David EastealThe Plains: Conversation with David Easteal Maria Giovanna Vagenas July 2022 Interviews Issue 102 In The Plains, David Easteal’s astonishing feature debut, we are invited to virtually take a place in the back seat of the car of the protagonist, a middle-aged lawyer named Andrew Rakowski, a real-life person, playing himself in the film. Over the course of a year, we will watch him driving down the same road, from his workplace, in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, towards home, occasionally offering a lift to his younger colleague David. David Easteal, director, screenwriter, sound engineer, editor, producer and co-starring actor, fixes his camera on the back seat of the car, just in the middle between the two front seats, creating a symmetrical perspective that allows us to observe the road ahead through the windshield and perceive the landscape passing by on the sides from the front windows. We only see a slice of the passengers’ features from the side, a glimpse of their bodies, a vague hint of their profiles. In this visual semi-clandestinity, their voices, conversations and stories resonate with a remarkable intensity. The Plains is a unique, formally daring, road movie. Like a marvellous perpetuum mobile, time and space seem here to progress only to then fold in on themselves, through the daily repetition of a route, always similar but different each time. This routine becomes a stage whose intimacy we are called to share. As time passes, we are slowly acquainted with Andrew’s daily concerns and thoughts, as well as his landmarks in life: his relationship with his wife Cheri, his ailing mother and a sister who passed away tragically. Everyday life becomes in this perceptive docudrama an arena where life and death, health and illness, affections, hopes and disillusionment meet and clash, seeking the ultimate meaning in our existence. In an intergenerational perspective, David provides a counterpoint to Andrew, who is now beginning to look back on life. Their relationship evolves over two hours and 50 minutes in the confined space of the car, seized through a series of flowing forward tracking shots, only occasionally interrupted by a few fleeting images of the vast plain surrounding the ranch where Andrew and Cheri spend their free time. In the course of these one-way journeys, whose final destination we never see, David and Andrew’s connection gradually grows, becoming more intimate, direct and deep. We clearly sense that a film like this could never exist were there not an elective affinity between the protagonists in real life, made up of interest but also great respect for each other. With a sober and only apparently casual approach, the film paints an extremely rich and complex fresco that starts in the present day, not only questioning the protagonist’s near future, but probing a collective and historical past as well. While the current socio-cultural environment erupts into the story from time to time through the car’s talk radio, the whole troubled history of the last world war surfaces in the memories of Andrew, the son of Polish Jewish emigrants who fled their country. Finely punctuated by counterpoints and variations, The Plains is one of those precious films that does not exhaust itself on a first viewing, but gradually reveals its countless facets and thought-provoking depths. Soon after its online world premiere in the IFFR’s Tiger competition, The Plains was selected at the Cinéma du Réel international competition and shown on a big screen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The following conversation with David Easteal took place in Paris during the festival. – MGV The Plains The Plains is a remarkable feature debut. Can you tell me more about your professional background and how you decided to turn to filmmaking? Thank you. I studied law and literature, humanities, and my professional background is in the law, I continue to practise as a barrister. I didn’t study filmmaking but started making short films as a student. I learnt through the process of making shorts, both in terms of what type of films I’d like to make and also how I’d like to make films. It wasn’t so much a process of turning to filmmaking, but rather something I was drawn to very early. How did this film project come about? Andrew and I worked together a number of years ago in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, which is a very sprawling city. There are legal centres in Melbourne which provide legal services to people who can’t afford legal representation. They’re predominantly in the suburbs due to the demographics. It was a workplace like any other, there were many employees, and we discovered that we lived near each other closer to the centre of Melbourne. Up until then I had caught the train for the commute, but then Andrew started offering to drive me home. Over the course of the year that we worked together, Andrew started to drive me home more and more, not every day, just from time to time. So it was in the process of driving home that we got to know each other. When I knew Andrew back then, he would call his mother and his wife during the drive, and I’d hear some of these conversations. Over the course of that year his mother’s dementia declined and she passed away. I ended up leaving the legal service and we maintained a friendship of sorts after that. The genesis for the idea came from that period of time in my life. How many years later from your real commute experience with Andrew did you write the script? About four years afterwards. Initially I attempted to write a more traditional film. I was drawn to explore a character like Andrew in his middle age, hurtling towards retirement and having his parents both pass away, bringing his own mortality into focus. He had no children and suddenly no parents. I was interested in expanding on that time of life through a character like Andrew, but I really couldn’t write a script, it just didn’t feel right. Then I got the idea or the idea came to me – I knew Andrew through these drives – to make this film more exclusively using the process of the commute and to explore the commute itself and Andrew’s life. Suddenly it became a lot more interesting to me and I started to think about all the different things within this framework that could take place. Over the year that we shot, the film started to develop in many unexpected ways. Several things happened in the course of the year of shooting; during that year Cheri’s mother died, and Cheri re-entered the workforce, for instance. In ongoing discussions with Andrew and Cheri, some events were brought into the film, perhaps represented as they were, or perhaps manipulated slightly. Many different layers and themes in the film came about during the year of shooting, and they were in no way foreseen at conception. The film in effect was comprised of recreating past and more contemporaneous real events, documentary and fiction, and evolved in a very dynamic way. What fascinated you about Andrew in the first place? What drew you to him? It’s difficult to say what necessarily draws people together. In this case initially it was the pragmatics of living near each other, but a friendship did develop between us, I grew to like Andrew and his outlook on life. I think not many people see the film in this way, but his parents were part of the diaspora following the, Second World War. It’s only fleetingly in the film, but that history, I’m sure, informs how he developed his disposition growing up in Australia with parents who had left Poland and lost everything over there. Perhaps I felt a connection as my mother’s family was also part of the diaspora from Poland. In getting to know what was going on in Andrew’s life at that time, it resonated with me. I’m someone who is seemingly always aware of the impermanence of things. I contemplated whether an actor could perform this role, in the event Andrew didn’t agree to be part of the film, but it would never have worked. How should we imagine your shoot? Was there a screenplay or was it a mix of improvisation with a written outline? Could you describe this process? We filmed on two days each month for 12 consecutive months, always starting at 5 pm – in effect having two takes for each shot. The light changes very much in Melbourne over the course of a year and I wanted to sense the changes in light over the course of the film. The two main narrative lines: Andrew’s mother’s death and the co-worker entering Andrew’s world and then leaving, those two events were there at the outset. Each month I formulated what I would like to happen in the next month, or sometimes thinking a few months ahead. And then I would be in conversation with Andrew and Cheri about what would work for them. So most of what you see in the film, in terms of each shot, is planned insofar as where the conversation would go. The topic and the order of the topic, such as: we get in the car, we first talk about this and then that, and there might be one or two things that Andrew had said to me which really resonated and I said: “That’s a good line, bring that in” was planned in advance, but otherwise the precise dialogue was improvised within that framework. A few things happened which were altogether improvised, but not that many. The conversation in the car is absolutely flowing. It feels very natural and direct and authentic like in a classical documentary. There was never a rehearsal and we only had two takes as I mentioned because we needed to film at the same time of day and you can’t fake that, the traffic and light would have looked different. I think this gave a sort of freshness, or spontaneity to the dialogue. The Plains You basically took the highway and then you started talking no matter what, is that right? Exactly. It was an uninterrupted shot each time. The way the drive works was this; initially Andrew drove down a suburban road and then he turned onto the highway, and if something went wrong before the highway, there was a side street and we could revert back and then we’d still be in rush hour and we could try it again. But if we turned on to the highway, that was it for the day: one take! So we had all the gear for the whole day, but we only had one shot, really. How did you structure the camera work? There was the cinematographer, Simon J Walsh, and sound recordist, being Steven Bond or myself, sitting in the back seat of the car, together with the camera. It wasn’t the case we could just rig the car up and remove everyone. I was in the car for direction, and there are a lot of subtle camera adjustments that were required to be made, such as iris pulls. When Andrew was in the car alone, I did the sound recording, and when I was acting we had a professional sound recordist. That was the extent of the shooting crew, which gave us high degree of flexibility and also made the shoot a really warm, intimate environment. Your film plays in the confined space of a car. This creates very interesting perspectives; on the one side there is the outside scenery that we perceive through the movement of the car, in fact while travelling. Inside the car, we basically see the shoulders of the protagonists and we perceive their profiles, then there is another slice of space created by the reflection of Andrew’s face in the front mirror. Could you elaborate on this aspect of your work? The car is a very interesting space to film in. Filming from the back as we did there are a number of contrasts that make it very cinematic: the stillness of the interior compared to the motion of the exterior; the ‘documentary’ of the outside world compared to the more controlled ‘fiction’ of inside the car’s cabin. The windshield becomes a frame within the frame, where you can watch what’s actually going on on the streets of Melbourne. The element of chance therefore entered the makeup of each shot, as what was occurring on the streets was completely outside of our control, and I find the dynamic between what is occurring on the streets and what is occurring in the car, purely by chance, quite interesting at times. The compositional blend of documentary and fiction seemed to complement the composite between those two things attempted in the film’s narrative as well. I wished to make a film exploring the passage of time, and filming in this way provided an opportunity to capture the changing nature of the outside world over the course of the year. As filming occurred at the same time, the end of the working day, across 12 consecutive months, changes in the seasons passing, the weather, the composition of the clouds, the leaves on the trees, the colour and intensity of the light and sky across a year’s duration were all observable. The car is also an interesting space for interpersonal communication, with both passenger and driver not looking at each other, but looking ahead. It can lead to greater openness, in a strange way. Within this very specific space frame an additional vision ‘window’ opens up when Andrew’s iPad suddenly enters the scene, so to speak, towards the of the film. You also break the usual setting by editing a couple of brief scenes filmed by Andrew’s drone. When did you decide to bring these elements in, and what do they mean in this story’s context? In the process of making the film I learnt more about the property Andrew and Cheri purchased on the Western plains of Victoria. In the film it seems like as a place of solace for Andrew and Cheri, where we learn they feel most content and connected to life – a transitory space between their home life in Melbourne and the city where their parents resided, Adelaide. During the shoot Andrew showed me some videos he had taken of the property and I even visited the property. I decided to bring these videos into the film, which I thought were quite cinematic, first by the use of the iPad in a scene. I find it interesting in that scene how the iPad is really where your eyes go to, it’s hard to take your eyes from it, the gaze is automatically drawn to a digital screen. The Plains Whilst editing the film I was listening to an interview with Seamus Heaney, speaking about the period of time in his life when both his parents passed away, when he was middle aged, and the profound effect this had on him. In Seeing Things, written at that time, Heaney used the metaphor of the parental roof being taken away from the barn, and suddenly the sky/infinity, his own mortality, being exposed above. This really clarified to me what a major part of the film was about. Not only that, but Andrew’s videos seemed to connect with Heaney’s metaphor – Cheri and Andrew alone on the vast flat landscape, without children and now without parents, above only sky. So I started to play with putting these videos directly into the edit, and I liked what they did in a number of ways. Amongst other things I think they provide a tenderness, or sweetness to the film, largely through the little snippets of everyday conversation that is captured in them. There is another space as well, that’s the spectator space, which coincides with the camera’s place. It’s an intriguing situation because we, the viewers, are a part of the space you create in your film; in fact, we become the backseat passengers in Andrew’s car. What does this choice of setting mean for you? As mentioned before, the positioning of the camera was in part both pragmatic, in terms of attempting to retain an openness of communication, and aesthetic. However, it does seem to create an interesting space for the viewer. There’s an intimacy created by the positioning. There’s a peace in the backseat. Someone said it’s like becoming a child again, because that’s where a child sits, listening to the parents sitting in the front, which I thought was interesting. I certainly spent a good deal of my childhood driving around the suburbs of Australia in the backseat, listening on to my parents or older siblings, observing the world pass by. I wanted to keep the sense of space uniform, I am drawn to repetition in art, and subtle changes in repetition. Keeping the space constant allowed for observation of these subtle changes across time. The film’s sound is very complex as well. There is the noise of the car’s outside sound, but there are the voices as well, which are recorded in a way that makes us feel they are very close to us. It’s quite difficult to record dialogue in a car, to be able to get the voices clear, particularly when traveling at speed. The team who worked on the sound of the film did a fantastic job. We used multiple microphones during the shoot to enable the greatest flexibility to manipulate sound during the post-production. There were microphones usually on the car’s centre console and there was a microphone on the ceiling, and the actors had radio mics. It was important to feel close to the characters, through a closeness to the voices. We tried to get really clear dialogue, but also to create this more atmospheric space within the car picking up some of the exterior sounds. We don’t exploit the 5.1 greatly, I tend to be reluctant to do so, there’s a little bit when the car goes into the tunnels and the sound sort of bounces around. Sound in a car over three hours could be very oppressive, if it was too much. We do shift things around a little bit, in terms of the car noise and that type of thing. The vast majority of the film has synchronised sound recorded through various microphones which gave us lots of options to play with. And then the sound design and the mix was the process of playing with these different elements at various points in the film, knowing whether the road noise should be a bit more or having the sound of the dialogue a little bit less. Sound was also used to help transition between the edits in the film. That’s where the soundscape comes about. Besides Andrew’s conversations on the phone and with yourself, we listen to the voices and the exchanges on a very specific radio program as well. Can you tell me more about it? The radio and the music were all recorded independently and added in post-production. You are commuting amongst thousands of people, but you’re very isolated in your own vehicle. In a way, the radio brings in a sense of community. You get to create a sense of the city through hearing all the voices, which was interesting to me because, to be honest, I didn’t know at the start what would be on the radio. I wondered whether he would listen to a classical station or even a ‘70s rock station, something like the music of Andrew’s youth. We didn’t record the radio sync, so then I was thinking about: “Well, what would work best for the character?” Jon Faine, a very well-known radio presenter for the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who had just resigned and left his position at the ABC radio, came on board and we did a fake radio show where we had people calling up. ABC talkback’s primary audience would be middle class and left-leaning, a radio station where people would talk about more intellectual things. Jon’s presence in the film is probably only really known to Australians, but it tells you something about Andrew’s character that he would tune in to the ABC and listen to Jon Faine. Certainly, when I worked at the legal centre people would come to work talking about what Jon had been discussing that day. It was important for me that Andrew listened to the radio. Perhaps there’s a compulsion to fill the silence of the commute, either by phone calls or by radio. Silence is used sparingly in the film, and I love those scenes, where Andrew is just driving in silence. Because of all of the talking we’ve heard previously to suddenly be driving in silence, it really stands out. The Plains The topics you both tackle in the film are very personal and crucial. In real life when you were commuting with him, was Andrew in that kind of mood? Andrew has a way of saying things which are very existential next to saying things which are very mundane which I find interesting, and sometimes he can be quite humorous. I think that’s very much true to real life. He would say things, very flippantly, which are actually really serious. But in the film, it takes time to get to the stage where he’s saying these things. I think there is a bit of an awkwardness between us and a bit of small talk early on, which is true to the nature of the relationship between the characters in the film at that stage, and this subsides and it gets more real. It’s the connection between us that we kind of see growing over the year. There is a continuous shifting between, let’s say, real images that we see and mental images that we create while we are listening to Andrew’s talk. We can concentrate on the images on screen or be drawn, through his talk, towards something imaginary. When I started the film, I did not know how things would work but I like what you say and I think it’s true that although we’re confined in this space, you can go so far out of that space in every direction, through time and memory. Another way that I’ve come to see the communication dynamic in the car in the film is almost like psychoanalysis – like the set up between the analyst and analysand. On one hand you’re in the present, watching the conversation, but on the other hand you’re possibly associating memories and images with the oral narrative being told and having a second parallel experience. I didn’t know that these things would work necessarily in these ways and this film evolved in this way and took the shape and I think that’s very interesting what’s come out of it. We never see Andrew’s face – nor yours by the way – filmed in a frontal way until almost the final part of the film where Andrew’s and Cheri’s features are fleetingly revealed in a brief drone-filmed sequence. Why this choice? Actually, I thought about whether the film would work if it was shot the other way round where you’re constantly seeing Andrew’s face. I don’t think it would. You usually think of the face to study a character and we also usually connect with someone’s inner world through their face. That’s what cinema does very well, connect with empathy that comes from seeing someone on the screen, just by seeing their face. So it seemed risky whether it would work or not. But I wanted to shoot this way for a number of reasons. For me there was a practical side in that, I knew I wanted to get to this intimate space with Andrew, which I think you can get in a car, when you are not looking at someone. Of course, Andrew was always aware that there’s a camera, but it’s not looking at him. I think it can be hard for people, especially men, to open up emotionally, or become vulnerable, when someone, or a lens, is looking directly at them. I sense in Andrew a self-consciousness often at the start of a take, maybe other people can’t and perhaps Andrew would disagree, but I sense that he eases into each take and you get to these really genuine, really authentic moments, emotionally. You do find the right distance to Andrew. You’re never intrusive and you create a safe place for him to tell his story. I think that’s important. Thank you. I think that you often feel in this space of the car a safety to go places in a conversation, due to this dynamic of looking ahead. I needed to preserve that as much as possible. Although, you could say, why didn’t you just shoot out the windscreen for instance and have the camera at the front? In that case, Andrew would not have the camera looking at him, the viewer would be looking at the outside world and we would have his dialogue, but it was important for me that he has a physical presence in the film. You do get this small window of his eyes in the rear-view mirror, which can be telling. And you pick up on other body language, I think, as well, such as the way he sits, the tilt of his head, and the tone of his voice. The Plains The bond which builds up between you and Andrew is an essential part of the film. Actually, the one who is principally speaking is Andrew while you are more of a listener. Towards the end of the movie I was feeling you had developed a sort of father-son relationship. How would you describe your relationship to Andrew in and outside of the film? As I mentioned, we worked together for a year and a friendship developed over that year. Then I remained in touch with Andrew and a couple of years later, I approached him about making this film. We didn’t keep closely in touch. You said that there’s a sense of this relationship developing in the film. I actually feel like that’s very authentic because although we knew each other, we didn’t have a strong friendship years before. We were engaged in this process over 12 months. Our relationship changed and developed through that process of the making of the film. The closeness that you sense in the film I think was reflected in real life. The growth happened through the process of making the film, not just prior. Although we had a friendship pre-existing, it deepened. I think that it works quite nicely, this sort of awkwardness between us at the start of the film, which is actually true to how we both felt doing this. And it sort of really eases. Well, there were certainly some parts in the film where there might be this sense of imparting of advice, Andrew has a perspective and wisdom. I think it’s nice to have friendships across generations. It’s very interesting indeed, but I wonder why the younger person never contradicts the older one. You could have had a completely different interaction. That’s interesting, I hadn’t noticed that explicitly. Maybe that’s just my personality but, perhaps in real life, it’s more equal. I think that certainly we knew we were making a film where Andrew is the protagonist and I wanted to give him space. Which was for you the most trying, the most difficult aspect in all this process? Making a film in this way, with real people over an extended period of time, there were numerous challenges. There are a lot of elements that were constantly being reassessed and discussed. For instance, Andrew’s wife Cheri is in the film, but she was very reluctant to be at the beginning. She’s a very private person by nature. I’m very thankful for her generosity, she and Andrew are incredibly generous in the film. At a festival I attended recently, someone drew the distinction between making a film ‘about’ or ‘on’ someone – as opposed to ‘with’ someone, which is certainly what I did here, and a distinction I’d not previously contemplated. Looking ahead, do you have any new film projects? I tend not to like to talk too much of projects before they come to fruition. I’m in the process now of starting to write; things are percolating. Each film for me has been quite personal, and has taken some time, as you see, I’ve only made two short films and this film in the past 12 years. Also, I think I am quite a formalist filmmaker in the sense that I am drawn to the form or structure a film takes, and I often need to think of a form or structure that interests me. I really enjoyed making a film this way, and am thinking about continuing working with a similar process for my next project.