Cult Projections: Tell me a little about your first two features, No Through Road and Esoterica; what inspired those movies? How much did they cost? How were they both received?
Sam: No Through Road is a vicious little urban thriller and Esoterica is a neo-noir film. NTR is an exploration of manhood, justice and revenge using the structure of the siege film. It’s a purposefully simple piece and was my first opportunity to tell a story in the feature film format. Surprisingly, NTR was quite well received by those who saw it and we are actually quite proud of the film. It far exceeded our expectations and was sold both domestically and internationally. With Esoterica we raised the bar for ourselves and attempted a more ambitious and complex narrative. The film is a little muddled and has been little seen. Both films were made on comparatively shoestring budgets and represent significant learning experiences on my journey as a filmmaker. The only way to learn how to tell effective screen stories is to do it. I watched movies for twenty years before my first feature and nothing could have prepared me for it. With each project I always conduct a rigorous self-assessment so the next project can be even better.
CP: What movies made you decide to become a filmmaker? Who are some of your favourite directors?
S: When I was very young I had the same populist influences, as you’d expect from a child of the 1980s: Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and Police Academy. Now that I think about it Scream had quite an influence on me as a teen. It was a film that celebrated film culture…which is not something that actually happens in Australian High Schools as far as I am aware. I even shot a rip off of it for Media class. The directors I appreciate now are Bergman, DePalma, Cronenberg, Allen, Chabrol, Pakula. Waters, Lynch ... The list goes on.
CP: Have you always enjoyed the writing part as much as the directing? What’s your favourite part of the whole production process?
S: Absolutely not. Writing is horrific. It is confusing, painful, lonely and terrifying. You have some minor wins along the way but it’s no joy. I prefer the editing process. Most filmmakers would be the same I would imagine. It is impossible to feel like you are winning on set. Editing offers the opportunity to see the film finally take shape.
CP: You’ve collaborated with Robbie Studsor on all of your features; tell me a little about your screenwriting relationship, how does it work?
S: It’s very organic really. We’re always talking on the phone about movies and sometimes we unofficially pitch ideas to each other. If something really grabs me then I’ll usually start writing synopses and treatments. I do a very detailed scene breakdown first, and then write the first draft fairly quickly. We go back and forth on drafts for a while. Then we tend to break the project apart and white board it for a while. The rewriting process is our opportunity to experiment and to talk through perceived deficiencies. We share similar interests in terms of what we think makes a good screen story but also share healthy differences in perspective. We both prefer Chabrol to Godard, he loves Fellini, I prefer Fassbinder and I think we both agree that Goodfellas is a high watermark in terms of cinematic expression.
CP: How long was the gestation process for Sororal; from the moment Robbie Studsor came up with the story to the beginning of pre-production? How long was the principal photography stage? Did you do many re-shoots or pickups?
S: It took about a year-and-a-half to write. We spoke very broadly about the genre, of maybe doing a "girl with powers" type film. I wrote the first draft, it was still called Sororal at that point. That draft introduced the characters and the basic structure of the film. Robbie’s rewrite introduced some of the more interesting themes and devices such as the exploration of "love", which I thought was a significant breakthrough. The shoot was six weeks long, mostly night shoots. The final week was put aside for pickups. It was mainly knocking off things that we had to drop, for various reasons, throughout the main shoot.
CP: In the movie’s after screening Q&A you mentioned Robbie introduced you to the world of the giallo genre. What were some of the movies he made you watch or watched with you? What were the elements of the genre that appealed to you?
S: It was more organic than that. We were working on other things and I would see DVDs at his house or he’d mention certain films consistently because he was immersed in that world due to his PhD studies. The entry point to giallo was definitely Mario Bava. Blood and Black Lace, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, “The Telephone” segment of Black Sabbath. I was aware of Argento but it was Bava’s work that helped me understand what he was trying to do with his giallo films. There are a few great titles that we would keep coming back to for various reasons; All the Colours of the Dark, Torso, Who Saw Her Die, The Case of the Bloody Iris, Paranoia. Sometimes the title is the best thing about a giallo film – Strip Nude for your Killer, Naked You Die. The best giallo films share wonderful music and fantastic cinematography so obviously I was drawn to them on a stylistic level. More importantly they offer an attitude and a wild imagination that I found very appealing.
CP: Some movies work brilliantly with little to no music, whilst others demand a more prominent soundtrack. What particular movie scores did you play to Christopher De Groot for inspiration?
S: It was an open dialogue really but I did start with Suspiria, the Main Title and Sighs [tracks] were a big influence. Morricone’s giallo work was next. There’s a couple of compilation CDs, Malto Mondo Morricone, Psycho Morricone and Morricone Giallo, which are all incredible. We moved onto synth based kraut rock like Tangerine Dream and then to Vangelis and beyond. Underlying all of this is our mutual love of Badalmenti and Goldsmith.
CP: Christopher De Groot’s soundtrack is amazing, especially considering he wasn’t familiar with that kind of music prior to composing it. Tell me a little more about his background and the way his analogue approach slotted in with your own desire for a movie in an analogue world.
S: Chris is so learned about music and musical history; he taught film composing at WAAPA so it is not like I "taught" him anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s like Leonard Bernstein mixed with John Zorn, a serious artist who is always looking to push the boundaries. He loves a challenge and relishes immersing himself in new and exciting stimuli. The synth elements were just another instrument he could experiment with really. This is not to undersell his achievement on the film. It’s the most amazing soundtrack to an Australian genre film ever.
CP: You have another symbiotic creative relationship with Ivan Davidov, your cinematographer and editor. Tell me a little about how you work on set and in the editing suite with him, is there much conflict at all?
S: Our relationship is built on respect so there’s no need for conflict. We have creative discussions and sometimes there are differing points of view. It’s then up to both of us to rationally mount a case for our ideas. Our discussions happen months before we get on set. Once we’re on set, the only things to be discussed are the most efficient shooting order of the shots for that day and maybe some minor tweaks with blocking. He’s got so much work to with lighting and managing his team that me chewing up his time is counter productive. We’ve got a highly developed shorthand in terms of communication, sometimes it is literally hand signals. Being on set is like being a camp counselor at a circus school. It’s chaos. Editing is more a like an AA meeting. It’s quiet, you drink a lot of coffee and you work out your problems day by day. Ivan is a very understanding editor. Editors have to put up with the director’s bullshit. I ride an unavoidable emotional rollercoaster throughout the editing process; it begins with the disastrous first cut of the film and doesn’t really stop. He’s still counseling me three years on.
CP: Apart from the cinematography and music, there is another nod to the giallo movies with the 70s costume design and production design. This includes the exclusion of mobile phones, part of your analogue world. I personally think mobile phones have become the dearth of modern cinema narrative, what’s your opinion?
S: I have spent the last two films exploring the idea of the analogue world and it felt appropriate to exclude phones on those grounds. After Sororal, I feel I’m ready to tackle the modern world again and whether I like it or not, mobiles are here to stay. What is apparent is that we need to get better at working with them dramatically. I’m confident the fascination with technology will wear off and we’ll get back to more human concerns.
CP: Thankfully you resisted trying to make Sororal exist in an international realm by having your actors speak with European or American accents, as some Australian features to try and enable a successful distribution in America. Yet, you cast actors with international appeal in the way they look. Tell me a little about the casting process; what was it about Amanda Woodhams that captivated you? She is a revelation.
S: The casting process was fairly simple. We just set out get the best possible cast based on our resources. We had our tentacles out everywhere. I saw Nicola Bartlett in an indie feature called Little Sparrows and thought she would be great for Dr Sosa. I had a coffee with her and cast her on the spot. I had worked with Jeremy Levi before and I really enjoy his performance style. Amanda was the key to the film obviously. She is in almost every frame so the film rests on her shoulders. What I like about Amanda is her on screen vulnerability. The old cliché rings true also in that the camera "loves her". She is magnetic to watch.
CP: She mentioned in the after screening Q&A that you had her watch a number of movies in preparation, including Carrie, Suspiria, and Dead Ringers, none of which are giallo, but I can see why you chose these movies. Tell me a few things that you love about these three movies.
S: Giallo films aren’t really that useful for the actors because they are essentially stylish exploitation pictures with sometimes dubious performances in them. I tried to get Amanda to watch films that served specific purposes. Apart from some crossovers in terms of character, Carrie has a rhythm in certain sequences I was trying to capture. It’s important for the actors to know that you’re going to be doing intricate suspense sequences; it requires different skills from them. Suspiria really does create another world and that’s something that I was also trying to capture. Outrageous things happen in Suspiria that make perfect sense, in that world. I won’t talk about Dead Ringers except to say that it is a glorious film and deftly handles elements that were very relevant to our story.
CP: You must have watched a lot of giallo now. Do you have a favourite classic giallo and a favourite neo-giallo?
S: In the final analysis I’d have to say that The Telephone segment from Black Sabbath is my favourite in terms of giallo. It’s sexy and beautifully shot by Bava. I think the simplicity is what makes it have such a lasting impact. The neo-giallo wave has really only just begun and I look forward to seeing what filmmakers do with it.