Downriver: A Conversation with Grant Scicluna

September 10, 2016
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By Sarah Stopforth

Grant Scicluna is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and director of many critically acclaimed shorts (The Wilding, Hurt’s Rescue, amongst others) and now presents to the world his feature film debut, Downriver. Starring Reef Ireland, Kerry Fox, Thom Green and Charles Grounds, Downriver dives deep below the surface, to the darkest point of the river, only to reveal that salvation is weighed down by a heavy anchor.

Downriver is really incredible. So dark; and powerful. Thank you for making such an extraordinary piece of cinema. How have international audiences responded to the film?

Positively. If you just look at our festival selections – Toronto, the Iris Prize, all the festivals in the USA, including wins for Best Film in Miami and San Diego – plus our sales to USA, Canada, UK, France and Germany, I guess you’d say we’re doing well! The audiences overseas see the film as a real exploration of a world they don’t see everyday. A uniquely Australian world. We don’t see it like that because it’s familiar to us. My experiences with overseas audiences is that they really want to get their teeth into the mystery and try and unpack all its variables, happy that the film does not spoon feed them.

Once you finished writing the script, what was the process you went through to get funding?

The script development and funding still went hand in hand. When you’re asking for Government film agency partners, they want input into the script, so I was still rewriting even though we’d secured some support. For us, the Melbourne Film Festival Premiere Fund was a big game changer. Their support put pressure on the agencies to come in. These agencies, while they liked the project, were fearful of the risk. We were first timers. The content was challenging. I don’t think they questioned that the film was worth doing, but wondered if it should be done? Jannine and I had to work extremely hard to convince them of that. Meeting after meeting after meeting; attaching cast; taking rejection on the chin; rejigging the budget. So many compromises. And then when we’d got Screen Australia and Film Victoria’s support, we still needed to raise a sizeable amount of money through a crowd fund campaign. If we weren’t successful at that, the money committed by the film agencies would not be offered. So a lot was riding on friends, family and the kindness of strangers!

As not only the director of the film, but also the writer, how did you find combining your own experiences into such a dark story of fiction?

I think that’s what we do as storytellers in this industry. As a director, we try and make the material feel as credible and real as it can be, measuring it against our own perception and subjectivity. As a writer, we are generating from our own experience. For me, although the story is quite far removed from my own experiences specifically, there is a huge amount in it that is from personal experience. The life by the river, the darkness of the wilderness, the caravan parks, even the missing person. That all happened to me and had an impression on me as a child. I think we carry these things with us always and they are tools into unlocking a story for us because they make the story feel familiar to our life experience. The characters themselves are variants of myself or people I know. I know in my heart who they are, but I will never say!

The performances were particularly impressive, what was your directing process, particularly when under time constraints?

Time constraints are a reality of low budget filmmaking. We are often shooting twice as fast as films that have more dosh. It is very important that while I may feel that pressure, I try and not let the actor feel it. A sense of urgency is good, but being rushed doesn’t make for a good performance. Many times I did have to say to our First AD, however, that we were shooting a script, not a schedule. The sweet spot is somewhere in between, where the director is aware of the time constraints but does not need to compromise so far that the resultant film is a shambles. I think the single most important thing a director can do is cast well and then once cast, establish what each actor needs. Every actor is different. Some like to talk a lot. Some are trained in schools of acting and will want that sort of thing from you. Others like very little discussion. You must respect each performer and give them what they need to do their best. I like to do a lot of discussion leading into the shoot. We comb through the script together and indicate psychological or emotional states and then pin point where they shift and to what. We then rehearse a lot on set before the camera even rolls. Once we roll, I generally only do one to three takes. Perhaps for matters of time, but also because I think it instils an urgency on the cast to be spontaneous, take risks, not be lazy as they know they aren’t going to get a zillion shots at something. It’s a little cruel perhaps, but in the end it works for me and for the film. Many of the shots in Downriver are first takes. Especially the emotional scenes.  

If you could change anything about the film, what would it be?

I’ve been criticised about a few lurches within the story. Scenes were cut because of matters of time, which meant that some material that previously was rounded, now has jagged edges in the film. The thing is, I needed the film to be the length it was. So to put those scenes back in means losing from somewhere else. But if people could read the script they’d see the time I spent getting those things in balance narratively. They were thrown out of balance against my control really.

The aspect of the gay relationships in this film were fascinating to see entwined within the story, without needing to amplify this aspect or broadcast the film only under the genre of ‘queer cinema’ as opposed to ‘mainstream cinema’. How did you go about balancing this sexuality element of the story?

I think what I discovered in the scripting process was that you can use sexuality as an illuminance of character or you can use it to drive plot. Much of queer cinema is plot driven by sexuality. Although things are changing and it’s exciting. In Downriver you can take the sexualities out of the story and the story still functions. But at the same time, as you indicate, the sexuality is also a very big part of the fabric of the characters and the way they interact. I was aware of what I was doing, but its impact on people has been surprising. Many people have received this positively, though of course some whinge and moan that there are too many gay people in that small town. Others have said that what I’ve done is subversive, but I just see it as the normalisation of sexualities in cinema. They just are. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, the characters are… let’s say, “not straight”.

What is the biggest lesson you learnt from working on your first feature? 

Direct yourself as much as you direct others. This was said by the great French director Robert Bresson, although I think I only grasped it intellectually before going into the film. For me, it came to mean, have one eye on yourself all the time. Know your weaknesses. Or recognise them as they crop up. But know your strengths, too, and use them! Be open. Learn. Push yourself. Question yourself. If you do, it means you are pursuing a film that is organic, that grows from inspiration you receive on the day as much as from the vision you bring to set. So just as you go into the shoot thinking that the performances will need work, that the crew will need to be told what to do, you also must go into the shoot knowing that you need correction every step of the way.

What is your next project on the horizon?

I am working on several projects with other writers – an adaptation of the novel The World Beneath, and also an original story set in Cambodia about human trafficking. I have written several drafts of an adaptation of a crime novella called Pig’s Blood which is darkly funny take on the Mafia. As I said earlier, I’m always directing myself. So I’ve recognised that a lot of my choices have been with a certain kind of viewer as the end result. I want to vary that with the next projects. It’s very important to me that I begin to work on projects where the audience is NOT my taste. I want to make a kids virtual reality TV series for example, or a movie with an all female cast that I would make for my mother, say. I’m on the look out for those projects!

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Unfortunately the only WA screening of Downriver has already played at Australian Revelations. So of you would like to see the film in WA cinemas, please encourage your local movie-house to campaign to screen it! This is the case with so many Australian films that are battling to compete with mainstream cinema, so please do whatever you can to keep the Australian movies alive!

 You can catch the next Australian Revelations film The Club at The Backlot on September 27th. Click here for all the details!

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