On the heels of Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours (2017) and Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius (2018) comes Ted Wilson’s Under the Cover of Cloud (2018), the latest in a string of notable Australian films made by emerging filmmakers without the assistance of traditional funding bodies. Written, directed and produced by Wilson (b. 1980), Under the Cover of Cloud was self-financed, with a micro-budget of AU$80,000.
With no intention to slight the sensitively crafted feature, it’s fair to say it’s shaggy charms are defined by these working conditions. Shot in Tasmania in April 2016 – using a skeleton crew and starring Wilson’s own family as themselves – Under the Cover of Cloud joins a tradition of DIY filmmaking underscored by friendship. As advocated by contemporaries such as Ben Rivers, the pleasures involved in unhurriedly making a film together with friends and loved ones become indivisible from the sunny, playful result.
Wilson is a seasoned actor (with roles in theatre and stand-up to Officeworks TV commercials) and a comical, larger-than-life presence in his film, appearing in every scene. In the opening sequence he boards the Spirit of Tasmania ferry, while his voice-over narration informs us he recently lost his job in Melbourne as a columnist for a magazine, and the timing felt right to return to Hobart. When he reaches the sanctuary of the family home, he tells them his new idea is to write a literary book about cricket, about Tasmanian batsmen particularly. With ticklish sincerity, this desire elicits the vague goal of wanting to meet Tasmanian cricketing great David Boon, aka ‘Boonie’.
The highly improvised film thus wends its way through loping, leisurely conversations between Wilson and various family members – most memorably his sister Jessie and mother Colleen – as he ostensibly tries to get to ‘Boonie’. In doing so, the film examines that rare phenomenon of families who actually get along. Happy families may indeed all be alike – and a whiff of normy culture hangs, some might say naively, over Wilson’s feel-good family portrait – but there’s undeniable charm in lounging about and killing time in their company, as they gossip and garden, eat, drink, laugh. The eclectic potpourri of influences that Wilson and his editor James Vaughan mentioned to me – filmmakers like Ozu and Wang Bing; writers Gerald Murnane and Nabokov; a book of Monet’s water lily paintings that Wilson brought along to the shoot; as well as the absorbing experience of watching an entire cricket test match – makes sense after being immersed in the film’s languid rhythms.
Against this peaceful world, Wilson lands as the under-employed Millennial. He sports gold-framed glasses and indie-rock facial hair, and sticks out against the gum trees like a sore thumb. This tension is part of the reason the minimalist film is surprisingly so gripping. Throughout, there’s a niggling feeling this Pnin-like character is leading us on a merry dance. At one point he sits in his sister’s garden in his pyjamas, clutching a pen and notebook, smoking a cigar. “Borges said something about writing being the product of laziness,” he narrates. “That you couldn’t really write if you weren’t lazy… or something. I think it was something to do with leisure time, idle time.” His voice trails off as he abandons his writing to chase the chickens around the grass.
A few days after the film’s premiere, I spoke to Wilson together with his editor and fellow filmmaker James Vaughan, about the long process of finding the film’s shape, including editing a film in hospital on a paid medical trial, and lying to your family.
Ted, you’ve been working on Under the Cover of Cloud for many years now. When did you get James involved?
Ted Wilson: Well, three years total to now. I got James involved about six months in. I’d previously asked James to edit my next piece of work, and he’d declined – probably because he wanted to focus on his own stuff as a director – but he agreed to be an editing consultant.
I asked him to come down [to Tasmania] as a director’s attachment – because I was in every scene, I also wanted to have a couple of directors who I trusted, who were just free, not with any other role than to bounce ideas. James, Isaac Wall and Alena Lodkina came; I tried to get Audrey Lam as well, but she was busy. So James came down and worked on the film, and I think it grew on you…
James Vaughan: I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t planned on being involved but after going I had no choice. I was fascinated and inspired by it, even though the methodology is so different, even opposite, to the way I want to work.
The shoot was very improvisational, right? Was there much of a script?
TW: We had a 14-page treatment. I think I gave my assembly editor a breakdown of the film, which was six lines total, that he had to work with.
JV: It was mostly pictures, the treatment. Pictures that didn’t mean a lot either, you know? [Laughs.]
This sounds a lot like Albert’s Serra’s script for Birdsong (2008). Each page had just one or two lines of text and then a hand-drawn picture of say, an angel. Like Serra, you seem to have gathered a crew of people you trust, which enables you to create a dynamic atmosphere despite the casual air of the production.
TW: [Laughs.] This is a point I think is important, which goes back to the whole improvisational thing; I’ve been a performer for so long, I have over 20 years’ experience in theatre and stand-up – and then I did a Masters of Screenwriting at the VCA, and that gave me a real confidence with story. But because of this improvisational background I’m very comfortable making decisions instinctively.
Even though there’s a looseness to the film, I always knew what the core was. If I hadn’t known what the journey was, it wouldn’t have worked, it would’ve got lost. I had this real confidence that if I could make my family feel comfortable then it’d be really magic, and that the contrast of my world view to theirs would be sufficient to keep the film engaging and dramatic.
Did you have particular strategies to make them comfortable?
JV: I guess you being yourself was always the truth, and that never changed.
TW: That was always one of the keys to getting my family on board. They were like, Ted’s wearing his clothes and being himself.
JV: But then there were these white lies used throughout to create the narrative. A big bag of tricks. [Laughs.] Only Ted really knew what was above board and what was below board, what would be told to people in advance.
It was interesting to me, because I can get a bit fretful; ‘This person doesn’t know this detail about Ted’s character or the plot; is that going to be okay? Maybe we should tell them?’ But Ted seemed to have a special instinct for when it’s okay to lie, and when it’s important to not. What kinds of lies were immaterial… That it’s okay to play a bit of a game.
Can you give me an example?
TW: Telling them about ‘the book’. Or about wanting to get to Boonie, asking how can we get to Boonie. But also we didn’t have Boonie [confirmed to appear in the film] then, so in reality there was still an ongoing journey of trying to get to him.
JV: There were a lot of people in and around the film who were very confused by what was going on. Like, was there ever actually a book?
That’s a question I was left with at the end.
JV: Ted’s family, who are obviously such beautiful evidence of how close he is to them, they didn’t really know either.
TW: I guess the reason they weren’t put off by these occasional white lies was that we shot so much footage with them that it’d only be every now and then that I’d bring in ‘the book’, so it wasn’t noticeable…
Even the person who’d been working on the project with me the longest was my DOP Joshua Aylett, and there’s a scene (not in the film) where we went up the mountain: I drove a van through the clouds and got to the observation deck and look out and just see clouds everywhere, and then this woman came up beside me and started singing this beautiful song, like an angel – “I will carry you in my heart”– and I started crying. At that point, Josh turned, and he’s like, “He set this up, he definitely set this up.” [Laughs] I hadn’t, but he was getting paranoid.
These strategies also worked to put your family at ease so that they appear on screen, we imagine, as lovably as they do to you in real life. Perhaps it’s because of the more casual way the film’s made, but your affection for your family comes through powerfully. Was this always your intention?
TW: Totally. This was part of a reflection on hipster Jarmusch and post-Jarmusch films where there’s just not enough heart. I thought that, you know, we would have love. And just the love of the family would work. Also, I’ve always hated the tacked-on romance. It’s nice for me not to have a romantic thread. It’s about the love for my younger sister, my love for my mum, and more generally my family.
If you’re seeking any romantic figure, it’s Boonie.
TW: Yeah. [Laughs.] Or it could be ‘the book’.
JV: You could insert almost anything there. Boonie is this figure who could be anything and anyone. Ted talks about him in the sketchy way he talks about the book throughout the film; he’s grasping at an ideal.
I think I’d accepted he was a mythic figure who’d remain unseen – there’s the great shot with the oil paintings of all the cricketing legends, for example – so I was surprised when he did appear.
TW: But I love that he does come into it! And you know, we talked for fifty minutes but what we’ve chosen to keep in the film is when we just talk about our families. And he compliments the hockey grounds. [Laughs.]
It’s another way that the film manages to collapse the fierce cultural divide between the worlds of sport and art. It’s not something you see often in Australian cinema.
TW: Darn it, yes, this is what I wanted to do! I hate hipsters saying, “I hate footy.” I wanted to unite sport and art, in the sense that that’s what my character’s trying to do. I wanted to bring them together and have people think about how there are similarities. And even to have David Boon in an arthouse film… [Grins].
JV: If you are going to make a film about, an honest survey of what it means to be Australian, you almost can’t exclude sport. Or, at least, for the both of us, because we do love sport.
TW: And we love the artistry of it.
JV: Whenever I try to explain who hate sport what I love about it, I stop halfway because it sounds ridiculous. But last night someone was comparing it the other way round, saying the art world was just like sport, really: you learn a few rules and a couple of the big players, and then you go in, and it’s just about what is happening in front of you. It’s that experience of being present with something that is real.
TW: The Monet book! But on that, one of the things about test cricket in particular is that to watch a test match takes five days. So you’re spending a lot of time with the characters – it’s like watching seven seasons of Mad Men or whatever – and you really commit to the narrative. The other thing is that it’s an unpredictable plot, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
JW: And there’s no faking anything; what happens is what happens.
Is it right to say then that the immersive mood of the film is at all inspired by the experience watching a test match?
TW: Yeah, that was always a reference. We wanted it to feel like you’re spending time with my team.
On the other side of this is the film’s very vocal love of literature. I wanted to ask about Gerald Murnane, whom you thank in the credits.
TW: Murnane is a very big influence, and that’s why I thanked him. Because he really fused European modernist literature with an Australian thing, and that’s what I feel we’ve done.
JV: Not trying to paint a picture of Australia but letting it speak for itself. It’s a different mentality. A lot of Australian films try to make commentary about Australia but this doesn’t.
Murnane’s writing reminds me of your film, Ted, because it’s both banal and deeply lyrical, but it’d never be described as realist. I wondered if his essay where he takes a ferry to Tasmania, drinking ‘stubbies’ [The Interior of Gaaldine], perhaps inspired the opening of your film?
TW: Actually, the reason we have that opening is because we had to take the gear over on the boat. [Laughs] But his book The Plains (1982) was a road map for the film. It’s an inversion, in that that was about a filmmaker leaving the city to make a film about the nature of the landscape, and this is a film about the making of a book.
It goes back to the point before: the book is the film because what description of the book I give at the start is a literal description of the film. I wanted to write something beautiful about cricket, a piece of literary non-fiction that is somehow about Tasmania and upper-order batsmen, and from the heart. In a sense, the film is literary non-fiction, heartfelt, a little bit about Tasmania.
Of course, Tasmania is part of it, but had my family been in Wollongong… I don’t think the sense of place is what’s fundamental about the story.
You shot over 50 hours of footage. How did you go about finding the story within this mass, in what was only ever a rather loose narrative?
JV: The film’s about Ted and, in a quite conventional way, his hero’s journey, but also about the richness of the world around him. It totally rests upon that. It was about getting the balance right.
How long did the editing process take?
TW: All up, about 15 months. That’s the advantage of not having money involved or running a budget, or having some kind of deadline with distribution. We needed the time with this film, it was so, so big.
JV: I started off with a 14 ½ hour edit. At the midway point we got this down to a 5-hour cut. I was doing this paid medical trial in Melbourne in the Alfred Hospital. Ted would come visit me. They let me set-up in the common room, and it’s a tough space to work in. You’ve got a lot of people playing GTA til 4am, people with bad theories. It would’ve been great having some noise-cancelling headphones. You have to stay in there, and I got one walk – like a dog, you get taken for one walk. I didn’t talk to anyone.
It’s far from an ideal workspace, but I guess it functioned for you like an artist residency, right?
JV: To be honest that’s how I felt, and I idealised it in that way. I got heaps of stuff done. Got a bit fat. But came out with a 5-hour cut.
TW: It might be interesting to talk about the issues we had with the believability of my character?
JV: It was something we were battling early on.
TW: For me, one of the influences was Nabokov and unreliable narration. I wanted the film to always have a bit of a greyness, I even said to Josh, my DOP, “Sometimes I want to look attractive, and sometimes I want to look ugly.” And I think there is that: there’s me eating muesli, and there’s the ‘Mr. Darcy in the rain’ kind of stuff.
But [in earlier cuts] it was getting too comical. Whereas I wanted the audience to go ‘Oh, I don’t know’…
Let me maybe ask you then, James – is that the real Ted we’re watching on screen? Or a fictionalised caricature?
JV: [Laughs] No, I think it is Ted. Definitely. There’s very little artifice there. The whole film rests on his amazing ability to be himself in that very strange, high-pressure environment.
Future screenings of Under the Cover of Cloud include the NSW premiere at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival (SWIFF) in January, and the Tasmanian premiere as part of the Breath of Fresh Air Festival (BOFA) in May. The film will be released in Australian cinemas through Bonsai Films in early 2019.