Interview: Tony Ayres

Cut Snake director Tony Ayres on set.

Cut Snake director Tony Ayres on set.

Cut Snake – a mini-masterpiece and an instant Australian classic – hits cinemas today and Cinema Australia recently caught up with the film’s director, Tony Ayres. Tony is travelling around the country presenting his film to audiences followed by Q&A sessions.
“Q&A’s are always very hard to judge.” said Ayres. “The people who stay are the people who have responded to it, so you can only presume they’re interested or that they want to know more or they liked it. It all feels very positive so far. The thing about films is that they’re such a subjective experience and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I love the film and that’s my experience of it.

“From the very first read he knew that character. He nailed it. My job was not to get in his way.”

You were first introduced to Blake Ayshford’s Cut Snake screenplay in 2002 before optioning it years later. How much had the script changed by the time you got to filming it?
I think what happened was that Blake and I found the film in about a third of the current screenplay. The original screenplay had a miscarriage of justice story and it also had a flash-forward into a time set twenty years later. We looked at the core of what we thought was the most interesting film and we developed that. I’d say about a third or a half of the original script is still there and we created a story based around that central story.

That’s fascinating. So while you were filming it did you ever say to Blake, “Remember we had that in the original story? Let’s go back to that.”
[Laughs]. Um… Well my memory isn’t that good. The great thing was that while we were filming I felt that all the nuances, beats, shifts and changes could be adapted as we went along, because I had been working on the script for so long and I knew it so well. It’s always an organic process.

Tell us a bit about your relationship with Blake Ayshford who you also worked with on Devil’s Playground and Nowhere Boys.
I think Blake is a very fine writer with great instincts, a great mind and he’s a very great collaborator. We’ve always had very happy experiences together and of course that’s what you always look for when you’re working with someone – you look for a good experience.

Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton) and Drag Artiste (Jack Daye) in a Cut Snake.

Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton) and Drag Artiste (Jack Daye) in a Cut Snake.

Sullivan Stapleton brings an incredible intensity to his character, Pommie. How much did you work with Sullivan to develop Pommie or was his interpretation of the character all his own?
From the very first read he knew that character. He nailed it. My job was not to get in his way. [Laughs]. He understood that character from the beginning and he could channel parts of his personality into that character. I honestly have so much admiration for Sullivan and what he gave to that role. There were scenes that we thought were pretty good on the page but when he did them they where just electric. I think he’s a bonafide movie star.

He really is. His intensity is something else.
[Laughs]. And it’s in every scene. What I loved is that he had thought about every moment and he made the most of every moment but not in a virtuoso show-off kind of way. It was always for that character and in that moment for that story – he knew what he wanted to do. His choices were always surprising and compelling. I don’t know whether it’s a gay male thing but I always fall for actors when I work with them, like Claudia Karvan for example, and I always develop a bit of a crush on them. [Laughs]. I told Sullivan that he’s as good as any actress. [Laughs].

How did he react to that?
He laughed. He had a lot of competition in terms of actresses because he had Jessica De Gouw. I think what Jess brought to her role and what Alex Russell brings to his role enabled Sullivan to do what he did.

I’m sure this will be the first film a lot of people see Sullivan in. What’s he like behind the scenes? Because, going by his character, a lot of people might walk away thinking he’s a prick like Pommie
[Laughs]. He is very charming, full of life and a lot of fun. He’s also really smart and I have a huge love and admiration for him. The thing that attracted me the most to the script was the character of Pommie. In some ways he’s an archetype of Australian masculinity and I think that’s what’s so surprising and beautiful about him.

Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and Sparra (Alex Russell) in a scene from Cut Snake.

Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and Sparra (Alex Russell) in a scene from Cut Snake.

The film’s cast is made up of some of the countries best up-and-coming actors including Jessica De Gouw and Alex Russell who are rapidly gaining international attention. How involved were you in the casting of Cut Snake?
They were all pretty much my choice. Jess did a screen test and I fell in love with her and I thought she was amazing. After that I met with her and that didn’t change my opinion of her. She’s just a radiant actress who is spectacularly beautiful on screen but she’s also so smart and has great instincts. Alex probably had the most difficult of the three roles because he didn’t have many lines and he’s the character caught in the middle and I think that’s a really tough role to play. I think he did it very well.

The film has a pretty big twist about midway through. How hard has it been to discuss the film without giving too much away?
Oh my god it is the hardest thing. [Laughs]. The most interesting thing about the film is what’s not revealed so it’s been a real challenge and especially in the day of the internet now, it’s not too hard to find a spoiler. I find that the people who receive the film the best are the people who know the least. It’s tricky though. What you really want to say is, “Trust me, it’s going to be great.” I don’t know whether that’s a great marketing strategy though. [Laughs]. I think there are clues along the way anyway and I think it’s a surprise but it’s not a surprise.

You’ve been an executive producer on a bunch of television shows like Nowhere Boys, The Slap and most recently Glitch. How hard is it to go from a roll like executive producer to director, or is it a walk in the park for you after years of experience?
They’re very different roles and I certainly love being able to direct. Directing is a great, immersive experience and the role of executive producing is once or twice removed so the immersive experience is much more satisfying but you can’t do it as often either. It’s a juggle and I probably will continue to go back a forth between the two for the next few years. I do feel like I’ve done my time as an executive producer and I feel like I need to move back into directing.

Sparra (Alex Russell) and Paula (Jessica De Gouw) in a scene from Cut Snake.

Sparra (Alex Russell) and Paula (Jessica De Gouw) in a scene from Cut Snake.

Has your experience as an executive producer altered your directing style in any way?
I think what’s great is that I get to work with a lot of really talented directors and every time you work with a great director your learn something. Like on Glitch I got to work with Emma Freeman and she is just super talented. I’m working with Robert Connolly on Barracuda and he’s an amazing director. As a director you don’t often get to see other directors work and every time I see someone else work I look at it as though it’s my own personal film school.

Tell us a bit about Barracuda.
It’s Christos Tsiolkas’ next book after The Slap. It’s about a young olympic swimmer and his campaign to get into the 2000 olympic games. It’s typical Tsiolkas in that it’s a real page turner and it’s visceral and muscular. I’m actually doing it as a producer so I’m much more hands on with this one and Robert’s directing. It’s a project I feel very excited about.

You must have a lot of respect for Robert because you’ve worked with him a few times now. He’s like the Godfather of Australian cinema, right?
[Laughs]. I’ll tell him that. We have a very happy collaboration together.

I have one last question for our younger audience. How’s the Nowhere Boys movie coming along?
It’s going so well. It’s going to be so much fun. It’ll be finished very, very soon.

Is that all you can give us?
Yep. [Laughs].

Cut Snake is in cinema now.

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