Basic instincts – Tim Lea discusses his post-apocalyptic thriller 54 Days

54 Days – a Post Apocalyptic Independent Australian Psychological Thriller shot mainly in one location – a 1960’s bunker. How do you make a movie based in one location interesting? We caught up with 54 Days’ director Tim R. Lea to find out.

Hi there, my name is Tim Lea, and I am the writer/director of 54 Days our award winning Independent Australian Psychological Thriller. 54 Days is a story about 5 people trapped in a 1960’s nuclear shelter after a biological & nuclear attack. As food & water runs out, the group are forced to make an impossible decision …

Either one of them dies or they all die…

54 Days explores how each of us would react to a situation where our very survival is at stake. It is here, that our true character reveals itself; it is only here that we see who we truly are. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging journey at times that begs the question…

“How far you would go to survive?”

The movie spends 85% of the time in one location – a 1960’s nuclear shelter – beautifully crafted by our Production Design team headed up by Sky Mclennan – and the immediate question that we get asked so many times is “How do you make a movie in one location interesting enough to sustain an audience for 84 minutes?” It’s a very good question – and something the whole team thought about very carefully from the get-go;  with us starting from the foundation of 54 Days – the script.

Personally, I have been screenwriting for over 12 years, writing a variety of scripts all in the vein of “healthily controversial thrillers”. When you have no limitations on budgets your imagination can run wild  – after all the budgets are someone else’s problem. The challenge comes, however, when you are going to be dipping into your own pocket to get your movie up on screen. Suddenly the massive party scene at the Opera House disappears;  those big fight scenes get cut;  those massive visual effects shots that you envisaged in your mind blowing everyone’s minds and blowing your budget to kingdom come evaporate in a sea of pragmatism; a sea of cold, hard cash. As a writer, I became the producer – squeezing every cost out. But the more you cut; the more the end result for the audience can become diminished. So the way to go is audience engagement.

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To keep an audience engaged, we needed to carefully craft the balance of three core things

  • Intrigue from the script’s plot
  • Interesting characters that an audience can relate to and
  • Modulating emotions – as a result of the characters’ interaction in a 40 square metre space

54 Days seeks to blend these three together.

First, the plot twists and turns. It is based around some key “setups” that happen early on in the opening party scene prior to the explosion happening (be warned you may have to watch 54 Days twice to see some of them…) . Without wishing to provide any spoilers to 54 Days, there are subtle set ups that beg the audience question – what is going on? And what will happen next? For example Nick, played superbly by Michael Drysdale, heads towards “his” bunker with blood on his shirt, without us knowing why… This is just one example of a setup that keep the audience hunting for clues; to scratch that nasty itch that just won’t go away….

Second, the characters are drawn such that some hold secrets; secrets that deep-down the audience know will come out. As an audience member when you see a wife is being unfaithful and you then see the lover and the husband and wife heading towards a “tinder-box” environment you know it is going to be explosive…

Third, as 54 Days progresses, you get to know the characters; you see their interactions; you see how they are positioning themselves for survival; how loyalty slowly disappears as the survival instinct kicks in. When Dirk befriends the lone cockroach in the shelter it is a constant reminder for him of the longing for his estranged daughter, whom he doesn’t know is alive or dead after the bombs. Again without providing spoilers to the movie, in the middle of the movie, directly after the high point of the fun and games of a party scene involving the drinking of the Organic wine left in the bunker, there is a tragedy that happens which jolts the audience back to a very low point.  Emotional highs and emotional lows keep the audience guessing!

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By combining the above three together, audiences feel engaged and luckily the reviewers of 54 Days have tended to agree. But plot, character and emotional engagement also needs to be supplemented with a visually interesting palette –otherwise it becomes like shooting a play on stage – and no-one wants to see a stage play shot – you can go to the theatre for that!

From the get-go, our Director Of Photography, Nathaniel C.T. Jackson, focused upon making the visual imagery as varied as possible. Using his years of working on Television Commercials, Nat bought all his creativity to making the shots as interesting as possible. As a result, the camera department provided some interesting creative choices:

  • Hand held Camera – to give the frenetic feel to the characters heading into the bunker – you are there with them as they literally run for their lives.
  • Steadicam shots – the smooth, fluid movement to follow the characters’ initial discoveries in the bunker – it gives a close insight into the characters’ minds as they first enter the bunker.
  • Crane shots – to give a bird’s eye view of the bunker interior and the interaction of the characters.
  • The dolly shots – as the camera moves slowly in on characters to gently reveal what is going on in the characters’ minds as key emotional points of the script are hit.
  • The jib shot –to give an overhead view of the day to day life in the bunker
  • The Chest Plate shot – to get up really close to see and understand what is going on in the characters’ minds – their frustrations, the madness that builds…

The combination of variety in both writing and shooting gives the audience and critics a varied palette upon which to draw – to get engaged visually and emotionally, and this, we pleased to say, has been shown by our  success on the International film festival circuit to date.

I am delighted to say we have just returned from the US première of 54 days at the Idyllwild Festival of International Cinema in California, where we were nominated for 10 awards and finished up winning four awards for Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography, Best Director and The Grand Jury Prize – Best Of Festival.

When this is supported by the positive critical review of 54 days, luckily for us, the planned variety associated with a single location, seems to be working.

54 Days is available to rent or buy on three digital platforms (with more coming up soon) :
http://54days.vhx.tv/
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/54days
http://distrify.com/films/9620-54-days

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