Interview: Ivan Sen

“The next one is a science fiction film. An action romance in the vein of Blade Runner.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Mystery Road is obviously a genre film. What influences were there in your decision to step in to the realm of genre film making?
For me it’s more of a stepping stone to fully blown genre. This is a genre film but it does have a strong cultural perspective at the same time even though it is a genre, the murder mystery film, which is what I wanted to be the major thrust of the film. Genre is where I’m heading and as I said before this is the stepping stone towards that full step that will be my next project.
The film No Country For Old Men was definitely an influence. It was probably the only major or conscious influence. I’ve always been a fan of the western.

So as far as the future goes what other genre films are you looking at making? Horror?
The next one is a Science Fiction film. An action romance.

Well it’s not set in Australia exactly. It’s set in more of a future city. A little in the vein of, I guess, Blade Runner, which will be aimed at a big commercial audience.

How far along is that in development?
We’re looking to shoot towards the end of next year.

You didn’t only write and direct Mystery Road but you were also the editor, cinematographer and composer. Is having so many roles due to financial reasons, experimental reasons or do you just think you’re the best man for the job?
Well it’s what I did on my last film. I actually did more roles on that. I did everything. You name it. On my last film Toomelah, I went in to the community and took all the equipment in myself and I did everything, the sound, the lighting, camera, costume, production design, everything. So for me I’m used to those multiple roles.

Is that fun for you?
Not that particular film. It was too much. Especially when you ad first time actors in to the mix. But I only did it because of those actors. Because they had never acted before I wanted it to feel very natural for them. So taking a crew into a community isn’t a great thing to do when you want to get natural responses from the first time actors.
With Mystery Road I had experienced actors, iconic Australian actors, so I felt a lot of freedom compared to my last project. For me, my multiple roles weren’t a big deal really.

You’ve said you had Aaron Pedersen in mind for the role of Jay Swan from the beginning. What encouraged this and did you have any other actors in mind if Aaron wasn’t available for some reason?
Not really. It was written for him. I’ve always wanted to do something with Aaron. And I felt like he hadn’t really had a chance to use all of his talents and to express himself in a non verbal role, with his eyes and his body language, so for me he had it coming. (Laughs)

What if he had said no?
I knew he wouldn’t. I had mentioned the idea 6 years ago and I didn’t get back to him till about a year and a half ago. He was very grateful and very excited and very keen and passionate about the roll and about the whole process. We didn’t just hire him as an actor we bought him on board as an associate producer as well so he feels like he owns this film as well and I think that had a lot to do with his performance. He’s put 100% into this film and he’s still doing it now with the marketing.

Mystery Road has a massive supporting cast including Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson and Hugo Weaving. Did it take much to get these guys on board or were they all up for it from the beginning.
Well they kind of just came as we entered preproduction and the bigger names just kind of clicked in towards the beginning of shooting because we had a very tight schedule and so did a lot of these actors. So it was more of a timing issue. When we pinned down the actual shooting days all of the actors were confirmed at the last minute. Which I was very happy about because I had written a lot of the other roles for actors as well.

Which roles were they?
Bruce Spence playing the coroner. He’s perfect in the role because it was written for him. And even the small roles like Roy Billing in the gun store, the gun shop guy Mick. It was a very small role but I didn’t want to make the film without him. It was written for him, he’s just perfect, he just belongs behind the counter of a gun shop. Lucky he had said to me he would have been an extra in the background, he wanted to be involved, and that was the attitude of all the actors. They all really wanted to be involved in the film.
They really loved the script because the script spoke to them, and the messages behind the script, but they also wanted to work with Aaron and I and support us as well.

Hugo’s character repeats himself a lot through his dialogue. Was this Hugo improvising or was it a part of the script?
It was all scripted. That was to give the impression that he’s got a bit of a drug habit. A drug background. It’s something that I’ve picked up on from being around a few junkies, heroin addicts. It’s a personal reinforcement to themselves that they’re actually saying something. And they want to make sure they are actually saying it. They’re reinforcing their thought process. That’s something I spoke to Hugo about and he partly did the film because he loved that aspect of the repetition.
All of the actors wanted to do Johnno actually. Because they wanted the chance to do this repetition thing because they loved it.

Your cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking, Have you ever wanted to make a movie where you’re simply the cinematographer?
No, not at all. I’m not interested because that would take time away from writing my next project. I don’t have the head space to think about it. Plus it wouldn’t be the same because the overall look of the film is because of all the direction choices. I chose those locations and I chose to go out there and I chose to shoot at that time of day. If I wasn’t in control of those decisions and a DOP it would look mediocre. It wouldn’t look the same as if I was directing the film. It would only be a waste of time because it would look like, pretty much, any other DOP’s work.
The distinctive style not only comes from the camera but it comes from all of the other decisions you make before hand.
I actually got asked to shoot a film here in Perth, but I said no and thanks for the offer.

Your experiences growing up in a small country town have obviously come through in Mystery Road. Do you think the gap between cultures has grown or closed since you were younger?
In some areas the gap has come closer together because there are a lot of employment initiatives where indigenous people are encouraged to seek employment in the local cotton industries but at the same time you’ve probably got more social problems than we had, say, ten years ago. And those social problems are very distinct to the indigenous neighbourhoods and the public housing neighbourhoods. The drug intensity and the power of the drugs are a lot stronger then they used to be like Ice and a lot of different, stronger pills, stuff that you and I probably haven’t even heard of.
So, in some areas I think the gap is probably bigger and in some areas the gap is smaller because you’ve got people working together which was not the case say twenty years ago.

After the screening I heard a few people discussing the Super Dog DNA as mentioned by Bruce Spence’s character. I must admit my ears pricked up. Where were you going with that?
I wanted it to remain a mystery. I think some people might have thought the film was going to take a wild turn.

Like some 70’s Ozploitation film about wild dogs with Super Dog DNA terrorising the town?
Exactly, yeah, like a horror film. No, I just wanted to keep it in there for mystery. If there was no mystery left people would have nothing to talk about when they left the cinema.

Mystery Road is in cinemas now.

3 thoughts on “Interview: Ivan Sen

  1. Pingback: » Third Post

  2. Pingback: » Deutsch (DE) English (UK) Ghost stories and cowboy hats: Australia’s Indigenous directors delve into genre by Rochelle Siemienowicz

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