By Rochelle Siemienowicz
It’s February 2011 and I’m meeting director Amiel Courtin-Wilson and producer Michael Cody for the first time in a sunny courtyard at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival. They’ve just finished the final touches on their feature film Hail, with mere hours to spare before the film’s world premiere. They’re keen to get an early response to the media preview screening I’ve attended, and wonder how the (now infamous and very surreal) ‘falling horse scene’ has gone down with the first viewers. Having shot the extraordinary (and possibly illegal) footage the weekend before, they’d added it into the final edit, with minutes to spare. For the record, the ‘falling horse scene’ is a decidedly bold move – and a flashing red indicator that Hail is a stylistically ambitious art film rather than your average dirty realist Australian drama set in the world of drug addicts and ugly criminals.
When we talk, the pair are still “fully immersed” in the making of the film, according to producer Michael Cody. He’s a former academic turned journalist turned producer of films including Miracle Fish and Wish You Were Here, and has moved into directing, with his 2010 short film Foreign Parts. He’s an intense and reserved counterpart to the sociable and famously communal creature that is Amiel Courtin-Wilson. Along with other creatives, including Joel Anderson (Lake Mungo), they’ve created Flood Projects, a company founded with the intention of making “risk-taking, collaborative and experimental work.”
According to Cody, “from the time we decided to make this film together, it’s been full immersion. We’ve been living and working in the same house, 18 hours a day every day, and we haven’t had a single day off in about four months. We had no finance in place at the start, but we just kept on going making the film, acting as if we were going to get it, plowing ahead. Luckily we did, or we wouldn’t have met the deadlines that came with the money when it came through. It was still a very low budget of about $500,000 – cobbled together from Screen Australia, Film Victoria, and the Adelaide Film Festival’s investment fund.”
Now, more than 18 months later, Hail is finally getting an Australian theatrical release, but the wait has been worth it, especially in terms of building anticipation and accumulating numerous awards, including the Age Critics Award for best Australian feature film at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Critical appreciation has included a recent review by Adrian Martin in The Monthly, which names Hail the standout Australian film of the year, “…a comet that seemed to shoot in from nowhere”. Paolo Bertolin, director of the Venice International Film Festival, called it “one of the top 10 films of 2011.”
This is art…This is acting
A strange, poetic love story that turns into a wrenching tale of revenge and inner turmoil, Hail is distinguished by the extraordinarily naturalistic performances of the two lead actors, Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch. They play rough versions of themselves, improvising dialogue in response to a loosely plotted story arc.
In the film, as in life, Danny and Leanne are a middle-aged couple from the wrong sides of the tracks. They share a birthday, and they’ve been together as a tempestuous but passionate couple for more than a decade. In the film, they’re reunited after Danny gets out of prison. Their blissful reunion – complete with one of the most extraordinary vérité sex scenes you’re ever likely to see – is derailed by drugs, unemployment and shady contacts. Their beautifully ravaged faces – especially Jones’s piercing and hypnotic aqua blue eyes, together with their utterly convincing dialogue and real-life volatile affection burns through the screen, suggesting this may, in fact, be a slightly dramatised documentary rather than a fictional drama. But make no mistake. According to Courtin-Wilson, this is art, and Jones and Letch deserve to be credited, not just for their creative input in the project, providing source material and dialogue, but for their acting, which Courtin-Wilson emphasises is performance.
“Danny and Leanne absolutely created these performances out of the stories and experiences of their own lives,” Courtin-Wilson says. We’ve actually had professional actors come back to us after seeing the film and say that the authenticity of the performances has made them go back to their own craft and question what it is to be an actor, because they’re just so amazed by Danny and Leanne’s performances.”
Courtin-Wilson is particularly keen to point out the craft and skill involved in Jones’s storytelling and his performances – a skill that has seen Jones become one of the founding members of the Plan B Theatre Company for former prison inmates, and has also seen him cast for an upcoming US feature film Young Bodies Heal Quickly, in which he plays an Australian Vietnam veteran battling post traumatic stress.
Before Hail, Jones was previously the subject of Courtin-Wilson’s 2009 award-winning short documentary Cicada, about a shocking murder he witnessed in St Kilda as a child. “In the process of making that short film with Dan, I had hundreds of pages of transcribed interview material with stories and incidents from his life,” explained Courtin-Wilson. “And he just has this amazing turn of phrase. Danny is a kind of autodidact, a kind of jail cell philosopher. He’s equally comfortably quoting Oscar Wilde as he is describing some brutal street brawls going up in the south of St Kilda. In a performance sense, he also brings this extraordinarily honest and immediate way of relating to people. You can’t escape the laser beam of that, and personally I find it really intoxicating. But I don’t want to undermine in any way Danny’s intense preparation for his role in Hail. He spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in rehearsals and discussions, and it was this very rigorous process for him. It’s a strange contradiction, but he actually loves using schematics, diagrams and numbers when he’s planning his performance.”
“There’s a directness in the way in which guys that have spent time in jail will deal with you…”
Based in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, Amiel Courtin-Wilson is a filmmaker, photographer and artist who’s been making films ever since he picked up a Super 8 camera at the age of nine. He won the Longford Nova Award at the 1996 St Kilda Film Festival at the age of 17 and at 19 he wrote, directed and produced his feature debut documentary Chasing Buddha, about a Buddhist nun working with death row inmates in the US. The film premiered at Sundance and was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Direction. Since then, his films have included Bastardy (2008), the astonishing portrait of jailbird, cat-burglar, actor, heroin addict and Aboriginal activist Jack Charles. Shot over a seven year period encompassing the subject’s homelessness, incarceration and rehab, that film required extraordinary commitment from the filmmaker, not least to actually locate Charles in order to film his story.
“Compared to Jack Charles, Dan and Leanne were a breeze to shoot!” says Courtin-Wilson with a laugh. “They live in one place, and they have telephones! Which is not to say it wasn’t challenging in many other ways. Danny and Leanne can lead pretty hectic lifestyles sometimes, and it can be a bit insane, but we could make the film because we had this central location in their apartment, and because a lot of their friends, who are in the film, live in the neighbourhood, and we knew that even if they went AWOL for a day or two, we could shoot other material.”
Asked why he seems to have an affinity for characters who’ve spent time behind bars, Courtin-Wilson answers: “There’s a directness in the way in which guys that have spent time in jail will deal with you, that eschews all kind of social norms. In a sense they’re not interested in what you do but interested in who you are in that very moment in front of them. They’re so absolutely perceptive emotionally and kind of forensic in their ability to read you very quickly, because they’ve had to be, having been in so many situations where the stakes are such that if they read it wrong, they could die. There’s also that storytelling aspect, as Danny has said and Jack Charles too, that when you’re in the dock in front of a judge, there’s a certain kind of role-playing and storytelling involved.”
Courtin-Wilson credits Cody with creating a flexible production schedule that could accommodate the haphazard lifestyles of the key performers. “The way Michael worked out the schedule was that there were a lot of floating scenes. So it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve lost this, but we can get this, this and this and this’. And that was a huge luxury because working with basically no light, and working with real locations, you could just literally steal a really beautiful moment of Leanne doing housework or Shelby the cat, or some of the more impressionistic, more experimental, textural parts of the film. We sort of willingly embraced the chaos and that made the story stay alive throughout the process.”
For all its haphazard elements – and as Cody says with a laugh “the investors may have been appalled if they’d seen how unruly the shoot got at times – a lot of criminals passed through our doors!” – there was nevertheless a very definite methodology at work both in the planning and execution of the project.
“There were key things that we wanted,” said Courtin-Wilson, “like shooting on 16mm and knowing that we wanted a really long editing period of 20 weeks in the edit. We worked with a really small crew of about four or five key crew and we had a 34-day shoot, which is actually pretty roomy for a film of our budget.”
Courtin-Wilson credits the naturalistic Belgian filmmaking duo, the Dardenne brothers, as a key inspiration. “I was fascinated by the way they work in as much as they will shoot 70 to 80 per cent of the film, edit it and get it to a rough cut, and then go back and not just re-shoot, not just doing pickups, but actually shooting another substantial proportion of the movie. So we did a similar thing. We shot for 23 days, got an assembly together and then based on how it was feeling, we then shot another week. It was an ongoing process. It’s always baffled me why you wouldn’t do that. It’s the way in which novels are created, with drafts, redrafts and going back and forth. It doesn’t make sense, this idea that the shooting process should be absolutely separate from the edit.”
God in all things…
Both Cody and Courtin-Wilson are aware that depressing Australian films about criminals and junkies have a very dim reputation among both critics and audiences, and they’re keen to separate their work from this genre. Says Courtin-Wilson, “I was always very conscious of not wanting to make a kitchen sink drama. I really, really love the idea of taking the minutiae of day-to-day everyday lives and setting that against an almost mythical kind of backdrop and I was very conscious of making something a bit more epic and romantic, something grander and more lyrical in terms of the music and the cinematography. That idea of [philosopher] Spinoza’s is interesting – that God is in all things. That was actually my main direction to our cinematographer, Germain McMicking, ‘I just want God to reveal itself through the imagery’. I couldn’t give a fuck about being accused of being pretentious! I’d much rather aim for something grand and have it fail abysmally, than not have tried for something…”. Cody jumps in with the missing word: “Ecstatic!”
Hail – Fast Facts
- Hail’s world premiere was at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival on 28 February, 2011.
- Hail’s international debut was at 2011 Venice Film Festival where it was the first Australian feature to be selected for ten years. The film has since screened at the 2012 Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary, Istanbul, Munich and Edinburgh International Film Festivals, as well as, most recently, the Melbourne International Film Festival where it was awarded the Age Critics Award, and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal where it received the International Jury Prize.
- Hail is the result of a five-year creative collaboration between Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Daniel P. Jones
Hail – Key Cast and Crew
Writer-Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Producers: Michael Cody & Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Actors: Daniel P. Jones, Leanne Letch
Cinematographer: Germain McMicking
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Music Composer: Steve Benwell
– Great interview with Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch over at Inside Film.
– An interview by Alice Body at The Thousands, talking with Amiel Courtin-Wilson during the making of Hail in July 2010.