A couple of years ago the Aussie short The Wilding won the Iris Prize, the world’s largest LGBT short film prize. Even then there was talk of a feature film thematically inspired by that acclaimed short. Now that feature, Downriver, has completed principal photography and it’s in the hands of editor, Anthony Cox.
It’s been a bit of a bit of a change of pace for Anthony, who before heading into the editing suite for Downriver was working on the new Thunderbirds Are Go! TV series. So what exactly does an editor do, and does working within the LGBT arena make it more difficult to get a movie made? We caught up with Anthony and Downriver’s director, Grant Scicluna, to find out more about the movie and how they got it made.
I think a lot of people aren’t entirely sure what an editor does – thinking they just join bits of film together – could you explain exactly what an editor’s role is?
Anthony Cox – What a lot of people don’t realise is the creative influence an Editor has, especially when it comes to shaping the actors performances and the films overall narrative. I work closely with the Director to select takes from the actors performances that we feel are the best in service to the story we are trying to create. We go even further though, literally taking the audio we like from one take and replacing the audio of a take we like best visually. There are instances where we have taken dialogue from a totally different scene and put it in the mouths of the actors in another scene. We’ll also restructure performances by delaying responses or having the actors overlap each other in their delivery.
There are some people who believe that the editor is as important to creating a successful movie as the director or screenwriter, although with a lower profile. Do you think that’s right?
Grant Scicluna – I do think a film is born three times, once on the page, then on set and then in the editing room. Each stage has a different impact on the story. Each stage is equally as important, so yes, I do agree that editors do deserve credit as a major collaborator in the storytelling. The editor is the final person to tell the story to the audience, choosing to place emphasis on this or that. Essentially that’s what cutting a film is really about. The editor controls the final product in a substantial way. They can restructure or delete entire scenes or sequences to control the pace. They interrogate every performance beat to see if its truthful. They interrogate everything. What’s the impact of removing the first quarter of this scene? What’s the impact of taking the dialogue out of the scene entirely? These are decisions the editor makes in the edit suite which have a very real impact on the final film and can lead to its success or otherwise.
AC – Movies can live or die in the edit – depending on what you want of course! As an Editor I come from an objective point of view in looking at the rushes and see the film that has been shot, not necessarily as scripted. I have a deep appreciation for cinema and so too does Grant, we try to apply our knowledge of what makes cinema successful to the project but then we like to break those rules as well to give a film its own voice.
Many Director’s work with the same Editors, Kirk Baxter works with David Fincher, Thelma Schoonmaker works with Martin Scorsese and the late Sally Menke worked with Quentin Tarantino, they build up a dialogue and a unique working method, so I don’t believe it is just an Editor who is important to creating a successful movie but the pairing of Editors with Directors who have a level of understanding of what each other can bring to the process.
How did you become an editor? Was that always the part of the film world you wanted to get into?
AC – I never grew up wanting to be an Editor but I knew I wanted to make movies. I eventually went to film school and enrolled in a writing/directing course. During the course I enjoyed the process of being involved in student films but did not enjoy directing my own projects. I have always had a love for technology, being quite computer savvy and at the time I was finishing film school Final Cut Pro had become an industry tool and Avid Media Composer more widely available and filmmaking transitioned from film to digital. I realised that I could still make movies on a computer and work with Directors and still tell a story. It combined my two loves film and technology. I’ve always said I prefer my coffee at 10am in an air-conditioned suite rather than at 6am on location somewhere freezing!
You’re working on a feature film called Downriver at the moment, which has just wrapped production, can you tell us a bit about it?
GS – Downriver is a mystery drama about the search for the missing body of a toddler who drowned in a river. The young man who was charged with his drowning gets paroled and sets out to try and discover what became of his victim’s body. The other boy involved in the drowning was never charged and possibly holds the keys to the mystery. It’s an unusual take on the detective genre because the detective is the killer and trying to piece together his own crime as a search for redemption.
It’s linked to The Wilding, which won the Iris Prize LGBT short film award. How are they linked together?
GS – The Wilding was an indicator into the themes and feel of Downriver although the stories they tell are not the same. The lead characters are similar, indeed even played by the same actor Reef Ireland. Thematically, The Wilding was an exploration of love in a violent locale, with a strong moral code at its heart. So too Downriver is at its heart a moral exploration of what it is to be human, seen through a story of friendship threatened by the escalating danger of unchecked violence. The story designs are the same, what they are about is the same, but what actually happens is entirely different.
It’s notoriously difficult to get decent funding for films with LGBT themes, but Downriver secured some cash via Screen Australia. Is that an anomaly due to them liking this particular film, or is Australia better than many countries at supporting various different types of movie, including gay-themed films?
GS – I think it’s just notoriously difficult to get funding for films full stop, irrespective of content. Screen Australia were big fans of what we did with The Wilding and so were then very supportive of our concept for Downriver. The LGBT themes were not the sticking point for whether or not we would be funded, the problem they pondered was whether a story with a murderer as a central character would translate into an emotional experience for the audience. That was the big risk.
While many of the same people have been working on both The Wilding and Downriver, has making a feature-length film been much different to the earlier short, or is it similar but on an expanded canvas?
GS – I just approach it the same way, a kind of scene by scene, day by day approach. The personal stamina required to shoot the feature is obviously more taxing. It’s a marathon compared to a sprint. I don’t eat when I shoot. I also break out in hideous skin conditions. By the end, I felt like directing the film like the Elephant Man, with a just a hessian bag over my head.
Do you have a particular interest/passion for telling stories that touch on LGBT themes. Do you feel it’s an underserved area of cinema?
GS – No, I don’t think it’s underserved. There are a myriad of LGBT films made each year. My beef is that LGBT cinema has become a genre in its own right, which has been incredibly limiting. In the beginning, the queer filmmakers didn’t set out to make a queer film. They just made films that were on the edge, that pushed definitions, challenged and provoked. Those were the filmmakers who inspired me. I’m talking about those who kickstarted what came to be called the “queer new wave.” It was the best and worst thing because it increased the visibility of LGBT characters but it started defining itself into a genre. That was a mistake in my opinion. Queer film is not and should not be a genre. It shouldn’t have conventions by definition. I’m interested in making films that weave homoeroticism or outright LGBT themes through an otherwise non-queer-related narrative. That’s the kind of LGBT cinema I’m interested in.
Anthony, you’ve worked with director Grant Scicluna on several projects. How did your working relationship begin?
AC – I replied to an ad on a filmmaking forum – at the time I was living in Sydney and Grant was in Melbourne so we actually worked apart, I cut by myself and sent down reviews to him. Grant must have liked me because he asked me to cut The Wilding which was the first time I ever got paid on a short film. Again we worked interstate until the final week where Grant flew up and stayed with me in the final few days before delivery. The Wilding became very successful and I won an Australian Screen Editor’s award for my work on it, I attribute Grant to that because he allows me a lot of creative freedom to explore different approaches in the edit.
On Downriver we joked that this would be the end of our working relationship as I was finally based in Melbourne and able to cut at DDP Studios here which meant we’d be in the same room together! But as it turns out we had a great time cutting the film and it was really beneficial as we were able to bounce ideas of each other and try things out instantly.
What’s the actual process you and Grant use when you’re working together. Do you edit as he shoots? Are you on the set?
AC – I was actually on another production in New Zealand during the shoot and had an assembly editor, Paula Zorgdrager, handling the rushes as they came in and creating sequences of the scenes ready for me to take over. At the same time, the rushes were being uploaded to a server that I could view at night on my laptop so I was totally across them. I flew in to Melbourne the week after principal wrapped and had one week to do my assembly of the film. Time was of the essence so the assembly was very rough but it was the only time I was by myself. After that our schedule was for eight weeks of cutting in which Grant sat in every day from 8am to 6pm.
Our process is very organic, we look at every take together in a scene, assemble it based on the performances we both like and then we cut it together. He’ll bring things to the table that I did not expect and the other way around. I got one day a week to myself, I called this my “creative day” where I would just go ahead and play around with the scenes. The next day I’d always be excited as I had discovered something and I couldn’t wait to show Grant. He’d always be open to my “discovery” and after a bit of reworking we’d find something that we both responded to, in Downriver’s case it was the disassociation of the sound and picture (we have used extreme examples of backlay and forwardlay to lead in and out of scenes as well as moments of intercutting). We had plenty of discussions and mountains of coffee, always talking, trying, watching, reviewing. We never once were unhappy with the films direction, always trying to push it further and further till we eventually picture locked.
Towards the end we made sure we reviewed it as much as possible in the cinema here and of course incorporate feedback, but we created a film that we are all happy with and very much enjoyed the process of.
It’s still not a big budget film – indeed there was more money behind another project you’ve recently been working on, the revamped Thunderbirds TV series – so is making films like Downriver and The Wilding a labour of love for people like yourself, while other projects ‘pay the bills’?
AC – Scripts like The Wilding and Downriver don’t come across your lap very often, these are definitely labour’s of love, not because of money but because of their stories and subject matter. Grant writes about themes I really respond to, they are the sort I like to go and see – explorations of character and story that isn’t shy about being honest and true to its subject matter. Although some of the bigger productions such as network TV seem to be there to just “pay the bills” they each have their own pros and cons just as the independent ones do. I’m always surprised about how much I learn walking onto a new job and I don’t sign up to a project just for the money – If something is interesting and new I want to be a part of it.
Thunderbirds Are Go! is an extremely different proposition to a movie like Downriver. Is it difficult to jump from one type of project to another like that. Do you have to bring different sensibilities, or is it still all about the story?
AC – Thunderbirds Are Go! is a TV series coming out mid-year aimed at young children, it is really pushing the boundaries of children’s TV and what can be achieved with a mixture of miniatures and visual effects. Downriver is an independent film dealing with very heavy adult themes aimed at a completely different market. For me it is not so hard to switch between one type of project to another, because I always approach each project with an open mind and accept it for what it is. I look at the story first and what purpose it sets to achieve and definitely adjust my edit style to compensate. I love working on projects that are world’s apart, it’s keeps my skills fresh and me interested in my job. If I were to work on the same type of project all the time I’d get bored! I like to challenge myself and certainly these last two years has seen my career take that next step in terms of the quality and type of productions I’ve worked on.
Grant, what are you working on next?
GS – I’m writing an adaptation of Peter Robb’s Italian-Australian crime novella Pig’s Blood about a revenge killing set in the world of celebrity chefs.
Anthony, do you think you and Grant will work together again in the future?
AC – I hope so! As I mentioned earlier, I love working with Grant because I love the stories he tells and as a filmmaker I love his approach to the editing process. Everything seems so natural and easy with him although we are often dealing with quite complex issues, from the logistics of filmmaking to the themes he writes about. I really hope he gets another project up soon. I think the industry and in particular the LGBT community have a great voice in Grant amongst them. Grant is someone who is not afraid to write about things portrayed in an honest light. It’s always great to hear feedback from people who have seen his work, it’s means they’re excited and I’m always excited when I read a new script from Grant so hopefully this is not the last project you’ll see from us.
When do you hope Downriver will be ready to hit the screen?
GS – Either late 2015 or early 2016. Go to our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/downriverfilm or Twitter http://www.twitter.com/DownriverFilm to stay up to date.