Jasper Jones author Craig Silvey and the film’s director Rachel Perkins were in Perth recently to launch a series of Q&A screenings around the country. Cinema Australia’s Matthew Eeles caught up with the pair to speak all things Jasper Jones.
“The kids were all different in their own right, but in terms of how they brought these characters to life I couldn’t be happier. They exceeded my high expectations by far.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Death, racism, infidelity, molestation, suicide, alcoholism, manslaughter, grief and penis fingers. What a pleasant film you two have released four weeks out from school holidays.
Rachel: You forgot love and friendship. [Laughs].
Thankfully there’s a hell of a lot more to the story than the parts I mentioned. Can you tell our readers a bit about Jasper Jones.
Craig: Principally Jasper Jones is about Charlie Bucktin, our story’s hero. He’s 13 years old. He’s sensitive, he’s sincere, he’s bookish. Late one night he is visited by Jasper Jones, the town’s most misunderstood character. He’s indigenous and a bit of a troublemaker and the story is about their friendship. During the night Jasper asks Charlie to go into a glade and it’s here he shows Charlie something really confronting and he asks Charlie for his help because he feels Charlie is the only kid in town he can really trust. From there we unlock a story that is a murder mystery, a coming of age story, it has elements of romance, it’s about the mechanics of a country town in the backdrop of the Vietnam War during the Civil Rights era and it’s also about a failing parental relationship. There’s a lot going on but principally it’s a coming-of-age story.
Rachel, when did you first discover the story of Jasper Jones? Was it the book, theatre or script?
Rachel: It was in book form years ago. Someone had recommended it to me and I remember thinking, “What would they know?” I remember them telling me it would make a really good film and I stupidly brushed them off. It was on my bedside table where I left it for quite a while before I picked it up and gave it a shot. I couldn’t put it down. Then I approached the publisher who told me the rights had been taken by someone else. I went through a stage of self loathing and hate. A friend of mine, David Jowsey, told me that he was the one who had the rights and that’s when I knew it was time to pursue it again. Not that I lost it in the first place, because it was never mine, but it made me appreciate it even more and to really pursue this thing because I was so tardy initially.
Was it easy enough to source financial backing for the film?
Rachel: It’s hard to write a great script. There are a lot of very enthusiastic people out there, I’m one myself, but a great script and a great story is very hard to find which is why I pursued this one so strongly. If you haven’t got a great story and a great script then it’s never going to be a great film. I’m very keen to meet great scriptwriters.
It wasn’t hard to finance it, but I didn’t have to do much of the work. I know the producers worked very hard. It’s hard to go beyond a certain level in Australian film and for people to go any higher you really need to bring in a studio to back you. We didn’t have to do that which was good.
The quick answer is that it wasn’t hard to finance, it was just a little difficult to get that extra half million we needed at the end. I know filmmakers find it difficult to get their film financed, but having a great script is going to get you a very long way. Especially because there are more directors around then there are great scripts.
Livi Miller, Aaron McGrath, Kevin Long and Angourie Rice are all very talented actors. Tell us a bit about working with this incredible young cast.
Craig: They embody these characters and then some. I was constantly pleasantly surprised by some of the choices our kids would make. Levi and Angourie were both complete professionals. To be honest with you, I learnt from them. They know their stuff and they know their processes. They were hungry to learn. I was available for the rehearsal period so we all got to know each other really well and we all found it a terrific practice to understand these characters and talk about them all which I found to be quite fulfilling.
Aaron is a terrific young man and he’s a beautifully understated actor. He can express so much with a simple gesture which served our film really well.
Then there’s Kevin who was the hardest piece of casting to be honest. He was hiding in a Kung Fu studio in Western Sydney. We had to cast the net fairly wide to find Jeffrey Lu but as soon as Kevin burst into contention there was no question in my mind that he was Jeffrey. In fact we would often just call him Jeffrey. [Laughs].
The kids were all different in their own right, but in terms of how they brought these characters to life I couldn’t be happier. They exceeded my high expectations by far.
Their character’s transition into adulthood is quite a heavy one and they go through more than most of us would in a lifetime. Looking back, can either of you remember that moment in your lives when you realised that life isn’t all marbles and unicorns?
Rachel: That’s a great question and one which is a bit revelatory. I might come back to you.
Craig: Since this film is about coming-of-age to the extent where it is the moment where the truth of things kind of penetrates that protective bubble that kids live with. This is what happens to Charlie when Jasper intersects his life and drags him out of childhood and leads him to this very adult place.
I remember a moment in my life which is considerably less dramatic as a kid. We used to have these Golden Books of Magic and I remember working all afternoon on this magic trick which was supposed to make a coin disappear. It was a little piece of paper and you would fold it a certain way and slip a coin in between one of the folds. You were supposed to call Abracadabra and the coin would disappear, but for the life of me I couldn’t get it to disappear. It was deeply frustrating to me. Quite vividly I remember showing my father and I was complaining that I couldn’t work out how to make this coin disappear. He showed me how the trick worked and told me it was an illusion. While people were distracted you would flip the paper over and show them the fold which didn’t contain the coin. I told him the coin was still there and I could physically see it. I asked him, “What’s going on?”
He said to me, “Of course it’s still there. It’s just a trick. There’s no such thing as magic.”
Rachel: Poor boy.
Craig: [Laughs]. That’s when the cold realities of physics kicked in.
Rachel: Magic isn’t real. [Laughs].
Craig: [Laughs]. There’s no such thing as magic. It was quite deflating but it was quite an important moment. From that moment forward I was a bitter and cynical little arsehole really. [Laughs]. I had to question everything.
Rachel: I have nothing as good as that so I can’t answer. [Laughs]. I can’t identify it to one moment. Maybe I’ll steal Craig’s answer next time someone asks. [Laughs].
Hugo Weaving gives an incredible performance as Mad Jack. When you watch an artist perform like this do you find yourself switching off as a director for a moment and becoming a spectator of sorts and just enjoying the moment?
Rachel: Yes. That scene was done in one take and then we jumped back and did a wide shot. It was so well crafted and beautifully delivered. I did get swept up in it but not to the point where I stopped realising where we were and what we were doing, like what happens to you when you’re watching a movie. I felt like there was absolutely nothing more to ad and once I was happy with it I had to make sure Hugo was happy with it. He was which made me feel a little redundant. [Laughs]. I had nothing else to say other than, “That was great!” It was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve witnessed.
Craig: I was particularly nervous about that scene because it was very static. It’s quite a confession and we’re very still on this character and he needed to sweep us up and involve us in that story in a way that was utterly compelling. We were a little concerned because it comes after a period of some action and intensity and it’s a very long scene.
Rachel: We were worried, because it’s almost a monologue.
Craig: It felt a bit risky but it worked.
Rachel: It worked and the great thing was that it was achieved through a great performance. As Craig said, the camera is just locked off and nothing is happening apart from the actor doing his thing. And look, I’d like to say the direction is good but the camera was locked off. [Laughs]. What I would like to say in my defence is that Hugo was made to feel very comfortable and I created a situation for him to do his best work.
You could almost call Pemberton an uncredited cast member of the film. It had its prosthetics applied, it looked beautiful and it showed up to set on time each day. What was it about Pemberton that made you decide to shoot there?
Rachel: We drew a circle around Perth because at first we thought we’d have to shoot it around Perth economically. As soon as you leave town you have to accommodate everyone and transport them and we didn’t have a lot of money for that. Fremantle of course has a lot of period stuff but it looks like a city and not a town. We started looking north and south of Perth and our First Assistant Director lives down at Margaret River and he knows the area very well. He suggested we head down south and take a look at some of the mill towns. I remember walking up the street in Pemberton and it was a really misty morning. When the mist cleared I remember seeing the house we use as the Mayor’s house and that house really stood out from the rest of the architecture. It was also right in the middle of that beautiful forest and I didn’t realise the South West had that beautiful forest. I was convinced that this could be the fabulous backdrop for our film.
As is often the case for Aussie films, when you have no money the backdrop is everything. A. the script. B. the casting. C. the locations. So what Pemberton offered us in terms of the forest is really distinctive.
Craig, give us your first impressions of the film industry?
Craig: Another great question.
Rachel: Do you want me to leave the room. [Laughs].
Craig: I found it to be incredibly supportive. I think everyone is in it for the right reasons. In terms of our crew, having the ability to be down there on set and to have the opportunity to work with all of these people gave me so much admiration for the expertise of these people from the top all the way down the chain of the production. The spirit that everyone brought to this project was inspiring and there was no way that I couldn’t feel grateful or moved by that. Within our on-set family and beyond that to the people I now have the opportunity to liaise with and have conversations with I found to be heartwarmingly supportive. It’s a great environment to work in.
I heard that you were quite hands on actually and I must say, I’m a little disappointed there were no banana muffins here when I arrived.
Rachel: [Laughs]. I told them you baked me banana muffins.
Craig: [Laughs]. I don’t think you want my banana muffins this morning. Any other day I’d be happy to offer you any manner of baked goods but today they would be a complete mess. I did look after Mrs. Perkins though.
Rachel: You did indeed. He would chop me firewood. He was also my official driver and pasta maker. [Laughs].
Rachel, because you’re the only one here directly involved in the Australian film industry I want to ask you what kind of shape it’s in at the moment?
Rachel: I am a glass half full person and I think that we have a very well subsidised industry compared to the UK and we’re probably on par with Canada and more investment goes into our industry than it does in New Zealand. The quality of our free-to-air television and drama is much better than New Zealand. We’re working towards parity and diversity, although we haven’t quite got there yet. I think our government believes that Australian stories are important and they invest in them and so do Australians. When Australians really get behind someone they’re really proud of the cinema that represents them if it does a good job.
I’ve made two films in WA now and the crews here are bloody great and ScreenWest is putting more money into film than any other state agency and that’s why everyone is coming over to the West to make their productions.
I think there are a lot of people who complain and I think that’s just our industry. Maybe I’ve done well so I just think it’s good. [Laughs]. I’ve managed to have a 25 year career and it’s been a great privilege so I have nothing to complain about. Maybe I’m privileged but I think we have a great industry.
I’ve got one last question and it’s a serious one. What would you prefer, a hat made of spiders or penis fingers?
Rachel: [Laughs]. I’m happy to go on the record with penis fingers because I hate spiders. A spider on me is just my worst fear.
Craig: Not for the first time our opinion differs in this regard. [Laughs].
Rachel: [Laughs]. Do you like penises or something?
Craig: I just don’t need eleven. There are simply too many hurdles to having genitals attached to your hands. In terms of a relationship between man and spider, I think initially there will be some tension but inevitably there will be a moment of harmonious accommodation.
Jasper Jones is in cinemas from March 2. You can find all the Q&A screening details here.