Australian filmmaker PETER CORNWELL started out shooting his AFC-funded stop-motion animated short Ward 13 in the corner of his bedroom. The film went on to be hugely successful both here and internationally - screening at over 70 film festivals around the world and winning many awards. Three years later he is now directing the thriller feature film A Haunting in Connecticut, starring Virginia Madsen, for Gold Circle Films in LA. The AFC's Gabrielle Bonney recently spoke to Peter in LA where he is in pre-production for the film.
Tell us about your journey from independent filmmaker with your own production company in Australia to directing A Haunting in Connecticut in LA?
I obsessed in my spare time about making this crazy little film [Ward 13] while working as a sound recordist at ABC TV. I didn't really give that much thought to what would happen afterwards - I just wanted to make this film that, as a fan of cinema, I wanted to see. I'd never seen a totally action-packed film like Ward 13 in stop motion before. When I did work experience at Zap Productions many years ago I read some Cinefex magazines about Ray Harryhausen [a cult figure in stop-motion filmmaking]. I realised that, with enough time, I could make a really awesome blockbuster film basically by myself - just as Harryhausen did, except without compositing the characters into real environments.
I did the post-production sound over in San Francisco with my friend Luke Dunn Gielmuda, who is a genius sound designer. His boss Ren Klyce (who was Academy Award nominated for Sound Design on Fight Club) volunteered to mix it. From there various people got to see it. It was invited to screen at Pixar and many other places. On the morning I was to fly back to Australia I met Peter McHugh, who is now my manager.
By the time I came back to the US, somehow I had 50 meetings lined up with producers, most of whom I was meeting about doing live action. So to cut a long story short I also got a great agent and lawyer and things almost started to happen. After I met [director/producer/writer/actor] Sam Raimi and it got around that he really loved my film then things kicked up to another level. He is a really generous, great guy!
Can you talk a little about how receiving AFC funding to produce Ward 13 assisted in the early stages of your career and contributed to where you are now?
I showed the AFC my rough cut and received money to get an orchestra, so the film ended up with a score that is better than I dreamed it would be. It was composed and conducted by Christopher Gordon, one of Australia's finest composers. The temp score was full of Bernard Herrmann music that is impossible to get the feel of without a real orchestra. And because there is no dialogue in the film, the music is like a main character. Thanks to the support of Lawrence Johnston, Anna Broinowski and Adam Elliot somehow we made a strong enough case. I will be forever grateful to the AFC for that!
How did the screenings of Ward 13 on the international festival circuit and the subsequent awards increase your profile internationally and lead to other opportunities?
The awards and screenings were great, but ultimately the people I've been talking to about making movies in the US didn't hear about me through film festivals. All the producer contacts came from having a manager, then later an agent too. I found my manager through word-of-mouth. If your film gets on an agent's desk, awards probably help it go up the pile.
The film has also been sold five times to French TV. My French distributor thinks it might be the only film to have ever done that.
For a short animation, Ward 13 is incredibly high action - with its tense chase sequences, sword (cane) fights and dramatic score it's really akin to a live-action thriller. Did grounding the film in this action genre act as a kind of bridge for you from short animation to a live-action feature?
Yes. I shot it like a live-action film, and most of my influences were live action. Because I animated it very smoothly, many people almost forget it's an animated film. Those extra years making the animation really smooth were often agony, but it paid off!
Was animation your first love? Is a feature length animation on your agenda?
I love the freedom you have in animation, and I love confounding people's expectations because there can be such a limited view of the medium. But the main reason I did it in animation is so I could do big-budget production values essentially by myself, often shooting with the animation set up in the corner of my bedroom! I do have animated feature ideas though. Telling a good story is the main thing to me.
What attracted you to A Haunting in Connecticut? Having written your own projects previously, has the process of collaborating with screenwriters Tim Metcalfe and Adam Simon on this feature been a very different experience for you?
I was attracted to it because it's a really good script, and there are plenty of ways I can see to use the language of film to tell the story. I love working with other writers! I love being able to talk story and characters and bounce ideas off people who are really smart and into it. I don't know if I could go back to filming frame-by-frame - creating for long periods in a room by myself again.
You're now represented by Barbara Dreyfus at United Talent Agency in the US, who also represents NZ director Andrew Adamson (Shrek 1 & 2, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and also by The Gotham Group. What opportunities has representation in the US opened up for you that might not have been available otherwise?
Thanks to these people, my life [lately] has consisted of reading scripts and meeting producers, which has led to directing a movie here. I'd love to come back and shoot films in Australia down the track, but right now there are so many opportunities over here. I've got lots of great projects I want to do. Ward 13 was just the tip of the iceberg!
Visit the Ward 13 website.