Australian director Kriv Stenders is fast becoming known for challenging, true and poignant drama in the Dogme style. His latest feature, the ultra low-budget Boxing Day, is a series of long shots in real time. It will screen at this year's Sydney Film Festival. He talks here about the process of getting it to the screen.
How was Boxing Day conceived, developed and financed?
In 2005 my debut feature, The Illustrated Family Doctor screened at the Adelaide Film Festival. After that screening I went out and had a fateful beer with the festival's director, Katrina Sedgwick. Katrina was a big fan of my no-budget digital follow-up, Blacktown, and asked me if I was interested in developing a similar digital-based project that the festival could fund. As it was I was already working on the script for Boxing Day, which was a film I planned to make using the same methodologies I had started to develop on Blacktown. I was wanting to work in the same open and organic manner, and had an idea that was based around a central character that would be played by Richard Green, an Aboriginal actor I had worked with on my short film Two/Out. The idea was to make a film in real time - a suburban siege drama that would be told in one single, continuous shot. That was the basic kernel of the idea and Katrina loved it, so the festival kindly gave us $100,000 to go out and make the film. I remember thinking: 'Am I crazy making a feature film for only 100K, or am I crazy not to?' I decided I was crazy not to.
Were the long takes and real-time action part of the original concept? What was your reason for making these choices?
Yes they were. I was just interested in working with that kind of canvas for a change. Blacktown was a very consciously edited film, and I was keen to work in real time, with long takes, using digital to shoot openly and without fear. I had seen Russian Ark and Timecode and thought they were successful failures - interesting, but still kind of flawed narratively. I was really interested in simply telling a linear story in real time, and to not get too avant-garde about it. Plus, I had just seen Gus Van Sant's Last Days and was really inspired by it, and loved how he used long takes to physically draw you into the world of the characters.
What was your rehearsal process and period? How experienced was your cast?
The cast was a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. That's the best kind of mixture for a film like this, as the non-actors draw from the experienced ones, and vice versa, and that gives you a really directional, yet authentic and naturalistic dramatic tone. The rehearsal period was two weeks, in which we actually shot the film twice. We rehearsed the film chronologically and by the end of each week we had a version of the film that we could all watch, discuss and refine. In this case the rehearsals were actually an integral part of the process of physically shooting the film.
Was it difficult to have a shooting crew of less than 15?
The crew was actually smaller than that. I was shooting and directing. There were two sound guys - a recordist and a boom swinger. I had an assistant director, a camera assistant, a production designer, a props assistant and apart from my producer, his production manager and a runner - that was it. It was pure bliss - because the communication was so direct and immediate and everyone was totally committed and wanted to be there. It was simply a great way to work, no hassles or egos - just pure filmmaking.
The film seems to be made up of a few long shots. Can you talk about your shooting schedule?
The film is actually made up of 12 separate takes or shots. We shot over five days in a week. And like the rehearsals we shot chronologically, which was scary as it was a bit like sculpting in marble. Because of continuity, once we started chiselling away there was no going back. The days were normal 10-hour ones and we sometimes finished early or started late as we were chasing the magic hour daylight in which the climax was going to be shot. The whole film was shot with available light. It was hard in that there was no room for error, but this pressure really helped everyone, especially the cast, to focus and be absolutely present all the time. I think it was probably the single most thrilling, scary, challenging and rewarding filmmaking experience I've ever had in my life.
Were crew and cast paid?
Everyone was paid award.
This is the second HD feature you've done. How do you approach working with HD?
I approach it very intuitively. Basically HD is the format I've been waiting my whole life for. Like a guitar, or a pencil, I can now create and work much more spontaneously and fluidly. I trained as a cinematographer and I love film and film cameras, but digital is just such a malleable format in that I can shoot whatever way I want, whenever I want, without ever having to hold myself back. I can now make a film without fear - fear of shooting too much film and blowing the budget, fear of fucking up technically, fear of wasting time. It's just so liberating and it allows me the freedom on set to think much more open-mindedly about how to shoot a scene, or solve a dramatic problem. It means I can try an idea out, and have it fail without looking like a fool, because I've just wasted $2000 worth of celluloid.
Did you look at rushes? On what format?
Yes. This was the beauty of shooting digital and in long 10-minute takes. We were shooting on the new Panasonic HDVX camera and I had my laptop with me on set with Final Cut Pro. We could actually watch a full resolution scene on our large plasma monitor and see it cut into the film straight away. In fact, I remember on the last day of shooting I went back to the hotel, cut in the scenes we shot that day, and by the time the wrap party started the film was already edited!
You've directed a mid-range-budget feature and low-budget features. How would you compare the different experiences?
I think the major advantage of shooting on a low budget is freedom; freedom to make mistakes, to try something you normally couldn't try on a more expensive set with a large crew. The one thing I hate about higher budgets is the big trucks that crews have to bring with them. I dread that feeling at the start of the day when you see all the trucks trying to park, and you know that trying a spontaneous idea and shooting in another direction is going to take you two hours, because everyone needs to re-park their bloody truck! I just hate that feeling because it seeps into everything you do, it's like working in a tar pit.
On a low-budget film like Boxing Day you don't have trucks, you have a small crew; and like a bunch of kids having fun and playing pretend, you can do something spontaneous and try it out. For example, on the very last day of shooting the cast decided to set the climatic scene in the bathroom instead of the bedroom - it was an inspired idea that just happened on the day and were able to do it straight away. I don't think you can work with that much freedom and spontaneity on a larger budget film, because everything is locked in so much in advance - you don't even think that way. And now for me, making that kind of spontaneity an essential part of how I work and create is what the magic of filmmaking is all about.
Boxing Day screens at the Sydney Film Festival at 8:35pm on 19 June at Greater Union George Street Cinema 1. More information about the film and crew can be found in the AFC's Australian Feature Films Catalogue 2007/08 online.
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