A young girl has been raped and murdered in a small Sydney suburb. Her body lies by a river and no one seems to care, especially not the nihilistic adolescents who occupy the community.
Husband and wife filmmaking duo Elizabeta and Jack Moxey discuss their new film, Bugs – a gritty observational drama that feels frighteningly real.
“We just loved what we were doing. This film was our life.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves. Who are Elizabeta Moxey and Jack Moxey?
Elizabeta: I studied film production at SAE Institute in Melbourne where I got my degree. Before I actually finished my degree I was contacted by Jack with the script for Bugs. Basically I hadn’t done anything outside of film school up until that point. I had volunteered on a few local independent productions. I was really keen to get into producing and I knew that that was the direction I wanted to go. I placed a paid advertisement for myself on Gumtree which is where Jack found me. [Laughs]. Jack got in touch and we started working on Bugs from there.
Jack: I hadn’t done anything. I started off writing scripts in about 2013 and I had written a couple of scripts which didn’t go anywhere. I decided then that I should really just start making them myself. I wrote the script for Bugs around 2014, so Bugs really is my first thing.
So Bugs really did bring you two together.
Jack: Bugs brought us together. [Laughs].
Elizabeta: Jack came from Sydney to Melbourne for a couple of months while we were in pre-production. He realised that because the film was based on an area he had grown up in in Sydney that the story didn’t match where we were in Melbourne so we ended up moving the entire production to Sydney. By that point we had fallen in love and a few months later we actually got married.
I love that story!
Jack: It’s a good one.
You two had never made a film before and here you are delivering an incredibly raw and unique Australian cinema experience. Are you driven to make different and unique films, against the grain?
Jack: I’m just inspired by my environment and Bugs is based on my time growing up in suburban Sydney. I think I’m just drawn to characters more than anything. To me it’s not about making different and interesting films, it’s about making films about whatever’s happening in my environment. We’re certainly interested in continuing to make independent films.
Elizabeta: We’re also very interested in making films that we would want to watch.
Do you get the chance to watch many independent Australian films?
Elizabeta: We try but recently we haven’t been inspired by anything coming out of the Australian film industry.
Jack: Certainly the commercial films.
Elizabeta: There are very few opportunities for funding independent films in Australia. You just don’t see a lot of it.
Jack: One of my favourite Australian films is The Boys. I just think that’s a great film. Chopper is one of my favourites too, even though that’s a bit more commercial.
Usually first time feature filmmakers have a string of short films behind them. Is this your first time behind the camera in your respective roles?
Jack: A few years ago I made a little short film where I did basically everything as a one-man crew. It was a shitty little short but that was about all I had done. In terms of filmmaking of this scale, working with a producer and a cinematographer, this is my first.
Elizabeta: At film school I worked on a few small projects and your typical film school stuff. I did a web series, but I focused mainly on the producing and casting aspect of filmmaking while I was there. I hadn’t done anything on this scale. I think we had about 150 people involved on this film including cast and crew and support crew. I was producing it by myself with a first AD and a production assistant. Apart from that, it was just me micromanaging 150 people. [Laughs]. It was overwhelming at times, but a very rewarding experience.
I took notice of the credits at the end of the film and I was surprised to see how many roles you took on including casting.
Elizabeta: Casting is a huge interest of mine so I really wanted to be involved in that aspect of the film because of my acting background. I always thought I was going to be an actress until I turned about 17 and I had to start thinking about what I was going to do at Uni. I wanted to do something that was related to acting which had more potential to get work. [Laughs].
You did a fantastic job as an actor in Bugs.
Elizabeta: [Laughs]. Thank you.
Tell me, do young women really shave their legs in the car?
Elizabeta: [Laughs]. Yes, I have definitely done that before. There’s nothing contrived in this film at all. It’s all based on stuff that really happens.
The cast is made up of many young people who have never acted before. Can you tell us about your casting process?
Elizabeta: We tried to do street casting initially by putting up a bunch of posters. We found that a little bit difficult because people were a little scared of the whole thing.
Jack: Especially with us being first time filmmakers without other projects to back us up.
Elizabeta: Yeah. No one was able to refer to a website to make sure we were legit. That was a little difficult. StarNow was our main casting source in the end because we knew that we wanted actors who weren’t super experienced or ‘actor’ actors. We wanted to cast real people who were as similar as their characters as possible so their roles didn’t become too forced.
Jack: When we were casting we didn’t get anyone to read the script. We got them to recite a poem so we could get an idea of what their personality was like based on the poem they chose and how they delivered it. They didn’t have any idea about character which gave us a better idea of who that actor should play.
They all do a great job. It must have been a relief for you as a director considering you were working with mostly amateurs.
Jack: Definitely. Especially considering I had never worked with that many people before.
Elizabeta: It’s much less intimidating to work with real people rather than super professionals. Michael Watson, who played Nelson, is actually a good friend of ours and the way that he was cast is really funny. He’s got a great personality and he tells really great stories with funny mannerisms and expressions. One day I was watching him doing band practice and I was watching his physicality as he was moving around and I said to myself that there’s no one else in this world who suits the role of Nelson better than Michael. [Laughs]. I asked him if he was interested and he jumped at the opportunity.
Jack: He’d never acted before and never had any interest in acting before or doing anything like that and he ended up being one of the better actors in the film. It was great to be able to spend that time doing that stuff.
Is this an accurate depiction of today’s teenagers? Do you know a lot of teenagers like the ones portrayed in Bugs?
Jack: The thing about teenagers is that they sort of remain the same. Technology and things like that change but attitudes don’t. I was a teenager in the early 2000’s and the wardrobe guy actually said to me that the teenagers in Bugs are just like they were in the early 2000’s expect they have phones. [Laughs]. I had never thought of it like that, but having written the script based on my own experiences I realised he was right. Teenagers will always be the same and that kind of stuff goes on.
Elizabeta: We’ve had people from different generations watch it. My dad said to me that kids were like this in his day. It’s a universal feeling of apathy and excitement about the most basic things in life and things that are just relatable.
Tell us about the story of the dead girl. Was it based on anything in particular?
Jack: It’s based on stuff I had heard growing up. A very vague story, almost like Chinese whispers. A lot of the stuff in the film either happened or I had heard of happening and I thought the story of the dead girl was a good way to tie everything together. The film needed a hub and something in the middle to tie it together so it wasn’t so jumbled.
There’s a scene in the film where Kitson, played by John Burke, shows the other characters the girl’s dead body. Can you tell us about John, because his character felt way to real.
Jack: John is a very interesting guy. We found him on StarNow and we thought he was definitely the character we were looking for and he did not disappoint.
Elizabeta: He told us during the casting process that Kitson is basically the kid that he used to be. When he was younger he was running around with the wrong crew.
Jack: He had a lot of experience in that character’s lifestyle. I think the two of them, the character and the actor, are both very similar.
A frighteningly believable performance.
Jack: I’m sure he would love to hear that.
Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine recently said that you could never get away with making a film like Kids today and here’s you two proving him very wrong. Was Harmony’s work an inspiration for Bugs?
Jack: In the later stages. But I had written the script without ever having seen Gummo, or anything like that.
Elizabeta: It was certainly unintentional were certain things were similar. In the early stages of the script there was a scene where the kids were riding their bikes somewhere. I said to Jack that I thought the scene reminded me of a scene from Gummo and Jack didn’t know what I was talking about because he had never seen Gummo.
I guess anyone who makes a film about youth going forward will forever be compared to Kids because of the impact that that film had.
Jack: Kids is a great film. I don’t think anyone should shy away from being inspired by anything.
I loved the split screens in Bugs. They’re used perfectly, without ever becoming tedious or annoying.
Jack: I’m glad you liked it. That all came about in the edit of the film. We shot the film over 13 days over three weekends and we didn’t have a lot of time to get heaps of coverage so that’s how the split screens came about. I edited the film under a pseudonym. I also did the sketches at the beginning of the film too.
Well you two are just the complete package.
Elizabeta: [Laughs]. We just love it. We just loved what we were doing. This film was our life, and it still is considering we’re now going thought the film festival process. We haven’t lost our momentum yet.
Bugs is screening at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival from Saturday, 7 July. Details here.