Film Without Rules

There’s an ad on the website I’m looking at: Become a Film Director in Adelaide! Click here now! It seems pretty straightforward. Mostly as an attempt to distract myself from doing some legitimate work, I click through – and am hit with some urgent offer that for whatever reason requires my credit card information immediately. I close the window. So much for becoming the next Bergman.
The reality of being a filmmaker in Adelaide is a little different than that (and probably involves fewer Nigerian Princes). You’ll hear it said in hand-quotations the state around: We’re teetering right on the verge of a “renaissance” in South Australian film, where we’ll soon see a raft of new, exciting, and quality cinema coming right from under our feet – and maybe even hear the death knell to the dreaded stigma of the Australian movie.
Those standing closest to the edge are our young independent filmmakers. “You’ll hear the bigwigs in the film industry say things like, ‘You can’t make an action film for less than $9 million’,” says Matt Salleh, head of local studio Urtext Film Productions, “But that’s total, total, total, total bullshit. And you can add as many ‘total’s in there as you want”. For cinematic effect, we’ve set the chairs up Frost/Nixon interview style inside the cavernous ballroom at Urtext’s Grenfell St base – but Matt’s energy and passion for the subject of film means that our conversation is a far cry from Tricky Dick’s monotonous ramblings.
“We’re four or five years away from seeing people make Oscar winning movies in their basement on their Mac,” he tells me. And the tantalising prospect of reaching a global audience through sites like YouTube means that there’s never been a better time to jump in and give filmmaking the old college try. “The established (film) industry’s scared,” Matt says. “Because the new industry’s open to anyone. Previously, you could only make a film if you were an alumni of the industry. Now, if you save up a couple of years from your job working as a waiter, you could probably shoot a whole film.”
Coming off the back of a sold-out Adelaide Film Festival screening of his studio’s first feature-length film Offside, Matt is keen to bust the myth that you need sackfuls of capital and a beret to make a world standard movie. His production company, Urtext, was born four years ago out of a desire to create a community of filmmakers in Adelaide who could support and nurture one another. Since then, the studio has grown to produce a steady stream of films, from 2005’s Transcription to award-winning short Hole in the Water.
And Matt’s plans for the future are Ben Hur big. He wants to establish the framework for an inpendent film making industry in South Australia, so that local talent has somewhere to go within the state, rather than scuttling off to supposedly greener (Easterner) pastures. “We have companies in the CBD of Adelaide doing visual effects for Harry Potter and Wolverine. What those companies need to realise is that we could be thinking on that sort of scale for our own projects, we could put those resources towards telling our own stories, rather than telling somebody else’s.”
For CJ and Dave Wade from Kino Adelaide, their philosophy for invigorating the local film industry is easy: Do well with nothing, do better with little and do it now! Began in Montreal in 1999 by a group of friends, the Kino movement is all about complete creative freedom in filmmaking – that the value of cinema of an art form doesn’t rely on budgets and funding. Since hitting Adelaide four years ago during the Film Festival, the Adelaide faction of the group now gathers on the second Tuesday of every month at Urtext for short screenings of its members’ works.
“The advantages (of Kino) are the ability to tell the stories you want to tell,” Dave says. “To be able to take risks. It also brings you closer to your audience, and you get to learn exactly what the general audience likes and wants.”
Working without a budget doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re forced to limit the scope of your project, CJ says. “I can argue that a lack of money will force you to be more creative. Anyone whose read 'Rebel without a Crew' by Robert Rodriguez will understand what I mean!”
The tide is already beginning to turn. Films that could never have been made ten years ago because of budget constraints are now an everyday occurrence, and the result is that stories that are less mainstream are finally able to find the sweet light of day.
You don’t get a less mainstream story than a plump Italian man in Spiderman getup punching a woman in the face for failing to make him a macchiato (pronto). While the plot of Italian Spiderman might be slightly more complex than that, it’s the type of oddball production that a decade ago would have been impossible to cheaply create – let alone distribute to a worldwide audience. But be created and distributed it was, and Italian Spiderman became the YouTube sensation of last year, racking up over two million views and counting.
The guys behind the velvet mask, local filmmakers Dario Russo and David Ashby, see the path to success for upcoming filmmakers in Adelaide as embracing government funding organisations like the South Australian Film Commission (SAFC). “Once Italian Spiderman came along, the first thing I did,” Dario says, “is give a proposal to the SAFC. And they hooked us up with the cash, and we made the series. And ever since they’ve been just as supportive”.
Bodies like the SAFC are feeling the pressure to keep up with independent film makers like Dario and David, whose productions often seem to come out of nowhere and enjoy instant global success on the Internet. The team are quick to defend government organisations that offer funding to young filmmakers, who are sometimes criticised for their lack of enthusiasm for small-time projects. “A lot of people think that if they go to a funding body, then they’re going to do all the work for them,” David explains. “That’s completely wrong. You feel like saying to people: Come on! Commonsense! Be proactive!”
Often it’s not the project that’s the problem but the style of the pitch, Dario says. “The funding bodies respond to filmmakers with a vision of the final, final, final end of production before you start the early stuff. Government organisations are looking for projects that you already have a lot of scope for… You gotta go in and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make it. These are the people who are going to make it. This is how much money it’s going to cost. And afterwards, this is exactly how we’re going to market it,” he says.
Back on the Frost/Nixon set over at Urtext, Matt leans forward in his chair. “In the end, what we gotta do is get people watching Australian films again,” he says. “And we don't do that by having incentives and things like that – we do it by making better films.” The path to better films doesn’t start by clicking web banners – it begins with a vision, passion, and above all else the enthusiasm to get out there and do something. It really is that straightforward.