Interview: Richard Gray; writer/director of Summer Coda.

Interview: Richard Gray; writer/director of Summer Coda. By Simon Miraudo.

Richard Gray may not yet realise it, but he’s living the dream. He’s fulfilling one of the oldest Hollywood fantasies, akin to a 1930s mail-room clerk working his way up to become the president of MGM studios (well, maybe not exactly). A former cinema usher turned filmmaker, he’s about to share with Australia his feature film debut: Summer Coda, a romantic drama starring Rachael Taylor as a young woman who returns to her hometown of Mildura to deal with the demons of her past. When I spoke to Gray on the eve of his film’s national debut, he was audibly excited to have made the transition from aspiring-to-actual writer/director. I asked him to share his experiences as a first-time filmmaker, and offer advice to any would-be auteurs eager to make the break into cinema.

SM: Let’s start, as I love to do, at the very beginning. What inspired you to get into filmmaking?

RG: I started as a wannabe actor, and quickly found that I wasn’t very good at that. And so I got behind the camera and put people in front of it who were better than I.

SM: Did you see any films or performances when you were younger that affected you or made you want to become an actor?

RG: Actually I started working at the movies when I was 15, and I’ve worked at three cinemas growing up as a kid. So that way I could watch hundreds of movies for free and I used to sit in the projection box and just bore the projectionist with hundreds of questions. I think that’s what really developed my love for film.

SM: Speaking of working in a cinema, did you have many low-level industry jobs to help you work your way up before directing?

RG: Yeah, I started, as many do, when I was a kid JUST doing wedding videos. And then wedding videos went to corporate videos, and corporate videos went to music videos, and music videos to short films, and you’re away.

SM: Tell me about Summer Coda. Where did the idea for the film come from?

RG: I finished film school in 2003 and had this image of this girl coming home with a violin; this sort-of desperado character carrying a violin case on the road. And there was a song by Pearl Jam called Thumbing My Way Home, and I loved the idea that somebody would be in such a desperate situation that they’d have to hitchhike home. I was listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust album, and I had this road movie in mind, that I started writing this story of this girl who had to come home from the U.S. for something important to Australia. It kind of went from there and turned into a romantic drama, and that’s where the first initial thoughts of the film came from anyway. I was listening to Bruce Springsteen and I thought of this girl having to hitchhike home.

SM: Tell us a little about the shoot. What was your schedule like?

RG: The schedule was great. We shot for six weeks in Mildura, and then a couple weeks in California. Mildura is a beautiful town on the border of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, right up the top there on the Murray River. Because the story is all about these two characters falling in love, we shot chronologically, to try to give Rachael [Taylor] and Alex [Dimitriades] the best amount of time to get to know each other before they had to do the more intimate stuff. It was great, because the harder stuff in the movie happens in the front half, so Rachael is basically off the plane from L.A., and into the desert, so it worked really well on screen.

SM: Tell me a little bit about your time on Project Greenlight. I understand Summer Coda was your project.

RG: Yeah, Project Greenlight gave me a really good kick along; probably a five-year head start I reckon. The screenplay was runner up, out of about 1500 screenplays. And that sort of got me involved with good producers; Tim White and Bryce Menzies, who’ve made dozens of great Australian films. It got producers and distributors to read the screenplay ahead of time. I was only a year out of film school. And we got the film almost up in 2005, and I was interviewed and asked ‘how did I get it up so quickly?’ And five years later, the film is coming out, so it’s a good example of how long it takes in this country.

SM: How different was that project in 2005? Was your cast in place? Did your screenplay go through many changes?

RG: Yeah, a very different cast. The Alex Dimitriades character was a lot older, and it was a very different cast. A very different film. Everything happens for a reason. It’s a much better screenplay now than it was, and a much bigger cast as well, so it was lucky for us in the end.

SM: How did it feel to debut the flick earlier this year [at the Melbourne International Film Festival], and now, on the eve of the big release now? What are those feelings like for you?

RG: Best year of my life. I’m really excited. We played at MIFF, but that’s it. So we’re gearing up for the Melbourne, Sydney and Mildura premieres, and then the film gets released on the 21st of October, and it’s just awesome. Every day I’m talking about the film, travelling with the film, heading out to different Q&As, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m really happy.

SM: What kind of advice can you give – I mean you’re sort of lucky that you got to workshop your screenplay, which is not something that a lot filmmakers, and certainly few writers get to do. What kind of advice can you give to those people who are in their bedrooms, writing their screenplay?

RG: Yeah, the script. Things come easy when you have an amazing script. And everyone has an idea about a movie, but not many people have a really amazing screenplay. And I think once the first draft is done, things get rushed, whereas the screenplay just needs to be smoking. The screenplay needs to be able to be held up against your favourite movies. Until it’s at that stage, it’s not really worth it. It’s so hard to make a film anyway – you’re not going to get the cast attached, you’re not going to get the money, unless the screenplay is amazing. If you can’t read your own screenplay and think “Man, I would love to see this film” then it’s time to start on another one.

SM: Sure. What are some of your favourite movies? Any that directly inspired Summer Coda?

RG: Yeah, not really. I’m a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan; the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson. They’re kind of the guys I grew up loving at my age that weren’t that much older than me, so you could aspire to do what they were doing. And you could see their references of Scorsese and Coppola…

SM: They’re very much our generation’s New Hollywood.

RG: Yeah, so they were always mine. But Summer Coda is a different film. It’s a romantic drama that I guess the stronger influences for it, on the road movie side, were Paris, Texas and Stealing Beauty. That’s more the influences on this type of story. But also films like The Professional, and stuff with really strong female protagonists that we don’t really see a lot of in Australia. Probably not in the world; we don’t get a lot lead actresses who are seen kicking arse and doing everything. So I was really keen to do something with Rachael Taylor on that front as well.

SM: How do you feel about the output of Australian films at the moment? What kind of local stories do you want to see told?

RG: I’m different…or maybe I’m not different, maybe I’m the norm. I’m not a big fan of grim films, hand-held films, gritty films; I don’t enjoy them as much. It’s not that they don’t have a place, they definitely do. It just seems for so long we’ve made so many of those films. And when you go to the box office and you’ve got your $15 to spend, I don’t like to be depressed in the cinema. Those films have a place, and I’ll go and see them when they’re recommended, but I was really keen to do something that looked big and show off our landscape, but also had a really big cast that I could be “right, the place to see this is at the movies and not on DVD”. Although the DVD release will be fantastic (laughing). I really wanted to offer something really big, and we spent a lot of time on the cinematography, and the music and the soundtrack, to make it kind of feel like a film that was worth spending cinema dollars on.

SM: I mean I guess you’ve already kind of answered this, but what kind of films do you want to create going forward? Do you want to try different genres, or is Summer Coda representative of the filmmaker you want to be?

RG: I like all genres, so the next film I’ll be making – which my wife wrote – will be a romantic comedy called Good Vibrations. And then we’ve got a crime thriller after that, and a comic book movie we’ve written as well, so it’s really multi-genres. Summer Coda’s the first film, and a lot of it has to do with my family history; it’s a very personal film, that hopefully is commercial as well. The next films we’ve got are far more genre driven.

SM: So nothing else based on a Pearl Jam song?

RG: (laughing) No, no Pearl Jam song for the next one. Although there are some Beach Boys references.

SM: Work your way through the classics.

RG: Totally.

SM: Thanks Richard; I wish you the best of luck for the film.

RG: Great to talk to you.

Summer Coda opens in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT on October 21, 2010.

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