What has your experience been like as a gay man in the film industry?
Pretty good, to be honest. I’m in the infancy of my film career. I was a theatre director professionally for 13 years and an actor before I went back and did postgraduate study at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School—that’s the national film school. They very much encourage your own personal, authorial voice, and the stories I was telling at that stage in my screen career were deeply personal and project my life as a gay man. I never really had a moment where that was questioned, or I didn’t really feel there were any obstacles. Both queer film festivals and mainstream festivals have been very responsive to the four, five films I put out there in circulation. I mean, obviously, on film sets things can be very “blokey,” but I’m yet to make my first feature, so all of the films that I’ve made I curated my own crew.
Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking was not just a hobby, but that it would be something you would want to pursue as a career?
I’ve been a film buff since I was a kid. I first fell in love with “E.T.,” which was my first transcendent cinema experience. I think I was six, and I was traumatized by the film, and it stuck with me. I’ve always been a total empath, so films with a deeply emotional dimension engaged me as a kid. But I also happened to fall in love with the film “Jaws,” and I became obsessed with “Jaws.” I was terrified of it. I grew up on the beach and had a phobia of the waters for years afterwards. But the magic of the movies really hit me, because I just could not work out how they got those images on the screen. So, I became obsessed with peeling back the kind of “see the wizard behind the curtain.” In the movies, there is a real wizard. So it became an obsession. It stayed with me.
Having a camera that’s available to you in the ‘80s or the ‘90s was just out of the question. My family didn’t have the money, and we had no way to afford a camera. Instead, there was a very vibrant youth theatre company near where I grew up on the south coast of New South Wales in Australia. I enrolled in drama classes, and suddenly I was up on this theatre trajectory. [At] the age of 17, 18, that company gave me an internship, basically, to be the artistic director of the youth theatre wing. I stayed there for three years and directed 30-something productions and learned how to make theatre, learned how to tell stories and learned how to communicate with actors and conceive a vision. It was an unforgettable experience, and, by the age of 20, I thought I better go, because I didn’t have a qualification, because I was teaching without a qualification. I went and enrolled in one of the national drama schools here in Australia and graduated as an actor, but then continued to direct theatre and act for 12, 13 years.
By the end of that time, I became a little disillusioned with theatre. I can’t quite articulate why. I think there’s a lot of politics, and I found it to be inward looking. So, the weekend would come, and working in professional theatre you have to be. I couldn’t bear to do it any more, and instead I was saying, “Please take me to the movies, to my friends.” That coincided with the release of the “Fellowship of the Ring,” the first film in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and that reawakened my entire childhood and teenage years as a film nut. I always continued to seek film, but theatre took so much time. So I was smitten with “Lord of the Rings” and its story world, its richness and its tone. And I thought, I really got to do something about this. So I ended up going to AFTRS, which is the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, and I did four years there in screenwriting, and then a master’s degree.
So, I can pinpoint the exact moment. “E.T.,” “Jaws,” “Lord of the Rings” and, of course, I’ve expanded my film knowledge, hugely, in the last 10 years. Now, I consider myself a bit of a film historian. I would just add that the film that hit me at a deeply personal level was “Brokeback Mountain” during that period of transition. It just floored me, that film. It accessed an unconscious part of myself and raised a lot of things I had been dealing with as a gay man, and I never considered myself oppressed. Obviously there were a couple of things growing up, but I was pretty resilient, and I had a good shield being the actor about town. That was the mask I wore. “Brokeback Mountain” helped me connect to a deep sense of shame that was obviously to myself, and I finally got some therapy and worked out a lot of my behavior problems in relationships from that film.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?
I just love films that are engaging, deeply engaging on an emotional level, and that means I love a good horror. I love being terrified. Comedy, where I laugh out loud, and I love a good cry. [Those are] the films that stay with me, the ones that I refer to as ones that retain a level of “ecstatic agony” that have that kind of catharsis that reminds us about ourselves and expands our emotional bandwidth.
They say it all starts with a good screenplay. When do you know a screenplay is ready to shoot, and what is your process of getting it there?
I never feel my screenplays are ready to shoot. I am an incredibly slow writer. I came to screenwriting late. I never saw myself as a writer, but after my first year doing post-grad directing efforts… One of the screenwriting lecturers, he has gone on to be one of my greatest mentors, Allen Palmer. He read one of my student film scripts, and he said, “You can write, and you should come and join us in one of our screenwriting clubs.” So I went, and that’s where I really learned story knowledge. I had story knowledge in my bones, my DNA, from being in theatre and so forth, but I could not necessarily articulate it or design, structure or really understand complex characterization or recognize an innately great concept and a strong thematic premise. All these things I learned really through that screenwriting program.
I always write from a personal point of view. I don’t necessarily believe in only “write what you know.” I just haven’t had a conceptual idea that takes me away from my own experience. I would say that as a criticism of my work. I need to expand, research. I did have an idea once. It involved a story set in a dog-eat-dog corporate world. I started writing it, and I could not get past page 15, because I didn’t feel I understood the parlance and the dynamics. I keep returning to stories that resonate with me. So far, every film I’ve made hasn’t explicitly been about gay themes; some have, but have featured gay characters. I go from the tip of the triangle down. I get the concept right, through the log line, three sentences, six key events, one page outline, then I start writing a screenplay. My first draft is always hard, and I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
On this film “Spoilers,” I wrote that in two weeks, and I went over to Wales with the concept and only the concept. It was deeply personal; I’d been through the most horrendous breakup of my life. I lost a year to a terrible depression. I was terrified of risking any of that again. I just shut down the possibility of intimacy and love. That was the genesis of the idea. Every time meet someone that I liked, my voice in my mind would say “don’t go there, it’ll end in tears, you’re going to get hurt badly again.” It happened to coincide with “Game of Thrones.” It was wrapping its season, and there were spoilers all over the Internet. Spoilers were a big part of the conversation, and I started thinking about that, how people fiercely guard their right to experience a story on their own terms. I sort of thought that was interesting, and I applied it to the voice in my head, and it went from there. I also set out to do something innately theatrical, because moving from theatre to film, everything is being “realism.” In fact, in the films where I tried to walk the tightrope between presentational and representational theatre modes, I hadn’t really succeeded, so I wanted to succeed at something that was flamboyant and cheeky, magical and realist, uses a lot of little tricks and has a lot of fun with format, applied to a deeply emotional story. So, I never know when I’m ready. I am always going to production freaking out, but generally once a few people have read it and they responded to the thematic premise or the vitality of the script, even if it is not structurally perfect or there are flaws… Also, I am an active-driven director, so I try to trust that we’ll solve it in rehearsal or on the day.
If there was one thing that would make the film industry better, what would it be?
That’s a really hard one. Accessibility would be really good, so we hear more diverse voices. It’s expensive to go to film school. It’s expensive to buy equipment. You need a small army to make a film. I think the kind of democratization of filmmaking with something like Tangerine is allowing all sorts of voices to come through. For me, just diversity and a bigger range of voices, and more women in technical positions.
As a creative person and a gay man, how does that affect your storytelling and the films you make?
Well, it doesn’t consciously fix them. I’m not someone with that kind of polemic approach to my work. I don’t really see my work as activism, and that’s not to take anything away from those sorts of films, which I tend to love. The film I made before “Spoilers” was called “The Dam,” and that was about two elderly gay men who had been repressed their whole life, who never told each other they loved each other. It’s the ‘50s and they never admitted it to each other. One of them was diagnosed with terminal illness, and the other comes back from overseas, and the dam bursts. That was a film that was polemic. It has something to say about repression and shame. Its premise was “don’t let shame afford your opportunity to love and be loved.” That is something I truly believe. With “Spoilers,” what I wanted was not really for the fact that the characters are gay to really influence the story. It is a universal story. It is about heartbreak, and it is about finding the courage to risk yourself again. It is asking the question: “If you knew your ending involved possible future suffering through whatever means—through breakup, through divorce, through the death of a partner—then could you find the courage to risk that again? It was a letter to myself saying, “You should risk it, because it is worth it.” I am an unashamed romantic. That’s what influences my work, and I think I would like to make work where the fact that the characters are gay is no bearing. It is a universal story.