2:37, the first feature of 21-year-old writer/director Murali K. Thalluri and co-producer/co-editor/DOP Nick Matthews, was selected for Un Certain Regard at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Shot in Adelaide on a total budget of $1.1 million, 2:37 was subsequently picked up by Arclight, and has sold to several major international territories. It is a contemporary ensemble drama telling the complex tale of six high school students. The story takes place during a normal school day. At precisely 2:37 something occurs which affects the lives of all present.
AFC Project Manager Mike Cowap spoke with Thalluri and Matthews on the eve of their flight to Cannes.
How did the idea come about?
MT: A close friend committed suicide in late 2003, and left me a video suicide note. It was something that affected me immensely to the point where, over months, and coupled with my own personal problems, I was driven to depression and ultimately to an attempt on my own life. But like I always say, for everything that happens in one's life there is a positive with every negative. You just have to be able to find it. The day after my failed attempt I begin writing 2:37, and finished the first draft in 36 hours flat. If you're busy there's no room for depression.
How did you then go about trying to make the script a reality?
MT: At the time, film school seemed the logical first step in my journey to bringing the script to life. I had an interview with the local film school, during which they said to me that it wasn't realistic to expect to make a feature in my 20s or even my 30s. I couldn't agree. They told me to focus on advertising and music videos etc, so I ended up walking out of the interview. That was kind of the end of film school for me right there and then, which was tricky because I understood how much I had to learn. I went to my local Borders, sat on their couch and, over the course of a month, read 64 books. Everything related to film, television, theatre, working with actors, film history… But I knew theory would only get me so far. I wanted to learn in practice, and so began the journey to raise the finance.
NM: It was about this time that Murali approached me. He wanted to make it on the $50,000 criminal compensation money he had received after being injured in an aggravated mugging. My attitude was that if we were going to do this we should do it properly, and I set about negotiating deals for gear that would allow the film to have higher production values than by rights it could afford. I took on the role of co-producer.
MT: I got my 10BA tax certificate. At the time, the local paper ran an article listing the 20 richest people in Adelaide. I found out where every one of them lived, and I went knocking on doors. They all rejected me two or three times.
I remember you became quite a regular face in the local Adelaide newspaper during the run up to your shoot.
MT: That was part of our strategy. In order to encourage the private sector to invest in the film we needed to have a presence that legitimised us in the eyes of potential investors - and it worked. Eventually one guy said, 'Yes, I'm gonna put the money in,' and he committed $300,000 to the film. I was over the moon. But it didn't work out. The day before shooting he pulled out. I didn't know what to do. It was hell. I thought if I pull the plug now I'm gonna have a cast and crew that are incredibly pissed off with me, or if I pull the plug at the end of the week I'll have a cast and crew that are incredibly pissed off with me BUT I'll have a quarter of the film. So I completely rescheduled all the most important scenes into that first week, so if worst came to worst I could cut a short film from it - although it would have been doing my cast and crew wrong, and I didn't want to do that, it was the only option for me. In between takes I was on the phone to everybody and anybody, and it paid off. On the Tuesday someone else came on set and signed a $300,000 cheque. It cleared by Thursday, and I paid people by Friday.
Did you try to tap into any funds from government agencies?
MT: I did, and I was told that I was too young. I can understand, and it didn't help that I hadn't even been to film school. I didn't have any experience, full stop. I wouldn't have invested in me on the bare facts, to be honest.
How many days a week and hours a day were you able to shoot?
NM: Days and hours were the same as any professional shoot. The only thing unusual about ours was that because the style of the film is a lot of long takes and steadicam shots, it meant we rehearsed it and then shot, rather than take after take from the traditional shot/reverse shot style.
How experienced was your crew?
NM: The crew was a combination of experienced heads of department, with inexperienced people working under them.
MT: It was a mixture of experience coupled with incredible youthful exuberance. A lot of the crew had never done anything before and were learning on set, much the way I was really. It's the best film school anyone could have: being on a set.
And the cast?
MT: There were two main cast members. Neither of them had acted in a production before. I hope I don't come across as a Frank Abagnale-type character, but I faked my qualifications in order to get a job at two of the local acting schools here. I don't think that you can accurately judge an inexperienced teenager through a formal audition, so I taught others at the acting schools to spot talent. We basically spent four to six months workshopping.
Were you able to pay people?
MT: We tried to pay people an amount that was fair. I didn't take a single pay cheque during the first period so I could pay the crew more. Then I took a pay hit so I could get my steadicam operator massages at the end of the day. They realised I had sacrificed so much myself that although they would have liked to get the best rate, everyone - and the statements they've written in our press booklet attest to this - felt this film was our own and therefore we were all in it together. I don't know how I achieved that, or if I'd be able to do it again, but I think mine and Nick's energy really rubbed off on them. Everyone just wanted to make this work.
When you say 'during the first period' you're referring to the fact that the film had to be shot in two sections. What happened there?
NM: After four weeks shooting the $300,000 dried up, and we only had 75 per cent of the film to show for it. Little did we know it was going to be six months before we'd be shooting again.
What impact did that break in production have on the final film?
NM: This period was key to the success of the film. We were able to take stock and review the material, and began to cut. Ultimately, we reworked the project and, I think, made what would have been a good film great. We endeavoured to turn that enforced period of inactivity to our advantage. I hear that Woody Allen always shoots his films in two sections for this reason.
MT: I rewrote a lot of the scenes during that period. Because I had cut so much I was able to see new ways to enhance the film and make it work better. There's a whole new black and white element in the film that only came about during the break. I can say this without exception: that for any negatives during production, ten positives came out of it. At the time it was hell, but we just kept active and wouldn't accept defeat.
So the final film is a better product for the fact that you had a break in the shoot?
MT: Infinitely better.
So is that something you might carry over into your future work?
MT: It is something that we've talked about, the idea of shooting, having some edit time and then shooting again. It won't work for my next one, but it's definitely something I'd like to do again.
How did you get around the logistical problems that a six-month break brought about, such as changes in the appearance of the cast?
MT: Full credit to my make-up artist there, really. All my actors were teenagers and they grew, put on weight, lost weight, got pimples, etc, but the magic of make-up, hair extensions and all that never ceases to amaze me.
During this period I was also able to take the opportunity to work on getting a hero of mine to work on the film. My sound designer pulled out because another filmmaker was able to offer him more money. I was so disappointed that I said to myself if I can't have this person as my sound designer, then I'm gonna go for the best in the world.
My favourite sound designer is Leslie Schatz. He worked on Apocalypse Now with Walter Murch, and he's worked with Spielberg. I looked him up on the Internet, and I emailed about 30 reporters who had interviewed him over the last 30 years. One of them was kind enough to forward my email to Leslie. Leslie got in touch with me, and after about a dozen emails with me begging to get him on the phone he finally let me call him. I can't remember what I said but it must have been compelling enough because he told me, 'Okay, well, I'm gonna be in Cannes next week. Come over to Cannes, show me your rough cut and we'll talk from there'.
We didn't have the money to go to Cannes, so I went back to the investor who had put $300,000 in and I said, 'This is a huge opportunity'. He gave Nick and I the 20 grand, and we went to Cannes, met Leslie and showed him the rough cut. He loved it, shook our hands and said, 'I'm in'. We just had to find a way to be able to finish the film and have the budget to pay him.
How did you manage to raise the finance to finish the film?
MT: Whilst in Cannes, I was also able to spend time with some Australian distributors, and managed to secure a letter of interest in distributing the film. I came back to Australia armed with this letter and went to see Kojo, a local company probably best known as a post house. I pitched to them for funds to finish the shoot, and to get their services in kind in return for equity in the film. And they agreed…
2:37 stars Frank Sweet and Teresa Palmer, the 20-year-old Adelaide actor who will soon appear in The Grudge 2 (the Columbia Pictures production starring Sarah Michelle Gellar) and December Boys (with Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame). 2:37 will be released nationally on 17 August through Roadshow.