Focus on St Kilda Film Festival #3: Director Josef Ber on his short film, Jack’s Promise

Fletcher Humphrys and Maya Stange in Jack's Promise.

Fletcher Humphrys and Maya Stange in Jack’s Promise. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

“The theme stayed the same, it was a shift in tone that was needed.”

Written exclusively for Cinema Australia by Josef Ber:

I started writing the script for Jack’s Promise a few years ago. I wanted to explore a character who was struggling with his past choices and wasn’t in the greatest of places in his life. It originally started as a very dark, quite ominous idea, but lightened up over time. One thing that really helped improve the script was doing a reading with some friends and getting their reactions to it. Sometimes what is plain and obvious to you can actually not make sense to others. So it was great to get their feedback. It mostly centred on where their sympathies went; Jack was far too dislikable in the early version, they just couldn’t care for him. So I tore the script apart and spent time re-working things and tossing out large chunks of it – there are some scenes that were removed that I’d love to explore sometime in the future in another film. Then I was able to see where the story needed to go with regards to tone, the theme stayed the same, it was a shift in tone that was needed, and from there the pieces started to fall into place.

Raising money to make a short film is always a challenge. My initial avenue to get money was to apply for a small grant through Metro Screen in Sydney, which I was lucky enough to acquire. It was basically for equipment hire through them. Unfortunately in the end I was only able to use a tiny fraction of it due to my equipment requirements changing during pre-production. But Metro Screen played a major part in supporting my script early on and helping to start the ball rolling.

Zai Purdy in Jack's Promise. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

Zai Purdy in Jack’s Promise. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

Then I opted to go through Creative Partnerships Australia, this is just another form of crowdfunding, but with a difference, as any ‘donations’ were tax deductible for the donor. I had my plan in place and got it all rolling. Ultimately it came down to family and friends giving me some money. Literally all the money that came in through CPA was from people that I’d contacted personally except from one person that was connected to my co-producer. Overall I would say it was a so-so crowdfunding experience. I raised about half of my ambitious total which was enough to go ahead with the filming and that was the main thing.

I centred production around the availability of my cinematographer Laurie Zaffino. I’d worked with Laurie during my time on Rush and once he was interested and available to shoot the film I couldn’t have been more excited to be working with him again. He’s very busy and only had a small window that was free, so it was all systems go to get everything ready to shoot on his one free week. Laurie was great for getting a good deal on the hiring of the camera and lights with his contacts and this proved vital as it saved a nice bundle of money that could be pumped into other areas of the production. Catherine Rynne, my co-producer, was brilliant at getting most of the other crew together which left me to find my cast.

Jack's Promise Cinema Australia 1

Josef Ber directs Maya Stange in Jack’s Promise. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

Fletcher Humphrys had been attached to the script when I originally sent it in to Metro Screen and once the date was set to shoot, it was a case of crossing my fingers that he’d still be available to actually film it – he was. I couldn’t have asked for a better Jack; he understood the character so well and was a pleasure to work with. I first met Fletcher over ten years ago when we acted together in a telemovie for ESPN where we were playing college football players. We hadn’t really seen each other much since then, but he was willing to trust in my script and come along for the ride, so I flew him up from Melbourne for the shoot.

After Fletcher was locked in the rest of the cast started to fall into place. I needed a certain quality in the person to play Esther and was lucky enough to get Maya Stange to read my script. We met for a coffee and talked about it and afterwards she was on board. I found Zai Purdy, who plays Nicholaus by holding auditions at my daughter’s primary school. I contacted local schools through their Facebook P&C pages to see if I could place an ad on them. A very helpful and supportive teacher at my daughter’s school was wonderful in arranging a space for me to hold auditions. Young Zai was a great find. He hadn’t acted in a film before but you’d never know it. After his audition I knew he had the part, he was definitely the guy to play Fletcher’s son. I was very lucky to find the actors that I did, they brought real and interesting lives to the characters that I’d been living with for quite a while in my head.

Fletcher Humphrys and Maya Stange in Jack's Promise.

Fletcher Humphrys and Maya Stange in Jack’s Promise. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

Post-production is always fun, but it’s tricky when you’re asking people to work for free – literally for free. Hours and hours of work in most cases, but that’s the nature of the short film world. Any money you’re able to raise goes on getting a good camera and lights and feeding the crew.

There’ll always be something that you didn’t think about in advance that comes and trips you up. I had my composer and editor lined up and I thought I could call on my sound designer from my previous film Notes, but he was actually transitioning out of the field, so it took a little convincing to get him to do the job. The fact that this was all happening around christmas and new year didn’t help in the slightest either.

I really enjoy the editing process, it’s tricky and frustrating but when you finish constructing all these shots into a coherent story it feels wonderful. Finding those moments that are in the script, that you filmed on set, and then seeing them come to life in the edit, that’s what it’s all about for me. Knowing when to let a moment have time and knowing when to move the story on. Sometimes it’s only one or two frames that make or break a moment or sequence and that’s the joy in it. Every film requires something different. It’s riveting.

The Jack's Promise team at work.

The Jack’s Promise team at work. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

As for the future, I’ve a few ideas running around my head and a few scripts that are in early stages that I’ll keep working on. There’s an idea I’ve had for a while now that I think I’ll try and develop into a Tropfest film. It’s short and punchy. This time I’ll give the more mainstream crowdfunding a go and hope that my family and friends don’t have crowdfunding-fatigue.

I’ll be sending Jack’s Promise around to more festivals both here and overseas. It’s had such a great reaction from those that have seen it which is very encouraging.

Cinematographer Laurie Zaffino.

Jack’s Promise cinematographer Laurie Zaffino. Photo by Victoria Carwin.

The St Kilda Film Festival have been so supportive of me and my film, as they were last year also with Notes – it’s incredible. They have a terrific team working there who are so pleasant to deal with and so generous with their time. I’d encourage anyone that has a film to enter St Kilda. No, I haven’t been paid to say that. They will always be a festival that I’ll be proud to have my films play at.

It’s 2015 so I would be amiss if I didn’t add all the various social media handles etc. Find us on Facebook: Twitter: @jackthefilm @josefber @besefprods

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