These are lean times for quality Australian films. The first four months of 2012 have been a veritable creative desert, and for the most part we’ve been reduced to watching reruns of last year’s stunning Snowtown, which is not something our mental health can handle for too much longer. Luckily for us, there is a quiet storm brewing on the cinematic horizon.
Welcome to the beautifully restrained Wish You Were Here. Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith and co-produced by Aquarius Films and Blue-Tongue Films—the collective behind such treats as Animal Kingdom and Hesher—this is the first real promise Australia has of keeping it’s filmic street cred intact. Wish You Were Here tells the story of four people on holiday in Cambodia and a series of events that leads to only three of them going home. The opening scenes show Dave (Joel Edgerton), Alice (Felicity Price), Alice’s sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) and Steph’s new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr) enjoying the South East Asian idyll to the maximum. Sinister elements creep in slowly and the audience is snapped back to Sydney to deal with the aftermath.
Darcy-Smith said of the plot;
“The relationship was always what we wanted the audience invested in, but a retrospective, navel-gazing film is something no one wants to see. The idea was to have a thriller framework.”
As for Cambodia, it was never part of the original story;
“We [Darcy-Smith and wife and cowriter Felicity Price] were going to go to Gladesville [in suburban Sydney], live there for a year as Alice and Dave and do it for $150,000.”
Wish You Were Here was the opening film for Sundance earlier this year, and is certainly a far cry from those early ideas of what the film would be. Undoubtedly, the life of the script grew a lot from the initial treatment. Part of the fine-tuning came about from the opportunity Darcy-Smith and Price had to workshop Wish You Were Here through Screen NSW’s script development program Aurora. With help from old industry hands and boasting past projects such as The Black Balloon, Little Fish and Somersault, the Aurora program was invaluable help.
“It was about strengthening what was already there. It felt like everyone was on the same page. Aurora was the one thing that fast tracked production. It all comes down to the script, it doesn’t matter what you do behind the camera. I spent ten years writing scripts. Script is everything. You can’t fast track that.”
Slow and steady seems to be winning the race. While a lot of aspiring filmmakers harbour their passion throughout angsty teenage dreams of being the next Tarantino or Francis Ford Coppola, Darcy-Smith didn’t even get involved in the industry until relatively late;
“I didn’t actually start writing until I was 30, I was a musician until I was 27 and then I went to drama school. I was lucky, I got to do 15 years of hanging around watching [as an actor] before I had to do it as a director.”
In fact, it’s probably as an actor that you’re likely to recognise his face. With a slew of roles on Australian television and parts in films such as The Cave, September, The Reef, and Animal Kingdom, Darcy-Smith has garnered a solid film education both in front of and behind the camera. His late start has enabled him to take his time with finding the stories that have a genuine resonance and are captivating enough for him to want to explore long-term. He quotes such directorial influences as Susanne Bier, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. The Dogme 95 style of restricted, naturalized filming is certainly a favourite of Darcy-Smith;
“I think it’s conducive to good drama. Acting in a feature in America, I remember it took three weeks just to do my death scene. I wanted a crew who could be excited by restrictions. I wanted to direct something with a small, flexible cast so that everyone was completely infected by it. My next film is bigger budget but I want to keep that approach to filming.”
In Wish You Were Here, it’s also a vision he kept in relation to limiting the emotional dictatorship that music in films often has.
“I didn’t want a music budget at all. Not that I didn’t want music but I wanted to make sure it worked without music. Music happened after the film was finished, I didn’t want the audience to feel the music first.”
Not that he’s anti-music either. Rather, music played an essential part in Darcy-Smith’s formative years, centring around his time in the 80s pub scene and his band Feast of Friends.
“I moved to a sharehouse in Glebe [inner city Sydney] in 1982. I lived underneath a drum room for 12 bucks a week. I’ve always wanted to make a music film. I’d love to play a roadie or something.”
Which is an opportunity he just might get in his latest work. Darcy-Smith is part of the upcoming film project Sydney Unplugged, a series of shorts along the lines of New York, I Love You or Paris, Je T’aime. He joins the likes of fellow Blue-Tongueian David Michod as well as Alex Proyas, Liev Schreiber, Ray Lawrence, Toni Collette and—ahem—Russell Crowe for directing duties. Darcy-Smith’s own part of the project is set in a music shop along Sydney’s famously dusty old suburban thoroughfare, Parramatta Road.
The defining principles of Darcy-Smith’s approach to film can be summarized in two words: guts and honesty. Following your instincts is a critical part of filmmaking, as is the trust relationship that is developed between the actors and the director. As a self-defined ‘stickler for truth’, he also says that;
“Maybe I’m being cynical, but I’m not a cynical person. I think there are people out there who try and second guess the audience. You can’t, you just have to be honest.”