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.

A new kind of intimacy: Tony Krawitz, director of The Tall Man

Tony Krawitz

Tony Krawitz, writer and director of 'The Tall Man'.

Tony Krawitz is best known within the Australian film and television industry as the young South African-born writer and director of the acclaimed short feature Jewboy, a stunningly accomplished piece about a Chassidic taxi driver working in Bondi and experiencing a crisis of faith. The film premiered at Cannes and won three AFI Awards, including two for Krawitz himself – for Best Screenplay in a Short Film and Best Short Fiction Film (shared with Liz Watts). An AFTRS graduate, Krawitz has since been working predominantly in local television drama (including City Homicide, All Saints, The Silence and The Surgeon), but what’s putting him in the spotlight right now is his first foray into documentary, The Tall Man. Already, the film has premiered as an official selection at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, and has been announced as one of the four Nominees for the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary – and that’s all ahead of an Australian theatrical release on 17 November.

The Tall Man is produced by Darren Dale (company director of Blackfella Films, Australia’s premier Indigenous production company and long time producer for SBS) and based on the non fiction book by Chloe Hooper. It’s a sobering but gripping examination of the case of Cameron Doomadgee, an Indigenous man living on Palm Island in Far North Queensland, who on 19 November 2004 reportedly swore at a police officer, Senior Sargeant Chris Hurley, and 45 minutes later, lay dead in a police cell, with massive internal injuries likened to those of a fatal car crash victim. The outraged Palm Islanders rioted and burnt down the police station, but subsequent investigations never resulted in a conviction of the policeman. What they did result in, was a galvanising of the entire Queensland Police Force, who came out in support of their fellow officer, amidst accusations of collusion and mishandling of the case.

The Tall Man investigates these events and the legal case around them, but the focus is firmly on the people whose lives have been most affected by the tragedy – Doomadgee’s family, friends and the island’s community. In the interview below, Tony Krawitz talks about the process of gaining trust, exploring grief, and attempting to grapple with the paradox that Palm Island is both paradise and prison to those Indigenous people who live there.

AFI: Congratulations on your film’s nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary. One of the striking things about the film is its visual beauty despite the harshness of the story (and we should mention Director of Photography, Germain McMicking here). Can you talk about the look you were aiming for?

Tony Krawitz: The look came about organically through doing the research. Palm Island is just such a beautiful place. And yes, the story is such a sad tragic story that we thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to show the beauty. It’s kind of ironic that it looks like a picture postcard and yet something so bad happened that day. Also the film is so upsetting at times that we wanted to show the positive aspects of life on the island as well – those amazing kids and their grandparents, having karaoke nights and good times.

AFI: What was the significance of the scenes of a man on horseback that recur throughout the film? Are there a lot of horses on Palm Island?

Tony Krawitz: Yes, there are a lot of wild horses – maybe thousands on the island. We drove to the top of the mountain one day and there were about 50 horses up there, a whole big family of them. And some people keep them. Otherwise, they let the horses roam free and they know certain ones, and some afternoons after school kids just go and lasso a horse and go riding. So it’s got this great freedom to it. But in terms of structure, that guy riding on the horse symbolises the great sense of freedom about Cameron Doomadgee. The people who knew him describe him as quite a free spirited person.  He loved horse riding, and loved going to the neighbouring island and hunting and fishing for days at a time, and diving, and all those kinds of things. Seeing a man looking free on horseback just reminded me of Cameron and what I’d heard of him. It’s just that mix that people talk about on Palm Island – of being really free because it’s like country life, away from the city – and then feeling completely trapped because they are on an island, and feeling like they’re under the control of the police.

The Tall Man publicity still

Wild horses roam free on Palm Island - a place that is both paradise and prison. Image from 'The Tall Man'.

AFI: How closely did you follow the Chloe Hooper book upon which the film is based?

Tony Krawitz: I’m not sure how close it is anymore, because I know that book backwards. I’m a big fan of the book and the film is quite similar in a lot of ways – obviously the events are the same. The big difference is that Chloe was at a lot of the events, so in the book she’s describing being in the courtroom day by day, what each day is like, how people are feeling, and it’s happening in the present. Whereas in the film, all the people we’re interviewing are looking back at the events and commenting on those events. It’s in the past.  That’s one of the biggest differences. In my mind they complement each other.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule like for this film? How much time did you spend on Palm Island?

Tony Krawitz: I don’t remember exactly because we finished shooting at the end of last year. We went there about five times. We went there quite a lot. Sometimes we just went there so people could get to know us more and find out what we were doing. We filmed over at least a year.

AFI: Were people happy to talk to you? Were they glad this film was being made or were they difficult to win over?

Tony Krawitz: Everyone was happy, especially the family. I’m a whitey, so the company that hired me was an Indigenous film company, and they work obviously in Indigenous communities a lot. So everyone knew this was going to be a film made by Indigenous people, but with a white director on board. Most people just felt that nobody in the media had really spoken about Cameron as a person, with a life and a family, but that they’d just spoken about his death and the day that led up to that. They were really happy that the film would talk about those important events leading up to the tragedy and that day of his death, but that it would also be a celebration of his life.

Darren Dale producer of The Tall Man

'A man who needs four mobile phone batteries' - producer Darren Dale.

AFI:  Can you talk a little bit about your producer Darren Dale and how you came to be working with him?

Tony Krawitz: Darren and I met through mutual friends over the years and I’ve  known him through workshops with young Aboriginal filmmakers. So we’ve known each other for some time but we hadn’t worked together before. He just called me up one day and asked me if I was interested and gave me the book to read. He is quite extraordinary. He’s one of the busiest people I know.

AFI: His credits are quite extensive – including short films for Warwick Thornton and Beck Cole, and First Australians for SBS and producing the Message Sticks festival…

Tony Krawitz: He’s great. He needs four extra batteries for his mobile phone – especially when we were up in Palm Island! He was dealing with a lot. It was a really small crew and very hard work. But as much as it was a very tragic time, we also had an incredible time of being with the family who were just so gracious with us – inviting us to their house, taking us fishing, daily life stuff that wasn’t just about the filmmaking.

AFI: Had you been involved in documentary filmmaking before?

Tony Krawitz:  I made a short seven minute documentary at university, and then I researched a documentary that never got made. So I’ve always been interested in making documentaries, but this is the first long one I’ve made.

AFI: You’ve made a short feature and lots of television, but how was this particular film different from your other experiences as a director?

Tony Krawitz: It was really great actually. It’s quite a profound experience to have strangers tell you their stories and invite you into their homes. There’s a level of intimacy that’s quite different to working in fiction. With this particular story it was tough because you’re dealing with people’s grief. It’s not like the subject matter is really easy – you have to ask people really tough questions. But it was a privilege.

AFI: In past interviews you have spoken about how you grew up in South Africa and the situation of the Indigenous people in Queensland reminded you of apartheid South Africa. That’s a pretty strong criticism.

Cameron Doomadgee from The Tall Man documentary

Cameron Doomadgee as a young man (right, in Australian flag t-shirt), from Tony Krawitz's documentary 'The Tall Man'.

Tony Krawitz: Yes. That’s what Aboriginal people were saying to me too, so that’s not just me making it up. Also from reading Chloe’s book and talking to Aboriginal activists or people who have to deal with life in remote communities, it’s clear that Australia is a tough place for Indigenous people. For me as an outsider to it, it reminded me of apartheid. I grew up in a privileged position under apartheid, but I was back in South Africa recently for two years, which was really interesting. South Africa and Australia share a similar colonial history, and when you look at the history of a place like Palm Island, you discover that it was a bit like a penal colony. It was set up for recalcitrant natives in the 1920s, and people were in dormitories. When I was interviewing older people in the documentary, who grew up in the dormitories, you see that people are still living with the after-effects of colonialism and they’re on this island where they feel like they’re living under a police state. You can argue the actual specifics of apartheid and apartheid law and how it’s different to the situation of Indigenous people  – you can argue the nitty gritty of it – but the overall feeling that people have has striking similarities.

AFI: One of the points the film makes is the huge power of the police. And when the police collude, it’s very difficult to fight that, and whether you’re Aboriginal or white, you could be in that position of powerlessness.

Tony Krawitz: Yes, and that happens. In Far North Queensland it’s so common for Aboriginal people to talk about things like being pulled over by the police just because of the colour of their skin. The only people who wouldn’t talk to us for the documentary (apart from the police!) were Aboriginal people who were too scared to talk to us because they thought the cops might see them and beat them up one dark night! So that’s a real kind of fear up north.

AFI: Are you concerned about how the police will view the film?

Tony Krawitz: It will be interesting to see how the police react to it. We’re not uncovering new evidence. Everything in the film has already been spoken about. It’s not an investigative documentary in that sense, it’s more about going through the emotional side of the case. So we’re not trying to make [policeman] Chris Hurley out to be some kind of demon, just to show him as a flawed human being, as we’re all flawed human beings.

AFI: The sound design and the score for the film are really atmospheric, creating both a sense of beauty, sadness and menace. Sam Petty was the Sound Designer, and Antony Partos and David McCormack did the music. You’d worked with them before?

Tony Krawitz: I’ve worked with Sam a lot. But not Antony and David before. It was quite hard in a way – we just wanted to make the people who are the subjects of the film the focus and not go too heavy on sound design or music. We didn’t want to make it too overly emotional. I was just lucky to be able to collaborate with them. I think they did a great job. We wanted to find a balance to not let the score be the main thing – finding a way to add to the experience, but still giving the interviewees the space to say things in their own words.

AFI: Right now you’re working on shooting a feature film adaptation of Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. That’s quite a full-on book! 

Tony Krawitz: Yes it is pretty full on! And really hard to adapt. Right now I’m in the office and there are people running around madly getting ready for it. We start the shoot in Sydney for the Australian parts of the story and then we go to Europe, but it’s all very exciting and it’s a great challenge.

AFI: We look forward to seeing it. Best wishes for The Tall Man too, and thanks for your time.

The Tall Man releases nationally 17 November through Hopscotch.

The Tall Man is one of the four films nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary at the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards, with winners announced January 2012. Click through for A Closer Look at the Nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary.