Embracing Chaos and Making Hail. An interview with Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody

Writer-director Amiel Courtin-Wilson & producer Michael Cody

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.”

Lovers in life and in HAIL – Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch.

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…”

Amiel Courtin-Wilson

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 they were a breeze to shoot’ – lead actors Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch.

“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.”

Fierce and mesmerising – Daniel P. Jones in HAIL

Embracing Chaos

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…

The attempt to create “something grander and more lyrical…”

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 is one of the 23 Feature Films in Competition for the 2nd AACTA Awards.  The film is in limited national release from 25 October. Website | Facebook | Vimeo

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

Further Reading

– 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.

Australian films at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Sapphires

The Melbourne International Film Festival has a long history of supporting Australian film, and in 2012 the festival again screens a wide variety of local fare in its Australian Showcase stream, from internationally-lauded blockbusters to low budget indies.

And in addition to offering local filmmakers a chance to have their film screened to supportive Australian audiences, MIFF supports the Australian film industry further through its MIFF Premiere Fund, which has financed a diverse range of feature films and documentaries since its inception in 2007.

Australian films will both open and close the festival in 2012, with Wayne Blair’s 1960s-era musical drama/comedy The Sapphires adding a touch of glitz, glamour and soul to the opening night gala last week. A joyous crowd-pleaser all but guaranteed success (after being picked up for international distribution by the Weinstein Company at Cannes), The Sapphires celebrates Aboriginal culture, family bonds and the irrepressible power of soul music with a delightfully sassy script and extravagant production and costume design.

There are dozens of Australian feature films playing at MIFF this year, from introspective dramas to psychotic horror-comedies to Bollywood musicals. Some of these titles are sure to appear in upcoming AACTA Awards seasons. Join us as we profile the Australian features on offer to thousands of eager cinephiles during the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 to 17 at various locations throughout the Melbourne city centre.

Features

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres

Reg and Lindsay are having trouble sourcing the “secret ingredient” for their organic fertiliser – human remains sourced from car crash victims. When a trio of young music festival-goers find themselves stranded at their front door, the two businessmen have a devious idea – but struggle to bring themselves to go through with it.

One for the schlock fans, 100 Bloody Acres is produced by Julie Ryan (RED DOG) and Kate Croser, with Damon Herriman, Anna McGahan, John Jarratt and Angus Sampson adding a touch of crackle to the cast of this grisly, comedic horror flick. They’re not psycho killers… they’re just small business owners.

Being Venice

Being Venice

The first feature-length film by New Zealand-born filmmaker Miro Bilbrough follows the eponymous Venice (Alice McConnell) as one man leaves her life and another re-enters it. The former – her boyfriend – announces that he needs some space and promptly leaves the house they share, while the latter – her estranged ex-hippie father Arthur (veteran comic actor Garry McDonald) – worms his way into staying on Alice’s couch while visiting from New Zealand.

Being Venice was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, described by Frank Hatherly of Screen Daily as “thoughtful” and possessing “something of a European sensibility” in presenting Venice’s struggle to make sense of the male relationships in her life.

Dead Europe

Dead Europe

The first announced of MIFF’s “surprise screenings” on the last day of the festival, Dead Europe is the latest in a string of adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas novels, directed by director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man), adapted for the screen by veteran television writer Louise Fox, and starring acclaimed young actor Ewen Leslie in the lead.

Described by Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald as “a bruising blast of intense drama”, the film is a deep, densely wrought examination of Europe, “the continent of lost souls”, and the burden that children of “cursed” peoples must bear.

Errors of the Human Body

Errors of the Human Body

Described as a “psycho-scientific thriller” developed while director Eron Sheean was artist-in-resident at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, early reviews of Errors of the Human Body have noted the scientific authenticity with which the film’s plot is realised.

A German-Australian co-production directed by an Australian based in Europe, with a cast including Karoline Herfurth (Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (Iceland), Rik Mayall (United Kingdom) and Michael Eklund (Canada), it’s a horror film set on the cutting edge of science and technology, dealing with the ethics of biological and genetic science.

Hail

Hail

Melbourne local Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work straddles both art cinema and mainstream filmmaking, with over a dozen short fiction films to his credit as well as three highly-acclaimed documentary features.

Hail shapes the extraordinary life experience of artist and ex-convict Daniel P. Jones into an experimental, autobiographical dramatic tapestry. Jones’s own words – transcribed and edited from interviews with the director – form the basis for the film’s dialogue, which is spoken by “characters” being played by their real-life counterparts. The resulting film is not strictly a drama and not strictly a documentary, but an exploration of hope in the face of oppressive adversity.

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

MIFFsters will be treated to the first of two Jack Irish tele-features scheduled to air on ABC TV in late 2012, boasting a stellar cast including Guy Pearce, Aaron Pedersen, Colin Friels, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp, Steve Bisley and Roy Billing.

Guy Pearce is Jack, an old-school former criminal lawyer turned part-time private detective and debt collector, whose line of work has won him some rather colourful friends and acquaintences over the years. When one former client turns up dead, Jack burrows deep into Melbourne’s seedy underside to get to the bottom of it all.

Based on the eponymous series of crime novels by Miles Franklin Award winner Peter Temple, Jack Irish: Bad Debts will be followed by Jack Irish: Black Tide.

Last Dance

Last Dance

David Pulbrook (a veteran, AFI Award-winning editor) makes his directorial debut in this tightly-wound drama, set in the immediate aftermath of a synogogue bombing perpetrated by the Muslim Sadiq Mohammed (Underbelly‘s Firass Dirani). Seeking shelter, he forces his way into a flat occupied by a Holocaust survivor Ulah (Julia Blake), and thus begins a hostage drama which forces both Sadiq and Ulah to confront their own pasts.

Mental

Closing out the festival is Mental, a so-called suburban dramedy which reunites director P.J. Hogan with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding was released in 1994.

Anthony LaPaglia is a philandering small-town politician shocked to discover that his wife has been institutionalised and has left him to take care of five children – none of which he has any particular interest in getting to know. By serendipity, a “charismatic, crazy hothead” (Collette) finds herself thrust into the household as the girls’ nanny, and slowly but surely transforms their home into something resembling normality.

Save Your Legs!

Save Your Legs!

A new addition to the MIFF calendar this year is the mid-festival gala event, turning the middle weekend of the festival into yet another party – if the opening and closing nights weren’t enough. A decidedly more relaxed affair than the glitzy opening night, the mid-festival gala will see the upbeat Bollywood-influenced musical comedy Save Your Legs! screened.

The Abbotsford Anglers, a D-grade local cricket team more interested in the shots on offer at the bar than those being made on the cricket field, make one last thrust for glory by going on an ill-conceived cricketing tour of India which ends in disastrous on-field results but more than a few laughs.

Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau and many more (plus a cameo by cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee), Save Your Legs! is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Documentaries

Coniston

Coniston

In late 1928 upwards of 100 innocent indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered to avenge the death of a white dingo trapper named Fred Brooks, who was killed by Aborigines after “taking liberties” with the wife of a Warlpiri tribesman.

One of many films presented in partnership with Blackfella Films, Coniston is a combination documentary-dramatisation of the Contiston massacre as told by Warlpiri, Waramunga, Anmatyerr and Kaytetje people. Based on a shameful episode of Australian history – the last large-scale massacre of Aborigines by whites – is an important exercise in educating modern audiences.

Croker Island Exodus

Croker Island Exodus

Also blending the documentary and dramatic forms is Croker Island Exodus, based on the true story of a Methodist mission on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Australian government evacuated all white women and children from the far north of the Northern Territory, including Croker Island. The (white) missionaries refused evacuation, not wanting to abandon the 95 aboriginal children in their care, and instead embarked on an epic 44-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Sydney by boat, truck, canoe and even by foot.

First-time feature director Steven McGregor combines dramatic reconstructions with interviews of three of the children who made the journey, now in their 80s, who reflect on their childhood as part of the Stolen Generation and their remarkable journey to sanctuary.

The First Fagin

The First Fagin

Is Fagin – the grotesque thief/landlord in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and one of literature’s most enduring characters – based on Ikey Solomon, a real-life 19th century English criminal and escape artist? That’s what The First Fagin, directed by the trans-continental team of Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor and narrated by the great Miriam Margolyes, sets out to discover.

Exploring the expulsion-happy criminal justice system of the 19th century as well as the life and reputation of Solomon, who was sentenced to be deported to Australia but for reasons unknown never made it to his down under prison, The First Fagin is one of many docu-drama features playing at MIFF this year. Tracing Solomon’s movements from England, through continental Europe, the United States and finally to Australia – where his wife had been deported – the film is a fantastical portrait of a man whose influence on culture is still being felt.

Lasseter’s Bones

Lasseter’s Bones

Beyond Our Ken, Luke Walker’s exploration into Kenja Communications – the “self-empowerment” group and alleged cult run by Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton – stirred up significant controversy when it screened at MIFF in 2007, and was nominated for an AFI Award in 2008.

His follow-up, Lasseter’s Bones, trades quasi-religious fanatics for an outback legend stretching back over 100 years, based around the existence (or non-existence) of Lasseter’s Reef, an enourmous gold deposit reportedly discovered and subsequently lost by Harold Lasseter in 1897.

With the help of Lasseter’s eccentric elderly son Bob, who continues to search for the fabled river of gold to vindicate his father, Walker attempts to get to the bottom of a legend which has taken on a life of its own – and taken one over, too.

Make Hummus Not War

Make Hummus Not War

A documentary about a different kind of war in the Middle East, Make Hummus Not War is about, well, hummus. Specifically, which culture can lay claim to ownership of the chickpea dish, which is steeped in thousands of years of contentious history and is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history.

Veteran filmmaker Trevor Graham, who won an AFI Award in 1997 for his documentary about the life of Eddie Mabo (Mabo: Life of an Island Man), traces the history of this unlikely dish and its symbolic importance to the Arab people of the Middle East. A lawsuit brought against Israel by Lebanon in 2008 about the heritage of hummus inspired Graham to delve a little deeper into what place hummus holds in Middle Eastern culture, and maybe, its role in Middle East reconciliation.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Australia’s unofficial troubador laureate Paul Kelly has been capturing the Australian condition through his folk/rock/country music for decades, and has been called “one of the greatest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise” by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me charts Kelly’s life, loves and losses, painting an intimate picture of a private man living in the public eye. The film, directed by Ian Darling, offers an exclusive insight into the man behind the fame, his creative processes and his remarkable catalogue of music.

Stay tuned to the AFI | AACTA blog as we post further updates throughout the festival.