Brave, bold, passionate filmmakers thinking outside the box, turning a simple idea into one of the most interesting filmmaking concepts in recent memory. We don’t hear enough of these stories coming out of the Australian film industry.
Sarah Jayne and her partner, Ivan, are in post-production on their new film, Friends, Foes and Fireworks – a fully improvised comedy/drama set and shot entirely on New Year’s Eve. We recently caught up with Sarah to discuss the film.
“Ivan and I totally admire the work our actors did to prepare for these improv roles and and think highly of them as individuals and actors.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Tell us a bit about the history of the Nexus Production Group and how you and Ivan became became collaborators.
Ivan dabbled in film from about 2004 to 2006, being part of a series of slasher shorts with his friends Heath Novkovic and Patrick Siscar, culminating in helping Heath to make a no-budget feature called Shades of the Soul, which was basically a bunch of friends running around the bush with masks and camcorders. Ivan had a hand in the script and edited the film with Patrick adding graphics and animation. Both Ivan and Patrick were studying professional writing at Victoria University so the transition into making their own short films under the NPG label seemed natural – they would make three shorts together in 2007. Back then, NPG was called Nameless Production Group – the label self-referential and tongue-in-cheek – Nexus didn’t come about until around 2009 when the longer term vision for NPG began to take shape – a collective of creatives with diverse skills working together to produce film and digital media.
Myself, I’ve been working in indie film and local TV as an Art Department all-rounder since 2006. I joined NPG as their art director, set builder and all things art department after meeting Ivan at Tropfest in 2009, when a film we had both crewed on, One In A Million by Tom Vogel, made the finals. Ivan and I became good friends after Tropfest and I started to work on NPG’s short films including their first feature film in 2010. In 2013 I wrote and directed my first short film Dusk, which Ivan produced and from there my role evolved to NPG writer and director. I guess that was my initiation of sorts and I passed the test.
Now Ivan and I continue to run NPG together and personally, we have been a couple since 2012. Now a husband and wife duo we produce films together as NPG with Patrick still helping us out on graphics when we need it. We have since included Clara Pagone, who is a super hardworking and talented actor and producer, currently based in New York and working successfully in theatre. Clara joined us in Cannes for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival when two of NPG’s short films, Daughter and Zina (which she stars in) made the short film market.
Friends, Foes & Fireworks is an ambitious project. Where did the idea come from?
Ivan and I have never been into big parties and New Year’s Eve is always set up for people to have high expectations but it has been a disappointment for us the last few years so we decided to do what we love instead – make a film. The idea came about quiet simply because we are both filmmakers and directors as well as writers who spend a lot of time together. We always talk work and film so throwing screenplay ideas over the dinner table at one another or discussing ideas and plots while walking to the office happens regularly. This idea was one of those small convos started by Ivan and his idea to make a no-strings feature film, with no egos and a small budget all on one night.
From there we started talking about our experiences as directors and the people we have met and the actors we have directed, plus the things we hear when the cameras are not rolling – the gossip if you like or the chit chat amongst actors and film crew. As writers we are both interested in character development in film and how people behave and treat one another in everyday life, so the idea grew from there. We decided to write our characters as five female indie film actors (some character traits and moments in the film were based on people or situations we have encountered), and then we spent one night together frantically writing the character descriptions down to get the ideas out of our heads. Then a couple more days building on it and we were sure we were going to shoot a feature film, in one night, over NYE.
In terms of actors Ivan and I thought long and hard about who we wanted to work with on this special project. We established early on that it had to be actors we had worked with before, or who’s work we admired, who we trusted to commit and who had the talent as well as the professional manner and the drive to see it though. By see it through I mean, not just the one day shoot, but the whole character build up, which was time consuming and needed a lot of work due to the improvised nature. We wanted no egos on set and no complications or uncertainty in regards to what we were doing and what we needed to achieve and we were blessed to have Genya Mik, Asleen Mauthoor, Jess Riley, Lara Deam and Whitney Duff as our lead female actors and Dan Hill as our only male character. Each and every one of their efforts and the commitment they gave to this film in pre-production has benefited their performance and that shines through in the footage we captured.
Did you face any challenges trying to convince cast and crew to join the project?
It was not so much convincing that was the challenge, it was finding committed cast and crew which tested us. In regards to actors, the first three female actors we offered roles to said yes instantly. The last two we had to think about a little more as we needed the right fit for the roles of Sofia, the older friend and acting teacher to the women and Summer, the naïve theatre actor who has a crush on her friend. When we approached the actors we believed to be right for the last two roles, again there was no hesitation on their part, just excitement about the challenge. With the only male role, we did have an actor pull out earlier on due to feeling like the improvised nature of the film didn’t suit him, but Ivan and I put our heads together again and looked for a male actor with improvisation experience and managed to find a replacement, Dan Hill, who was instantly keen and great as Taron. We just had to re-write his character to suit the actor due to nationality and the same happened with the character of Sofia where she went from Greek to Italian.
Securing crew was a bit more of a challenge than we expected. We had our second camera pull out in pre-production as she didn’t feel she could shoot all night and capture decent footage. We debated finding a replacement but in the end decided that it was best that Ivan handled second camera as he knew the material we were shooting. This did mean he had to learn to use our DP’s second camera in a short amount of time. Luckily our DP, Stephen Ramplin was a patient teacher.
We also had a security guard booked just in case of rowdy crowds but he ended up in hospital with a blood clot, so we had to replace him with only two days to shoot. The last challenge was that we needed a second sound person with more experience than myself for the scenes after midnight and Hussein was booked in just after Christmas.
Having a go to crew is very important. Once again we were so privileged to have our main crew, Gerard Mack on sound through our toughest scenes, running 6 lapels plus a boom to give us the best sound possible and Stephen Ramplin on main camera for the whole shoot, who worked 14 hours with a camera on his back.
Did everything go to plan on the night?
Yes and no. We had an empty beach location which we were not expecting on New Years Eve. So at 10pm while cast and crew waited at our Middle Park beach location Ivan and Stephen took a drive further down towards St Kilda. It was pretty much quiet and dead all the way along the foreshore until you hit the bar and restaurant area but was too loud with music, so was the Catani beach area, so we stuck to the empty beach.
The other mishap of sorts was that the last two scenes are very important for giving the audience a final conclusion and both required a morning sunrise, which we didn’t get. Ivan was directing in the apartment and the view from the balcony was gloomy and at the same time I was shooting at Half Moon Bay and it was much the same but with some drizzle. That beach was also littered with rubbish, the tide was in and the area was infested with flies, which made a romantic scene very hard to shoot for our actors and DP. I had to fan the flies away from the camera with my clipboard while watching the actors.
That is always a problem in Melbourne, sunny one day, grey skies the next and shooting on location in general is always a risk and a thing you can’t plan for. Especially on a shoot like this where we can’t go back and shoot pickups or we loose the “shot all in one night” aspect of the film. However we were thrilled that we managed to cover seven locations between 5pm and 7am and ended up wrapping an hour ahead of schedule. We also did not get stopped by police despite shooting Guerilla style with a visible camera on Acland Street and we also got away with having alcohol on the beach (which is not brag worthy but required for the film), so we think we did well. In pre-production we definitely worried about things that didn’t happen, like police enforcement and planned for things that didn’t, like sunrises and rowdy crowds.
Can you share a funny anecdote with us from the shoot?
We arrived at the beach location in Middle Park at 10pm as planned and there was not a lot of activity. I guess the reason being it was so cold and windy that night. So when it came close to midnight we had no idea how many seconds it was until the fireworks. Our actors were all nervous as there is a key moment between the characters that happens right on the fireworks, which sets up the final scenes of the film. One of our female actors who had to hit her mark right on midnight with the fireworks was really worried she would miss her cue, so Ivan and I directed the group to count down a few times until we matched the moment to the fireworks. Lucky the fireworks stopped and started again so we got the moment twice. During pre-production we assumed that there would be a crowd of people counting us in and Ivan and I were were also concerned about sound for that scene due to all the people we were expecting. Yet the problem ended up being that the beach was deserted and we had no crowd helping us count down to midnight.
You’ve said there’s a lot of improvisation from cast and crew. How much of the film was actually scripted?
None. There was no script and no shot list. From the casting stage we started with character and scene breakdowns, which we gave the actors. On shoot day that is what our actors and also us as directors worked off, however it was broken down to dot points for each scene. No script at all, just an idea of where each scene needs to lead to and end up at and each actor knew what they needed to talk about.
To help out with the improv side of things it was the actors idea to go back in time and re-create Sofia’s birthday dinner, where a significant event occurred and the group also took part in an acting class that Sofia ran. These improved scenes from the past helped the actors find their characters motivations as well as draw upon a shared history while bringing up emotions that they had been through together. Story wise one of the characters,Taron is introduced to the group of women on the night, we deliberately keep the actor, Dan Hill out of all rehearsals with the women, even going as far as to have him get dressed and ready in a different location on shoot day. So the first time the women meet him is when cameras are rolling and he walks through the door.
On the day of shooting sometimes the actors added their own bits and lead the convo in a different order but not a lot was left out really when we were filming. If anything did get left out we had agreed on it or it was minor. With the crew, we just had to make sure when both cameras were on that they were not crashing into each other as we shot the scenes. In the apartment scene I had to pull the cameras one way or another to get the best action moments as scenes were happening simultaneously around the room.
Ivan and I totally admire the work our actors did to prepare for these improv roles and and think highly of them as individuals and actors. We very thankful to them all for what they gave to the production through the long process and their patience though the one on one meetings with us and the one on ones with the other actors. All this preparation helped Ivan and I as directors and at the same time helped the actors build strong characters so that there was no uncertainty of who their characters were on shoot day.
There seems to be a ‘mumblecore’ movement happening within the independent Australian film industry at the moment. In your own words can you explain what mumblecore is and why you’re drawn to this style of filmmaking?
Yes, it is defiantly starting to look that way in Australia. Ivan and I discovered Aussie Mumblcore not too long ago with a film called Pretty Good Friends by Sophie Townsend, which we screened at our film festival, Made In Melbourne Film Festival. Since then we looked into the genre more closely and discovered that it is a big thing overseas in the States so we watched some films from the genre which were part our inspiration for our own feature film. Mumblecore to me and Ivan means a film that is character driven and heavy in dialogue and conversation between characters, a slice of life or a moment in the characters lives is shown and the film is usually centred around a small group of young adults who have not many great things happening in their lives or a steady path. These films are also usually low budget and this shows in the shooting style and sound or locations and also uses improv in acting and shooting. Most Mumblecore’s centre around relationships and where one fits in the world.
So saying all that, we were drawn to make a Mumblecore film because we did just want to make a film about everyday people, we love character driven pieces so this was a chance for us to work with actors and build characters. We were able to keep the budget ultra low and stick to the plan, which was just follow our actors around with a couple of cameras and see what transpires. We also wanted to go back to why we got into film in the first place – for the love of it. Friends, Foes & Fireworks is a bit of a hybrid between a Mumblecore and a traditional drama because there are more twists and turns and subplots than a typical Mumblecore.
What’s the next stage for the film and when can audience expect to see it?
Ivan and I started looking at the footage the day after shooting and there was so much of it to go through and sort for the best takes. Ivan has already started to edit the film for a rough draft and that will take a while so there are still a few more steps to cover before we have a finished film we are completely happy with. Though we are trying to turn it around fairly quickly, 2 – 3 months is the plan.
We aim to submit the film to festivals and pick up VOD distribution, but in the meantime we invite our audience to check out the website where we will be adding the films stills and behind the scenes videos – http://www.friendsfoesfireworks.com