AFC Film Development Administrative Officer Sarah Runcie speaks to co-writer and director Kriv Stenders about his debut feature The Illustrated Family Doctor.
Multi-award-winning director Kriv Stenders has had a long career. Especially if you consider he was all of 12 years old when he first picked up a camera. Early precocity aside, Kriv has built a solid career as both a director and cinematographer.
Since graduating from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 1989, Kriv has collected many awards for his outstanding short films and music videos, including his graduation film Horrible Man, the beautiful documentary Motherland, and the 1998 AFI Best Australian Short Film winner Two Out.
Always visually arresting, Kriv Stenders' work has often been preoccupied with themes of entrapment - characters trapped by situation, trapped by the past, trapped by prison or the prison of themselves. The lead character Gary Kelp, played by Samuel Johnson, is no exception. With a wry eye for the absurd, Kriv tracks Gary's decline into illness, anxiety, ailments and accidents - all while Gary is, with deliberate irony, condensing an 'at home' manual on medical diagnosis.
SR: At the end of the credit roll on The Illustrated Family Doctor (IFD), you thank Stanley Kubrick. Why?
KS: Well, I guess he's a filmmaker I've been influenced by from a very young age. I grew up watching his films and I see him as one of the few filmmakers who made pure films - pure in that they are perfectly constructed. To me they are the closest things to music in that you can watch them again and again and again and never feel like you've watched them repeatedly. With each viewing you always glean something new, the same way you do with a piece of music.
You've placed particular importance on music and sound in the film. What was your collaboration with Tom Ellard, of Severed Heads fame? You involved him very early on in the process.
I've been a big fan of Severed Heads and Tom's work for decades. Ever since I was a kid, I'd listened to his music, and always found it very cinematic. It always used to take me places.
And the advantage of getting him on board at an early stage, even before we got financing, was that we started talking about how the film would both sound and look, as if the sound and image were one thing - which is how I think, in all things, it should be.
That meshing of the two is what interested Tom and me - the idea of not composing a traditional score, but creating a soundtrack that was both music and sound blended into one element. That's a Kubrick influence, but also other filmmakers like David Lynch especially. His use of sound is very musical.
So the sound and music design in IFD is really 'wallpaper music', in a sense?
Yeah … Well it's woven into the celluloid, into the image. It's trying to create 'eye sound' or 'simages'.
How would you describe the narrative experience of IFD?
It's quite a stylised film. We look at it as a modern fable really - a story that has this other kind of level to it, more metaphorical and universal, above the literal meaning of the film. One of the metaphors is the fact that it's about the idea of condensing books, putting things into compartments, distilling everything down into units. So the film is virtually all interiors. And the interiors are like the landscape of the film. In a funny way I call it an interior landscape. And the idea of throwing the compositions off centre was to always make people aware of the environment, and of the characters being boxed in, within boxes that are also within boxes.
One of the core themes of the film is that it is about a character who learns to finally become more than the sum of his parts. He slowly realises, by virtue of the fact that he gains a new kidney and gains a second chance at life, that everything he felt he was looking for, or at least the lines of thinking he had before his transplant, were actually misguided and wrong. And by the end of the film, he realises that perhaps what he thought was important isn't and what he thought wasn't important is.
It's really about self and self-obsession and there's a certain point where Gary stops seeing everyone else around him. I think that's true to life in that you can become so self-absorbed you can cancel yourself out of the world.
How does that work visually? You have Gary in very sterile environments. You have other people, including him, in grey suits. Visually, other characters do not contrast with Gary, but rather all the figures, characters, contrast with the kind of strange corporate colours, or 'medicinal colours', of the set.
The colours of the set don't change, but Gary begins to kind of wither inside it. He slowly gets crushed and squeezed by this environment, which is not only the physical environment but also the people in it - an emotional, atmospheric environment that becomes more and more oppressive. We slowly built that, very subtly, through sound and through slightly changing lens sizes; distorting, using wider and wider angles to start distorting the way the space looked and the way he looked inside it.
Who is Gary Kelp to you? And how do you want the audience to relate to him?
Gary Kelp is all of us really and I think the way I want people to relate to him is the same way I relate to myself in modern life. Life itself is kind of a disease and there really is no cure. The only cure, or the only kind of anodyne, is adaptation and change. All of us at some point go through a 'quarter-life' crisis, a 'mid-life crisis', or some other kind of crisis, when we really question who we are - where we make a big decision to move on or to change, or something happens to us like a disease, or like an illness.
Illnesses can be tragic and horrible things but they can be sometimes wonderful things as well in that they can be transformative. And this character is someone who really does transform. The illness, for Gary, is really like an adventure - it has a beginning, a middle and an end. He comes through this kind of perilous, threatening confrontation a changed person and finally becomes a complete human being - able to emote and to relate to others.
There are five women characters: Ray's daughter and absent wife, and Gary's girlfriend, sister and mother. And they all seem to be satellites to this story. Ray's daughter Christine (Jessica Napier) is in an abusive marriage. Ray's wife never appears in the film but haunts the edges as this survivor/victim of gang rape. There is also a reflection of the story of Ray's wife's experience in an early scene in which Gary's girlfriend Jennifer (Kestie Morassi) confesses to a kind of sado-masochisic sexual fantasy. Where does this all fit thematically?
There's this idea of Gary being unable to connect with anyone. I mean Jennifer's frustration with Gary is that he doesn't put out and he doesn't provide or give, and she's actually telling the truth there. Gary is kind of incomplete; all of his relationships with women are kind of retarded in some kind of way.
He is eventually able to realise his creative potential, to recognise his suppressed desire to write, to tell stories. I think all writers borrow from life - and from what they know and from what they hear.
Who is Ray (Colin Friels)?
Ray is the classic kind of sage, or mentor, character. He's what Gary could become and he knows that. He's trying to warn Gary that you should do what you want to do. Part of this is a reaction against these self-help philosophies where if you buy this book, if you buy into this way of thinking, your life will be sorted out. I hate this idea you can buy that sort of salvation - it's not something that comes from within you.
What was your approach to lighting with your DOP Kevin Hayward?
We wanted to 'set and forget', with the lighting just embellishing what was there. Again, this is like the naturalistic lighting approach Kubrick and others have used, in that the set is the light and the light is the set; you don't actually bring in other lights. We just wanted to set up these parameters and let the performances and the mood of the film grow out of that, rather than pushing it too much.
You have worked professionally as a DOP as well as directing. How has this affected the way you work in each role?
Well, I've been making films ever since I was a child and to me filmmaking has always been grabbing hold of the camera. So when I went to film school I deliberately decided to study cinematography. I felt I needed to have a very strong pragmatic understanding of the medium, and cinematography was very much a means to an end - a way to become a director, to learn about the craft, to learn about the medium. And it was fantastic because I worked with a lot of other directors and I learnt, made mistakes, and started evolving my own sense of what film was. I liken it to being a plumber or an electrician: you learn a trade.
When I stopped DOPing and started working with other DOPs, it was great because I could be very, very precise about what I wanted or how I saw a particular problem being solved visually, and have them facilitate some of the ideas that I, as a DOP, wasn't skilled enough to do.
The IFD is based on the novel by David Snell. In what sense is adaptation like condensing a book?
I don't think it is condensing. Adaptation is like poetry, in a way; it's like a haiku in that you want to distill. When I read IFD the book, there was this film inside that I could see. You're trying to express the book in this other medium. And that, I think, was really liberating, knowing that I wasn't rewriting the book. It's rebuilding something new.
The Illustrated Family Doctor, produced by Catherine Kerr, written by Kriv Stenders and David Snell, and directed by Kriv Stenders, opens this week nationally.