One of the most original and neglected figures in Australian cinema, Leo Berkeley has continued working across a range of formats and genres for over three decades. Yet most reference works credit him with just a single feature – 1991’s Holidays on the River Yarra, one of two Australian features invited to that year’s Cannes Film Festival (the other was Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof). A precursor and counterpoint to Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992), Holidays is a low-key study of two unemployed Melbourne youths (Craig Adams and Luke Elliott) who become embroiled with a far-right group bent on staging a coup on an African island. Suspending moral judgement on its hapless protagonists, the film displays Berkeley’s characteristic blend of realism and absurdity, while tackling a cluster of themes that would prove to be enduring preoccupations – politics, fantasy, social exclusion, and the elusive poetry of what he calls “the mundane world”.
After some difficulties locating funding for a second feature, Berkeley re-calibrated his approach to filmmaking with Stargazers (1997-99), his five-hour magnum opus to date – shot on video with a one-person crew, and featuring improvised performances from a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. The film was conceived as a three-part “TV series”, but has so far only been shown once in public, at the 2005 Melbourne Underground Film Festival (full disclosure: the screening was part of a program which I curated). Deceptively modest in mise en scène (the first half-hour is styled as a “talking heads” documentary), Stargazers traverses a variety of “mundane” locations across the inner suburbs of Melbourne – share houses, shopping centres, pubs – as it charts a pattern of encounters between a handful of “ordinary” strangers with dreams of bigger things: a self-styled psychic (Angela McKenna), a ukulele-strumming busker (David Frazer), a reclusive book editor (Damian Richardson), an aspiring fashion designer (Caroline Lee), and a shifty music promoter (Luke Elliott). Over the course of several hours, an unlikely intrigue takes shape, though Berkeley leaves it ambiguous whether the paths of his characters are determined by anything more than chance. Something like a homely Australian answer to Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), the series is also the culmination of a local tradition of depicting Melbourne as a city of eccentric loners, a trope deployed in films as different as Malcolm (Nadia Tass, 1986) and With Love to the Person Next to Me (Brian McKenzie, 1987).
For the past decade, Berkeley has continued to explore filmmaking-as-process on both a practical and theoretical level, joining forces with students at RMIT University in Melbourne (where he teaches) and with the community TV network Channel 31. A pilot for an imaginary soap-opera/current-affairs show set in and around an inner-city pub, Berkeley’s recent mini-feature How To Change The World (2008) screened on Channel 31 in January 2010 as part of Cheap Thrills, a weekly independent cinema program initiated by Berkeley which supplied the occasion for this interview. Shortly afterwards, production began on Berkeley’s latest community TV project The Temperature’s Rising, again made in collaboration with RMIT students. To find out more – and download episodes – see the official website http://www.temperaturesrising.net.
For a full Leo Berkeley filmography, go here: http://www.innersense.com.au/mif/berkeley.html]
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How long have you been making films now? Around 30 years?
I can’t remember the actual date, but definitely the late ’70s were when I started making little films. The first half-a-dozen films I made I wouldn’t want to show anyone. For the last 15 years I’ve been teaching filmmaking in a university, but I didn’t learn it that way – I went down the road of just buying a Super-8 camera, and then an old spring-wound 16mm camera, and saving up a bit of money and making films with my friends and teaching myself.
I think that’s quite a good way to learn, but it’s by trial and error, and you make more errors than anything else. When I started I was an obsessive film buff, and watched thousands of films constantly. So I was very much into the visual stuff, wanting to try out things that I’d seen in films that I really liked, and I didn’t have much sense about working with actors.
I think one of the key things I’ve learned as I’ve gone on is that in trying to control the whole process you don’t always get good results. But when you open it up – work with the actors and try and get them involved – particularly when you’re working in low-budget or no-budget areas, you finish up with a film that isn’t necessarily the film you had in your head, but it’s a more interesting film. So those very early films were before I realised any of that, and I tended to get very clunky results.
Who were your major influences when you started out?
I was always really excited by the French New Wave. In terms of Hollywood, more the B-movie stuff than the big mainstream stuff. So, you know, Sam Fuller and Don Siegel and Jacques Tourneur. I liked Howard Hawks and I liked [Alfred] Hitchcock, but the directors I was really fond of were those low-budget directors.
I’ve only started thinking about this recently, but in a way I don’t make films that are as extreme as the films I really like. You know, I really like people like Alexander Kluge and Rivette, but I’ve never made a film as extreme as a Kluge film. What I’ve always liked about the French New Wave was the way they took the best of Hollywood storytelling conventions and applied them to a different culture – I guess a more intellectual culture. And maybe I’ve tried to explore that in my own way. The difficulty for me is that my environment isn’t like Paris in the 1960s!
How would you describe the environment that was around you when you were making these early films?
I was interested in the mundane world – that would be one way of expressing it. At that stage in my life, my early twenties, I dropped out of two universities and was watching films the whole time and working in pretty shitty jobs, like toilet cleaning or delivering soft drinks.
I was brought up with a very comfortable, middle-class background and doing some of those jobs had a big impact on me. I’m not the only person to say this, but there’s a whole lot of conflict in those kind of environments that’s quite interesting, and isn’t really portrayed much in cinema. But I guess my environment was…I was young and bored, and trying to capture that was what I was interested in.
At that time, were you able to get your films seen?
It’s been interesting with How To Change The World, because a lot of these earlier films I reckon were pretty flawed, but it was actually easier to get them seen. I made a film called The Bodyguard  that was dramatising work – it was about a bodyguard who’s hired to look after a businessman, and how he deals with a job that is really boring, but also a life-and-death matter. I thought it was pretty flawed, but that got a theatrical run at the Longford Cinema supporting a feature film for a few weeks, and it got into the Melbourne Film Festival and so on. I made other shorts that got quite big festival screenings and theatrical screenings.
I actually think it’s harder now. People say there’s so many festivals and there’s all this online stuff, but the whole market is flooded with so much content, it’s a real challenge to get work noticed.
At some point in the ’80s you moved from being a self-taught filmmaker to working in the industry, in television. What was that transition like?
I just did a couple of things in TV. Basically I got a job working for National Nine News. I was probably too old – they normally took on people as camera assistants and sound assistants when they were 17 or 18. But they had just started late news, and they needed extra people when I applied, so I got in.
I quite enjoyed the job, and I got in there just in the last days of when the news was shot on film – I know that sounds prehistoric, but it was actually late ’70s, early ’80s. It was a fantastic training ground if you wanted to get a lot of experience – every day you were shooting film, and often under a lot of pressure. I think my interest in improvisation was fed by that, because what you learned was that you could go into any situation and shoot something that captured the event reasonably well. Being able to do that over and over made me a bit more confident to do something without a script.
It was a Kerry Packer organisation so it was incredibly resourced (1) – you’d get a helicopter to go to footy training. So completely different to what I was used to. But yeah, I think it was a good experience and a good training ground for me.
The other thing I did was work on Rubbery Figures , which was a satirical puppet show that Peter Nicholson ran for a while on the ABC. Again, that was very much a seat-of-the-pants operation. He just had a house next to the house he lived in, in North Melbourne, and set it up like a mini-studio, so Studio One was the bedroom and Studio Two was the lounge room. And he got a whole lot of really talented young people working on it, and he’d basically be shooting these little sketches with rubber puppets satirising [Prime Minister] Bob Hawke or someone like that. That was a lot of fun. So that was television, but very much a micro-budget sort of television.
That seemed to be a project where things just fell into place – which hasn’t been the case with all of my projects. The script got very mixed responses, but it did go through the traditional approach of getting development funding and then production funding and then a little bit of money from a distributor, enough to get a budget to do things in a proper professional way. The feeling was that I’d done enough with my shorts to give them enough confidence to let me do a low-budget feature. It was around half a million dollars, the budget, which when you’re paying everyone award rates was about as low as you could go at that time. It wasn’t totally straightforward but it wasn’t really long and drawn-out either, and I was able to make that feature with quite a bit of creative freedom. 80 percent of the budget was from Film Victoria and the Australian Film Commission. So it was very much premised on the kind of funding model when you try and identify first-time directors that have an interesting project, and support them on the idea that they might go on and do more commercial stuff later on.
Have you been back and looked at it since?
I hadn’t for years – I mean, I edited it as well as writing and directing it, and by the time you’ve finished it’s so deeply ingrained in your psyche that you know it all backwards. But I did actually show it to my kids a few weeks ago, and that was the first time I’d seen it for about ten years. And that was interesting, but it was totally familiar. It brought back lots of memories about the shoot, but it didn’t change.
When you make something, you very much focus on the flaws. It’s very hard to watch it the way another person would watch it. But I think maybe with the distance of time you worry less about that. I guess I felt better about it than I felt in the five years after I made it – every time I would watch it, which was many times, I’d see all the scenes that didn’t quite work or the moments that didn’t quite work. But recently I was able to watch it a bit more like an ordinary person, and I quite enjoyed that.
It seems bleaker to me than your more recent work – there’s more sense of a society falling apart. I don’t know if that reflects a change in your point of view, or whether it’s just the nature of the project.
It could be just the nature of the project. I tried to put quite a lot of humour into it, black humour, but maybe you’re right. I’ve probably cheered up a bit as I’ve got older.
One thing you’ve been exploring more recently is the idea of filmmaking as research. I was struck to read some of your academic writing in this area, because I remember when you introduced Stargazers at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival you said you didn’t really see it as an experimental film. So I was curious about how you see this idea of research in relation both to an academic concept of research, but also the kind of experimentation associated with avant-garde filmmaking.
I don’t remember saying that about Stargazers, though I’m sure I did. Maybe in that comment I meant it wasn’t experimental in the way you would talk about a [Stan] Brakhage film being experimental. But in terms of my own personal practice as a filmmaker I was definitely seeing it as an opportunity to experiment – to do things I wouldn’t be able to do if I had to go through a more commercial or more established production model.
Were there particular questions you wanted to resolve in your own mind by making Stargazers or How To Change The World?
In a way I’m most interested in how you can experiment with the process. Obviously that’s related to the film you make, but in another respect it’s separate. With Stargazers, I really enjoyed working with the actors – though it’s very uneven, I was really impressed with some of the material they came up with.
With Stargazers I was the only person there shooting for 85 or 90 percent of the time. With How To Change The World, I guess I was interested in seeing, if you had a bigger crew, if you had more equipment, more lights, and you had a big production camera and you had a bigger cast and a more complex narrative, could you still get similar results? If you make a film without a script, and you improvise the dialogue, it’s often shot with a very functional handheld camera. That makes sense – if you’re not sure what’s going to happen, you can’t really do elaborate visual set-ups. But in How To Change The World, I was interested in trying to do scenes where the dialogue was improvised but the visuals were more creatively expressive. So sometimes there was your standard, doco-style camera on the shoulder following the actors around, but in other scenes I was definitely trying to construct a mise en scène that was more interesting.
Can you give an example?
The scene where I think it worked best was in the bar, where the Indian waitress [Jazz (Noosha D’Cruze)], who’s one of the main characters, this guy [Pete (Anthony Mendolia)] invites her out and they go and drink there with three of his friends. It’s basically just one take, but I did it with a very long lens. Again, I wanted to do micro-budget and improvisation not with a little camcorder but with a proper production camera with a good lens, because I’m quite interested in focus, the creative use of focus.
So we got the camera way back and zoomed in, which gives you a very shallow depth of field, and I basically told the actors just to talk. You know, you’re out for the night, you’re at a bar, you know your characters, so we’ll just play it and see what happens. But we could only get two of the five actors in focus at any one time, and I told the camera assistant to improvise on where he wanted to focus. So as well as the actors improvising I guess I was trying to set it up so that the crew could improvise. I was really happy with the look of it, and I know the actors were really happy too.
As well, I developed camera operating and lighting strategies for the different actors. For Max [Reg Gorman], who’s the main character, the idea for him was in the early scenes in the story to have the camera completely static, and then as the narrative unfolds to increasingly move the camera. The idea behind that was to reflect his going from being very passive as a character, to the situation of his pub being under threat, to being more and more active in trying to do something about it.
So if you look at the film, in the opening scene there’s no camera movement at all, and then towards the end it’s constantly following him around, and there’s a lot of whip-panning. There’s a scene towards the end where he’s remade the pub, and made it all funky, and these two fussy customers are making really complex dietary-requirement type orders, and the camera’s kind of moving around the whole time. Again, I was really happy with how that scene worked visually.
The strategy with the film was to say, okay, we’re going to improvise, but I’m going to see how far I can go with a more elaborate mise en scène. And in a couple of cases it collapsed under the strain of the micro-budget stuff. Some of the lighting strategies I developed, we realised pretty quickly that if I implemented them, I was asking people to put in a lot of time. That can easily go too far, and I didn’t want that. So I made a judgement at a certain point to abandon them because they would take too long and it was too ambitious.
So it’s very much that kind of stuff. It’s saying, how far can you push things in a certain environment – because it’s all collaborative – and how do you compromise to get a good result?
Often in your films characters put forward opinions that are not necessarily your opinions, but are also not undercut with an obvious kind of irony. Is that something you think about when planning these visual strategies – trying to express a point of view without dictating too much?
Yeah, that’s definitely a conscious strategy on my part. I think I worked that out with Holidays on the River Yarra, which was about a racist subculture. A lot of films I admire don’t fall for this, but so much television and mainstream cinema takes that approach of preaching to the converted. Even if they’re dealing with difficult social issues, you always know where the filmmaker stands – there’s always this judgemental attitude. I think you’ve got to respect the audience to a certain extent, and it’s more interesting to just put things out there and let people make up their own minds.
I actually think there’s a subtle irony in doing that – I don’t like irony when it’s heavy-handed, but I do like it when it’s more subtle. I would have felt that irony is quite an important element in my aesthetic approach, but maybe it’s only apparent to me.
No, it’s there, but it’s an open-ended sort of irony.
I’ve always liked films where you come to understand all the characters, the good ones and the bad ones, and see their point of view. I just recently rediscovered this article by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder on [Douglas] Sirk’s films, and there’s a fantastic quote where he’s talking about Imitation of Life  and he says – I can’t remember it verbatim – we understand the characters in the film and the fact they can’t change the world because changing the world is so difficult, and at this point everyone in the cinema cried (2). The fact that he talked about changing the world I really liked in relation to my film, but also he captured that point that dramatically and creatively it’s got a lot of impact when you understand characters in a tragic situation, but you also understand the tragedy of their situation. I really like that approach.
And that feeds into how you think about where you’re going to put the camera, or what kind of focal length you’re going to use?
I guess so. I always try and link the visual stuff with the conceptual stuff. I do like using focus. There are directors who do long lens stuff and do it beautifully – [Max] Ophuls and [Luchino] Visconti and people like that – but I think it’s under-utilised as one of the tools available to you as a filmmaker to isolate characters in an environment. If you do it at the right moment, it can express something about everyone’s solitude, or something like that.
One thing that jumped out at me from your academic writing was this great phrase you coined, “the tyranny of continuity” (3). How do you think about the challenge of getting the audience involved in an imaginary world and story when you don’t have a seamless transition from shot to shot?
That’s a really good question. In any kind of audience, there are some people who are more sensitive to that issue than others, so they’ll notice little technical flaws – it really interferes with their enjoyment. But I think there’s quite a lot of people who don’t worry about it so much, and I know I don’t worry about it so much. I don’t know if that’s because of my fondness for B-movies, Roger Corman-type movies. French film critics don’t seem to worry about it so much – it’s more about engaging with the heart of the film, and production values aren’t so much of a focus.
I think also this is something that is changing. You know, there used to be professional production and amateur, home movie stuff, but now there’s this very blurred spectrum where you’ve got YouTube, you’ve got micro-budget stuff, you’ve got community media, and everything in between all the way up to Avatar [James Cameron, 2009] and so on. So I think audiences now are more accepting of unevenness in production values.
But again, that idea of the tyranny of continuity is very much around my experience of the professional production process, and how dominant that thinking is in how films get made, and how limiting that can be. So sure, it’s great to have a technically and visually seamless film, but often in a professional production you’ll do three, five, seven takes, and throw away the best performance takes for really minor issues to do with a mike in shot or a bit of mismatched lighting.
This is just reflecting my own interests, but I’d rather prioritise the performances and these more intangible things about the feeling of the shot, as against those kinds of technical or professional conventions around how you construct a film that I think are too rigid.
Compared to Stargazers, in How To Change The World there seems to be a more systematic effort to highlight discontinuities – the mixture of fiction and documentary, or fantasy and realism. Was that a decision you made as a result of earlier experiments?
Maybe. Since I made the film I’ve been thinking a lot about how I developed it. There’s definitely an Alexander Kluge influence in it, and he’s very much into that hybrid form of storytelling where you get fictional characters in documentary social environments. He also uses fantasy, but not in the sense that it belongs to any particular character – it’s more like a social sort of fantasy. Part of it is also that the original genesis of the project was as a pilot for a community TV series, and I think that kind of hybrid storytelling is more common in television, with segments and so on.
Also, one of the reasons people steer clear of improvisation is that it’s very unmanageable – you can come up with fantastic material and it’s way too long, or this great material is lost in the mass of less interesting material. I guess from Stargazers I knew that was going to be a feature of the improvised environment, and in Stargazers really my only strategy for constructing a narrative out of that was to intercut the stories of the different characters. I thought with How To Change The World it might be interesting to make that intercutting process a bit more complex and layered, so that it wasn’t just fictional stuff but more diverse stuff that was being intercut.
What was the format you were originally thinking of for the show? Half-hour episodes?
Yeah, it was. And it was to have, basically, an environment where all these different things happened, and it was all improvised, but it was all exploring a theme. But it was specifically a drama series, and one of the articles I’ve written is about the fact that there is virtually no drama on community television (4). To me that says something about the accepted production model for drama and how that’s not sustainable when you’re not paying people.
And so I was looking at, like, could you come up with a production model that was more sustainable? I’m not sure that I got the answer to that, although I am doing a new project with students that is basically trying to take some of the lessons from How To Change The World and apply them, and over the next six months we’re going to make a series. It’s called The Temperature’s Rising and it’s modelled very much on How To Change The World. But you just have to accept there’s going to be lower production values if you want to make a six-part series, so in six months I’ll be able to tell you if I’ve learned anything!
Did you have specific televisual models for what you wanted to do?
With the improvisation, I was looking at Curb Your Enthusiasm [2000-] a bit, and the mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve always been very fond of The Young Ones [1982-4] – I really liked its surreal edge. You had these characters in their flat, but you’d go into a conversation with two bugs on the wall, and then a band would start playing. It was a fictional space that was very porous, that would break down and go off in these imaginative directions.
I know most of my influences are a bit out of date now, but even things like Hey Hey It’s Saturday [1971-99; 2009-10] – I mean, it’s got a bit sad in its old age, but in its prime it was a very lively thing, done on a kind of segment concept. It’s very common in television – although I think when you get segments in a magazine format on television it normally doesn’t involve fiction.
The examples I can think of are things from children’s television, like Sesame Street [1969-].
That’s right, and having brought up a few kids I’m familiar with a lot of that stuff.
On a budget level your projects might be quite modest, but they can get very ambitious with their themes, or in terms of length.
This kind of no-budget or micro-budget space is very frustrating, because of the limitations. You’re constantly struggling with lack of resources, and that has repercussions with everything – the kind of actors you can get, the crew you’re working with, the sorts of scenes you can do, the schedule, everything.
So it’s very frustrating, but against that you have a lot of creative freedom – possibly too much. And you’re working with inexperienced people, but often I really like that, because a lot of them are really talented, and they’ve got a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of commitment. So it’s a space with pros and cons, but I think it suits me, because with my inclinations it’s really hard for me to get mainstream funding. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t be doing something that I’d really like to do.
The downside is that when I’ve done something it’s really hard to get any kind of an audience for it, and that’s disappointing, because when you put a lot of effort into something, it is good to get it seen.
What do you think about the Internet as a distribution platform?
Well, I’m keen on it. I think it’s evolving – over the last five years, in terms of video, it’s really developed a lot, and I imagine in the next five years it’s going to develop further. The Internet, like everywhere, is a contested space. Everyone’s trying to make money out of it, but there is also a big aspect of the Internet which is about democratising culture and the media, and while that lasts it’s fantastic, it gives you a huge amount of choice. As I said earlier, it’s really easy for your work to get lost on it – but that’s the same anywhere, it’s difficult to get noticed whatever you’re doing.
How To Change The World got into the Portable Film Festival, and I did realise from that experience that there’s a lot of people who either can’t or don’t want to watch a film on a computer – I mean, a film of that length. They’ll watch something short on YouTube.
Would you consider putting Stargazers online?
I would like to get it out there – I’ve done a DVD of it. A lot of the problems with doing things the way I’ve done them, the micro-budget way, is that you don’t have that network of support. You do everything yourself. And on one level I like that. I like editing, and I like all the aspects of the process, except maybe the marketing. But when you go down the independent road, you pretty much do the whole thing, and it’s hard to get the energy up. I mean, I would like my films to be out there more, and if I worked at it then I’m sure I could get more of an audience. But with limited time I tend to always focus on making something.
One of the themes I see recurring in your work is the idea of community – people either being excluded from a community, or working to create one, as in How To Change The World. Do you feel part of a filmmaking community?
Yeah, definitely. I guess that [as] I’ve got[ten] older that’s more of the case. I think Bill Mousoulis’ site http://www.innersense.com.au/mif/index.html is fantastic, and I think it helps create that feeling to some extent. But also, partly through my involvement with RMIT, I’m very involved with community television – and unlike community television in some other states, community television in Melbourne really is community. They really value that element of it. I feel part of that community, and Cheap Thrills I guess has emerged from that. But I think you’re right, it is an aspect of my work.
When you make films, are you thinking about the audience, on some level? You’re thinking, will they be entertained?
Yeah, definitely. As I said earlier, a lot of the films I admire are much more indifferent to the audience. I like comedy, and there are suspense elements and there are a lot of genre elements in most of the films I make. I guess it’s a matter of drawing on those kinds of elements to make something that’s a bit different or a bit challenging. So I definitely think about the audience, I think about it a lot! And when my films get shown, I don’t get the feeling that people are alienated by them – I think audiences find them generally reasonably accessible and entertaining. I’m actually not about doing something which is difficult for people to get into.
You’ve touched on this in a lot of different ways, but what role does politics play in your work?
It’s fundamental to my thinking about what I’m doing, but I’m not necessarily interested in doing something very explicit about politics. I’m quite influenced by [Bertolt] Brecht – and Brecht was quite influential, I think, on Kluge and [Jean-Luc] Godard and people like that. So it’s more to do with the type of story you tell. There’s the Hollywood approach, which is very much based in Aristolelian drama – you have an individual, and you dramatise them in terms of conflict, and you show them either overcoming the odds, or if you want to make a tragedy, not getting there. There’s a politics in that kind of storytelling that I don’t agree with. To me, it distorts the social nature of the way we experience the world. Most people can’t triumph against the odds no matter what they do.
And there are other things that I’m uncomfortable with in terms of mainstream screen storytelling – I dislike the focus on linearity and tightness and the idea that you should create a cohesive world. To me, the world is complex, and our experience of the world is complex and fragmentary and contradictory. So the decision to try and tell a story that reflects that is a political decision.
Do you think there’s something about what you do that is fundamentally anti-commercial?
No, I think it’s a mistake to generalise. I mean, I often talk about mainstream filmmaking and Hollywood filmmaking, but they’re very complex, diverse spaces where you get all sorts of interesting things done. I think it’s possible, I just think it’s incredibly difficult. There are examples in classical Hollywood – we’ve talked about people like Douglas Sirk. And again, in the exploitation and action movie genres, you get some fantastically interesting work, politically and stylistically. It’s just I haven’t been able to swing getting one of my ideas up in that kind of environment, and over the last while I’ve given up trying.
What do you make of the recent debates over the future of the Australian film industry, and what kind of audience it should be aiming for?
It’s easy for me to say this, but I think the idea of the audience is used pretty loosely. It’s a concept that is completely pervasive in the decisions that get made, but nobody knows the audience that well. A lot of people invest a lot of thought in it – marketing people and producers and writers and directors. They’re all thinking about something in relation to the audience, but if you knew what the audience would like, every film would be a success. So this idea that you should make something that meets the needs of the audience more – I don’t know what that actually means. Because in a lot of ways the successful films are the ones that are fresh, or are trying something that doesn’t seem completely packaged. I think the Australian film industry might not be doing itself a favour if it tries to make that thinking any more dominant than it is.
I actually think the most important thing, if you’re talking about a film industry, is diversity. And the problem with the Australian system is that it’s a small country, and it’s very hard with a limited audience size and limited resources, to get that diversity in. But to me, the best thing is to have everything – to have big budget spectacle stuff, to have the quirky independent stuff. And you’re going to have flops, and you’re going to have occasional hits, but I would be in favour of any system that encourages diversity. How to achieve that in the Australian context is quite problematic, but that’s why I’m interested in the micro-budget area, the fact that it allows diversity.
I wanted to ask you about your interest in machinima, and how that connects with your other interests.
That was interesting. Again, it was just taking an opportunity that presented itself to do something – a colleague of mine at RMIT put me onto machimina, and I had The Sims at home, so I started playing around with it. But what was really interesting about it was it connected so strongly with my interest in improvisation, in such an unexpected way. Because I expected when you make a video work out of a computer game, that you would be controlling everything, as the game player. And there is machinima that is made that way.
But when I started doing the gameplay for Ending With Andre  – and I was quite inexperienced – random things started to happen, and I didn’t expect it. I didn’t realise that modern 3D computer games had a degree of randomness programmed into them. I created characters, but then new characters appeared and I didn’t know who they were, who started behaving strangely. And so I actually found unexpectedly that I was making something in quite an improvisational way, which I found quite interesting – I’ve written an article about it (5).
For me the voiceover in Ending With Andre felt similar to the one in How to change the world, which starts off talking about washing dishes.
Yeah – I guess it’s just trying to incorporate more of the mundane world into my stories. As is quite common with machinima, I just set up characters and things happened, and then once I got a certain amount of material I just created a completely different story based on that. The big limitation in machinima at that stage was lip-synch dialogue, which you just couldn’t do at that point.
Were there any literary influences on the voiceover, as a piece of writing?
I don’t think so. With How To Change The World I looked at Kluge and Occasional Work of a Female Slave  – that’s a very Brechtian voiceover. But I also read quite a bit of Richard Brautigan (6) – I really like his voice and his sensibility. So I think that influenced the voiceover of How To Change The World a bit.
I think it’s important to make a distinction. I’m not trying to teach students to turn out the way I’ve turned out. The purpose of them doing the degree that I’m involved in is to try and get jobs in the mainstream industry, so you’ve got to be mindful of that. But you always want to bring your own perspective and your research to bear on it – I think your teaching works best when you do that. The project I’m doing this year, though, is a conscious attempt to link my research to a student project – I’m quite upfront about that.
I did a similar project a couple of years ago where I worked with students involved in a professional screenwriting program, and got them involved in a project that was improvised. There was a really interesting tension there, with students who really wanted to master the art of professional scriptwriting saying, well, writing dialogue is one of the key skills you have as a screenwriter, and you’re telling us we’re not allowed to write the dialogue!
But the process of talking that through was a really good education – for me and for the students. So I think the important thing is getting those dialogues going – giving students what they need to function in the mainstream industry, but also to be a bit critical about it.
What do you think an outline needs to make it work, to have the bones of something that’s going to function well?
That’s a really good question too. You can have too much, but I’ve been trying more and more to leave things really loose. In a couple of cases, I think I’ve definitely left things too loose! I think the Ghost News sequence [in How To Change The World] was a little bit like that – I didn’t think it through clearly enough, so it was very loose but in the end it was quite rigid.
You can’t generalise too much because working from an outline is saying “I’m going to improvise”, and improvisation is all about adjusting in the moment to what happens. I don’t know that I can say more than that, except that based on your experience you have to think through all the possibilities – because what you don’t want is to finish up with something that you can’t do anything with. So a lot of my thinking is about, how can I structure it that no matter what comes up, it works as a story? But within that structure, leaving it as loose as possible.
With the Ghost News segment, what did you originally have in mind?
It was definitely an experiment – I was trying to draw on my news experience. I feel like I know how to shoot news really well, so I was trying to combine a traditional mainstream news approach with a Brechtian story about political agency with a Roger Corman-type schlock aesthetic. I didn’t particularly want the visual effects to be slick – I actually wanted them to be a bit hokey. So I guess it was bringing those three elements together – the news, the political stuff, and the Z-movie aesthetics – and seeing what I came up with. And I’m not sure whether I came up with something really successful. I mean, on one level I’m quite happy with it – and a lot of people don’t have a problem with it, but they think it’s too long. Which is probably right.
Extracts from this interview were originally published in Jake Wilson, ‘Cinema on a shoestring’ http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/movies/cinema-on-a-shoestring-20100218-og9r.html, The Age, 28 January 2010.
- Kerry Packer (1937-2005) was an Australian media mogul whose company owned controlling interests in the Channel Nine television network and the publishing company Australian Consolidated Press, which merged in 1994 to form Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL).
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Six Films by Douglas Sirk”, trans. Thomas Elsaesser, in Laura Mulvey and Jon Halliday (eds), Douglas Sirk, Edinburgh Film Festival, Edinburgh, 1972. The full quote reads: “The cruelty is that we can understand them both [Annie (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner)], both are right and no one will be able to help them. Unless we change the world. At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because changing the world is so difficult.” (p. 106)
- Leo Berkeley, “Telling Tales: The Absence of Drama On Australian Community Television” http://www.commarts.uws.edu.au/gmjau/iss1_2007/pdf/HC_FINAL_Leo%20Berkeley_non-peer.pdf, Global Media Journal – Australian Edition, vol. 1, no. 1, 2007. Accessed 1 September 2010.
- Berkeley, “Situating Machinima in the New Mediascape” http://www.swinburne.edu.au/hosting/ijets/journal/V4N2/pdf/V4N2-1-Berkeley.pdf, Australian Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, vol. 4, no. 2, 2006, pp. 65-80. Accessed 1 September 2010.
- Richard Brautigan (1935-84) was an American novelist, poet and short story writer, best known for his novel Trout Fishing in America (1967).