Interview: Brendan Fletcher; director of Mad Bastards

Interview: Brendan Fletcher; director of Mad Bastards. By Simon Miraudo.

(L-R) Lucas Yeeda (Bullet), Brendan Fletcher and Ngaire Pigram (Nella).

Mad Bastards is the latest in a long string of Australian films earning their stripes abroad before returning home as reigning champions. Like Animal Kingdom before it, Brendan Fletcher’s 10-years-in-the-making outback drama played the prestigious Sundance Film Festival where it received some very nice notices and had Park City abuzz. The film, set in the harsh Kimberley region, tells the story of TJ (Dean Daley-Jones), the drunken and troubled father of bored delinquent Bullet (Lucas Yeeda). When Bullet’s mother Nella (Ngaire Pigram) is unable to set her son on the straight and narrow, grandfather Texas (Greg Tait) steps in to take care of the boy, prepared to keep TJ away. We first spoke to Brendan ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance, and greatly enjoyed chatting to him again before the film’s official Australian launch. Listen to our chat (bookmarked with the the Pigram Brothers’ track Nothing Really Matters) or read the transcript below!

SM: Last time we spoke, was just before you went to Sundance.

BF: It was, yeah.

SM: And that was obviously very exciting. But you’ve come home now, so tell me about the experience.

BF: Oh, I don’t know where to start. We had five screenings; they were all sold out. I suppose for us it was just fantastic that audiences that weren’t even close to Australia – had never heard of the Kimberley – it really worked for them on a fundamental story/heart level. To be honest, our film is the sort of film that works really well at Sundance. The little film that could; the little film with heart. It involves real people, and it’s in a remote place. It’s the sort of a story that does inspire people; even how we made the film; I think a lot of people really respond to that. Dean, who plays TJ, went over there, and the Pigram Brothers, and they played at the Music Café; this legendary kind of venue at Sundance. And Dean had never left Australia before; he didn’t even have a passport. It was incredible for him I think; going to Sundance and being in the snow. The other thing was, playing this movie that’s set in the 45 degree heat on the mudflat in the North West of Australia, playing out in the snow; playing out in minus 20 degrees in Utah. It was a nice contrast. But we were just knocked over by the people. Dean was getting stopped in the street all the time. One of the volunteers said to me, ‘This is the best film I’ve seen at Sundance!’ And I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much. What other films have you seen?’ And she said, ‘Oh no, not this year. Any Sundance. And I’ve been at Sundance for 15 years.’ You hear things like that, and it was just really great to know the story translated to a greater audience. It wasn’t just an indigenous story; it wasn’t just an Australian story. It was universal.

SM: I think you’re right though. There’s a lot of Hollywood films posing as independent films.

BF: Definitely.

SM: They come to the festival. Like the woman you met, the purists like a good indie film. Saying that, did you have any “Hollywood” moments? I know it’s Utah, so it’s not quite Hollywood.

BF: Definitely. You know, I checked in behind Danny Glover…

SM: Nice.

BF: …to get my credentials. I walked on the street plenty of times. Andie MacDowell walked past us one day, and Paul … who’s that guy from Sideways?

SM: Oh, Giamatti.

BF: Giamatti. He was everywhere. In fact, at the premiere of Mad Bastards, you know the actor James Cromwell?

SM: Yeah, of course.

BF: The actor from Babe; the L.A. Confidential guy. He was in the waitlist for Mad Bastards. And when I walked out of the cinema, after the Q&A, the first person to shake my hand was James Cromwell, saying ‘Congratulations; fantastic film.’ And I was like, ‘Hang on, I know you. You’re famous!’

SM: You could have had the story, that you turned away James Cromwell from the premiere.

BF: That would have been a disaster! To go to that level from nothing – from Wyndham to James Cromwell – is pretty good.

SM: I didn’t know that was the actual scale it was measured on. I read a piece you wrote for Moving Pictures Network. And you talk about the film being a ‘cowboy western’. Do you think that’s part of why it was embraced?

BF: I think there’s such a strong history in cinema of the western. You see the kind of cowboy character transposed to so many settings and I’ve never really seen a strong Aboriginal cowboy movie. There’s plenty of characters in indigenous films that have that, but this was something we really tried to embrace. The Wild West; having an Aboriginal presence. I think that’s part of the reason why it resonates, because when you get up to that part of the world, you see the vistas. We used to say when we were shooting the film, ‘Can we get a bit of John Wayne in the background?’ Meaning, the epic hills. ‘Can we get a little John Wayne in this shot?’ We were very conscious, even of the hats we got for the guys. Most of them were their own hats to be honest, so we weren’t changing them; but that was the whole point. They’re like that anyway; we just wanted to capture that.

SM: Regarding the organic process of the film. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand you shot for six weeks, went into the edit suite, then came back, rewrote and shot again. Now if that were Transformers, people would think there were problems with the script…

BF: Oh, there were!

SM: Alright, there you go. Well, that’s what I’m curious about. What was that first iteration of the script and story about?

BF: If was very similar to what we ended up with. We just didn’t get all the bits we needed, really. The story itself, down to dialogue, was almost exactly what we conceived and what we set out to make. But things happened that we didn’t anticipate on the shoot. And we always knew we’d come back – we had a little budget set aside. That was always our process: ‘We’re gonna have a big shoot; we’re gonna edit like crazy, and then we’re gonna go back’. Because there are always hits and misses. And ‘hit’ and ‘misses’ are both problems. Hits mean you get something you didn’t plan for, but didn’t necessarily fit into the movie. So, you know how Bullet the kid goes out into this little camp with the old man; the Aboriginal man with the camels and everything? You know the scene where the old man says, ‘What are you doing here? You’re here for chasing girls. You’re here for stealing a car.’ And he gets to Bullet, and Bullet says, ‘I lit a fire’. That whole scene wasn’t in the script. We just said to the old fella, ‘Just talk to them. I need a couple of shots. It’s the beginning of the camp. I just need a couple of wide shots, or whatever.’ So he started off on this whole … because that’s what he does in real life; he runs a camp for kids in the bush. He wasn’t acting anything; he was running a camp. And he said, ‘What did you do? What did you do? What did you do?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, actually, Lucas and I never talked about what Bullet did.’ Because at that point, the film started with him on the camp already. I thought, ‘This is going to be interesting, because we never came up with a crime that he did’. And Lucas goes, ‘Oh, I burnt a house down’. And I thought, ‘Man, that’s great! That’s so dramatic.’

SM: That’s so interesting, because the opening is so vivid, and it sets the tone. It’s funny to think it came out of improv.

BF: It came out of thirteen-year-old Bullet; improv with 35mm cameras running. Literally the first time I heard that, is the first time anyone hears it in the movie, with that close up of Lucas. That’s actually the first time we – well actually Lucas – came up with it. So then we edited all the material; and there was other stuff that was useful that didn’t work. We had a cut that was about 85 mins. And it had ‘Shot of Bullet Walking In Between Houses’; writing on the screen where there were gaps. And at the beginning it had ‘Bullet Lights Fire’. In fact, I wrote out a scene and read it out, so when we played the first cut after the first six weeks, it had these holes in it, but we had ideas of what needed to go in there. So we went back, shot for three more weeks, and plugged the holes basically. And there’s never a bigger example than the beginning of the movie.

SM: Well, talking about the end of the movie now; where we see Dean and Greg and Ngaire, and they’re out of character – but out-of-character is a relative term for this film

BF: That’s right.

SM: It’s kind of interesting, because, to be honest with you, normally I don’t like when a biopic breaks the reality.

BF: It destroys it, yeah.

SM: But this is interesting because you’re taking it from that storytelling tradition. It’s nice to have this 10-minute moment with them. Was that something you were specifically looking for?

BF: Definitely. It was a choice that was talked about hotly in the edit suite. Some people thought that it broke the fourth wall; that cinematic space that we had sold.

SM: The reality of it.

BF: I always felt like how we made the movie should somehow be part of the movie. Because we’d shot all this stuff for all these years. We have hundreds of hours of stories that they told; images of all the trips that we’d done up there. And I’d experimented with putting some of that stuff during the film, where stuff on video would show up. That broke it too much. That was too out there. The 35mil was strong enough as a story in itself, and it sort of became deflated when you interrupted the flow. At the same time, I wanted it to be in there somehow. And it wasn’t until late in the day when I said, ‘OK, let’s put some of these oral stories right at the very end. So we all know it’s the real people acting in it, and the stories came from them’. All the tech guys were like, ‘So the credits are rolling over this?’ And I said ‘No no no, this is part of the movie.’ Sometimes you make decisions without really knowing why, but when I look back on that choice, and I realise it’s actually the last scene of the film. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you had’ve ended that film with TJ showing up to the men’s group, it would have been a hard-hitting film with a glimmer of hope. Now it’s a hard-hitting film with a glimmer of hope, and then all the people in the movie got together to make this movie, that you just watched. You sort of reinterpret everything you’ve just seen. The irony of course is that the men’s group – no one ever talks at the men’s group – but the whole movie wouldn’t have happened without the men talking. I suppose what I’m hoping is – as people are constantly telling me – that they walk out of the cinema feeling inspired and redeemed. It’s like TJ’s last scene is that he made this film in a sense, and that completes the journey of his character. I suppose that’s what was going on there.

SM: It’s an interesting choice. Actually, just as a side note, have you ever seen Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami?

BF: No.

SM: That’s a film that ends with … you’re watching the film, and the actor is dead. And then suddenly he gets up and walks past the crew, and they’re cleaning up the catering table.

BF: Really?

SM: Last we spoke, we were talking about some of your projects on the go. Obviously this was five months ago, so they were still a while away. But there were a couple of genre projects in the Kimberley, and one in New York, and I was wondering how progress is going on those?

BF: Yeah. Look, to be honest with you, Mad Bastards has become more of a juggernaut than I had anticipated which is fantastic. So my focus has been on this. But I’ve had some good meetings in the States, and the Kimberley genre films are sort of ticking along. But I think I need to wait until June when the movie’s out there. I think every writer knows that you need mental space for ideas to fertilise and germinate, and there hasn’t been a lot of time for that lately.

SM: Sure. So you haven’t mastered the elevator pitch just yet?

BF: No, no. And also, it took a long time for us to make Mad Bastards, and I’m hoping the next one doesn’t take 10 years. Nor should it take 10 minutes. The films that interest me are often layered, and they take a bit of time to reveal themselves. So it’s happening; it’ll pop itself out eventually.

SM: Would you consider doing another project, similar to how you made Mad Bastards, but with professional actors. Kind of what Mike Leigh does; he has his troupe of actors, they get together and create characters, improvise and create a script and go shoot that. Would that be appealing?

BF: It would. For me, I’ve learnt so much making this film. Now that I’ve made my first film, I’m ready to make my first film. I’m ready to do something rather straight ahead next; something that is actually not like that. You know, kind of a well-crafted script; whether it’s actors or non-actors, having a more conventional process. I suppose the thing for me – it’s all turned out well now, but it was very stressful having such an open creative process. Because you’re leaving all your decisions to right when you’re on set, to see how things play out. Things work and you don’t expect them; or they don’t work and you have to fix them up. What it meant is that it compromised my ability to be a director and try some things, but I suppose the whole thing, the whole process was extremely creative, and I tried some things, but the fine details of doing a movie, it didn’t really leave me much room to move because there were so many big issues all the time and you sort of dealt with them. So I’m looking for a more conventional process for the very next film I make, and then allowing myself to develop a bit more as a director, and nurture that voice. But what I’d like to do in the future is go back to this model with the next film, or a few films down the track…

SM: Once you’ve forgotten what this process was like.

BF: Yeah (laughs). Once I’ve gotten over the pain. But hopefully learnt some more. Because, like I said, I learnt so much, and I would do things a bit differently next time. It’s a great process, and I think with the non-linear world now and digital technology, there’s so many ways you can make films. It all comes down to, ‘How does it inform the story? How can you use your process to be original, to be unique, to find your voice?’ So, it’s exciting that we’re in that world every day. I mean, I’ve been filming on the road, on my phone, all these little things that we’re doing. We’re going to make a video clip for the next song from the movie, and I’ve realised I can make the whole thing on my phone. It’s sort of mind blowing; it’ll probably get on Video Hits. There’s a lot out there to be excited about.

Mad Bastards arrives in Australian cinemas May 5, 2011.

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