Issue No 17

Moonshine and Shotguns

BY Kaitlyn Parks

As a producer I sometimes fall hard for directors. It's a bit of a vice you see. I'm even married to one. It all started in film school, I'd fall head over heels for a good treatment or maybe a storyboard and next thing you know I'm selling my car and taking out a loan to fund their twenty five minute super 16mm film.

I don't go for any young filmmaker with a 5D and a stock lens, or even the more established Hollywood type. What stands out about Alex Murawski, besides his dreamy Australian accent, is that he truly understands how to craft a story. His work is proof that a film is the sum of its parts. He pushes all facets of filmmaking to the highest potential: camera, movement, lighting, performance, production design, sound, and he builds these layers in the pursuit of emotion and story.

His short film Kiss is a coming of age story that embodies the spirit of youth so perfectly, the cast could very well be his peers, yet there's a sense that the storyteller behind the lens is someone wise beyond his years. I'm not sure how old Alex is, and I'm too polite to ask; but I reckon we're about the same age in film years. After undergrad he went on to earn his masters at the Australian Film and Television School, and in two short years since graduating from Australia's most prestigious film school Alex has earned official selections in Cannes and Berlinale, and awards in a dozen other festivals around the world. If you haven't seen it, watch Alex's film Kiss here!

Kaitlyn Parks: I was so captivated by the performances in the first scene of Kiss, with the three characters in the car. Can you tell me how this scene came into fruition?

Alex Murawski: I'm glad you liked it! The scene itself was written in the script but in a very bare bones way. It always began in the midst of a kiss. It seemed like a very engaging way to begin the film, and I liked the idea that the story has already started and the audience quickly catches up. It was in the rehearsal process where we filled out the conflict of the main character not wanting to practice the kiss again and his best friend trying to convince him to do it. It was the hours of rehearsal that actually ended up saving the scene. We had to shoot it in an hour, and in order to get the shots I wanted, the DP had to sit in the car with the camera on his shoulder. The problem was that the camera weighs 22 kilos (nearly 50 pounds!) and his poor back was nearly crumbling under the weight. Thankfully we were shooting digital so once we were rolling I often did take after take without calling "cut," with little notes to the actors in between. All three of the actors were wonderful under pressure. Perhaps the pressure added to the scene? But really, more and more I think the rehearsal process helped a great deal. They knew exactly what they needed to do and we just had to turn on the camera.

KP: Can you tell me more about your approach with the actors? Are they all formally trained actors?

AM: Sophie Lowe, the girl that he falls in love with, plays the lead in the Alice in Wonderland pilot here in the US called Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. She had been in a film in Australia and a couple other things so I knew of her and had her slightly in mind when I was writing the film - somebody who had that quality and spirit. Both of the guys were in drama school and their background had mostly been theater work.

As for my approach, well, in casting I don't usually like to do reading of scenes - while I may still do this, it's not until the very end - first, I want to see if the actor can be still and radiate a certain feeling, or atmosphere. The majority of the rehearsal period is about improvisation and character work and less about the script itself until right at the end, when they know their character and they know their relationships.

I think that tone in performance is surprisingly underrated. For me, an actor contributes very very heavily to the feel of the film - just like cinematography or production design. So as a director you need to set a boundary, or at least a discussion about tone, about its varying levels. For Kiss I always worked one on one with the actors first to encourage a certain tone that is very internal. I don't want them to try and be interesting! Rather, I want the actor to simply feel the emotion of the given circumstance - but to not emote or try to communicate it. Just to feel it. I think there is something mysterious in people, and therefore in acting it is always better to leave something unsaid.

I broke the rehearsal into 3 sections. The first was focused on character. The actor and I discussed the character and improvised some basic scenarios. The next step was relationships. Here we did improvisations with both his best friend and also the girlfriend. Some improvisations were real, such as they all went bowling together in character, and some were abstract and more emotional - depending on what is being explored.  Finally, we improvised some of the actual scenes. We work-shopped the opening scene several times over and I would record it on tape and then rewrite the scene.

KP: Tell me about your current gig as a director attachment working under Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Double Jeopardy) on his new mini-series Bonnie & Clyde. What does it mean to be a director attachment? What is your day-to-day like on set?

AM: Basically I "shadow" Bruce - observe him direct the crew and cast - and ask him questions when necessary, without trying to annoy him too much. Day-to-day I turn up on set, and have the enviable job of simply watching the whole show being put together. I've also been shooting some behind the scenes footage.

KP: What are the biggest things, as a director, that you will take away from this experience?

AM: Well there are many things, but one of the biggest is that now I really want to go and make more films! Being on set everyday has given me a very good sense of what it takes to put together a production of this size. Executing larger scale scenes with many extras is among the things I most wanted to see. I've had the opportunity here to watch people with great experience and expertise orchestrate such scenes and this has given me a lot of confidence to jump in and do larger scale scenes with my own productions.

KP: For me, studying and working in film and production over the last decade, there's always been this divide between cinema and television. Now we see this gap closing, and it seems there's an abundance of storytelling opportunities with longer form television - and not to mention a lot of financing and support. After working on the Bonnie & Clyde mini-series, what is your perspective on TV vs. cinema?

There was a transition with TV and I see it as having a lot to do with The Sopranos, which was one of the first big series that really showed that you can do many different things with long form and narrative in television. This started a big trend in adult drama, with ambiguity or large tragic themes, death, depression and bigger issues spreading across engaging storylines. TV has also developed into something very current, a look at the economic climate in America and the western world at large. TV has definitely opened up a lot and it is definitely something I consider working in. The only thing I think TV still relies on too much is scene after scene filled with just dialogue. What separated TV and cinema back in the day was that TV would rely on heavy dialogue and exposition to get its story through and it's easy to slip back into that. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, broke through this crutch by telling stories visually, musically and through dreams.

KP: As someone who was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, and now working on location in Louisiana, are you feeling any culture shock? Any significant differences or similarities to the outback?

AM: It was a bit of a culture shock when I got off the plane and they handed me a shotgun and a glass of moonshine! Seriously though, the biggest culture shock has been all the animals and insects I have encountered here. Every day there is a new animal attacking me. The other day a goose attacked me! People say that we have the most dangerous animals in Australia, but I am a city kid so other than the zoo I rarely encounter them.

KP: Is there any particular Australian in cinema who has been an inspiration to you?

AM: Well, definitely Bruce. I also like Andrew Dominik who has made one of my favorite Australian films, Chopper, and then he came to the USA and made the amazing Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His transition and his ability to make the films that he wants on an international scale is pretty impressive.

KP: How has the Australian government encouraged a strong film community and supported emerging talent?

AM: I always feel that the Australian industry is being very critical of itself, wondering if our industry is strong or not. But when I think from a wider, more international perspective I can see that there are Australian directors who are consistently producing work viewed by an international audience. Part of the Australian film commission's job is to identify emerging talent and support them through different programs - like the one I am currently part of - as well as in the development and financing stage of projects. I think this type of support allows people to not feel so alone, or even delusional, as they work through the early stages of a project or career. Support and encouragement at this early stage can be very important to helping people see that what they are offering is unique and has some value.

KP: Going back to Kiss here for a few more questions. Coming up with the means to shoot a proper film is never easy, at any level. What compromises, if any, did you have to make in order to get it done?

AM: Overall I was able to make the film I wanted. I was aiming to combine a strong spine of conflict from the opening frame to the last with a strong feeling and atmosphere of forbidden desire and longing. Hopefully I achieved that! However, I do remember wanting to have a more roaming camera at times. Single unbroken takes where it does not cut. This is something that is very important to me for some reason, probably because it places us very much with the character and allows us to observe in real time, which seems very arresting and very human to me. Unfortunately this was not possible due to lighting difficulties and time restraints. This was disappointing at the time, but I still hope to explore aspects of this type of filmmaking in the future.

KP: Kiss taps into something special. It speaks to, and on behalf of, a generation, capturing universal emotions and themes - youth, passion, lust, self expression. I would say your skillset could transition quite well into commercials and content for brands. Is this something you have explored or are interested in?

AM: I would love to! I am currently working on a series of spec commercials and I hope that they open a few doors into the commercial world. I think the intense, focused nature of commercial work suits my personality and storytelling skills.

KP: Filmmaking is all about collaboration. Your vision and the people who help create it. Sometimes we find people that we never want to work without (if we can help it). Who are your go-to people?

AM: I have been lucky enough to work with many talented people. I loved my crew from Kiss. I have a great relationship with Danielle Boesenberg who is the editor of Kiss. We share similar tastes - both in films and food! We often have great lunches together while editing with long chats and lots of laughter. It is a real pleasure, a great combination of serious, focused work and friendship. Then there is the production designer, Lauren Richards, who is very, very good. Also the sound designer Ash Watson. And of course producer Annmaree J. Bell who I've worked with on several of my films.

KP: Top three favorite movies?

AM: This question is way too hard! I have so many favorite films and they change all the time. But a few recurring classics are: Raging Bull, The Conversation, Death in Venice and Lost in Translation. More recently I have been blown away by Hidden, Humanity, Silent Light, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. I also loved a film called Porfirio, as well as Beyond the Hills, which was my favorite film of last year.

KP: Top three favorite directors?

AM: Top 3? I can't do it! Let me try… I am thinking of Yasujiro Ozu. He has this ability to touch on life itself. I also love the Dardenne Brothers, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Carlos Reygadas, Bruno Dumont, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke and the Romanian cinema of the last decade. Scorcese's earlier work is special, as well as Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola. Did you ask for top 3, or top 30?