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19 September 2018
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Shane McNeil, director The 13th House

Shane comes from a background of making commercials and video clips and this is his first short feature.

Why did you choose to make a short feature?

We didn't really choose to make a short feature, as much as the opportunity just sort of chose us. The first version of The 13th House was written in 1998 as a collaboration between first-time writers Shaun Duncan and Scott Richards. They originally started to develop an anthology television series called The Eleventh Hour, along the lines of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Shaun and Scott had never made a short film before, let alone knew how to bring a television series into production. At the time, Scott's brother was working in visual effects and he suggested Scott send the scripts to me for script advice. Working as a university film lecturer, I was used to receiving unsolicited scripts from students and filmmakers. The Eleventh Hour scripts wound up in the pile on my bedroom floor, where they stayed unread for several months. When I eventually read their scripts, I was instantly hooked. All of them were tightly structured, had ambiguous narratives and a strong, paranoiac sense of atmosphere. But out of all of them, the episode that stood out for me was The 13th House. I then worked with Shaun and Scott for nearly three years in the capacity of an unpaid script editor because I thought their writing was inventive and original. Together we decided to concentrate all our efforts on developing The 13th House as the pilot episode for the series.

Because of my enthusiasm for the project, I guess Scott and Shaun thought that I was probably the best person to realise their script as a director. They had seen my short films and identified my interest in conspiracy theories, paranoid characters and absurdist situations, all of which were in The 13th House. The project went through a number of producers and production models, but we were unable to find support for the concept as a television series. Despondent, we stopped working on the script and all moved on to other projects. It was during this period that the Australian Film Commission announced their new funding guidelines. As part of those guidelines, short feature development and funding was introduced. The timing seemed perfect. Here, we had this 55-minute script with three years script development, sitting in a drawer, that was tailor-made for the short feature fund. So with the help of Kristian Moliere (producer) and Julie Ryan (consultant producer) we then spent six months preparing the application and budget for production funding to the AFC and were lucky enough to be selected in their first round.

What interested you about the length? What can short features offer that shorts and features can't?

After working exclusively in short form drama - particularly commercials and video clips - it was nice to have the time to set up a plot with subtext and develop more complex motivations for characters, and to allow those characters to go on an emotional arc. It was a challenge to try and tell a story in a hour and add little details and motifs to help garnish the narrative - both visually and on the soundtrack - with details that are usually restricted in short form due to the economy of time and budget. But inevitably it all comes back to the quality of the script regardless of its length. As Billy Wilder said, anyone can make a bad film from a good script, but it's almost impossible to make a good film from a bad script.

Essentially we treated the 50-minute format as a cut-down version of a feature film, in that we tried to follow the three act structure in a reductive ratio. So we identified all the plot points, pinches and act breaks and restructured and re-timed them from 100 minutes to 50. It was an excellent exercise in structure and economy for both the writers and me in terms of us eventually writing features. I guess the major attraction in making a short feature is that you get to make all the mistakes that come with producing a long form drama without having to experience the same degree of risk associated with feature finance investment and distribution. It was definitely harder than I thought, and has better prepared me for making a feature in that if I am ever going to make one, I had better love the script and fully commit to it because I am going to have to live with it for three years. So if nothing else, making a short feature has strengthened my resolve to only work on scripts I am passionate about and willing to commit to both emotionally as well as creatively.

How did you settle on the narrative for the film?

I think The 13th House had a different development from most of the other 50 minuters in that we didn't specifically write it for the short feature fund or for non-commercial television exhibition. And it also wasn't a short film that we expanded or a feature we cut down. The script was purposely written as 50 minutes for commercial television. As I mentioned before, The 13th House initially began life as the pilot episode for a mystery/fantasy anthology television series. Having gone through various individual episodes and plot outlines, the writers and I knew we had to create a strong pilot episode for the series to attract investment That's when we came up with The 13th House.

Scott and Shaun, the writers, decided to write a story about work, because it was something that everyone could relate to. Their intention was to take something positive, like a promotion at work, and invert it to create paranoia and suspense. We're all big fans of The Twilight Zone and its writers like Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, so we just followed the standard Twilight Zone approach - "Be careful what you wish for…" and then put a sting in the tail.

The 13th House has now become the first in an 'instinct trilogy' of themed films we want to make about work, home and play. Shaun wrote another short feature immediately after production called Playtime which reads like a Japanese horror film about abducted children that we now want to revise as a feature. And Shaun and I have just co-written a feature called People You Know which tackles the 'home' component; looking at what people do in private when they're not working, and the sorts of fantasy lives they create in response to their work image.

What's your film about?

On the simplest level of plot, The 13th House follows a young office worker's ambitious climb up the corporate ladder. Essentially it's an existential parable, along the lines of what Kafka used to write, as in Before the Law or An Imperial Message. I wanted to make a waking nightmare like Kafka, a paranoid fantasy with its own dream logic. But at the same time I wanted to test myself and make a suspenseful film without car chases or murders but instead try and create a strong sense of mystery, fear and paranoia. I now think creating and maintaining a sense of mood or atmosphere throughout a film is one of the hardest things to achieve as a director.

While I wanted The 13th House to entertain, I also wanted to make a film about ethics and morality. I wanted to provoke a philosophical response from an audience, to get them to ask themselves, "What would I do if I was in Mark's situation?" In that sense you can also read it as a Faustian morality play about ambition in the work place. That's why we had Sir (Shaun Micallef) never enter or exit a scene. He's our Mephistopheles, who continually tempts Mark Waterman (Damon Gameau) and who just pops up in scenes, appearing and disappearing at will.

Other people have seen the film as being a metaphor for capitalism in its most extreme form. That's there too, I guess. But regardless of individual interpretations, the question The 13th House poses is without context. What does it profit a man to inherit the earth if he should lose his soul in the process? In a world full of economic rationalism and double-think, I hope the film is a relevant cautionary tale for our time.

How important was casting?

One of the stylistic decisions I made very earlier on was to employ a variety of actors with disparate acting styles so as to help reinforce the alternative reality that Mark (and the audience) would experience on the 13th floor. I deliberately wanted the various non-naturalistic styles of acting to contrast with the 'real' world Mark leaves behind on the 12th floor. That's why I chose a variety of performers with different experiences and training for the film including a NIDA graduate, a television comedian, a student actor, a rock musician and various non-performers.

We recognised that the lead role of Mark Waterman was a difficult one, because the character appeared in every scene in the film. We really needed to find a strong actor, with a broad emotional range, who was relatively unknown to help sell him as an 'Everyman'. Julie Ryan, our consultant producer, suggested NIDA trained actor Damon Gameau, who she and Rolf de Heer had just worked with on The Tracker. I went into the edit room where Rolf and Tania Nehme (editor) were cutting a scene from The Tracker. I watched about two minutes of the scene where Damon's character turns against Gary Sweet's character and pulls a gun on him and I thought "That's him. That's Mark!"

For the role of Sir, we started to put together a list of actors that we could see in the role. Basically, we stopped at the first name on the list, which was Shaun Micallef. Shaun was perfect for the role. So much so, we started rewriting the dialogue with Shaun's phrasing and delivery in mind before he was even cast. We knew we wanted to cast a recognised comedian against type for the role - like Steve Martin in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner or Michael Palin in Brazil - hoping that people would nervously giggle at him even though he was playing it straight and wasn't being funny. We knew we would be in trouble if Shaun said no, as we really couldn't envisage anyone else playing Sir, with equal parts comedy and menace.

The remainder of the casting process seemed to fall into place. We felt a little spoilt on our first film because we got our first choices for all the leads. Experienced theatre actor, Rebecca Havey, made her film debut in the role of Minerva, a difficult role with minimal dialogue but complex motivations. I'd always wanted to work with Rebecca, since seeing her act in student plays at Flinders University where I used to teach. She has such amazing intensity and concentration as an actor and her level of commitment to a role is breathtaking. She's my Melora Waters. I can't imagine making a film without writing a character for her.

I cast John Scott, lead singer/songwriter of The Mark of Cain as Mark's nemesis, David Freeman. Kristian and I had worked with John on his music videos and even though video clips are short and don't usually require much in the way of acting ability, I recognised John had enormous presence and was capable of sustaining a performance as an actor. After all, he's had over 15 years of performing on stage to audiences across Australia so I took a chance and thought that's got to translate to something tangible on screen.

Relative newcomers, Tahli Corin and Paul Cannell, were cast as Mark's co-workers on the 12th floor, without undergoing an audition. Having been an actor, I'm a little suspicious of the audition process. I find there are actors who can do great auditions but fail to deliver the emotional goods on set and there are other actors who stumble, for whatever reason, during auditions yet deliver amazing responses to camera. Usually, I just like to meet with an actor, have a coffee and chat with them and talk about anything but acting. This way I can make a decision based on personality, intelligence and trust before deciding whether they can carry the role or not. It would be nice to strive towards what Robert Altman or PT Anderson do and have an ensemble of experienced talented players to choose from that you could specifically create roles for. That's my goal now.

As a filmmaker how has making a short feature given you the confidence to continue working in film?

I told Rolf the other day that I've probably learnt more about writing than directing, by making a short feature. I'm now far more conscious of act structure, pacing and creating consistent charcterisations after having to cut down a first assembly with a running time of 110 minutes to a workable 50. That was quite a daunting challenge. One of the most important lessons I learnt from that experience is that you can start a scene half-way in and the audience will fill in the gaps for you. This not only saves time but also creates greater engagement for the audience, who desperately want to solve every ellipsis that appears in the plot.

The whole experience in making a short feature has been amazing and I would recommend it to anyone who has made shorts and wants to move into features. You get to experience all the processes that go into making a long form drama without the usual investment risks or distribution anxieties.

As a response to this, People You Know incorporates a lot of the things Shaun and I have both learnt over the past year about writing long form drama, in terms of being inventive, commercial and working with a low budget. We are now both much more conscious about structure and how to think visually and aurally on the page than we were before we undertook this journey .

What are your future plans for the film? How is it doing at festivals?

We had a good response at the Adelaide Film Festival where we were selected in the "Best of the Fest" and we were voted "Most Baffling Australian film" at the Sydney Film Festival (I guess it's better to be baffling than boring!). In terms of international festivals, we're restricted from a number of them because of our odd length (58 minutes) and screening format (Digital Betacam). We just got selected into Sitges International Fantasy Film Festival in Spain so now we're strategically targeting smaller, genre-based festivals that specialise in fantasy and horror because of the film's style.

David Stratton gave us a fantastic review in Variety which initiated a lot of response from Hollywood for such a small film. Miramax are currently looking at it, probably not for acquisition more in terms of a style check and seeing what we did for our budget. We've had a few nibbles from US distribution companies but no bites yet. Probably the strangest thing that's happened since making the film is that I got offered a Hollywood script! A producer in LA saw the Variety review and sent me a screenplay for a sci-fi action thriller with stars attached! I have no idea why they thought I'd be the best person for the job. I guess they thought if we can make a 50 minuter film for $330,000, we'd probably know how to maximise their production dollar.

The 13th House

The 13th House