A harrowing tale of trauma, the fragility of memory and culpability, David Robinson-Smith’s Mud Crab seeps into your subconscious and offers you no place to hide from the anger and pain depicted. We follow an unreliable narrator as she recounts the events of a young man’s assault in an Australian coastal town devoid of the typical beauty normally associated with such locations. Inspired by writer/director Robinson-Smith’s own upbringing in a similar town with equally corresponding histories of human degradation and hopelessness, Mud Crab leaves no room for a silver lining or happy ending and instead constricts you with its sombre tones and haunting soundtrack, matching the ruptured memories which lie at the heart of the tale. The real life and narrative transformations in the film, shot over two seasons, are hauntingly real. Ahead of Mud Crab’s premiere on DN today we spoke to Robinson-Smith about the astounding weight gain and loss actor Joshua Mehmet went through for the role, how he visually represents the disparate viewpoints of spectator and victim, and using narration as a tool to weave together his own past experiences and this fictional retelling.

Where did the spark ignite from for this agonising tale?

Originally, my concept was quite simple: a man in a house who begins to dance, with the dance gradually evolving into a fight. This concept was inspired by the prevalence of violence in the area where I grew up, particularly around a certain nightclub. The piece was envisioned as a visual poem, aiming to capture the tone of this violence and lay within a short I made called Budgewoi Boy. With Mud Crab, I wanted to look at the underlying mentality that contributes to the oppressive atmosphere. When I moved back with my partner, who also served as the cinematographer for the film, we began to explore this theme. However, our plans were interrupted when my father passed away and the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing us to put the project on hold for a year. During this hiatus, I found myself stuck in the place where I grew up, grappling with the memories that haunted me. The film began to take on a more personal significance as I reflected on my own experiences growing up. I realised that even though nothing was inherently wrong, the mere presence of familiar places stirred negative emotions and memories.

Mud Crab is a collision of people you have known, your previous short Budgewoi Boy and contemporary issues you have experienced in your life. How hard was to weave those elements into a cohesive narrative?

Very hard in the beginning. I knew what I wanted to say but struggled to find the way to say it. I wrote a lot of drafts just finding the story and eventually it all came together. I really liked Claire Denis’ film Beau Travail and how the story followed Galoup who is the perpetrator of the incident and the lack of awareness around his own feelings and reasoning for his behaviour. As he reflects throughout the film it sort of doesn’t align very well with what we are seeing. And in the end we are unaware of if he will grow and move on or stay the same. Similarly with an Australian short film Crossbow directed by David Michôd which is narrated by a never seen character who has this dark coming of age as he reflects on a neighbour who suicided by police. That one hit hard because one of the people this short is about, suicided by police two months before I watched Crossbow. I also really loved a short called Backpedal by Dani Pearce. That short really helped me throw away the rule book and just be like, “Do you feel it? Does it hit you emotionally?”

Having the framing of a spectator of a violent incident who is reflecting on what she remembers about a local helped to distill some of the stories into one person.

Having that narration framework to work within helped a lot for compiling all these stories from mine and others lives. It’s a hard thing to write as you’ve got all the disparate ideas and stories that are thematically connected but can’t exactly be brought together into a short film and having the framing of a spectator of a violent incident who is reflecting on what she remembers about a local helped to distill some of the stories into one person. The story of the father on fire is real and happened to a kid I knew in high school. The main character is based on many people including my cousin who took his life although I didn’t include the suicide in the film.

How did you look to portray the ruptured unreliable memory which lies at the heart of the narrative?

I untangle my feelings about growing up in this environment. Within the film, I explore these feelings through two distinct perspectives: that of a victim of violence and that of a spectator. I look into how the trauma of violence affects both the victim and the spectator, examining themes of regret and repression from the spectator’s point of view. I believe we all carry a burden and have likely impacted others negatively but in Mud Crab the spectator was incapable of growing and reflecting on her decisions.

A lot of planning and preparation went into the production design, costume and cinematography to further separate the two halves. There is a colour palette change within the costume, lighting and design of all the scenes. It needed to feel coherent to the whole as a film but change enough to subconsciously just assume years had gone by and we were in a different emotional state.

What specific aspects/techniques did you focus on to separate the two halves of the story with the cinematography?

I really wanted to separate the two halves aesthetically and emotionally to convey the feeling of change. The first half is bright and bustling, capturing the energy of youth. Set in summer and shot entirely at day and is packed with people and movement. The second half is set in winter and becomes darker and more isolating. Shot entirely at night. All characters are locked into a frame alone until the crabs in a bucket walking shot at the end. We wanted the camera to constantly be moving. Either by Steadicam or dolly. I wanted the whole thing to feel like a dream as it’s exploring memory but also Jenny is an unreliable narrator so the story and how information is being conveyed to you could be a lie. Similarly all the characters barrel the camera in clean singles and rarely are seen in reference to each other in the scene, further separating it from reality.

We wanted the camera to constantly be moving. Either by Steadicam or dolly. I wanted the whole thing to feel like a dream as it’s exploring memory.

During filming Jaclyn Paterson used Zeiss Super Speeds with an ARRI Amira. We shot entirely in the area of Lake Haven, Budgewoi and San Remo. We used diffused overhead LED based lighting throughout but most of Jaclyn and my favourite shots are natural lighting. We filmed underexposed and lifted the grade in post to add an additional textural layer of noise. We had four days per shoot block but we ran a skeleton crew to grab some of the more dreamlike pick up shots for example the car shot, and the shot from the poster. For the type of films I want to make I think having those extra days with my tight crew and a camera are integral.

I love the distinction in the visual representation of the victim and the spectators.

I wanted the film’s perspective to be somewhat omniscient. As the film follows dual protagonists and at times reflects on memories and dreams. We follow Jenny and Daniel and are able to switch between them. It allows for the dramatic irony of Jenny’s narration to be displayed but also adds to the overall feeling of oppression. I like it because as the camera moves, everything is center framed and you get this feeling that the train can’t be stopped. Everything is destined to happen because it’s already happened and we’re just reflecting on it.

It was important for us to explore films with visually oppressive elements to show how our characters feel in that environment despite its visual beauty.

We aimed to evoke the atmosphere of an Eastern Bloc film on the Australian coast. All that sunshine and beauty are somewhat drained from the image or altered by the context. Beaches are such a point of pride in Australia, and cinematically, they are rarely depicted as anything other than beautiful. So, it was important for us to explore films with visually oppressive elements to show how our characters feel in that environment despite its visual beauty. Jaclyn and I were looking at a lot of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s work, especially Elena. The cinematography, score and edit just give that film a feeling that everything is progressing towards this unknown but unchangeable end. I just absolutely adored that.

The physical transformation Joshua Mehmet goes through is tremendous and so impressive for a short film. How was your relationship working with him on this role and how did you keep the momentum with the break?

Joshua put on and then lost 30kg for the role. It was an incredible thing to see. I don’t know if his goal was to go that far but as he went it’s how it played out. Joshua and I have been best friends for about 28 years now. My Auntie married his Uncle so we are also family which is cool. I always knew Joshua wanted to be an actor so when the idea of making a film about where we grew up came about I asked if he wanted to be in it and that’s how we got started. Now he’s in love with it and is pursuing it as his full time career. He started off eating a lot of pasta and drinking protein shakes but in the end went towards McDonalds and beer. He booked a small flat in Budgewoi to stay for the shoot period and isolated himself from friends and family. I believe he spent most of the time playing Last of Us 1 & 2, watching films and eating alone at the local RSL.

We had a three month break. Keeping the momentum going wasn’t too hard because I feel like we had too much work to get done in that gap anyway. Joshua needed the whole period to shed the weight. We shot in reverse order so James and I were editing the ending together and I was making an animatic of the start and some slight rewriting. Then once pre production properly started we barely had any time left.

At what point did you record the narration and begin weaving Jenny’s memories into the film to hit the right narrative beats?

Editor James Taylor and I had a pretty clear idea of where it would all go from the start. Making these terrible animatics really helped because we had recorded the score before shooting the film so I would edit together the storyboards and get my sister to narrate the film to see if it was all working. Of course there’s some stuff that changed regardless but I feel like we went in with a pretty defined idea of where everything would go and then let ourselves play around after that.

I think we all have things in our life that we overlook. Past mistakes that we gloss over when constructing our personal narratives.

The memory of Daniel’s father’s suicide was a re-shoot with myself, Jaclyn (DoP), Production Designer Calum Wilson Austin and Joshua Mehmet acting as a First AC. We had a few moments in the film that were skeleton crew and ran like that. Sophie Serisier and Joshua Mehmet helped rewrite parts of the narration once we were looking at picture locking which helped massively.

Do you want us to sympathise with Jenny at all? What have the reactions been like from audiences?

I made this at a time where I think I was filled with a lot of animosity toward my experiences. The film is angry. I think I’m in the process of letting go of all of that. I can empathise with Jenny. I think we all have things in our life that we overlook. Past mistakes that we gloss over when constructing our personal narratives. Imagine if all our transgressions were laid out cinematically for all to see with our inner monologue of justifications playing out as a narration…it would be a pretty sobering experience. I hope people can sympathise with her but I think given the brutality of her final statement, even though it’s somewhat comedic to me, makes it hard to emphasise with. That being said, reactions to Jenny have been pretty consistently negative haha. People hate her.

This is such a powerful piece of work, what are you working on next?

Thank you! I have another short, We Used to Own Houses that will be out soon. I am writing my debut feature film Colossus which is produced by Julia Corcoran with Michele Bennett as Executive Producer. I’m hoping to do an ad at some point this year and other than that just focusing on enjoying the process at all stages and not worrying too much about the future.

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