“The grass is always greener on the other side, they say. Well, that’s because the grass on the other side is fertilized with premium bullshit.”
Written by Davo Hardy (director):
There is an old analogy of a duck on a lake. On the surface, everything looks serene. Below the surface, however, its little legs are powering away vigorously. When it came to directing my first feature, I started out having already completed with a dozen short films. My confidence as a director was far from impenetrable, but it was solid. It had been six years after film school and I had filled that time on practice films, shorts and TFP jobs for other people. I was tired of treading water and I wanted to make like a sea-plane and launch from the water (or make a splash trying).
The challenges expected were not necessarily the problems we encountered.
It took three crowd-funding attempts to raise capital, and we ended up being privately funded anyway. As the producer, I took the initiative to market the film exactly as it was; an emotive drama centring on a number of anti-heroes, riddled with humanity and flaws. These characters would make mistakes, whine and complain and the film would feature no big names and no special effects. It was important to me to sell exactly what the project was, a film about flawed people and their dramas, written in such a way that the audience could relate to them, feel for them, go on a journey with them and make judgements on the decisions made by the characters, and themselves, by extension.
I was fortunate to have a Director of Photography with a brand new Black Magic 4K camera and a half a dozen lenses, as well as a sound recordist who had been in the industry for fifty years. Both these blokes were friends of friends and it took time getting to know each other ahead of making the film. The rapport we created was absolutely essential to producing a film under financial pressure, knowing there would be clashing personalities along the way.
For The Lives We Lead, one of the biggest warnings people had was stage mums. Auditioning the children was just as much about auditioning the parents that escorted them. The parents of the children we hired were the most helpful and eager. In fact, the children were so compliant and easy to work with, I added extra scenes for them. I later felt bad that almost all the children in the playground sequence at the very start of the film get some five seconds of screen time. Though, it would probably be the easiest credit of their career.
The cast and crew, of which there were dozens, ran the gamut of competency and skill level. Everybody was coming to the film with different experiences and standards of professionalism (a word that gets thrown around a lot on independent films) and for the most part, this actually helped maintain a certain relaxed energy throughout the day, throughout the team.
While making The Lives We Lead, I encountered a handful of people who aspired to greatness in their field but felt entitled to superfluous luxuries. This film, of course, was made on the smell of an oily rag (another thing I insisted making common knowledge) and the resulting mistakes or shortcomings, especially those that can be pointed out in the finished film, are generally forgivable… I hope.
The Lives We Lead came about from one the of many reminders throughout my life that we are, in fact, growing up, living on limited time and must overcome the pressure to “live life correctly” when all we really want to do is live the life we would choose for ourselves.
Some people I had known since kindergarten (though we had disbanded during the emotionally traumatic wasteland and social battlefield that is high school), were now getting married, having children, buying their first home. It got me thinking of all those things that I was not doing with my life. And at only 25 I found myself asking “What have I done with my life? What have I accomplished?”
In hindsight, it was all at once a very poignant, profound existential crisis… and a complete societal waste of time. Nobody seems to have a lot figured out in their 20s, though we all pretend to. And realizing that turned out to be quite a comfort, when all was said and done. It prompted me to think about the tendency people have to compare our lot with the lot of our proverbial neighbours.
The grass is always greener on the other side, they say. Well, that’s because the grass on the other side is fertilized with premium bullshit.
But what of people who genuinely looked at their own life at intervals and consistently came up short-changed?
A tale of two sisters in post-war Australia began to emerge for me. In a time of few choices, but rising liberation, those compelled to be working women or stay-at-home mothers were pioneers of choice and accomplishment.
Sally Williams and Georgina Neville were two talented theatrical actors that I often socialized with and bounced ideas off of. They were quick to point out that women today faced the same choices and pressures as women 50 years ago.
Neither of them had moved out of home, neither of them were planning on getting married or having a family. They were doing exactly what they wanted with their lives; putting career as a priority and making the most of their one-way journey from womb to tomb. Yet, they still had pressure from family, society and even themselves to do more; to achieve all those other things; to be a size six and remain one after mothering children.
Updating the story to present day was suddenly more compelling.
I wanted to keep a lot of the themes subtle and allow the audience a chance to simply see these two women bickering over who was prettier, who was first to accomplish things, reach miles and win at life, to spite the other.
The result was a ten-minute play I ran twice for an amateur theatre group. The first one was to gauge the impact of the story and the second one was to gain public awareness of the project that as I was now preparing for a feature film screenplay.
The reaction from the first performance was positive. The audience found the story poignant and relevent, depressing and perhaps a bit lacking in character-depth. To complicate the story, deepen the psychology and open up the audience, I added two male characters.Naturally, to mirror the theme of stereotype and gender roles, I had to make one of the males openly gay. But I decided not to make his story about his coming-out, in fact The Lives We Lead skips that almost entirely. Instead, I gave his character a deeply sensitive, trusting naivete. He has his idyllic values and feels everything very deeply.
The other male character, (which I opted to portray, for lack of such a role in the past) was an athletic tradesman who aspires to better standards of living than his own childhood showed him. He lives for his family and aims to provide for his wife and children. He too, is gentle and supportive of everyone. He starts out tender, meek and polite. But over the years, his temper shortens and his frustrations deepen.
Having male characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves and female characters who emotionally abuse each other was what attracted so much interest to this story. Further notoriety of the developing film came from my decision to bring a non-speaking caricature of the combined male characters to the stage play and perform the second act completely naked.
As a stage play, under the title The Time of Our Lives, I plotted out the milestones of a typical life story; (their first kiss, their first job and so on). It was all told in a bickering banter between the sisters as they tried to one-up each other with their accomplishments, while simultaneously rubbing salt in the wounds of the other’s shortcomings.
When it came time to doing the screenplay, I had to overhaul the whole structure and completely rework the plot to be more immediate, more thematic and more distressing.
The HBO TV series Six Feet Under was an inspiration on how to convey a whole lifetime without making a bloated mini-series. The series finale in particular, achieves it with a bullseye. So, I took the elements available and refreshed them for the tone and setting of The Lives We Lead.
I began with a montage of the character’s latter years. This was similar to the pace and layout of the stage-play. Plotting backwards allowed me to add nuance and subtle messages about relationships and consequences to decisions that the first act would set up. The drama then had a clear, cause-and-effect structure across multiple storylines and characters, from start to finish.
So, what was the biggest SNAFU of the production? The playground theme that had bridged the story from the stage to the screen.
A lot of the thought behind how the story takes place, and where, centres on the playground and the incarnations of what we, as adults, would call our “playground”.
One is never too old for play. It keeps you young.
It was written that the first act would end with the four main characters breaking into an indoor play centre. So, during location scouting in the months before shooting, I sought out places that featured a ball pit, tube slides and a labyrinth of tunnels. It was to be a feast for the cinematography. It was to conjure the dusty excitement that I-for-one gained from such things as a child.
The only operational play centre that was willing to work with us was an hour or two from the rest of the locations. I personally visited it, spoke to the manager and arranged a quiet mid-week day to film there. We touched base to settle insurance and parking over the coming weeks and when the big day came, halfway through the shoot, I arrived to find my crew aghast at the handful of mums and bubs, already making use of the facility.
The manager left it until now to mention a location fee. This, in itself, was not unreasonable, though the timing was a dick-move.
I was in no hurry to spend on a surprise location fee, now that the budget was allocated, but just as I reached the conclusion to grit my teeth and pay the sudden location, I encouraged the manager to shuffle the public out. But he refused.
If not for complete freedom within the play centre, without interference from the public, what exactly was the location fee meant to provide us?
The continuity; the unwanted sounds; the can of worms that would be having other people’s children on film; the headaches!
I opted to reject the manager’s extortion, refuse the fee, cancel the day of shooting and work out an alternative elsewhere. Understandably, my cast and crew were seriously peeved at me. Each of them had their dummy spit and the day ended with inconvenience and disappointment all round.
It was not until a day or two later that we got a replacement location, in the form of Planet X in Richmond. To shoot there, we had 4 hours before opening time. It did not convey quite the same gleeful playtime in rainbow colours that way the first place would, but it did seem like the type of place teenagers would head to for a good time.
The scenes were shot and two whole shooting days were condensed into one, as one of our other locations was nearby.
My core crew sought to provide compensation to the production by way of offering creative solution and making up for lost time. There were one or two others, meanwhile, who wasted time dwelling on how inconvenienced everybody had been days before and how the whole production was ruined for them, personally.
Shaming, blaming and souring morale between scenes began to escalate.
It was skewed, by some, that there had been no problem at the indoor play centre that tried to extort us and that I was just trying to save a few bucks on a location fee. Of course, no location fee is worth the resulting mutiny of a heavily inconvenienced cast and crew. Thankfully, it never came to mutiny, but as director, producer and production manager, I know the power of an unhappy people.
After all, the troublesome individuals were not on set every day. And those of us who were on set every day, got on with the bigger picture and had a blast doing it. That was, until the disgruntled few had another day on the schedule. The difference in productivity and spirit was extraordinary and everyone could see it.
The moral of the story appears to be; professionals have been there, done that. They’ll adapt. Aspiring-professionals are aware of every mistake that they make and are always willing to make up for it. Semi-professionals have the experience and reputation but forget Murphy’s Law. And unless they’re accountable, any mishap will wash clean off their good name and service. My cast and crew believed in me, my ability and the film we were working on and that camaraderie alone is enough to accomplish the impossible.
All in all, I count my blessings while making The Lives We Lead. Despite the uncomfortable situation mentioned, I was blessed with a compassionate team, great weather and near-flawless scheduling. For the most part, we shot everything we needed, on time, often ahead of time and with the occasional surprise treat (like the kite-surfer at the beach) to keep things interesting. I think that kite-surfer adds so much to those shots and he probably isn’t even aware he’s in the film.
The Lives We Lead was always meant to be a stepping stone for later projects. To have successfully produced a feature film and made a financial return is the essential requirement to gain investment for another, bigger and better film later on.
Dealing with the human condition in a timeless framework of how siblings and life-long friends balance respect and resentment, this story has already stood out from the other independent films of the year.
Now that my team and I are looking ahead to our next film, riding on the success of this one, we are confident and assured by our experience and skills as we continue to live by the film’s tagline; “Lead Your Own Life, Follow Your Own Dream”.
The Lives We Lead will be released later this year.