Lead Me Astray is the story of a 23-year old veterinary student, Alexis Willard (Jace Pickard), who, one night, inadvertently kills a gang member whilst defending his girlfriend, Lacey (Alannah Robertson) from an assault. This leads to a domino effect revealing his mysterious and violent past, culminating in a deadly game of cat and mouse inside an abandoned prison.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): I think the state of Australian cinema is a little disappointing – we make wonderful films but not a lot of people see them, a fact that just annoys me. So many people I know just seem to watch American films, no foreign films, no Australian films, nothing of the sort. I have no idea why. I wanted to make a film that, yes, we can do it. I’m a student and I did it. The wild Australian exploitation films of the 1970’s and 80’s, like Razorback (1984) and Dead-End Dive-In (1986), are absolutely incredible and served as a huge inspiration for my film, in every aspect, from story and subject matter, to direction style and cinematography (Razorback remains one of the most visually impressive films of the 20th century). I also took cues from directors like John Carpenter and Dario Argento – the influence of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape From New York (1981) is apparent in my film’s story, as well as the awesome synth-based score. I wanted my film to feel as though it had stepped directly out of the 1980’s, and every asset strengthens this notion, from the amazing poster from Thomas Hodge aka The Dude Designs, and the brilliant score composed by Michael Vollebergh, who delivered exactly what the film needed and so much more.
Michael Vollebergh (Music): I’m currently completing my postgraduate study of Screen Composition at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. Lead Me Astray is my debut feature length film. The score is largely synthetic but also incorporates some uniquely sampled live instruments and objects like didgeridoos and an assortment of mirrors. I have drawn inspiration from early John Carpenter films and the horror classics of the 80’s. There are surreal moments in the film with a lot of abstract lighting, utilising harsh red and blues, and the Argento influence is very obvious there, particularly Suspiria (1978). It’s a thriller and a drama and a horror and an action all thrown into one.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): I knew I wanted to direct a feature film before I finished University.
I remember the exact moment I decided to pursue the idea; I was sitting on the train in mid-2012 on the way to University, thinking about my course and the projects I wanted to create. The possibility of a feature crossed my mind – and I suddenly realised that it was entirely possible. I had all the equipment I needed at the University – if I could get permission to use it over an extended period, say, the mid-semester break of the following year, there’s no reason I couldn’t shoot a feature. The thought excited me greatly. So I thought. What do I need? Well, a script, for one thing. If I wanted to shoot in June/July of 2013, it meant having to assemble a cast and crew beforehand, secure the budget, write and re-write the script.
From that moment, Lead Me Astray was in pre-production. I started going through all my notes I had written over the past few years, comparing my ideas and seeing if any could be turned into a full-length script. I’d written one previous feature script (a post-apocalyptic road movie, much like Mad Max with elements of Escape From New York), but I knew I needed something I could make on an extremely limited budget. One idea stood out to me; I had the image of a young man and his girlfriend trapped in an alleyway, surrounded by face-painted gang members – but the gang didn’t know that the man was a cannibal. The initial idea – one that changed and evolved drastically over the course of several drafts – called for an abandoned shopping centre and as I began writing the script in September 2012, I simultaneously began liaising with my local Council, trying to secure permission to shoot inside an empty mall that was down the street from my Dad’s apartment building. Drafts one and two were written with that central location in mind, but by February, after months of arguing and haggling, jumping through hoops, the Council eventually cut me off because I wouldn’t stop harassing them. I was ridiculously depressed that all my efforts had come to nothing – I was halfway through all aspects of pre-production and suddenly I found myself without a third act.
I had aimed too high with trying to shoot inside the shopping mall, and I had crashed and burned. Since October I’d been working at a local toy store; raising the money to shoot the film, saving almost every dollar I earned and putting it straight into my savings account. I didn’t go out, I didn’t buy anything for myself, I just saved everything. After a day or two of stewing in my own misery, I thought I’d try something else. I started researching other abandoned or large, empty spaces that would serve as a fitting location for my finale, and I came across Parramatta Correctional Centre, a prison that had shut down a few years previously, and was now only seldom used for filming locations for shows like Underbelly or Rake. I reasoned to myself that trying to shoot inside a prison was more ridiculous than an empty shopping mall, but I contacted the Council anyway and began the process of finding out exactly what I had to do to shoot inside – somehow, it worked.
I got permission, much to my disbelief. It was then I realised that it wasn’t that I aimed to high; I didn’t aim high enough. The script was quickly re-written a few more times to accommodate the location change and ended up a much more solid and overall better film as a result – because, let’s face it, an abandoned prison is way cooler than an empty shopping mall. I also gained permission to shoot inside Maitland Gaol (which also serves as a historical museum and laser tag arena) for a scene that needed a slightly different space than Parramatta could accommodate. The casting process was almost complete – I had auditioned Alannah Robertson, and decided to cast her on the spot.
Alannah Robertson (Lacey Sinclair): Tom contacted me through my talent agency. He sold it to me by telling me about everything he had already done and how passionate he was with the project.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): Alannah recommended a few actors she thought might fit the lead role of Alexis, as I told her I’d been having trouble finding a suitable candidate. And from that recommendation stepped Jace Pickard, my leading man and all-around good guy. He came and read for the part, and much like Alannah, was cast on the spot.
Jace Pickard (Alexis Willard): Both Alannah and I had studied at a leading film and TV school for actors for two years, graduating at the end of 2012 and we were already good mates. Alannah had mentioned to me a few months before I was cast that she had been in talks to star in a new independent feature. I told her to keep me updated as I am a massive fan of horror and thriller films and it would be great to watch someone I know and love in one. I then received word from Alannah that she had recommended me for the lead and later that night, I was contacted by Tom asking me to audition.
I couldn’t stop reading the first draft of the script. I was so involved with this story that I knew I just had to have the part. I emailed Tom right back after reading the script saying I will come in and audition. Tom offered me the part then and there. I left the audition room and the first person I texted was Alannah, basically saying ‘I’m your boyfriend for the next 3 months’. We were both excited to be working together again.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): I had not only somehow acquired two wonderful and talented young actors, but also two of the nicest people I’d ever met, whom I’m now proud to call two of my closest friends. By June, I had organised my project to be a year-long endeavour with my University spanning several of my classes, and gained permission to use all the equipment I needed. We started shooting on June 22nd, 2013, almost one year after I sat on the train and thought about making a feature.
I’ve never worked with actors with as much commitment as those who I cast in my main roles. Not just Alannah and Jace, but also Tim Page, who plays Dr. Gene Seward, one of the most important aspects of Alexis’s life, and he brings a warmth and genuine depth to the character that makes him extremely empathetic on-screen and you hang on his every word. He never once complained, even when shooting in the cold, dark cells of an empty prison. He was extremely professional, giving me suggestions and advice on his character and how he could perform, which I found wonderfully helpful. There was also Addi Craig, who plays a young Alexis, a brilliantly talented young man who was great fun to work with, even in the wilderness when we were rubbing dirt into his hair and face. I hadn’t worked with a child to such an extent before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but Addi was extremely easy to get along with and was very responsive to my direction and the script itself. There are moments in the film between Addi and Tim where I just sit back and think, ‘Wow’.
My good friend Logan Webster plays the central antagonist, who is unnamed in the film. I met Logan when applying for a job – he was applying for the same job (and didn’t get it – sorry, dude). We struck up conversation and he said he was an actor, and I thought, awesome, I’m a filmmaker. We stayed in touch and after speaking a few more times, we came to the unbelievable revelation that we, in fact, knew each other ten years previously, both in the same drama class at a talent school. This blew our minds. There was never a moment, in which Logan wasn’t going to be a part of my film, and he was not only excellent in the role, but great to work with, with his bright attitude making the long nights seem shorter.
When reading the first few drafts of the scripts, Alannah knew that for the majority of the film, she would be running and crying. I don’t think you’re an actor if you can’t cry on cue, and Alannah could have filled a pool with the amount of tears she shed for this film (to get emotions going, she listens to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, a fact I find adorable). Lacey was an interesting character to write, as I didn’t want her to be a placid female who just lets things happen to her and has to be rescued – no, Lacey is stronger than that.
Alannah Robertson (Lacey Sinclair): She has a lot of guts. Much more than I do! In one of the opening scenes she defends herself against a thug who has a knife to her. Definitely not something Alannah would do! It was one of the fun things about playing someone like that!
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): Alannah brought that strength with her, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better actress, or person, for the role. If something wasn’t right with an action or line, she’d tell me, and I’d agree with her – we’d change whatever it was and the result was better than before.
Jace Pickard (Alexis Willard): After being a fan of the genre for many years, I looked over the character of Alexis and started researching and getting into the psyche of the character. I re-watched the classic slasher films such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and gave myself a what if scenario for these killers. ‘What if the roles were reversed and that Michael or Jason were the protagonists and the sex crazed teenagers were the antagonists’. Jason is merely protecting his camp from these people who have trespassed on his land. He is protecting what is his. Then stepping back into Alexis’s shoes, these gang members have taken what is his and he will do anything to get it back. I’m using Jason Voorhees as a reference because Tom and I love that character and Tom has a 6 foot Jason in his room. Alexis, however is not as blood thirsty as those characters, having a clear conscious on what’s right and wrong and not wanting to become a monster. It’s finding those balances in a character that can make them so fantastic to play.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): When it comes to directing actors, I feel that they have an art all of their own, separate to the filmmaker, and they only need guidance as opposed to myself telling them exactly what they need to do, so they can interpret the story and character by themselves. That being said, if I needed him to do something, he’d do it immediately and ask if it was good enough. Jace took this and created a character that was better than anything I could have written, perfectly balancing all assets of the character and becoming one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): Democratically! During production, the working title was Animal Instincts, a title that I was never truly happy with but the best of a bunch of mediocre options. Jace and Alannah would come to me and say ‘Tom, I tell people I’m in a feature, and they ask what the title is. I say Animal Instincts and they don’t think I’m serious’. It also happened to be the title of a 1990’s softcore porn movie. They were right, of course. I never intended the final title to be Animal Instincts, but after shooting wrapped and I began editing the trailer, I started getting more nervous as I still didn’t have a better alternative. I wrote down dozens of titles, each worse than the last, with maybe a few diamonds in the rough. I put it out to the cast and crew for suggestions, and a few ones came up. Eventually I just put up the best ones, with one in particular I actually thought was great, but wasn’t sure about what people would think, onto our production page and asked people to vote.
Jace Pickard (Alexis Willard): You should have seen some of the titles that popped up from that debate. It was a very intense and hilarious at the same time. Both Alannah and I loved the title Lead Me Astray; it just was the right title. Unfortunately everyone else took their time agreeing with the title. I just went back and re-read that entire debate on our page. The status for the titles was posted on October 20th 2013 at 5pm. The debate ended on October 22nd at 5:30pm. It was a 48 hour battle with seven titles being listed and only one coming out on top. As well as the funny puns and added titles from the cast and crew. Tom however did not reveal which title was chosen until the night he debuted the official trailer to us.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): After a VERY heated debate – particularly on Alannah’s end – Lead Me Astray came out on top, which happened to be my favourite. The title felt right and for the first time, one of the most important elements of the film was finally in place.
STORIES FROM THE SET:
Alannah Robertson (Lacey Sinclair): My favourite memory would defiantly be the first scene that Lacey is in which has Alexis eating a banana. In one of the takes Jace bit off more than he could chew (literally) but tried to keep his composure while quietly choking. Because it was my take, everyone was trying to laugh as quietly as possible not to ruin it for me but as soon as I saw that Jace was choking we all completely lost it. But the whole film is just one big great memory. I loved it and was so honoured to be given the opportunity!
Jace Pickard (Alexis Willard): The cast and crew just became family over the course of filming. Going to set and seeing these amazing creative people every day was brilliant. I think the last day of shooting was hilarious. An interrogation was the last thing we had to shoot. Both Alannah and I were introduced to the great Greg Eccleston who played a detective interrogating Alexis and Lacey. After doing so many emotionally draining days of filming, it was nice to actually finish the shoot with a dramatic scene that had comedic elements in it and Greg was amazing at comedy. All being massive fans of the show, the ongoing amount of quotes from The Simpsons that were mentioned during the filming of this movie were crazy. We would be preparing for a very dramatic sequence and as soon as someone said a quote from The Simpsons, we would all get distracted from what we were actually doing and start quoting the show. Especially from the episode when Hollywood comes to Springfield to direct the Radioactive Man movie.
Director: We’ve got to do the “jiminy jillikers” scene again, Milhouse.
Milhouse: But we already did it. It took seven hours, but we did it. It’s done!
Director: Yes…but we’ve got to do it from different angles! Again and again, and again and again and again!
Milhouse: Aah! [gets dragged out screaming]
The quotes from that episode were said daily during shooting.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): There was one night that sticks out as what could probably be classified as the worst night. We were shooting at a farm estate location, on the property of a friend of mine. Large, open fields, trees and wilderness. It was scheduled to be a long night shoot, which of course necessitated the use of an electrical generator to power the lights. I had bought a silent generator in preparation for the shoot, and this was the first time utilising it. The scenes required a lot of people, with more actors than most other parts of the film. As night fell, the generator refused to work, and set us back hours. It was also one of the few times we had more than one minor on set, and I was worried because I didn’t want to keep these kids too late, but the technical difficulties turned the shoot into a nightmare. We eventually used the property’s generator, one that was decidedly not silent, causing sound issues and complicating matters further. It was cold, it was wet, it was long – but we got it done eventually, albeit much later than we originally intended. All throughout, the cast and crew remained in good spirits despite the stress it was causing. I’ve never been so thankful for surrounding myself with good people.
Alannah Robertson (Lacey Sinclair): The worst scene would have to be the scene that we filmed up in Maitland Gaol. Let’s just say it got a bit intense in there and I had to leave the room. You’ll understand what I mean when the movie comes out.
Jace Pickard (Alexis Willard): What Alannah just said was my favourite part in the film. That is by far one of the best things I have ever been a part of. Having to do our own stunts was amazing and the stuff we had to do at Maitland gaol was great. It was definitely my favourite night of shooting. The worst shoot I reckon was the two nights at the video store. Both Alannah and I were exhausted having worked our normal day jobs and with it also being Winter, both of us were very sick and we had to do a lot of emotionally draining work for both those nights running very late.
Alannah Robertson (Lacey Sinclair): The best scenes were any scenes where I’m not crying? Lacey is very strong but she has a lot of emotions in her. Possibly the scene where Alexis and Lacey go dancing. One of the lighter moments in the film. And it was really great to show the love between the couple.
Tom Danger (Writer/Director): My brother and I had been making short films in our house and backyard since primary school, and there was no doubt in either of our minds that we wanted to be filmmakers when we grew up. Well, he wanted to, and I idolised him which meant I wanted to be one too. He directed his first feature in 2011, a teen comedy entitled Sick, which won Best Comedy Feature and Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Filmmaker’s Showcase in Los Angeles, 2012. I helped him in all aspects of production, from writing stage all through post-production. His movie was made for $5000, and staying true to our rivalry growing up, my budget was $10,000, and I made sure the camera I used was twice as good. All throughout high school, my experience in shooting films grew exponentially, shooting short films, an hour-long slasher film with my best friend in year 9, an unfinished detective series consisting of 40-minute episodes, as well as shooting and editing performances for my school and selling them to the students.
There was never a point in which there wasn’t a project to be working on. I wasn’t the least bit perturbed by the notion of shooting a feature; to me it was just the next step. We shot quickly and on schedule, with my Assistant Director, Adrian Mariani, and I carefully planned the shots and accommodated the weather changes, schedule conflicts, and everything in between. It was a wonderful shoot, and when it comes to independent films, if you have a fun and relaxed shoot with minimal drawbacks, it’s a miracle. There were tough nights and long hours, and we existed on very little sleep for about a month, but there was never a point in which I regretted my decision to shoot a movie – the challenges helped me learn and spurred me to do better.