Interview: Mitzi Ruhlmann and Toby Wallace

Mitzi Ruhlmann and Toby Wallace in Boys in the Trees.

Mitzi Ruhlmann and Toby Wallace in Boys in the Trees.

“As you get older there’s almost nothing cooler than being yourself and staying true to that.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Toby Wallace and Mitzi Ruhlmann are a part of something huge. Their new film, director Nicholas Verso’s Boys in the Trees, is one of the hottest, most stylised visual pieces to come out of Australia in a very long time and its two young stars are about to shine brighter than ever because of it.
There’s no doubt the American film industry is about to come knocking so Cinema Australia’s Matthew Eeles caught up with the two before they no-doubt head off towards the bright lights of Hollywood.

Tell us about the characters you play in the film?

Toby: I play Corey. He’s just finished year twelve with a group of guys who call themselves The Grommets. He’s at a point in his life where he’s trying to figure out what he wants to do. Does he want to follow his dreams and ambitions of studying photography in New York? His best friend Jango, who’s the bullying type, shoots him down when he tells him he wants to leave the small town for New York and tries to keep him cooped up. Corey crosses paths with another kid in the film named Jonah. The two have an obvious history together but it’s not quite evident early on in the film. Over the course of the night the two are forced to confront their demons which begin to physicalise throughout the film.

Mitzi: I play a girl named Romany which we called ‘Corey’s not quite love interest’. [Laughs]. She’s kind of a voice of reason and is a little bit frustrated with Corey’s behaviour and how he treats the people around him, as well as her. She tries to guide him onto a better path. Romany is the point of wisdom for Corey. She’s the most mature character in the film by far.  

This isn’t your average suburban-set Australian film. What were your first impressions of the script?

Toby: I loved it. I read it about four years ago when I made a short film with Nic called The Last Time I Saw Richard. It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read because it really affected me emotionally. Knowing from the short film what Nic’s vision was when he made art I was really, really excited to be involved in it. Right from the beginning I was very keen to stay on the project and stay connected to it and finally here we are five or six years later.

Mitzi: It was an absolute breath of fresh air for me reading this script. It was really fun and it was full of elements that really haven’t been touched on in any script that I’ve read before so I was very excited.

Mitzi, you’ve recently worked with Boys in the Trees producer John Molloy on another Australian film, The Killing Ground. Is that how you became involved in this film or was that just a coincidence?

Mitzi: Well I actually left the wrap party for Boys in the Trees and went straight onto the set of Killing Ground so it was the opposite way around. [Laughs]. It was all just a coincidence. It would have been an honour and nice if that was the case but it really wasn’t. I was in LA at the time and I believe Nic was in China and he sent my agent the script and some scenes to put down on tape. I sent them back and he liked them. We had a Skype call and I really fell in love with him and was so excited about the project and I really wanted to be involved. I guess he was too and we made it happen.

Toby: Nic has a really great way of talking about his work and everyone gets really, really excited by the way he talks about things that he loves and his interests and his wants and needs when he goes into making a film. During some of the Q&As we’ve had, everyone gets really involved and he really lights up when someone asks him an interesting question.

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Toby Wallace and director Nicholas Verso on the set of Boys in the Trees.

Nicholas has created a very unique and stylised piece of Australian cinema. Tell us about working with him as a director.

Toby: Because I had done the short film five years ago I already knew what it was like working with Nic on set. I’ve never worked with someone who had such an emotional connection to his characters since that short film. It was very similar walking into Boys in the Trees. I had a great amount of trust in him which is very important when you’re working with a director because you get to throw things out there and really collaborate with them. I’ve never worked with someone who was so detailed in their work. Whether it was wardrobe, set design or anything like that he would be directly involved because he had such a specific idea about growing up in the 90s from the posters on the walls to the videos lying around in the bedroom.

Mitzi: I completely agree with Toby. Nic is so inspiring to work with and he’s so open about his own experiences that it created an environment where we all felt safe and very trusting of each other. We all got very close very quickly and I really loved that aspect of working with him.

Because he had such a tight emotional connection to the characters, did he allow the actors to alter them at all and really make them their own.

Toby: Whatever happens, you as an actor bring your version of the character. No matter what the characters are in the director’s head, the actors are always going to produce a different kind of version of that. It’s never going to be exactly as the director imagines. I think Nic’s interpretation may have been different in a lot of ways. We would always have chats and different conversations about what these characters meant to us and Nic always said after the rehearsal process that the characters are then given over to the actors to interpret and letting them have creative control.

Mitzi: We spoke at length about the characters and got Nic’s perspective on them and worked together to give them a little more depth and then the characters grew from there while we were shooting. He definitely let us put our own spin on our characters.

Toby: During rehearsals, Nic would get us to play these games where we would take our mobile phones and walk off down the road by ourselves. Nic would give us a subject like losing friends, or making friends, or moving out of home and basically he’d get us to do a self video for four minutes where we would talk about our own personal experience with that subject. We’d then come back to the studio and we would watch them together and then produce a conversation about those experiences and how they connected to the script.

Toby, one of my favourite contemporary Australian films is Galore. What are some of the differences working on something as realistic as Galore compared to something as surreal as Boys in the Trees?

Toby: Well I guess the main difference with Galore was that it was so set in naturalism and it’s a bit harder to take riskier choices. It was interesting because when we were making Boys in the Trees, I found there were things that Justin Holborow, who played Jango, would do where he would throw these big performances out there which at times seemed so out of reality. When I watch the film back I almost feel that he was the most exciting person in the film because I think that those risky choices that he made really paid off. I think that the themes in the way Nic has written Boys in the Trees you have a lot more opportunities to take those risks whereas in something like Galore it’s all very stuck to the naturalism of being a human being.

Toby Wallace and Mitzi Ruhlmann in Boys in the Trees.

Toby Wallace and Mitzi Ruhlmann in Boys in the Trees.

And Mitzi, I think it’s fair to say that Boys in the Trees is quite different to anything you’ve worked on. How would you compare this experience with something like Home and Away for example?

Mitzi: Well this is my first feature film so that’s already a big difference to anything else I’ve worked on. Home and Away was a wonderful experience. I think it gave me such good training because I was so young on the show. This was completely new ground for me because I’ve never had that working experience before where I was able to create a family with the people I was around. It was also a very intense workload in such a short amount of time which was something I wasn’t used to. Home and Away definitely prepared me well enough to be able to go on and have this experience with Boys.

The film tackles the very topical issue of bullying. As young actors in the public eye and living in the digital age you must have found yourself on the receiving end of a bully or troll. How have you coped with this and what advice do you have for other young people who may have been bullied?

Toby: I went to a school way out in the suburbs of Melbourne, so people were a little bit myopic. It’s not narrow-mindedness or anything like that. All of the boys in Boys in the Trees were happy to continue living in the small town and getting on with their day to day lives except for Corey and my experience in real life was quite similar. I had my experiences of being bullied, and unfortunately being the bully I’m sure, even if I wasn’t aware of it. It’s definitely not a necessary part of growing up but I think it’s unavoidable. I think that no matter where you go in life there’s always going to be some bullying in some capacity as a human thing, especially in a high school where everyone is trying to find a group that they belong to or their identity.

Mitzi: In terms of advice though, I think that growing up and being a kid is challenging for anyone but as you get older there’s almost nothing cooler than being yourself and staying true to that.

Boys in the Trees is in Australian cinemas from October 20.

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