Everyone remembers that thrill and excitement of those first teenage sexual experiences but what does it mean when those memories aren’t necessarily positive? When Australian filmmaker Ella Carey found herself reflecting on her own formative moments she felt weighed down by the haziness of consent. Lines which are much clearer as adults felt so much more malleable when younger and her school set drama Prawn transports you right back to the discordant feelings of something you have been planning, dreaming and gossiping about with friends shockingly being actualised as an experience you would rather not remember. Prawn plays out as a story of two halves both narratively and visually, the almost forbidden exhilaration of an early crush and the lightness of endless possibilities, followed by the crushing reality of what actually happened rendered through a much heavier realist lens. As Prawn premieres on the DN’s pages today, we speak to Carey about engaging an audience who could share in those all too relatable feelings of disappointment and confusion, pushing a sense of realism with one-take shots and harnessing her heightened senses as she directed the film whilst 36 weeks pregnant.

Firstly, I want to commend you for taking your own experience and making it unfortunately all too relatable in Prawn. The grey area of consent is so crucial to talk about and explore, why did you want to retell this personal story in film form?

Thank you – it’s tough looking back on something that happened to you and making sense of it and being honest with yourself and how it affected you. Especially when it is such a grey area, it’s so hard to see it, until you’re out of it.

I wanted to engage an audience that had experienced those same feelings of shame and guilt in similar situations, on both sides of an incident like that.

The initial concept for the film was inspired by my own first kiss experience. I was 15 at the time. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realised it was inappropriate and unwanted and how much it had impacted me and my understanding of sex and romantic relationships. Up until this point I had never really considered it as a non-consensual thing…teenagehood is so sticky and murky. I was protected in my childhood by my parents and in my twenties I knew what my boundaries were and right from wrong – I had confidence and an understanding by then. But in my teen years, it was so difficult to navigate consent. So at the point I knew I wanted to make a film about consent and I felt like the most simple iteration of that memory was the best way to do it.

I wanted to engage an audience that had experienced those same feelings of shame and guilt in similar situations, on both sides of an incident like that. I am obsessed with teenage perspective focused content and stories, it’s such a devastating and heartbreaking time in our lives. Everything is so heightened and extreme, we just struggle so much with identity. I really wanted to capture that crippling theft of innocence that so many of us have experienced in a zoo-like high-school setting.

There is a haziness to memory, particularly school days which comes across in the film’s tone and colour palette.

Getting the tone right was a tricky balance. We didn’t have many references for the film, but Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham really stood out as a great tonal piece that I was quite drawn to. It was important to capture the light with the dark and make the film palatable. We certainly wanted to create a sense of nostalgia by making the film grainy and hazy. When I reflect on my teenagehood, I certainly see it through a foggy lens. We worked on making the first part of the film, prior to the incident, quite bright and saturated to reflect Eliza’s euphoric loved-up state. Then everything post the incident feels a little darker and colder. We leaned into Melbourne’s weather too. We were originally looking to set and shoot the schoolyard scenes inside, but the weather had been overcast for months and we decided to set it all outside to utilize that natural haze. I think it makes a huge difference to that scene and really helped create an uneasy atmosphere – almost a battlefield.

Compared to that hazy feeling, you’ve managed to capture the tangible realism and authenticity of life as a teenager.

We intentionally cast our main female leads from the same highschool so that there were already connections and chemistry between them. I remember seeing the audition tapes from Cecilia Karlovic, who plays Eliza, and realising that the film would now need to be made. It’s funny when actors come along that were literally everything you envisioned when you were writing, I’m very grateful to her. However during pre, we experienced yet another Covid lockdown in Melbourne, so it meant we weren’t able to do a lot of rehearsals in person. This created a natural angst between the female and male cast stepping onto set, that anxiety that comes with meeting people for the first time, which actually sat nicely in the film. We managed to do a one day workshop with an intimacy coach with the entire cast to really block the incident and fight scene.

Creatively we wanted to do a lot of one-take shots to really push a sense of realism and Joey Knox, my cinematographer had such a handle on feeling moments and following the action, even when it’s not with the obvious choice or motivated by the character who’s speaking. It was a short script, so we weren’t really able to just sit in scenes and run them forever. We shot the film on an Arri Alexa and went with longer, more compressed/intimate lensing choices to really push the POV aspect.

How did you find the process of jumping back into the perspective you were inspired by?

The most difficult part of the shoot for me was the fact that I was 36 weeks pregnant with my first baby ha! We had waited so long for Melbourne to open up again after Covid and I knew if I didn’t shoot it now, I possibly would never shoot it. Can I just say, being pregnant and directing a film is one of the most powerful things you can do. Your senses are so heightened so you can smell, taste and feel everything. Emotionally I felt so connected to my actors and the crew and that therefore just elevated the entire shooting experience. Speaking of smell…we were granted access to shoot at the actual roller skating rink where the real incident occurred 15 years prior and I remember walking in and it smelt exactly the same. Being able to direct that scene where it happened, was also something that really helped me just be present and in the moment with Cecilia and Darcy and really capture that moment. It was cathartic to say the least.

Creatively we wanted to do a lot of one-take shots to really push a sense of realism.

The juxtaposition of the two kissing scenes, the first innocent in her bedroom and that heart-wrenching party scene so vividly dive into the confusion of being a teenager.

What we envision for ourselves compared to the reality of such an important moment in our lives, is so heartbreaking. I grew up watching TV shows like The OC and Gossip Girl – where women lose their virginity to beautiful men in romantic bedrooms and on moonlit beaches – so perfect. That’s genuinely what I saw for myself and what I was mentally preparing for. We certainly have access to a lot more content now that reflects realistic versions of this moment in our lives, which is so important. However, we are still lacking in work that reflects that grey area that exists between a perfect, romantic situation and a full-blown assault. That’s why I loved How to Have Sex, it really explored this so perfectly through a female lens and that internal processing that happens afterwards, it’s not black and white.

Production design really came into play here and I was lucky enough to have my sister Chessy Carey design the film. It was important that Eliza’s bedroom was the most colourful scene in the film, warm, womb-like, to really emulate her safe and cosy world where she can be herself, perhaps the only time she can really be herself. We’ve all been there, we’ve all practiced our first kiss in the privacy of our own bedroom, it’s so innocent and vulnerable. That safe, private moment was juxtaposed with the stark reality of Eliza’s first kiss set on an icy skate rink under blue lights in front of the entire school…it was important to pose the two scenes next to each other to really reflect that reality.

We are still lacking in work that reflects that grey area that exists between a perfect, romantic situation and a full blown assault.

I was so confronted by that familiar judgement from other women which heartbreakingly is so commonplace but then LOVE your switch at the end, why was this something you wanted to broach but break with the brilliant schoolyard fight?

Teenage-hood is so flippant and transient, but of course, it’s difficult to understand that until we are older. When you’re a teenager and something goes down, we often feel like there is no coming back from it. It’s so huge. So when something else gets out and you become yesterday’s news, it’s such a moment of relief. I also think it’s important to make sure that films that explore difficult content are ultimately palatable. Ending on a dark comical beat was important for this film. I wanted to illustrate that Eliza isn’t perfect in this situation – none of us are.

So you went into the edit with a newborn?

Two weeks after we wrapped I gave birth to my beautiful son and it was perfect going into the edit because they are such sleepy angels at that age and we were lucky enough to cut in our editor Caitlin Spiller’s dark suite. We took our time in the edit and spent about 4 months cutting. Caitlin cuts everything I do and she really is so incredible at balancing that fine line between naturalism and polished story-telling.

I also think it’s important to make sure that films that explore difficult content are ultimately palatable.

Music was a huge component of the film and we were lucky enough to have the composer Simon Porter create an original soundtrack. We went back and forth on so many concepts and landed on this idea to really incorporate high-school sounds, like a high-school band drum, train crossings and crickets. We lent into beats and sounds that reflected the 2005 R&B music I personally had on repeat at the time. A great reference I had for the ending of Prawn was the pool party scene from Eighth Grade. I love the way the dramatic, hard hitting track in that scene is layered over an innocent kid’s birthday party. It really depicts Kayla’s internal struggle with it all. I loved the inclusion of wind instruments and marching drums. It speaks to that ridiculous, yet heightened, animalistic moment, as well as promoting Eliza’s new found courage. It flips the tone of the film up until this point, on its head, pushing that dark comical undertone.

YES to the use of an intimacy coach, how do you feel this benefited the production and brought out the best in your actors’ performances?

It was so important to me that the actors felt supported in every possible way going into this film. Working with an intimacy coach really enabled us to understand the best and most comfortable way to work through some of the more difficult scenes. It was important to block the incident as well as the fight scene prior to shooting and our intimacy coach Steph Power helped to take the anxiety and pressure off acting out a scene like that. It really came down to suggestive physical action that was simple and really rehearsing that action so that when we came to shoot, the actors could really just focus on their performance.

You have a background in live action and animation – what’s next on the cards for you as a filmmaker?

I’m currently developing a climate-fiction, adventure TV series with my writing partner Caitlin Spiller, which we just pitched in LA as part of the Hollywood Climate Summit. I am also in development with another short film about teenagers and consent titled Perisher. It’s set on the ski-fields in NSW and follows a young girl unearthing a murky and disturbing secret.

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