It’s a hot weekend in an Australian city, and getting hotter and more stifling by the minute. A young man chases his dog across the railway tracks at the back of his house and is killed by a train. The tragedy is witnessed by Meryl (Justine Clarke), a young artist returning from her dad’s funeral. Later, a newspaper photographer, Nick (William McInnes), turns up to shoot a few desultory stills. The ripples that spread from these chance conjunctions form the plot motor for this complex and intriguing movie, the circling narratives strongly reflecting the pre-occupations of writer-director Sarah Watt:
I remember sitting on a train, thinking about what my fellow travellers weren’t revealing to me … whether they were on the brink of something wonderful or something terrible, whether anyone is ever in neutral mode … whether knowledge held by one person could potentially help another.
I also imagined our train hurtling over the pathetically insubstantial railing on the bridge, and into the chemical storage facility below – killing us all in a poisonous inferno. I thought about whether anyone else was feeling the same way. (1)
Timor mortis conturbat me [William Dunbar]
When, during the July 2004 post-production of Look Both Ways, Watt was diagnosed with cancer, it might have seemed a visitation from all the themes of the film in one terrible and ironic moment. For the movie is filled with the fear of death, and in its small suburban world reveals the tremors of mortality that visit the most diurnal and mundane of lives.
“The Real McInnes” (ABC TV: Australian Story, 20 June 2005) ends with husband and wife Sarah Watt and William McInnes (male lead of Look Both Ways) discussing in their restrained and matter-of-fact way the effect that this cold event has had on their laidback, inner-suburban existence in Melbourne’s oddly gentrifying Footscray.
If you had only seen a few Australian features in the past years, you might have felt that the bowling club or the suburban railway station had emerged as master images, and perhaps almost universal metaphors, for the falling away of that generation which fought in World War II and produced the baby boomers. The gentle and surreal Road to Nhill (Sue Brooks, 1997) was one way of looking at the passing of a whole way of life, and now Look Both Ways represents the suburban idyll as something laced with all the threats and terrors of a more dramatic existence on the very edges of civilization. The story suggests that civilization is no protection against death itself, any more than a Hills Hoist or a Victa Mower. Ray Argall’s crisp and fluid cinematography captures both a sense of heat and of inner-urban decay to the point of absolute entropy – an intended effect that palpably comes off in every frame of this controlled work, where almost no signifier is either floating or obtuse.
Road to Nhill, a similarly mortality-haunted little Aussie movie, is anything but driven by humour or a concern for the future of lawn bowls clubs; rather, it is powered by sheer whimsy. To read the published script is to sense that this might well be a record of screen actions left out from Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1995), the minutiæ of lives that occur as an inaudible hum in the background of (slightly) more dramatic rural events.
The published screenplay of Road to Nhill opens with the (familiar) device of a zoom in on the planet Earth to discover Nhill, a place that has no referents, sitting in the dust of Victoria like a child’s railway layout, temporarily anchored. Like Alison Tilson’s script for Road to Nhill, Watt’s Look Both Ways tells a story that is all about the spaces between words and actions. The real film narrative lies in the aimless actions of those circling around the initial death – the szujet, not the fabula.
The hand-painted animated sequences in Look Both Ways (which represent Meryl’s ‘inner life’) reveal their origin in Watt’s short films, particularly the award-winning and highly subjective Small Treasures (1995), which deals with the death of a newborn baby in vividly local images. Both films use the same signature ‘painterly’ animation style, although the production methods have evolved.
Animator Emma Kelly (who also collaborated with Watt on her short films) drew all the cells over several months. Each drawing was scanned and then printed out onto water-absorbent paper. Watt then hand-painted all the ‘watery’ sequences, and Clare Callinan (another previous collaborator) painted the other sequences, with Watt finishing each painting. All the painted cells were then re-scanned at Iloura Digital Pictures in Melbourne, camera moves were resolved and the sequences were recorded out onto 35mm. This working method has much in common with another animation artist who concentrates on themes of the feminine and of mortality, Canadian Caroline Leaf.
Nick’s own imaginings, however, are represented by a fast-moving montage of photographic images – à la Powaqqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1988), perhaps – and link thematically to his job (photojournalist) and to the way in which he sees the world: through a lens, darkly. Naturally, as soon as he is diagnosed with cancer, the montages take on a medical character. In the closing sequence of the film, the narrative is opened up to the audience with a flickering series of photo stills (Nick’s point of view), leaving matters open-ended but optimistic and essentially upbeat in offering hints of resolution for all the central characters. Watt:
I set out to make a romantic comedy, but the stuff of most people’s lives includes what we think of as tragedy, so Look Both Ways ended up a bit of both I guess. I like searching for the universal aspects of people’s experience, in both the big and little things. I tried to keep everything as ‘real’ as I could, to allow people to receive the film as part of their own experience, to bring their own lives to it and enjoy it that way. (2)
Helen Garner’s conclusion in her thoughtful essay on the film, that this is a work of “deep maturity and courage” (3), is hardly overstating the value of a complex and engaging movie. Look Both Ways manages as well as any film of the past decade to capture something that lies at the centre of the Australian experience, whether city or country: heat, decay and loss tempered by a certain inarticulate stoicism of which Nick is the exemplar, and the whole movie a thesaurus.
Look Both Ways: Key Cast
Nick: William McInnes
Meryl: Justine Clarke
Andy: Anthony Hayes
Anna: Lisa Flanagan
Phil: Andrew S. Gilbert
Julia: Daniela Farinacci
Linda: Sacha Horler
Joan: Maggie Dence
Jim: Edwin Hodgeman
Train driver: Andreas Sobik
Look Both Ways: Key Crew
Writer-director: Sarah Watt
Producer: Bridget Ikin
Executive producer: Andrew Myer
DOP: Ray Argall
Sarah Watts: Filmography
Look Both Ways (2005) – scriptwriter, director
Living with Happiness (2001) – scriptwriter, director, producer
Way of the Birds (2000) – director
Local Dive (1998) – scriptwriter, director, producer
Derwent Envy (1998) – co-scriptwriter, director, producer
Small Treasures (1995) – scriptwriter, director, producer
* * *
Writer-director Sarah Watt
and actor Andrew S. Gilbert in conversation
with Jonathan Dawson, ABC Hobart, 23 August 2005. (4)
JONATHAN DAWSON: Sarah, it’s a huge journey from making small, very personal, almost private animation films to suddenly deciding to make out of your private concerns a feature film. How did you come to this point? Most animators stay that way: animators.
SARAH WATT: I guess my animated shorts were never truly the best animated shorts that you could make. Even though they were personal and had the feeling of being made in a cupboard, they were pretty conventional narrative dramas. And to maintain and push further that sort of narrative interest, and the interest in characters I had, I really had to move into actors. I couldn’t draw that many drawings and I couldn’t draw that well.
JD: You are married to an actor, William McInnes? In this film, he is the centre, around which everything moves. Is that part of it?
SW: I’ve always been drawn to actors – excuse the pun. I like their world; I like the way they do things. Maybe there’s a bit, you know, of all animators being frustrated actors. Maybe I grew up enough to stop wanting to be a frustrated actor and thought I’ll firmly put myself on the other side of the camera and just enjoy their skills.
JD: Your film Small Treasures is about the loss of a child. It is also about growing up in Australia, becoming an adult in Australia, suffering loss in Paradise. In a way, that’s what Look Both Ways is about. Is the germ of this film in all your little films?
SW: Definitely. The journey of Meryl is living with happiness that’s short. Small Treasures, as you’ve described it, is about that.
I guess it’s a thing of feeling like you’re extremely fortunate, but with an awareness of how many troubles there are in the world and figuring out how to live with that fortune, whilst not stomping on the heads of those less fortunate. That’s a line that a lot of Australians have to tread daily.
I don’t actually think my films are particularly personal. When I write them, I do plunder my own experience but I make a big attempt to universalise them. When I made Small Treasures, I did a lot of research about those instances of loss. Also, when I did this feature, it was not just based on my world, it was based on a whole lot of people’s worlds. I think they are very universal stories.
JD: The way you have chosen to tell this story is not your classic hero’s journey narrative. We meet a photo-journalist at the beginning and he is diagnosed with cancer. In a sense, everything follows from that. But it also follows from another set of events, one of which is a young man run down on the railway tracks in a suburb not unlike your own in Footscray. Can I ask Andrew: what did you think when you saw the first-draft film script?
ANDREW S GILBERT: I remember reading it straight through. As I said in Australian Story, it was the best first draft I’d ever read of a film. I put it down to Sarah being an animator, in that animators don’t waste time with storylines that aren’t going to be in the mix. Because they have to draw it all, they get very good at being precise and economical in their storytelling. I didn’t see anything in it that wasn’t essential to the story. It all added up and made sense to me.
It was one of those stories that you just knew was going to be made, that it came from somewhere, that it was something universal. I just knew it was going to happen – and so it did.
JD: Sarah, did you have Andrew in mind to play the role of Phil, the editor of the newspaper for which Nick works?
SW: In the first draft – this is a terrible story – I actually had Andrew in mind for the Andy character …
JD: … the mean-spirited journalist who shucks off his mistress because she’s pregnant?
SW: Yes … and also Daniela Farinacci as the Anna character. But through the ensuing drafts, it just didn’t work out that way. Andrew, being hugely supportive, had to switch roles from when he first read it to when we actually made it. It’s just the way things work.
JD: Nick has just been diagnosed with cancer. He’s in terminal terror; he doesn’t know whom to speak to. He meets this remarkable young artist, Meryl, who’s not satisfied with her life either, and both of them are circling around each other, terrified of love, at the same time drawn. You’ve given them an inner life. When Meryl worries about something, we see what’s she’s worrying about. Suddenly, she’s travelling on a train, a train crash happens in animation, very much in the familiar Sarah Watt’s style. When Nick is worried, we see almost a photo montage of great Magnum-style photo images. And we get this going on right through until the very end of the film when, in a sense, the story is carried into the viewer’s mind to let them finish the story themselves. Andrew, when you read it first, did you think, “This won’t work”?
ASG: I’d get to a certain point in the script and then it would suddenly say: “Animation of this, this, this”. I have a pretty good visual imagination, so I didn’t have much trouble. When I was actually part of the film, and been cast in it, I thought, “What is this going to look like? What is the form this is going to take?” I was a little bit nervous about that. But it feels very much part of our world to me, watching the film when those bits come in. They’re not some intrusive, external thing; I think they fit in fantastically well.
JD: As always with Australian films, there are a number of funding bodies. Was there any problem with people suggesting that maybe you could leave the animations?
SW: There was a bit of resistance, but I think there’d been a lot of animation in films in the past five years internationally. In the way of a lot of Australian decision-making, we were allowed to do it once it had been proven to be OK elsewhere. It wasn’t as much resistance to the actual form, but there was a little bit of discussion about whether it was necessary. Obviously that is a discussion that still continues in the criticism of the film.
I think it works in a lot of different ways. It’s not just about seeing those characters’ interior space, it’s also about the fact that different characters will see the world in a different way. That’s very much what the film’s about. The film is really just about: If you can shift your perception, you can shift your world. That’s what Meryl and Nick are actually doing and, without an example of their perception, we wouldn’t get that feeling of power that we get by the end of the film. Perhaps it is just a matter of shifting your perception.
JD: You have used Ray Argall, a man I admire very much as a filmmaker, a man who made almost my favourite suburban Aussie movie, Return Home (1990). Now he’s your cinematographer. There’s a number of ways in which you’ve clearly controlled every shot in this film: the way you represent the suburbs, the sense of heat; there’s very little grass, everything’s burnt out, the leaves are all drying, everything crackles underfoot. Was that something you’d worked out with Ray? And thinking of Return Home particularly, which is also set in a glorious summer (which isn’t quite as perfect as it seems on the surface), there is a sense of threat beneath the suburban landscape.
SW: Ray is one of the unsung heroes of the Australian film industry. It wasn’t a matter of me using him, it was a matter of me begging him to come out of retirement. He is a director, as you know, in his own right and hadn’t shot anything in many years.
Ray edited Small Treasures and Living with Happiness, so we had worked together before. Apart from the benefit of getting Ray’s vision and his ability to get the story, what Ray does really well is put his cinematic poetry secondary to the script. On the shoot, he was constantly looking at the script and saying, “Well, the script says …” Everyone else has forgotten the script and we’re all just making the movie, but Ray, even though I’m the writer-director, was still pointing out to me that the script says, “Blah …” He’s a fantastic perfectionist.
Ray also gave so much to the film in that, because he’d done the animations before, he knew what the animation would look like. When everybody else was still struggling with understanding how the two forms would work, Ray knew what it would be, he knew how to shoot and what would be coming in. He also had the overview of how it could look at the end. I can’t praise Ray highly enough for the finished product.
JD: The script is not constructed upon traditional railway lines. Andrew, do you think audiences ought to get to grips with this more often?
ASG: Yes. It’s a storytelling technique, too. Animation is often right down to basic storytelling. Usually you come out of animations saying this happens and this happens and that happens quite clearly.
It’s funny that William [McInnes] has written a book at the same time. It’s as if these stories have come out of the one house at the one time. And they’ve all been received by audiences everywhere. People have read the book as very relevant, mostly because there’s room for you to put themselves into the narrative. I think that’s quite rare.
Sometimes movies now are so constructed that you sit there and you may as well not be there, because the movie is just going to go on anyway. There’s some sense in this film that you are part of it and there’s space within the film, during the animation and with the music, and there’s collage bits, where you have to almost enter into the film and put in your own life and think about your life. I’ve seen it three times now. I do that. That freedom and space in the film is one of its great strengths.
JD: Maybe this is what Australian movies should be doing a little bit more: moving outside the obvious guidelines laid down by international cinema and telling circling narratives, where in the end the audience can have the last say. As we watch the film, we come to our own conclusions at the end. We can take it on an upswing or a downswing. Are they happy, or are they not? Is life happy, is it not? Is it your intention to let people go with it?
SW: Yes. Whilst I suppose cinema, or any art form, is fundamentally something that can manipulate, I don’t like feeling manipulated in any way.
I went to great lengths, as much as my experience would allow, to make this film not be about manipulating the audience. They can bring their baggage along, as Andrew said, but ultimately it’s their decision about whether this is a happy film or a sad film, or whether this is going to have a happy ending or a sad ending. It’s just a slice of life, to use a cliché, and we all have a different attitude to life. But I like the idea that maybe you leave feeling a little bit brighter than when you arrive.
JD: This is, at last, a suburban film that isn’t quirky or charming. It’s very different: it’s volatile, it’s dangerous, it doesn’t give us any pat answers. Does that mean you’ve done with the suburbs or, since you live in one yourself, are you going to have more to say about the Aussie suburb?
SW: Now don’t get me started on the politics of the people. I think we all live in suburbs – I think people are kidding themselves just ’cause they live closer to the city or further out in the country that they’re not in a suburb. I think everybody has very similar stories. That’s why in the film we chose somewhere that was on the cusp of becoming gentrified. There were old warehouses that were becoming nice new units, plus old warehouses where artists could live, plus houses and stuff. You can get a real cross-section of people all living quite close to each other, and you’re not able to make those sort of clichéd ideas about “This is the ‘burbs” and “This is the groovy inner city.” I think people are pretty similar, wherever they live.
Alison Tilson, Road to Nhill, screenplay (Sydney, Currency Press: 1997).