to features. Yet it was essential that he find the right idea and a script worth fighting for. Luckily this came in the form of his wife’s script, one she was writing in order to create a strong and interesting role for herself. Together, the two of them worked on the screenplay, which was accepted into Screen NSW’s Aurora screenplay development workshop process .
“I really think the screenplay is everything,” Darcy-Smith says. “I decided many, many years ago that that’s what I was going to put my chief investment in. I was going to learn to write, because I recognised it was the greatest commodity you could have in this industry. And it doesn’t matter how good you get with cameras and tricks and blah blah blah. It means nothing if you’re not telling a story that people want to see. And so I think writing is absolutely everything.”
It’s common to hear filmmakers talking about the importance of the script, but Darcy-Smith has invested genuine effort in honing his writing skills, working with acclaimed producer Andrew Mason (The Matrix Trilogy, Tomorrow When the War Began) and writing a number of award-winning screenplays including the Inside Film Award for Best Unproduced Screenplay for Memorial Day and the Australian Writer’s Guild Mentorship Award for Little Sky Cambodia. (Incidentally, Memorial Day is his next movie, where he’ll collaborate again with Wish You Were Here producer Angie Fielder, with acclaimed US indie producer Ted Hope (21 Grams, Happiness) as executive producer.
Darcy-Smith admits he’s an active, nervy man with a short attention span, and thus it was essential to make a film that held similarly impatient audience members in its thrall. This manifested in a story structure that gradually and thrillingly delivers pieces of its puzzle.
“It was a very delicate dance of delivery of information,” he says. “It was about keeping the audience working. There’s a duality at play. You’ve got an overarching mystery genre thriller element that very early in the piece kicks a ball up in the air. The idea is to keep the audience suspended with the need to know how this is going to play out. What’s going to happen? What’s he going to do? What’s she going to do? – Which is pretty cool to any kind of story, no matter what it’s about. You need that sense of ‘I need to turn the page’ or ‘I need to sit in my seat and stay here until the very end’. So that was one element of keeping the audience engaged. But more importantly, you had to get them to the end of that and have them really care about the characters and the outcome. So the real story is with the family and what’s taking place in this relationship between a husband and wife.”
So why Cambodia? Why did part of the story need to take place there? Price admits that any part of South-East Asia would have fitted with her themes of a getaway gone wrong. Initially the setting was Bali. “The smells, the sounds, the humidity that just drips off you and hits you, we needed it to be this place that is on the doorstep of Australia, but is just a different world.”
“There’s a real heart of darkness, a real underbelly that’s present in Cambodia in particular,” says Darcy-Smith. “And you don’t have to dig too deep to sort witness it, if not participate in it. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in South-East Asia and had always gravitated gravitated towards that sort of sketchier element of the society there, and had always been attracted to general case studies of people who got into trouble of there. There is a real wildness, a sense of lurking danger there, and a dark history. That presented this environment in which to credibly set up this situation that we were exploring. It needed to be entirely credible and that sense of integrity was critical to the overall telling of this story. It was our intention that people walk out of the cinema thinking or saying to one another: ‘that could so easily have been you or I. What would I have done had I been in that situation? What choices might I have made?’”
As for advice for a first time feature director? Darcy-Smith says he asked a lot of his friends for tips, but the only concrete directive he got was from Gregor Jordan – “to get a really comfortable pair of shoes, because you’re on your feet all day!” As for his own advice for filmmakers? “Apart from the importance of the script, which is almost everything, trust your gut. If it comes down to a choice between A and B, you have to go with your intuition. Test that intuition and inform it, but go with your gut.”
Watch: A great behind-the-scenes clip from the film Wish You Were Here.
Wish You Were Here – Fast Facts
Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Writers: Kieran Darcy-Smith & Felicity Price
Producer: Angie Fielder
Duration: 93 minutes
Genre: Pyschological Drama / Mystery
Shoot: Sydney, Australia & Cambodia
Camera & Shoot Format: HD, Arri Alexa HD
Release Format: 35mm and Digital
Key Cast & Crew
Cinematographer: Jules O’Loughlin
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Production Designer: Alex Holmes
Costume Designer: Joanna Park
Sound Design: Brooke Trezise
Music: Tim Rogers
Casting Director: Kirsty McGregor
Score: Rosie Chase