Daniel speaks to Sarah Runcie, AFC Film Development Administration Officer.
We Have Decided Not to Die is an unusual short film. A modern day allegorical triptych, three figures undergo transformation through three rituals. Though not a story in any conventional sense, We Have Decided Not to Die succeeds in taking the audience on an emotional journey. Aurally intriguing, often stunning and always beautiful, Daniel's short film has been winning fans from around the festival circuit.
SR: What was your initial inspiration for the idea?
DA: I think it was actually a single image of this guy floating outside this 50th storey window and the idea of him not dying. Just that single image. And around that came these kinds of ideas of some kind of transcendence and ideas of, I guess, religious rituals and building a film, instead of around the idea of a story, around the idea of a ritual being the story.
SR: How did you choose the title We Have Decided Not to Die?
DA: You know, it's actually from something that I saw in a book. A couple of artists that work in the States called Arakawa and Gins and they did a book called Reversible Destiny. It just felt like this crazy kind of statement. I just like the 'matter of factness' of it. It seemed to sum up the kind of idea of where the whole film was heading.
SR: What do you think is the power of ritual as an action?
DA: I think, you know, the idea of rituals in cultures, historically, has been so strong. [Ritual] is always attached to something of spiritual significance - whether it is monks walking on hot coals or parting of Red Seas or some sort of an event, sometimes spectacular, sometimes small. [Ritual is] attached to the kind of foundation building blocks of peoples' psyches and spiritualities. I don't really subscribe to any particular philosophy myself, but I like a lot of ideas from different spiritualities. It seemed an interesting idea to build stories around rituals I had constructed myself in a modern day context with skyscrapers and cars and swimming pools - to bring together a little personal mythology.
SR: How did you go about choosing the three rituals - the first ritual being the girl breaking through the surface of the water; the second being the figure that cheats death by levitating above the two crashing cars; and the final being the young boy jumping through the glass window?
DA: It started with the one with the glass. That had certain elements attached to it - air and glass and breaking through a surface. It always felt right that that was either the first one or the last one. Working backwards from that, I guess, was a matter of finding two others that kind of balanced that and felt right.
SR: What is the element in the second ritual 'Between'?
DA: I guess it's metal and earth. It's much more grounded because it's these crashing cars. [The rituals] were structured around the idea of an infinite kind of life cycle.
SR: With the second ritual, you have two other ghostly jittering figures that mirror, and 'frame' the central lone figure. That is the only one of the rituals where you utilise that technique. Why did you choose that technique for that ritual?
DA: The idea is that the two bookends - the entering and exiting/re-entering life rituals - are the more ethereal, more centred and focused, a more pure kind of entity. And the idea with the middle ritual 'Between' was more about a time between [birth] and rebirth. It can be equated to the real life. There's the possibility of other figures and the possibility of distractions and the possibility of the multiple little strains that your mind goes off on when you are in life.
SR: Do you think that ritual has its transcendental value because it's metaphorical action?
DA: Yeah. Definitely.
SR: Why didn't you include the element of fire?
DA: Well, to be honest, fire was actually initially in the first ritual in the script. When the girl breaks through the surface of the water, there's an ignition of some kind. We did actually shoot that, but when we were putting the whole thing back together in post, it just felt too much. In the last [scene], there's a single break through a surface [of the glass window] and in the middle one, there's a single levitation above the [crashing] cars. [Fire] was actually there [as an element] but, in the end, it was actually the one thing that changed from the original script.
SR: In the third ritual, 'Rebirth', the figure is jumping out of a window. Initially I thought, the guy is going to die. We Have Decided Not to Die - except one.
DA: In a perfect world, what I would have done with that last ritual, which is in the script, is bring it to a point where, he does more obviously, hover [outside the window] and not fall. That was my intention with the story. At the end [the film] loops back through the other two rituals. We go back to the vista that it starts from and hopefully that, combined with the title, gives the idea that he doesn't necessarily die. What exactly happens to him, I don't know.
SR: Is that why you returned at the end of the third ritual to the other rituals?
DA: Yeah, I guess, hopefully to try and bring across the idea that basically all are left hovering. Obviously I didn't want to tie it down too much because, you know, when talking about concepts of spirituality and life and death, no one really knows the answers. Maybe, in death, there is new life.
SR: What were the difficulties in writing something that wasn't a strict narrative?
DA: ... It feels much easier to write this sort of stuff than to write traditional stories. [But] there's an accessibility to the film because it's kind of spectacular. There [are] crashes and smashes and splashes.
SR: Given your background - you have directed music videos and TVC's - what elements of your visual language did you bring to We Have Decided Not to Die?
DA: A lot of stuff technically - like certain editing techniques. A lot of stuff playing with pictures and creating a space and an ambience. There's a section where there's three stuttering figures in [the second ritual]. [This] kind of stuttering movement was an idea I had experimented with in a music video film clip for Groove Terminator. [In the music clip] these kinds of stuttering figures were almost like a virtual musical equaliser to the soundtrack.
SR: So experimenting with the relationship between sound and movement and how that creates meaning for an audience?
SR: What is the difficulty in directing movement that you are going to play with backwards, forwards and at a different frame rate?
DA: That does get really loopy sometimes actually - especially storyboarding it. Because I knew that there was a lot of reversal and speed ramp ups and stuff like that, [I was] always doing those little mental puzzles of 'how does this fit in backwards?' And the film was storyboarded very meticulously. The shoots, to be honest, nearly always completely freak me out. I always edit my stuff myself. And that's the part I really kind of love. So I just try and shoot material that I know is going to have enough leverage one way or the other when I get into the edit suite and [then I] just collage it up. And I work very much with the music happening at the same time.
SR: How important is the music for you in terms of structuring? Was it something that you thought about before you were shooting? Were there sounds for you that you had in your head when you were writing the script and that then became a touchstone to the kind of sound that you wanted in your track?
DA: Yeah. Completely, actually. My father actually composed the music in the end; but, obviously, I know his stuff really well having grown up with it so that music was always in the back of my head - combined with sound design elements that I knew that I wanted to add. [I]n the end, it was really nice because I was able to lift little bits and pieces of his music from different tracks that he had written before and tracks that he was working on at the [time] and then kind of take them and collage them and rework them as I was editing it. As I was editing the vision I was editing parts of his music.
SR: Does the music help you think in terms of directing movement?
DA: Yeah. I think it does. I think it probably helps much more in the editing than it does in directing ... it is usually about putting some random movement in a controlled space and then taking that randomness and letting the music control it in the edit - whether that be this kind of spasming, convulsing kind of movement that goes on in the film or more traditional movement. So I guess a lot of it is about making the pictures/movement feel like music to some extent. The process is a bit like getting a pianist to improvise a whole lot of stuff that feels interesting and then taking that and working it into something that is hopefully tighter, more concise, once it's been edited. I guess that's what I'm doing with the performers, getting them to improvise movement around an idea and then chopping that up in relation to the music/mood/narrative.
SR: How did you go about directing yourself?
D: That was weird actually ... it was OK in the end because I think we knew what we were doing with [the film]. I wasn't going to be in it initially. We had casting sessions with all sorts of different people but for some reason, in the end, it felt right [to be in it]. It felt pretty much like directing someone else for some reason.
SR: How did you actually shoot We Have Decided Not to Die?
DA: Since we had the luxury of not having to deal with any dialogue it was always my thought that 'let's not shoot any of this at 25 frames'. It was all shot at anything between 50 to 500 frames per second. And the 500 frames stuff was this, kind of, nightmare because we had to get in these photosonics cameras.
SR: How do you deal with lighting issues at 500 frames per second?
DA: To be honest, there's a few little grain issues in there but (cinematographer) Denson Baker did a really fantastic job of balancing the standard 16 stuff - and a lot of it was outdoors so we were lucky lighting-wise there. The car crash was the biggest nightmare. Our location had been cancelled on us the day before [we were scheduled to shoot]. We ended up at Oran Park where we did our glass jump scene and the car crash scene. To cut a long story short, we lost two sheets of the glass before we even got started. One had been blown over by the wind. The other one got smashed as it was getting up into the frame. Because we were on this location, that we hadn't expected to be on, it was much more windy. At the last minute, Jordy [Jordan Askill] finally made it through just before this slit in the glass was about to take the final piece of glass down. He hit the crash mat and rolled over on his side and cut his side open on the tarmac. And then we had an hour and a half of daylight left to shoot this car crash that had been set up by Grant Page (stunt coordinator), over on the other side [of the location]. I was basically standing by this candy glass praying …
SR: What was the hardest thing about directing the film?
DA: I think it was that day with the stunt with the glass. I think shoot-wise that that was the most stressful. I think casting-wise, in pre-production, was certainly [difficult]. I really did go backwards and forwards for a long time about, you know, was it too much to [cast myself] and that whole kind of thing.
SR: What was problematic about the post process, given that it is the part that you most enjoy?
DA: To cut a long story short, once I'd finished editing it, all the on-line footage ended up scattered between about four or five different post-houses and four or five different compositors. So there were points there where I was completely freaking out because I wanted to get the film finished because it had taken so long and I was feeling a little bit embarrassed. And I wanted to get it to the Australian Film Commission. We were kind of hoping to have it ready to enter into Cannes. As it was, all those deadlines just completely slipped by. I was just watching it ever so slowly come together. I just felt so out of control. And I didn't know when it was going to be finished or if all these pieces would actually come back together or was someone's hard drive going to completely crash and lose half the film. It was just a great lesson for me in terms of really pinning down the post-production route much more specifically. In the end though I must give credit to Theo (VFX supervisor) who managed to pull it all off in the end.
SR: How was your experience at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival?
DA: It was great actually. We had a blast. Jordy, Kasia, Chris (producer) and I all went over. We Have Decided Not to Die got a really fantastic response - which was really nice. And actually it got an encore screening. Would you believe it, we completely underestimated peak-hour LA traffic on the day it was screening and we missed the screening and arrived just in time for Q&A. Everyone seemed to respond to it really strongly - which means that at least it must have screened. A whole bunch of people heard about it and requested it be screened again so they ended up screening it a second time but unfortunately didn't get in contact with us so we missed it a second time only to find out on Closing Night that it had been screened again. But, it was a really good experience.
We Have Decided Not to Die has its Australian premiere at 6:30pm on Thursday 27 November at ARTSPACE, 43-51 Cowper Wharf Road, Sydney.