Sunday Shorts #8: I’m You, Dickhead

Photo by Elena Gan.

Photo by Elena Gan.

Written by Lucas Testro (director):

To be honest, I don’t particularly like short films.

Story is what drives me as a creator, and the time restrictions of shorts can be frustrating. Too often they’re just gags that don’t resonate beyond their few minutes on screen. Or trailers for probably-never-to-be-made features, posturing as if they’re telling something epic but in fact not doing much at all to engage the audience as a stand-alone story. For this reason, since film school I’ve been much more interested in the potential of web series for short-form storytelling.

But late in 2012, my good friend Larry Boxshall asked me to read a script he’d written for a short film he intended to direct for Tropfest.

It was called I’m You, Dickhead, and it was about a man who travels back in time to force his ten year old self to learn guitar so that he get more sex in the present day. And by the end of page two, I was filthy jealous at the thought of anybody but me making this movie.

I loved that it was a time travel film, one of my all-time genres. I loved its gloriously absurd sense of humour. And I loved that it was a little wrong. The script had a tone I would probably not write on my own, and I was excited at the prospect of making a film that pushed things a little – a film that was not afraid of walking up to every line it could find, sticking its toe over and looking to Mum and Dad to see how they would react.

Photo by Elena Gan.

Photo by Elena Gan.

It was way too long for Tropfest, though, and it lost its way a little after those first few pages. But the core idea and tone was so strong and irresistible, and it was so bursting with hilarious dialogue, that I had no doubt something very special was waiting to be found, just a few drafts away.

So Larry and I started to redevelop the story. For a few meetings it was going to be a web series, which we would write and direct together (and I think the characters gained valuable depth during this time). Before getting too far on this tangent, though, a new structure for a stand-alone movie occurred to us – a mad rolling snowball of a film, where our main character Richard’s misguided scheme would result in anarchy on screen, with more and more versions of himself getting in each other’s way. Suddenly the story popped. We knew we had what we wanted. But Larry graciously suggested that, since I had proposed the ambitious idea of these multiple versions of one character interacting on screen, I should direct it. He’d fallen for my devious plan.

One of the major challenges during the script development was finding the right tone. We buffed out some of the first draft’s rougher, more gratuitous edges while simultaneously investigating other areas where we could push the taste envelope even further, provided it was in service of the story. And, of course, funny.

Tone remained the major challenge when shooting the film. The story in itself was so absurd that if we played it as a joke, I thought the whole thing might just float away rather than connecting with an audience. So it was important we kept the film grounded as much as possible, no matter how crazy the events being captured on camera. The actors would play their parts straight. The time travel technology would be kept very low-key and contemporary, rather than portrayed as a mad science laboratory. And the film would be shot in some respects like a drama – higher contrast images, slightly looser camera handling, and not afraid to use more close-ups than I might in another comedy.

Photo by Elena Gan.

Photo by Elena Gan.

Having not shot anything of my own for a few years, during which I’d exclusively been writing and directing TV drama, I was keen for the production of this film to be personal and fun. Wherever possible, I’d get friends I had enjoyed working with in the past to come and collaborate. Renée Crea, a friend and Production Manager on my short film Street Angel, agreed to share producer duties with me. My closest cinematic collaborator Aaron Smith came on board as Director of Photography. And I assembled a cast of some of my favourite actor friends: from established names like Emma Palmer, Alan Flower and Olivia Pigeot, to Noah Moon, a talented newcomer I had taught in an acting school the year before.

We were lucky to assemble such a ridiculously talented cast, but we knew the film would succeed or fail on the casting of the main character, Richard. He literally is the film, and needed to be someone who could be stupid, selfish and reprehensible but at the same time have enough charm that you can’t help rooting for him. From very early on, I was convinced that Anthony Gooley was made for the part. I didn’t know him well, and had only seen him perform in a few plays several years earlier (when he was one of Emma Palmer’s classmates at NIDA). But I knew in my bones he was my guy. Possibly because aside from being a great actor, I once saw him get drunk at a Shakespeare In the Park production and stumble on stage during the final bows to hug a friend in the cast. This was clearly a guy with a huge larrikin streak. (I hope you don’t mind me sharing that moment with the world, Gools!)

Once you’ve seen the film, I think you’ll agree Gooley nails it. He’s a hilarious, inventive actor, and brought things to the table that even I didn’t fully appreciate till I had a chance to study the rushes in the edit. He gives each version of Richard a distinct character – they’re all clearly the same guy, but each is slightly changed by their experiences. It’s a masterful piece of acting, sold by the tiniest differences in posture and attitude. My favourite Richard is the one in the red T-shirt, no doubt you’ll choose your own.

We shot the film over two weekends, each challenging in their own way. The first weekend was fairly traditional in approach, but shot on a tight schedule that required fast work from a crew just starting to work as a unit. The second weekend was much crazier. Far from just shooting scenes out of order, our use of body doubles and the time imperatives to minimise costume changes meant we were shooting individual shots from completely different scenes one after another. Maintaining continuity in such a fragmented schedule was a nightmare, let alone when sometimes characters were not even physically present in the frame. I had a migraine for a week after we wrapped.

Photo by Elena Gan.

Photo by Elena Gan.

The post-production schedule was equally ambitious, as we raced to meet the Melbourne International Film Festival entry deadline. The whole thing, from editing to effects, mixing and grade, was completed in a month – a considerable feat considering the visual effects work involved.

I’m very proud of the result, and very glad to have made it working with a group of close friends.

I’m You, Dickhead premiered at the prestigious Palm Springs International Shortfest in June. You can see it at the Melbourne International Film Festival, playing as part of the WTF Shorts session, on Friday 8 August at 9pm.

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