Grant Scicluna on the set of Downriver
Australians in Film hosted a special preview of DOWNRIVER, the first feature from Melbourne filmmaker Grant Scicluna on August 9th at the Chaplin Theater at Raleigh Studios. We did a Q&A with Grant afterwards. The film opens at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills on Friday 19th August. The film will be available On Demand Tuesday 23rd August.
To give the reader’s some context to your film, can you tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Your cinema heroes? Influences? Some of the films that have had a lasting impression on you? What were your cinema reference points for Downriver?
I grew up in the Blue Mountains on a rural property where most of my childhood was spent herding cattle or daydreaming by the river. Thankfully I had an imagination and curiosity, otherwise I think the loneliness and isolation of growing up rural would have killed me. To get a good idea of me, you can remember Damien in Downriver. That kid is me at that age.
I very quickly got into Indie cinema from my pre-teens, preferring films by Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Jane Campion or Roman Polanski over the latest Spielberg or George Lucas blah blah. I saw films by Larry Clark, Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki on late night SBS during my teens. These Queer New Wave films had a huge impact on me because I felt they were about me. In these films, it was okay to be different. I was also an avid reader, mad about Shakespeare, loved music, especially classical and opera, plus I have been crazy about art and photography since I was very young. My favourite artists are Caravaggio and Mark Rothko. I think perhaps you can see both of these artists’ influence over Downriver. My mentor Bruce Beresford said the most important thing to be a director is to have a wide and varied interest in all arts.
I think there were three films that really had a big impact on my writing Downriver. One was Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver (yes, I purposely quote the writer’s name), which gave me permission to choose whoever the hell I wanted as my protagonist, the next was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in the way innocence and evil walk hand in hand in that film, and finally it was a film called The War Zone, directed by Tim Roth which so connected with me on tone and character.
In directing Downriver, I told anyone who wanted references that it was going to look like a Laszlo Baranyai (my DoP) picture. I was kind of being facetious, but there was no point thinking about other movies because I didn’t care for reference points. I think references are a trap. Carry them in your heart but forget them. In the end, Downriver looks like a Laszlo Baranyai film, despite what you might think.
Can you tell us a bit about the development process of Downriver? How long has the idea been with you and how many drafts did you go through? When did Film Victoria and Screen Australia come on board? How did producer Jannine Barnes from Happening Films become involved?
The story has been with me a long time indeed. It began as a writing assignment at RMIT in Melbourne, when I came to class and began pitching a story about a young man who gets released from prison to live with a mother who doesn’t love him. That’s how it began. The story was always about seeking redemption so that his mother forgave him. I wrote the first draft for myself. I know some writers say that, but I really did not give a shit if anyone read or liked it. I just wanted to write a script. I submitted it to the New Writers’ program at Film Victoria and they selected me. They loved that it was, in their words, brave and dark and sexual. All these elements that I think I may have toned down had I not written that first draft purely for myself. I was a product of all those movies I mentioned above and I didn’t toy with that. Over the years as I began directing short films, I kept working on Downriver and we went through six drafts with the agencies over 5-6 years.
Jannine Barnes was attached from the second draft. So she walked every step of the way with me, producing my shorts as well as holding my hand when I hit those moments when it was too hard and I thought myself not talented enough to succeed. Many times I wanted to metaphorically take Downriver into the backyard and murder it, but Jannine was always begging me differently. And in the end, when the financing turned incredible tenuous, it was Jannine who kept breathing life into it.
The film is very challenging and dark, but incredibly intriguing and captivating. What was your pitch to investors?
I always spoke about the film as being like this: when you look at death, what you’re really looking at is life. So in darkness, there is light or at least the absence of light, which still comes back to light. And so in any moment that I would discuss the darker or more challenging aspects of the film, I would also talk about what I was really saying with the film, that every human being deserves the chance at redemption.
Still, no one wanted to go near it. A film about a child killer? Plus a drama, with only tenuous mystery or thriller elements. No way! Run the numbers on that! But then Jannine and I made The Wilding, a short film which screened at Berlin and won a stack of awards and it starred Reef Ireland as a damaged kid in prison who is trying to do the right thing and people started to “get” Downriver was not about killing, it was about healing.
Can you talk a bit about the cast? You worked with Reef previously.. You have Kerry Fox, Robert Taylor and Helen Morse in the cast. How was that working with such incredible talent on first feature? What was your casting process like?
The single most important aspect of filmmaking is story and casting. Both have such profound and wide reaching power over the process of financing, making the movie, distribution and the impact on the audience. Way more impact than visual style or sound design or music or budget level or whatever. It is about story and cast.
As such, casting is the process I agonise over the most. It is a delicate juggle between finding a good performer but also really thinking deeply about how this or that performer is going to affect the audience on a level that is beyond their talent. It might be their voice, their eyes, the way they naturally carry their body. It could be their real socio-economic background or what kind of person they are to their families at home – I am referring to things the performers is trying to hide from you in the casting room. A good director sees through that and they filter it for impact.
I always tell actors to hide what the character is feeling. I don’t need the actor to show me all the bells and whistles of what they are capable of. Because, as we know from lie detector tests, the human face and the body cannot ever truly hide from us. But those tiny bubbles of emotion which an actor is (hopefully) unconscious of doing, it is that moment which plays as nuance and insight for the audience when watched on a big screen. Sometimes you have to hide your cognition of it from an actor on set, because if you tell them about it, they will overplay it.
Kerry, Robert and Helen were all offers. I auditioned none of them. Why would you? However, I spoke with each of them in advance of signing them to ensure they were on the same page as me. Kerry is very intelligent and brings a lot of herself to a role. She’s very honest about doing that. Robert Taylor does not rehearse before the shoot but has an approach to acting that is very exciting to me, about trusting the story will do the heavy lifting, so he does not need to embellish. Helen Morse is a legend. I grew up with her on my screen and I wanted that character to be “known” to us. Not in a famous way, but someone we felt we grew up with because that feeling mirrors the protagonist’s feeling.
One more thing I’ll say about actors and this will perhaps make me persona non grata. A performance is never completely directed until you are in the editing room. I pore over every take and I pinch lines from alt takes or reactions from actors when they are waiting for me to call action. A drama director creates the performance in the editing room in the way they create the scene or the sequence. Some of the performances in Downriver, not all, but even some of the very best ones, are completely Frankensteined by me and my editor Anthony Cox.
I am never surprised to see Best Editing and Best Performance nominations align at the Oscars.
Did I notice Tony Ayres from Matchbox Pictures name in the credits?
Tony script edited a draft and was an early mentor to me. I liked his early films very much. But I had three other script editors along the way. I don’t believe in working with the same script editor all the time because they have their particular strengths and limitations.
Anyone who knows me knows that my interest in filmmaking is matched by an interest in winemaking I see parallels between them all the time, especially when I’ve been drinking. In a Pinot Noir vineyard, the viticulturist plants a mixture of Pinot Noir clones. Each clone behaves in a slightly different way, giving slightly different yields, flavours, tannin or colour. Use one clone in your wine and you risk getting a wine that is one dimensional. Use a number of clones and you build complexity. You see what I’m saying?
What is next up? Any interest in TV in Australia or US? What are you currently working on?
Sure I am interested in TV. There was some talk about a spinoff of Downriver set in the US. There is a town called Downriver, which is south of Detroit, which would be perfect. One could explore Anthony’s family more deeply or the crimes of the past. That option is open if any production companies want to get in touch with me or Jannine on that. I’d like to get more experience in directing so would happily take TV drama directing work.
But I can’t help be true to my heart. I love movies. I don’t watch ongoing series. I don’t binge on TV. I watch movies. I watch documentaries. I watch the news. I come to long-running episodic with a heavy heart that it’s a kind of chore. Why? Because sticking with one story will deprive me of the chance to watch a whole host of others. Plus I love narrative. I love beginnings, middles, ends.
With the films, all my projects have one eye looking outside Australia. I’m working with writers on film projects but the script I’m writing myself is a gangster romance set in Naples and Sydney about a gangster who must prove himself with a kill or die, but then he falls in love, which kind of upsets the apple cart. We are casting for that in the US, with agents and production companies reading it now. Hopefully that will go for shooting next year.