Long read about a short film

PART 1 — I just wanted to make something

APRIL 14TH, 2016 — POST 101

Having reached 100 posts, I’m going to try something different for my daily pieces. Instead of one idea per day, I’m going to spend a week diving into a single idea. This week will look at the short film I made in 2014 that saw a limited festival run in North America in the latter half of 2015. This isn’t a story about sweeping success, nor one of crushing failure. It is a story merely about something that happened. My intention is to write the story I wish I could have read before embarking on the process.

It started with just wanting to make something. I was on the 4-month break between my third and fourth year at uni. In 2013, I had made two shorts for a university course, one documentary and one fiction. These were spat out in rapid succession to hit assessment deadlines and I felt had suffered from the lack of consideration I was able to pay them because of it. I wanted to do something in which I would be the main engine, in which I could build out an aesthetic deliberately. Corner And The Cutman is what came of it.

Conception

I knew I had to start with a script. But even though I knew I wanted to make a film, I had very little idea about what the film would be about. I had one image in my head: two young boxers sparring on the beach under the aggressive instruction of their coach. The Tom Hardy-led Bronson had sparked some strong ideas of physical presence on-screen and of the milkiness of skin tones. The first scene I wrote was of these two boxers, but this wasn’t yet a story.

I knew that one of them had to be my protagonist though. Nearing the end of a philosophy and film theory degree, I had become obsessed with film noir and notions of autonomy (or lack their of) they often expressed. The noir B-movie Detour in which a down-and-out piano bar player hitchhikes across America exemplified to me the tragedy of not being in the driver’s seat, literally in the case of Al in Detour. I knew then that one of my boxers would too have to be a passenger along for a tragic ride with his coach as the driver.

The debt to film noir didn’t end there. Having spent so many hours watching mystery stories unfold in black and white, I wanted to try a new story model. Invariably in the course of a mystery story, there is a chasm between what the audience knows and what the characters know. I’m sure you know that feeling, when as an audience you’ve put together who the baddie is and you’re sitting frustrated waiting for your goodies to figure it out. This knowledge differential is regarded as Hitchcock’s central tool in crafting powerful moments of suspense and thrill. So once I knew I would have my boxer led astray by his coach, the rest of the story fell out of a question: what if we knew what was happening the moment the characters did?

Process

This question and the anxious energy I had when writing resulted in a ten-page non-linear screenplay being written in four hours. I remember I was watching a live-stream of staff from the gaming news site Polygon setting up and playing with the just-the-released PS4. I jumped between scenes erratically, spurred as much by the concealment of information as by the hum of video game chatter. I suddenly had a period murder mystery set in the early-50s of a fictional Australian town with a cast of five characters:

  • Charlie, young boxer
  • Rose, a girl he meets at a laundromat
  • Roger, his coach
  • Wes, his opponent
  • Clara, Wes’ fiancé

The chronology of the scenes in which these characters were introduced was loose at this first draft, often jumping between a day and a week either side between scenes. I knew I wanted no flags as to the chronology, hubristic that an audience will be able to work it out. In hindsight, this was the first misstep that would be unshakably carried through to the finished product. There are very good reasons why dates get flagged as text on the screen or flashbacks get coded with cross-dissolves. A large number of the problems with the final film come from obtuse techniques of depriving the audience of information, pushing them away from inscrutability rather than pulling them in from intrigue.

But at that point I didn’t know this. So once I had a script, it was now a case of finding the people to make it.

That’s for tomorrow.

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