Interview: Ivan Sen (director of Toomelah)

Interview: Ivan Sen (director of Toomelah). By Simon Miraudo.

Toomelah marks Australian director Ivan Sen‘s third narrative feature film (and the first to garner release since his acclaimed debut picture Beneath Clouds landed in 2002). Set at the Toomelah Aboriginal Mission, the picture follows a young boy named Daniel who tries to fit in with his drug-dealing elders. Shot by Sen entirely on his lonesome, Toomelah‘s unique production can be felt in the rawness and visceral nature of the brutal – yet occasionally comic – movie. We spoke to Sen about the trials and tribulations of the shoot,  his decision to subtitle the dialogue, taking the picture to Cannes and the future of his unreleased flick Dreamland.

SM: Do you remember seeing any films growing up that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

IS: Well, yeah. The first thing – well, it didn’t inspire me to get into filmmaking, it just had a huge emotional impact on me – would have been Gallipoli. I saw that when it came out; think it was ’81 or something. That was the first film that touched me and affected me in a very strong way. Probably more so than real life was doing at the time; I was nine or 10 years old.

SM: Have you met Peter Weir?

IS: I did meet him one day. I was editing my first short film in a production house, and he was just in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. I said ‘Hello’ to him, but that’s all I did. I didn’t mention his huge impact on me when I was young. I left him alone.

SM: I’m sure that cup of tea was yet another masterpiece of his making.

IS: I think he was doing The Truman Show then, so there was a lot on his plate.

SM: Absolutely. What was the first germ of an idea for Toomelah?

IS: I didn’t know at the time I first wanted to make the film. I wanted to make a film out there, I just didn’t know what it was going to be about. So I went out there and observed the environment until a young boy comes along and ended up being the boy in the film, Daniel [Connors]. He had a big impact on me; he got into a huge argument with these teenage boys, and he was going to take them all on himself, this nine-year-old boy. I thought, ‘Yeah, this little kid has a lot of courage’, and he continued to have that bravery when I first started doing casting workshops with him. He was very strong and brave and not scared at all about wanting to be the lead in the film. Anyway, I followed him around and observed his life and wrote down heaps of details and also kept on writing down details around the teenage boys, and also recorded all of the dialogue I was hearing as well and wrote pages and pages of the local dialogue and some phrases which worked their way into the film. Then I just went away and put it all into a screenplay over a couple months.

SM: Can you take me through that casting process that you mentioned? I’m assuming there are some autobiographical parallels with Daniel, but how did you fit people into the roles you had written?

IS: Yeah, a lot of the characterisations do come out of the people that I came across out there. It’s not really very reflective of my own life. There are two to three hundred people out there. After I’d written the film I went back out to see who I could put into the film. The problem with a place like Toomelah is everything is in the moment; people move around a lot and things change very quickly. I couldn’t really finally cast the film until a few days before I shot it. I had to make my choice out of who was there at the time. So apart from Daniel, the other boys, I guess, just had to slot into the characterisations I had created, which were actually based on a lot of those boys I did cast. The guy who plays Linden [Christopher Edwards] – the head gang guy – his life is very similar to the role he plays in the film.

SM: Dean Daley-Jones is also in it, and he was in Mad Bastards earlier this year. Did you shoot Toomelah before or after that?

IS: He did Mad Bastards first, and David Jowsey, my producer, he co-produced that. He knew about Dean, and there was a role in the film that called for someone with a big physical presence, and all the people who had that presence in Toomelah were locked up in jail; they were all doing time. So I couldn’t really find anyone. David mentioned Dean as a possibility, so I got Dean up there and he just slotted in with the local community. He has a different accent to them, but I think it works in the context of the film, because the character he plays has been in jail for a very long time and may have adapted to a different way of speaking. He’s the only one I brought in from outside.

SM: As you mentioned, you spent quite a lot of time in Toomelah, but how long was the actual shoot?

IS: The shoot was around six weeks. Prior to that, there was one week where I was walking around with the camera and the microphone and just letting everyone see what I was doing. To see me with the camera so that everyone would get used to it. I didn’t want to start filming and have a crowd of 100 people around to see what I was doing. So gradually, over that pre-time, I just introduced the camera equipment to the community so they weren’t too excited when I started filming.

SM: As well as being writer/director, you’re also DOP. You had your hands full and it doesn’t seem like the easiest shooting environment. Were there any particularly rough days on set? Any specific shots or scenes that you really struggled to nail down?

IS: It was all kind of difficult, really. All of it. To keep my mind around so many things. Even continuity is a big job when you’ve got a lot of characters and you don’t have a wardrobe department to keep in check what kind of clothes are there all the time. I remember Daniel’s jacket went missing one day, and I had to put out a $50 reward to find it [laughs], but as soon as the reward came out it turned up. I think we would just be filming and because there are a lot of issues that affect the community, and substance abuse is one of them. I did a scene in the house between him and his mother one day, and this guy just came in. He was plastered basically; he was going off his head. I just had to wait for him to move through the house and let him tear his head off. If I had a crew with me they would have been s****ing themselves. But, five minutes later we just kept on rolling and kept going on and got used to the environment. Also, a difficult thing when you’re doing a film by yourself is maintaining your energy. When you’ve got a crew around you and actors, there’s a lot of energy you get from them. But I just had to wake up in the morning, pack the car and motivate myself really [laughs], every day.

SM: I don’t want to say it was a solo undertaking, because obviously the cast are involved. But it’s definitely your baby. Was it your decision to have subtitles on the film?

IS: Yeah, when I was writing it I knew that I was going to have to subtitle it, because when I was observing the dialogue and writing down all those lines – which would later become integrated into the screenplay – I knew there would be difficulty in people understanding all of it. I think there still are moments in the film where no matter how many times you hear it you’re not sure what they’re saying. You can’t just subtitle a quarter of the film; you’ve got to do the whole lot. I told my producer, ‘We’re going to have to do that’, after the first couple of days of shooting.

SM: It’s interesting that you made that decision during the screenwriting process.

IS: Yeah, you don’t want people to miss key moments from the story.

SM: The film had a really positive reaction at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it also played Cannes. It actually reminded me a lot of the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike, which played both festivals.

IS: Oh yeah.

SM: What’s been your experience taking the film around the world to these festivals?

IS: It has been a pretty positive experience. Cannes was amazing; an amazing event the screening there. The audience responded with such enthusiasm and warmth; not only to the film but to the actors who we took over. The actors were really overwhelmed after the screening, broke down crying, and pretty soon the whole cinema was like that. We were all crying. The thing is that this went on for such a long time and also continued outside the cinema as well. Since then we’ve played at a lot of international festivals, and every week it’s got several screenings.

SM: Can you tell me what you’re working on next?

IS: The next film is quite different even though it’s – well, it’s not really in a similar setting – in the general area. It’s a film that’s aimed at a wider audience; it’s a genre film, a murder mystery. It’s about an Aboriginal detective, who’ll be played by Aaron Pederson, who investigates the murder of some young girls. They’re found out on the highway out of town. It has a very strong western influence. I call him the ‘cowboy detective’.

SM: Do you have a date when you start shooting on that?

IS: April, we begin shooting. I’m also chasing the cast to go along with Aaron as well.

SM: Excellent. Finally, is there any news on a release for Dreamland?

IS: I’m holding back the release of that. It’s a film I feel very strongly about and the themes I think are quite extraordinary. The film is being described as an ‘art’ film, more so than an ‘art house’ film, so the potential audience is quite limited and I want it to reach more people than that. What I’ve decided to do is write a whole new version of the film, but within the fabric of a commercial film – a very commercial genre film – with some big stars in it. Play with the similar themes, but it’ll be a very different experience with a complex thriller plot going on, which’ll be aimed at a total commercial audience. Whereas the original Dreamland will maintain its integrity as an art piece and I’ll try and get the films released at the same time. One possibly in art galleries and one in multiplexes [laughs].

SM: Fair enough. So you restrained the release yourself? You didn’t seek distribution for it?

IS: No, we were at a stage where we were about to release it but what we had been offered was quite a limited release, and I felt that wasn’t the right thing to do at that point. It’ll get released one day, just not now.

Toomelah is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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