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23 November 2017
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Rolf de Heer on making low-budget features

AFC Project Manager Julia Overton speaks to Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer is a filmmaker who has worked almost exclusively in the low-budget medium. His credits include Alexandra's Project (2002), The Tracker (2001), The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2000), Dance Me to My Song (1998), The Quiet Room (1996), Epsilon (1995), Bad Boy Bubby (1993), Dingo (1990), Incident at Raven's Gate (1987) and Tail of a Tiger (1980). Rolf lives and works in Adelaide.

How low is low?

RH: In the Australian context, I think low budget is under $2 million - maybe $2.5 million nowadays. It used to be under $1 million.

JO: What is the lowest-budget feature you have ever done?

RH: I think it was probably The Quiet Room: $590,000. Now it would probably cost about $800,000 or $900,000, doing it precisely the same way.

The right budget for the film - and the right film for the budget

JO: In your development processes are you conscious of trying to keep the budget down - not go above $2 million?

RH: It varies but I don't let the budget dictate absolutely what I am doing. With Alexandra's Project the starting point was to make something extremely low-budget - $200,000 or $300,000 - but I found in trying to write the script that I needed to set it up quite differently from what I expected. I needed not just two characters, but other characters beforehand, and different locations. It became a different film, but because its origins were so low-budget, it could still be made for a low budget.

Another example is Bad Boy Bubby. That had lots of characters and lots of locations, but the way I approached it was to ask myself 'what should all of this cost for what it is?' and then 'how can I make it for that?'.

Bad Boy Bubby is a perfect example of a script that could be made for $880,000, which is what it cost, but could also have been made in a more conventional way for $3 million - and at one point I was offered $3 million to do it. But for me it's about being set up in a way that's best for the film. It's not that I compromise; it's that I shift how I do it in order to achieve what I want for what I think is the correct budget for the film.

JO: How do you decide what the correct budget is?

RH: It's a combination of a lot of factors. It's to do with what can, in my view, give those who put in the money in a fair chance at a return. It's to do with the subject matter. It's to do with the style. It comes down to two things that I think are critical: one, what will the financing market sustain; and two, what is a reasonable budget for that film and its place in the world market.

With Bad Boy Bubby, which is a bit 'out there' you know, I thought on the one hand, if it went wrong, a worst-case scenario would be that it sold as an exploitation film. At the other extreme, there was always the chance it would go ballistic. The more likely scenario was in the middle.

That kind of assessment comes from years of doing bits and pieces of deals around the world; dealing with sales agents and seeing estimates - and seeing actuals rather than estimates; reading Variety endlessly; when in Cannes, getting as much intelligence as possible; reading avidly; getting a good idea of what you can sell something for. I think you really have to understand your place in the world and the only way to do that is to consume information and process it.

Controlling the variables

JO: Can you talk a little about The Tracker - a low-budget film, shot entirely on location, with David Gulpilil and Gary Sweet.

RH: In its original conception The Tracker was a fusion of content and a way of making a film. Dingo had been a miserable bloody shoot except for one week, in the Kimberley with a very small crew, a Steadicam and some actors, sleeping under the stars. That was fantastic! That week was not only the most enjoyable of the shoot, and the cheapest by far, but the material we got was disproportionately valuable to the film. So I thought, my god: to make a whole film like this, that would be something. So its original conception was to go into the bush with a small crew, bring some actors - not a lot of coming and going of actors because it would cost too much - and you all have an experience. Then the content arose. So from the outset it was designed so that all the variables were controlled and you could get something that was disproportionately valuable for the amount of money you put into it.

JO: Except that the variable you couldn't control of course was the weather.

RH: That's right, but you can work with it. The things in the film that are different from what they were in my head are because of the weather. For example, I had planned a particular sequence to be time lapsed and motion controlled, but after being there a couple of weeks I realised the weather was just not steady enough to risk it, so I got rid of that idea and shot it completely differently. It had a different effect on the film but it's fine.

I also thought it was important to shoot as much in sequence as possible, and I carefully scouted the locations so I could do that, which means there is a holistic approach to it.

From perception to script to pre-production funding and during the shoot you are walking a knife edge, but if you have all your bases covered you can usually pull it off.

It's like Ten Canoes, my next film, which has a ridiculously low budget - ludicrous considering the variables that are necessarily there: shooting with an entirely Indigenous cast, on their own land, when all sorts of things can happen. But from the outset, in the scripting and in the schedule of the shoot and the way of thinking about it - the shots and so on - everything is inbuilt to take into account what might happen. What happens will determine what kind of film it ends up, but I am fairly confident it will be a film of some credit, for the ridiculously low budget we have and the ambition of it.

JO: Aren't you constantly running the risk of going over budget?

RH: I find that almost impossible to do, emotionally and intellectually. It's like I am letting people down if I do that. If I could see catastrophe looming, certainly I would deal with it, but I haven't and I don't. Dance Me to My Song went over a bit because we discovered once we started shooting that the pace was much slower than anticipated. We shot an extra week and because post-production was then delayed as well, in the end we had to get more money. But the budget was so low to start with that when it ended up costing $700,000 nobody much minded.

JO: Do you think part of the reason you are able to keep your projects so contained is that you are the writer, director and producer?

RH: Absolutely. It's all part of taking an integrated approach. For me the writing part of making a film is the first 50 per cent of directing it and at least 25 per cent of producing it. In this case the communication between writer, director and producer is perfect and instantaneous, which saves a lot of hassle and a lot of grief and a lot of money.

Small, multi-skilled crews and flexible ways of working

RH: It is very useful to work with people you have worked with before because less time is spent exploring how people work and more time is spent working. But I do vary a bit; it isn't always the same people.

JO: No, but the crew is so small and you are all multi-skilled and not interested in dividing responsibilities in a very strict way.

RH: Yes there is a fair bit of overlap - helping each other out and being involved in each other's areas. It works for these sorts of films. When we did Bad Boy Bubby, I worked out what the budget should be - $800,000 at that point - and a producer would then usually come in and say, 'OK, we have five weeks to shoot'. That's not my approach. It is, how long do I need to shoot this film? I need nine weeks. I have $800,000; how do we do it for that? So, for instance, we might get one person to do makeup, hair and wardrobe instead of three. In the end I find that the value you bring to the image on screen is so much higher if you spend more time on it with a smaller crew … you know, shoot twice as long with half the crew.

Epsilon was going to take a year to do, so we offered everybody wages of $800 a week for a year. If you talk to the unions, and calculate for them that [paying actors for] the actual number of days they will be acting would earn them less, they say fine we can see you aren't trying to rip them off. Then you do the same with the crew: guaranteed income for a year on an adventure and you have time off. The film cost $1.75 million and I think we had 153 shooting days in that time. To go about that conventionally you are talking about $10-15 million.

From necessity comes invention

RH: I work constantly because I have to. Old Man took two years instead of one and you don't get paid any more [after the first]. Towards the end of it you're starting to think 'oh Jesus, what's going to happen next?' That's why The Tracker ended up happening when it did; otherwise we would have been stuck in terms of money. Then towards the end of The Tracker, you're in post thinking 'god, we're running out of money'. So you start working on another project and get it financed very quickly, get The Tracker released and get busy on that; get Alexandra's Project written and get busy on that ... and on it goes.

JO: Do you have an agent? Do you get someone to do your negotiations for you?

RH: No, not at all. More and more I do this myself because you learn how to write a contract and you can pass them by your lawyer and they say 'OK, that's a weird one but yeah that will do'.

Going low budget

JO: Do you think it's wise to encourage people to think about low-budget methodology?

RH: People are going to try and go low budget anyway, so a presentation of different methodologies and the ability then to learn about that is a good thing - to do it more efficiently and better. And the thing is not to be talking about low budget to the exclusion of all other budgets. It is just a segment of the industry that is going to get a bit of attention for a bit.

JO: There is a sense of deja vu here isn't there: you were involved in a project the AFC set up some years ago called Low Means Low?

RH: That was just before The Quiet Room.

JO: What would your advice be to somebody who wanted to embark on a career as a low-budget filmmaker?

RH: My advice is, don't think about it in terms of career. I don't have a career. I stumble from film to film and I'm lucky and smart. If you want a 'career' you go to Hollywood.

JO: Are you interested in using different shooting formats and technologies?

RH: So far I have been happy to shoot on 35 mm. There have been a couple of projects I have considered doing in high-definition [video] - but HD is still not particularly good. It's fine but I still don't think it's as good as film. And the super duper digital way of doing it is just too expensive for me; I find film much cheaper than that, so hey - why would I? Film is so good and much cheaper.

JO: But you are always smart at exploring technologies.

RH: You have to use a different technology differently - sure - but if you are smart about it you will find new ways to use it and not have it cost in production and post.

JO: Yes - make sure that the time gets reduced because of it.

RH: No - not for me. I'll try and take more time with the same amount of money.

Gary Sweet in Rolf de Heer's Alexandra's Project
Conceived from the beginning as a low-budget feature


David Gulpilil and Gary Sweet in The Tracker
Shot entirely on location