You know what it’s like. You meet a beautiful, really cool girl who you instantly fall for. She invites you to a party with her friends and you’ll do just about anything to impress everyone and not embarrass her. The only hitch being that she’s taken you to a satanic sex party and you’re no longer sure you’re both on the same side. So is the situation for the lead character in Australian director Richard Williamson’s wickedly dark psychological short Black And White. We talk to Williamson about the narrative appeal of the darker side of human nature and the art of not writing.
From the outside there appears to have been a surge of great filmmaking in the shorts space from Australian directors in recent years (such as the Blue Tongue Films guys, Ben Briand & Stuart Willis). Is this something you’re experiencing from the inside or is it business as usual and we’re only just noticing?
I feel more and more like there are a lot of talented Aussies around. Those guys you mentioned are brilliant. There are so many strong filmmakers coming through now. Even in the pool of only Melbourne filmmakers I know there are so many great up and comers. I think it’s larger than Australia though. I remember rushing out to buy not one but two mini-dv cameras when the ‘digital revolution’ was upon us and eyes were lighting up everywhere believing the gatekeepers were going to give more of us a shot. That was a false dawn but I think things are different now. You can achieve production values that are good enough to carry an audience on very little. We made Black And White for under a thousand dollars, except for the stunt. That kinda killed us. Status we made for $5000 AU. I feel like the whole planet is exploding with films right now though. If you give people enough time to hone and build and learn and try again, then the quality rises. That’s how it seems with the Aussies I know. From the inside it feels fiercely competitive. There are so many amazing people to line up against. I feel like you just have to keep distilling your own style and what makes you different. Anyone who lands in Hollywood starts off in their living room with a cup of tea and a notepad.
She brings him on the most messed up date imaginable. Poor Guy.
Both Black And White and Status are pessimistic takes on core aspects of humanity. What is it that draws you to stories about the darker side of life?
Conflict is the life blood of drama. I think it’s always easier to tell stories with strong forces of opposition. Where are my happy endings or stories where good overcomes though? It’s crazy but I’m really drawn to sad narratives. I used to watch films like Edward Scissor Hands where at the end Kim is an old lady while snow blankets the house and Edward is alone, forever remembering her and loving her. There’s something relatable to me in characters that try and are strong and you’d fight for them but they lose. You should watch my short The Long Night! Maybe it’s the same impulse that makes people like sad songs? I’d argue that if you look at that behemoth Game Of Thrones they keep people desperately tuned in because the writers refuse to give us happy endings. They keep us wanting them for all these characters we care for. It’s almost abusive how dark and sad they continue to go. Maybe the Hollywood mantra of ‘give them a happy ending’ is breaking down in this day and age. I do want to make films that reflect the brighter colours but so far the ideas that grab me tend to be pretty dark.
There’s an elegant lack of exposition in both in Black And White and Status which forces us to actively attempt to orientate ourselves within the narrative. Is this aspect of your storytelling present from the script stage or pared back to during post?
A bit of both. Black And White was the toughest script I ever wrote. I completely re-wrote every word like nine times. For me the art of writing is the art of not writing. You can’t have your character say, “this is what happened five minutes ago and this is why it upset me.” There’s no organic connection. I smash my head against a wall sometimes thinking, ‘if this is what happened and this is how he feels then what would he do?’ I try to make something that can involve an audience because they have to observe and read it, like we do in real life. If you cut it too fine then viewers miss story points and it’s like you’ve flown your plane too fast and hit a hill. In rehearsal though you keep finding things that are too overstated or too understated. You work through it. In post you find presents and curses and it’s amazing how you can still force exposition and weaken the film if you make things too clear or not clear enough. It’s amazing how much script and footage was cut actually. There was this really long, intense philosophical battle between Julian and Guy initially. There was a bet. There were these three different trials (of Christ) where Julian tries to corrupt Guy. It was hard to lose as much great stuff as we did but ultimately it was repeating the same story action and weakening the film. There was one amazing sequence though where Julian removes Hope’s bra and is trying to get into Guy’s head. This horrible bug appears on the outline of Julian’s arm and starts crawling up towards his face while he’s talking. It was so creepy along with what he was doing. Sadly it had to go.
While exposition feels blessedly minimal, the world of Black And White felt much larger than what we see play out on that deck – I started concocting my own rules, such as the Blacks needing to coerce the Whites indoors to have any power over them. Am I just crazy or did you spell out extra elements of the situation for your actors to inform their performances and the story as a whole?
Yes. Wow. The biggest rule that is not overtly stated is that Whites were meant to be subservient to Blacks. They were meant to obey the Blacks at all times. This is a large part of what occurred inside with Guy right before the film starts and why he is so angry. There was initially even a fight that almost happens between Guy and Julian because he tries to call on this rule and order Guy to do things out on the deck. There had been more of a subtext too where he’d been really in love with Lena and meeting her was a big thing for him. She brings him on the most messed up date imaginable. Poor Guy… But then he does something pretty messed up with Hope. I wanted people to root for him but judge him too. It’s not really overstated other than Guy crying out “I’m sorry” at the end but he is a pretty compromised character.
Isn’t the anticipation of violence sometimes more punishing than seeing it? Imagination is a powerful thing.
For a story about a satanic sex party there’s a distinct lack of flesh or violence on display, but it’s a lack filled by imagination which is probably more disturbing. How did you approach strengthening audience imagination of the unseen, grotesque goings on through sound design and suggestion?
I didn’t want to revel in too much gore or nudity or sex. I feel like the concept of the film is dark enough. The implications are violent. I didn’t want to make something that enjoyed the sex or violence so much as using these things as a frame. Isn’t the anticipation of violence sometimes more punishing than seeing it? Imagination is a powerful thing. You’re right again about broadening the world. In Black And White and Status I tried to build a sense of spaces that lie beyond the immediate scene. It’s a really hard thing to do without much budget since it always relies on sound design and suggestion. I wanted Black And White to have a Waiting for Godot like quality where you have a sense that right next door there’s something really big and wild and unpredictable happening. We are in the space outside the space though, out of time. We’re in that nervy space where no one on earth might be watching you. What happens there? More time and extras would be wonderful. To be honest if I had the budget and a mansion, like Eyes Wide Shut, I’d have loved to start the film in the party and this swirling, tracking shot of debauchery that eventually settles on Guy outside by the railing. I’d love to place that house in this grey endless middle of nowhere countryside. You do what you can and hope audience imagination will kick in.
Your lead Shaun Goss skilfully conveys his journey through a vast range of conflicting emotions, whilst Daniel Niceski is devilishly manipulative and menacing. How did you approach casting and then later directing the cast to hit the correct tone of emotions?
The cast were amazing. I saw quite a lot of really good actors in audition. I couldn’t have asked for much better. We rehearsed the material a lot. Since it’s all one scene and mostly the two just sitting outside it played a lot like theatre. Shaun was brilliant and so driven to understand Guy’s complete journey even if it’s not explicit in the film. That journey is much longer in the script and his input helped build maybe 50% of his character by the end. I think Daniel is remarkable actually. He carries so much of the intent of the scenario and holds the urgency of the film. His range and shifts were superb. He was an actor that took direction really well and that is like Christmas for me. I think Mel (Melissa Howard) and Kat (Kathryn Tohill) were wonderful too. Kat is an electric actress and I really hope I can work with her again. I loved the space we got for the characters to perform. I designed this film in a way to give me that space. I’m guilty of trying to tell stories that are too big most of the time I think. Short film is so much about image and style. It does slice of life or joke structure really well. It does stylish reveals really well. I’m old fashioned and love a big juicy beginning, middle and end. It’s murder in shorts cause I try to build to climaxes of high emotion and there is so little time for empathy and a classical three act structure. People always tell me “man… kinda wants to be a feature”. Not meant generally as a compliment I think. They’re right. I’ll tow the line one day. Or maybe I’ll just have to make a feature.
Obviously, with a film titled Black And White those opposing colours and elements of light and shadow are going to be at the forefront. How did you and your team approach the production design? Also, was the eye make up of the Blacks a self-referential call back to Emily’s in Status?
Ah! Wow. Yes it was. The eye makeup in Status was a reference to Pris in Bladerunner too! That’s one of my all time favourite films and drove the tone I tried to get in Status. In Black And White the Blacks had great nails too. You never really see them. The space was really important since we needed room to tell a whole film on that balcony. We had to get the crew and gear in the space so it was tricky. I felt like most of this film was going to play in close ups so the design we had was just enough to suggest the world. I liked the crazy shape of these floor lamps since they give the balcony this whacky feel. I was thinking about a balcony as a contained stage or a real world theatre. I love the tone of the opening of Sin City and that balcony scene with Josh Hartnett. The lights we used were very minimal. Those standing lamps provided most of the key and we just slid them closer and further away as we needed them. Augmented with china balls on C-stands. We used the odd red head occasionally for a backlight and we got a base level fill shooting through the big glass windows which were lined with diffusion. The most wonderful find were the fairy lights we used to rim the deck. They were conceived as a background element to throw some focus and depth but they gave so much great blue light that we were able to light the actors with them at times! This is a DSLR film and we shot on a Nikon D800. I’m actually really happy with the look of that camera. It graded better than I would have thought. My DOP Misch Baka did a lovely job.
Status and your graduation film The Long Night both went out to the festival circuit but this time you’ve put Black And White online pretty much immediately. What prompted you to take a different tact to the distribution of this new short?
It’s really fascinating to me how the world seems to be changing. It was always this painful long walk to freedom where you make a film then try A-list festivals first, then wait to hear, then slowly go down the tree till your festival run is over. The thinking was if you don’t make it at Cannes or Sundance or something big somewhere then tough luck. It can take a year to even get rejected from things. It’s really nasty. If you’re an actor and you don’t get a part you get rejected on the spot. If your film isn’t going to find success you really only know that after about eighteen months. So many really great festivals allow you to have screened online though now. The world’s changing. I think heaps of festivals understand that you have to try to get noticed and find a future and that audiences at festivals are often different to people watching online. There are a lot of stories about people finding huge success going online but I frankly just don’t have time to pay respect to the festival gods and wait a year or two. Maybe if I ever made the type of film Cannes might consider I’d change my tune. My real hope is that someone shares this film with someone in the industry who might want to work on something bigger with me.
It can take a year to even get rejected from things. It’s really nasty.
You’re nearing completion of your crime thriller/romance debut feature screenplay Lionheart, can you share anything about the story?
Sure. I’m excited about this. I’d dearly love to get it made. It’s a type of film that’s different to most drama, different to most horror. It’s a genre hyrbid like my shorts. Lionheart is an epic about this teen runaway, Luke. He finds out that when he was a little boy his father used him to help kidnap a woman. He was only six years old. He grows up in this house just him and his old man. He loves him to death, protects him. Fights for him. There is still this unshakable feeling of dread, as if the house is haunted. Strange things happen in the night. When he’s sixteen he breaks into his dad’s basement. He’s been conditioned as a child that this is the room he must never enter. He finds it made up like his father’s bedroom and this woman dressed like his mother tied to the bed. He realises this woman’s been a prisoner down there for ten years. He remembers the kidnap game he played as a child. He runs away from near implosion cause his dad is his world. I’ve seen that trope a hundred times where parents wont sell out their twisted child but I’m intrigued by the idea of how a wet behind the ears kid might respond. The person that’s protected and raised you transforms into a monster but you still adore them. Luke knows there’s so much goodness in the guy. What’s cool to me about the film is it follows Luke as he runs off and gets mixed up in this intense world of the street and crime. We leave the story of the woman under the floor all alone. It’s not a kidnap story but this tale of a child journeying through Hades to confront this splinter in his soul and become a man. The two stories meet and collide. It’s epic. I love it. It couldn’t be less a standard model narrative but that’s what I think is great about it.
Anymore shorts in the works we can look forward to?
Nothing new to release sadly. I have a really small short called Prime that keeps poking me in the ribs and insisting I make it. The script is ready to go. It’s just about where you put your time and energy. I hope I make it sometime if only very simply. I’m thinking I’ll put Long Night out again, my film school short. Maybe if there are any real fans of Black And White they’ll be curious to see it. It’s much rougher round the edges. I feel like I need to move on and get a feature made really. I think it’s time to have a crack.