Hail is a remarkable film by first time feature director Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Danny P. Jones, an artistically inclined criminal, who plays a casually fictionalized version of himself. Intense, tender and haunting the story follows Jones from his release from prison to his return into the criminal underworld. At times dark and disturbing, the film is also a love story, which explores what happens when that love is taken away.
Courtin-Wilson, who directed documentaries before making Hail, met Jones in a theatre group for prisoners. The pair hit it off and Hail is the result of many years of collaboration.
Comprising a cast made up entirely of first time actors, Courtin-Wilson used many unconventional techniques to tell this story. He encouraged the cast and crew to improvise which yielded creatively exciting but sometimes unexpected results, including an attempted murder on set (more on that below).
We were lucky enough to interview the up-and-coming auteur about the film and the production process.
Portable: What is Hail about?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: Fresh from jail, fifty year old Dan is reunited with the love of his life Leanne and wants to go straight. A fierce, tender couple who appreciate the simplest pleasures in life, Dan finds a job in a local car yard but after an accident they are both lured back to petty crime to survive. When an old criminal friend of Leanne’s appears with a job for Dan that could finally provide for the woman he loves, a terrible act occurs and Leanne is torn away from him. Alone and haunted, Dan plunges into a savage, hallucinatory journey of revenge to take back what is his. Hail is about the delicate curative powers of love but also what happens when that love is taken away from you and how someone can be reduced to a state of animalistic violence in the face of utter grief.
P: You’ve made documentaries before but this is your first feature film. What is different about the production process?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: I never expected this going into the process but in some ways making a feature film is a lot easier than making a documentary. In the past I have followed my documentary subjects for literally seven or eight years and the edit for a shoot like that can then take up to twelve months to distill all that material into a ninety-minute film. With Hail, we shot for thirty-five days and then cut for twenty weeks so it was comparatively straight forward purely in terms of our schedule. Having said that Hail was also one of the most challenging creative endeavors of my life as making a dramatic feature film means you are engaging with an endless set of variables in terms of how your narrative can take shape. It was also an interesting lesson to realize that in many ways creating a fictional world is a far more personally revealing task.
Because of my years of documentary shooting I try to bring a very organic approach to my dramatic work. With Hail that meant keeping the crew very small so we could work on instinct and actually invite as much chaos into the shooting process as possible to keep things interesting. We achieved that by shooting in real locations, which at times unfortunately had some terrible complications including an attempted murder on set. A woman who we cast in a minor role was nearly killed by her boyfriend who had just been released from prison so the film had to be shut down temporarily until we could find an alternate location. Luckily she was OK and her boyfriend was arrested but it was a reminder for the entire crew that we were operating in a world that was potentially very brutal and very uncontrolled.
P: You collaborated with Daniel P Jones on the film, what were the advantages and challenges of making a movie about your lead actor?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: I met the lead actor Danny about seven years ago in a theatre company made up of ex-prison inmates. I was making a documentary about this group in Melbourne and we’d been filming for about six months. I turned up to one of the rehearsals one day and saw a guy who was standing outside the rehearsal space and I walked up to introduce myself. He turned around and I don’t think I’d ever met someone with as intense a gaze as Danny had the moment I met him. He’d been out of jail for about 18 hours at that point.
Dan became part of the theatre company and he was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of his performance. There is this hyper-vigilant, perceptive quality to Dan as a human being when you engage with him so there’s an amazing immediacy in his performances. You inevitably travel in his slipstream because he’s such a presence.
I knew I wanted to make a film about Danny as soon as I met him but it was only after becoming extremely close with Danny and his girlfriend Leanne over a period of years and hearing endless amazing stories from both of them about their criminal exploits that I decided to make a feature film rather than a documentary.
P: Though Hail is fiction, the film is based on the life of lead actor Daniel P Jones so it brings elements of documentary into the feature. Tell us about this?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: I wrote the film based on five years of knowing Daniel and Leanne after Danny’s release from prison in 2005.
I then cast them both as the leads in Hail in which they actually play themselves in the context of a dramatic narrative. It was a fascinating experiment to take their actual world and then place a narrative skin over the top of that to create a fictional story.
I was deeply inspired by the love they have for one another and I wanted to juxtapose what could have been a social realist kitchen sink drama about the details of their daily lives post release from prison with something almost operatic in tone- something mythical, romantic and highly impressionistic. Stylistically Hail is forged from a triumvirate of influences – the work of John Cassavetes who is a remarkable American director from the 1970′s, experimental film by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, and horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the revenge crime film genre- especially works such as Thief by Michael Mann.
P: Hail is visually striking, what techniques were used to set the visual tone?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: I have worked with the cinematographer Germain McMicking for over ten years on documentaries and short films so Hail was an amazing chance to expand on our shared sensibility. Germain is a remarkable talent and I absolutely love shooting with him because he operates so beautifully on pure instinct. Over a decade of collaborating together we have developed an almost silent rapport so as a result shooting allows for the most organic kind of collective creativity and lets you aspire to what Godard called “The definitive by chance”. With this philosophy in mind Germain and I also looked at extensive reference material; everything from Goya and Turner paintings to very particular styles of handheld cinematography in observational documentaries. It was very important for the camera work to feel extremely immediate. As a result, a lot of the time Germain wouldn’t know what Danny and Leanne were about to do in a scene. That would in turn create a spontaneous moment captured purely on instinct and without any preconceived camera movements. While a lot of scenes worked like this, other sequences were totally storyboarded like any more conventional film; especially when it came to larger set pieces or stunt work. The film is screened in 2:35, which lends a panoramic sense of scale to the imagery and we shot on Super 16mm as the grain in that shooting format gives the film a very painterly warm quality, which was extremely important for the films impressionistic flourishes.
P: The film is entirely made up of first time actors. What was it like to work with such fresh talent?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: Despite working in a very organic documentary fashion on set we actually had about four months of very exhaustive rehearsals and both Danny and Leanne were amazing in terms of being part of that process since we were casting all non-actors. When we had a loose short list of performers, Dan and Leanne would participate as part of the audition; that would then bleed into a rehearsal and more writing, as the scenes took form. Danny has a very internal, private process that he undergoes, but he also really loves schematics, speaking about scenes in terms of triangles and numbers from one to ten. There were a myriad of ways he would find his way into a scene and because so much of the film is so close to Danny and Leanne’s actual lives it was a really exciting way to call on all these lived experiences.
For all the support roles I tried to find real people who were as close to the characters I had written as possible; that way any choices they made in any given dramatic context would feel comparatively authentic because they were basically being asked to react as they would in their own lives. It also meant if we were shooting a robbery scene on a busy street and someone interacted with Danny who didn’t know we were filming we could then use that real world response to make the fictional element of the scene feel extremely real as well.