Focus on St Kilda Film Festival #1: Imagination Game director Alister Grierson writes about his short film

“Anyone familiar with the attention span of a seven-year-old will understand this was no easy task.”

Written by Alister Grierson exclusively for Cinema Australia:

Imagination Game began, like many ideas, as a conversation on a bus. My wife, Skye, had stumbled across a cult of conspiracy theorists online who had bought into the idea that The Matrix was not only real but they had evidence. It seems co-incidences are not, in fact, co-incidences but bugs in the code. I imagine, if you smoke enough pot, you could accept this hypothesis as completely reasonable. I just thought it was enough to embark on a script for a short film.

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To backtrack a little: I am a film director by trade; my last film (for the ABC) was Parer’s War, which I’d completed by the end of 2013 – It screened in April the following year. We were living on the Gold Coast, where I’d made the film, and I was attached to a project that was scheduled to start shooting in August of 2014 in, believe it or not, Italy. So I had a window of time up my sleeve that I’d planned to spend mostly mooching along the beach in Burleigh Heads. My wife let it be known that this was an unacceptable state of affairs and we would be making a film starring our son and her father instead. She is my chief financial backer, so who was I to argue?

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You see, we’d discovered that our seven-year-old son, Rafferty, was an inexplicably dab hand at a cheesy accent and he’d even won a local radio competition by doing an impression of Billy Connelly. And my father in law, Howard Cassidy, had been a theatre and drama lecturer most of his life and could be something of a ham on stage if he chose. And what goes better together than cheese and ham? It also seemed like a great way for the family to get together, have some fun and create something that would be a terrific record of a time in Raff’s life that we could have forever.

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The mission was to make something for as little money as possible so once I had a script, I would have to draw on as many favours as I could to get it done. In the end the most expensive below the line item was lunch: a lasagne I made a few days before the shoot. Fortunately we got a team together pretty quickly: Mark Wareham, who shot Parer’s War for me would be my DOP with Keshia Smith assisting, shooting with his 5D and 7D. Cora Montalban would do hair and make-up, Mathew Ault, location sound. And I managed to convince Kerith Atkinson (Maiko) to play a small role. All worked for the day for free, for which I am extremely grateful. The story required a number of props: an artificial axe (so my son wouldn’t accidentally cut his or anyone else’s hands off) blow darts, a pill packet and the general paraphernalia of a doctor’s surgery, all of which Skye and I made or purchased when she stumbled across them in the various op-shops around Burleigh. (Full-scale model of a human heart?)

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We drilled our son for weeks to get his dialogue down. Anyone familiar with the attention span of a seven-year-old will understand this was no easy task. I got a friend of mine, Scottish actor Kevin McIsaac, to make a recording of the dialogue so that Raff could mimic the accent and finally it felt like we were ready. I’ve done enough television to know that your schedule is critical when you’re shooting fast so I’d rigorously storyboarded the concept and even made an animatic (too much time on my hands) and shot-listed, to the frame, everything I needed.

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Howard generously provided his house for us as a location and as it turned out, the shoot went mostly without incident. We did about 40 set-ups on the day, which is pretty fast and furious. Highlights were: Rafferty rolling in an ant’s nest by accident in the first shot (that cost about an hour of our day to recover from). Getting Raff to hit his mark. Lunch. The sugar crash of a seven-year-old about 3pm. (We’ll just do another scene while he recovers). The sugar high at about 4pm. Discovering Howard didn’t have vegemite in his kitchen, which we needed for the last scene – who doesn’t have vegemite in their kitchen? Then, we were done and I cut the film at home on Final Cut over the following weeks.

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Meanwhile, my feature project had fallen over so I took a job in Melbourne directing Nowhere Boys and that’s where we finished the film. In fact, I was really enamoured with the music from the show and was blessed that the producers and composer, Cornel Wilczek, gave me permission to use some of it in the film. Paul Pirola organised my sound-post for me and it was edited and mixed by Liesl Pieterse and Andrew Neil who did a terrific job.(If you listen carefully in one of the scenes you can hear whale-song mixed underneath. Weird. Finally, Tobey Angwin did a colour grade for me.

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The St Kilda Film Festival has generously deigned it acceptable enough to screen in the comedy section, so the family is delighted. It wasn’t really our intention to make a film to screen at festivals all over the place but just to have some fun together, so this is a bonus. Howard is coming down from Brisbane for the big night so it will be something of a reunion, ham and cheese together once more. Little projects like this could never be achieved without the generous support of my fellow collaborators who work for food. I tips me lid.

Imagination Game is screening at the St Kilda Film Festival. You can find dates and times here.

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