I met DN alum David Easteal at an event at the Bánnfy Castle, around half an hour’s drive (in good traffic) from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, where I was covering the Transylvanian International Film Festival. We got to talking, and after I mentioned Directors Notes, he mentioned it had been over ten years since we’d featured his short film The Father on the DN podcast. With his remarkable debut feature The Plains playing in the festival’s What’s Up Doc section, it was the perfect excuse to sit down with him for a highly belated follow-up interview. Shot over the course of a year, The Plains is a documentary/fiction hybrid that boasts a simple premise: legal worker Andrew Rakowski drives home every day from the suburbs of Melbourne into the centre. Usually stuck in dreadful traffic, he calls his mother and wife along the way; sometimes he picks up David himself. As the film slowly progresses, we get a deep sense of Andrew as a character, resulting in a highly empathetic and transportive experience. Joining me outside the French Institute of Cluj, David and I discussed Melbourne’s car culture, why The Plains needed to be three hours long and creating a movie without a fixed script.
You met Andrew while you were working in the same law firm. Tell me about meeting him and hearing about his story, before thinking: “OK, this is a good idea for a film.”
We were working in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, at a legal centre. We found out that we lived in the same neighbourhood. Up until then I caught the train out, but then he started offering me rides. He’d make these phone calls each time that he got in the car. In the film it’s confined to headphones, but I would hear his mum and his wife and learn more about his life. We developed a friendship over that year while his mother’s dementia worsened.
I hope you can sense the bond growing between the two characters, which is actually what’s going on during the process of the film.
That was really the genesis of the film: looking back at these commutes and this period in Andrew’s life. I left the legal centre, but we remained friends. Not particularly close friends, but we would catch up from time to time because we lived in the same neighbourhood and had developed a connection. I think through making this film, it deepened further; it goes a lot deeper in the film than during our initial rides. I hope you can sense the bond growing between the two characters, which is actually what’s going on during the process of the film.
What did Andrew say when you said: “I want to make a film about your life which is a reconstruction/semi-fictional hybrid?” How do you gain his trust with that and how do you explain the premise?
Andrew had come to see a short film of mine that was playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I don’t think he thought much would happen with the film. I think what drew him to the idea was the filming of work; 9-5 and the repetition. I don’t want to speak too much for him, but what I’ve heard him say, is that he’s trying hard not to fall into this 9-5 existence. I think that he does have to get extremely vulnerable and he becomes very generous through the process. Watching the film, there is this awkwardness in the first few shoots, which I think suits the film, because in the actual story of the film, there would be a natural awkwardness at first. But as the film progressed over the year, there was a bit more of a groove.
How did you approach the actual script and dialogue? You said in the Q&A that there was a lot of improvisation on set?
When we started, I only had three loose ideas as to what would happen over the course of the year: which would be the illness of Andrew’s mother, then the entrance of the co-worker and the co-worker exiting, and what was going on with Andrew’s sister’s estate. So those were the three lines I thought could work throughout. Each month I would write what would happen; I would only chart out what would happen about one or two months ahead. I’d discuss these things with Andrew and his wife Cheri, then we would progress. So it was a really interesting, risky process. But because the film was so small we were free to take these risks as it was largely self-funded up until post-production.
You were on Directors Notes over ten years ago with The Father and we also mentioned your crowdfunding campaign for Monaco around then too. What has the transition been like from making short films and balancing life as a lawyer to making a debut feature, and not only just a regular debut but a three hour one?
A lot of people told me there’s no way I could make the film three hours long, in principle I mean, without even seeing it. I tried to cut it down in the edit; I introduced jump cuts and cut it right down but it didn’t work at all. For the rhythm it needed time to play out.
Because the film was so small we were free to take these risks as it was largely self-funded up until post-production.
I didn’t go to film school, so I think making these short films was very interesting to both think about what films I like, what I’d like to make and also how I’d like to make them. Both of those films had much larger crews and were more conventionally made with fully developed scripts. The Father stuck quite true to the script, but Monaco was a first step towards developing a more idiosyncratic process because when we shot, the script became a departure point and I became more interested in it being less about capturing what’s already been written, which is risky but more interesting I think. Then in this film, there wasn’t really a written script at all, just a frame and outline.
Tell me about the actual technical setup. It must have been a real skeleton crew with just the one fixed camera.
I did want to shoot on a good camera, but we ended up shooting on the Alexa Classic instead of the Mini. The Mini was in such high demand while the Alexa Classic just tended to be sitting there collecting dust, so you could get a good deal to hire it. We shot on a 14mm Master Prime and again this was such a wide lens not many people shot on it so we could get this camera kit quite inexpensively. And for sound recording we had multiple mics in the car. There was no camera assistant in the car, so Cinematographer Simon J Walsh would rig the camera in using a special base and we would both sit in the backseat as well, Simon on one side and me right behind Andrew recording sound. Then when I was appearing in the film we had a sound recordist in place. That was the basic setup and it stayed that way the whole time.
People have compared your film to Drive My Car, which is a bit of an unfair comparison as yours was conceived before its release. But what both films share is this idea of a car as a safe space to be open, especially for men. Is this something that attracted you to the story?
I can only speak as a man. I don’t know if it’s equally applicable to women, but I think for men, it might be difficult to look at each other in the eyes and go particularly deep emotionally so it does certainly provide that space that’s explored in Drive My Car, and in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, where it’s a very unique space in a way. There’s something about being in motion not looking at each other, and just looking to the outside world, that’s sort of therapeutic. In a sense, there’s perhaps a loose analogy to being on the couch of an analyst: you’re not looking at someone, it’s just being able to speak. It’s a very interesting dynamic. I’ve grown up in cars, spent most of my childhood in cars, observing my parents’ interactions: my relationships with people in cars is always a very interesting space for interpersonal communication.
I think it touches on that sense of isolation in a way; it’s a much more solitary experience commuting in a car than on a train or a bus.
Cluj-Napoca is a perfect setting for your film because it is such a car-heavy city. We both watched Nosferatu at the nearby Bannfy Castle in Bontida, and the drive back was like two hours because of all the traffic! Is there a big car culture in Melbourne?
Yeah, there is a propensity for people to drive rather than public transport in Melbourne. I mean there are maybe more options than Cluj, but I sense it’s a car culture. It’s quite a sprawling city. It’s not high density. Most Australian cities are built with these expansive suburbs and no congestion charge like in London. I think most people have a car from a relatively young age. It’s in the culture. It gets quite oppressive in Melbourne. There are a lot of complaints and a lot of discussion as to what to do about it, especially after the pandemic as even fewer people want to take public transport. So I think it touches on that sense of isolation in a way; it’s a much more solitary experience commuting in a car than on a train or a bus. It’s interesting moving through this expansive space with 1000s of other people. There’s sort of this unique rhythm to it.
And if there is a Greek Chorus in the movie, it’s the phone-in radio. If people are watching this and believing it’s a straight documentary, then perhaps they’d believe the radio spots are just a bit serendipitous. So did you actually record the radio calls or sample choice audio from the radio already?
It was all created and I didn’t know what it was going to be. Would he listen to classical music or would he listen to classic rock music from his younger years? We settled on talkback because you could elicit these other aspects of what’s going on. You get the sense of other people in the city that I thought was quite nice. The price to license official talkback was prohibitively expensive.
The man who does the talkback in the film is Jon Faine, who just retired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and is very well known in Melbourne and Australia. He hosted a talk show on ABC for many many years. I approached him because when I worked at the legal centre, people talked about what Jon Faine had been saying that day. So we hosted a fake radio show in post. He’s a total professional and asked for a list of topics. He thought it was a bit too serious, so suggested a few lighter topics such as the one about mobile phone addiction. We organised a whole bunch of callers. Some were Andrew’s friends, while I also had a friend who worked in talk show radio, and she had regulars, where if no one was calling that day, they’d be able to call up their regulars to make the call. We hosted this talkback show for an hour and a half, and it was a very fun process.
What are you working on next?
This film took many years, just getting it out there. Of course, I’d love to make more films. Each film for me has been quite personal, and it’s about thinking of a really interesting way to go about making the film. I’m less interested in charting ground that maybe someone else has charted so it tends to take me a bit of time. As you see, I’ve only made the two short films and this film in the past 12 years so I’m in the process now of writing; things are percolating. But I’m busy, at least for the next few months, travelling with this film.