Interview: Alena Lodkina

Alena Lodkina on the set of Strange Colours.

“It’s been wonderful. It’s kind of surprising because the film is my baby,” Strange Colours director Alena Lodkina tells Cinema Australia of the audience reactions to her film so far.

From the Gold Coast to Perth, Strange Colours has screened at every major Australian film festival this year with a run scheduled for the upcoming Melbourne International Film Festival and potentially CinefestOZ in Busselton.

“It’s really moving when people are interested, engaged and generous with their comments after they’ve seen the film. It’s been interesting to see how the film affects people in different ways,” Lodkina told Cinema Australia.

“It’s not for everyone, but there seems to be a particular type of individual who seem to be really moved by it. I’m pleased with that. I think it’s the kind of film which draws strong reactions from particular people.”

We caught up with Alena Lodkina to discuss the surreal and unique Strange Colours, easily one of the best Australian films of the year.

“Creating a surprising cinematic experience is my deepest desire. To surprise and shake things up for the viewer is a great honour.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

When did you first become interested in film and filmmaking?
It’s always been a part of my life, ever since I was a child. I was always involved in theatre and I always wanted to direct plays. My family moved here from Russia when I was 13. Even back in Russia I was trying to get involved in theatre and all that kind of stuff. I started watching films with my parents from a very early age. Eventually I decided to study Communications at the University of Technology. That was my first opportunity to start making little experimental films. I made video clips for my friends who were in bands and filming all kinds of things around Sydney. They were all D.I.Y. experimental films.
I came to Melbourne after university and I got involved with the indie film scene here. I started making more refined shorts as I found more collaborators to work with.

It’s funny that you say ‘the indie film scene’ in Melbourne. Is there any other type of scene in Melbourne other than indie?
[Laughs]. You’re right! [Laughs]. It’s the only one. I kind of hesitated when I said that because we don’t really have much of a scene here.

Jokes aside, there’s some terrific films coming out of Melbourne.
There really is.

So you moved from Russia to Australia when you were 13. Were you keen then to familiarise yourself with Australian screen culture?
At university some of my friends took classes in Australian cinema. They told me about films like Wrong Side of the Road by Ned Lander, which is one of my favourite Australian films. We went to see a restored copy of Wake In Fright at the movies in Sydney. That was kind of my first introduction to Australian cinema. I had seen some of the bigger films like Picnic at Hanging Rock earlier in my life. My first experience of the Outback was through films. I had never been so far into the Outback until I had been to Lightning Ridge.

Was what you had seen on screen a fair representation of what you finally got to experience when you travelled to the Outback?
It was and it wasn’t. I guess a lot of films capture the landscape brilliantly. Films like Walkabout and Wake in Fright and even Mad Max give you a real accurate sense of landscape, even though I think there’s way more to be explored in cinema. I hope filmmakers continue invading the landscapes. There’s definitely a lot of Australian films set in the outback that are in the thriller and horror genres. There’s a lot of mystery and death and I think they are very much present in a lot of rural communities, but in my experience I saw a lot of people who are very proud of their little place, especially Lightning Ridge. I saw a lot of stuff I had never seen anywhere else, especially not on screen. Just the generosity and humour and the openness of people really struck me. People out there are so open, and open with their emotions. You expect these blokey, rough men who aren’t able to relate to anyone. I found completely different people to that.

Justin Courtin and Kate Cheel in Strange Colours.

What took you to Lightning Ridge?
My parents had done a road trip through New South Wales a number of years ago and they told me about it. The place really stuck with me. All these stories of opal fever and all these people from different backgrounds ending up in this place hoping to find their luck with opals. One day I took a bus out there to check it out and I was struck by how cinematic and strange and interesting it was, so I kept coming back.

You returned to make your documentary Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals. What was the reaction like from the people you were filming?
They were very supportive actually. A lot of the time they were very nonchalant and they didn’t really care that I was filming so much. Sometimes I would really worry that people would get annoyed about having a camera in their faces, but they just really didn’t care that much. When I showed them the film they were just very proud. And they were proud that it screened at a lot of festivals and that it won an award at Antenna Documentary Film Festival. They were really proud and they felt I did the community justice. Some people there had had bad experiences with TV shows coming in making opal miners look really incompetent. My documentary wasn’t issues-based. It was a completely observational character study. It was about people.

Tell us about these blokes. And I say blokes because there seems to be an incredible lack of women in both the documentary and the film.
[Laughs]. Well, I exaggerated things a little bit for the purpose of effect. I wanted to create tension with a fish-out-of-water story and drawing out that masculine characterisation of the place. It’s definitely fictionalised and it’s seen through my eyes, but I was struck by how it is mostly men. There are a lot of incredible women doing incredible things, especially women miners and women who live alone in the outback. I just happened to fall in with this group of blokes and they were the kind of people I was hanging out with. When I tried to approach women I found they were a little more private and the men just didn’t seem to care about anything. There’s all kinds of people out there but I wanted to be faithful to my personal experience out there.

That’s interesting. I was convinced there were no women in this town.
You would get that impression if you walked into the pub or whatever. It is pretty blokey. There are a lot of single men. I was particularly interested in the men who had lost their relationships with women. It is a recurring story. Often people move there because a relationship fell apart and they are there to get away or to escape something, or they’re recovering. Or they have moved there and the women don’t like it there so they move away. It’s not really a place where women would naturally find particularly attractive.  

Daniel P Jones in Strange Colours.

Strange Colours gives a narrative to your documentary. Was the story for Strange Colours based on anything in particular?
Yes, it was inspired by the kinds of stories that I kept hearing when I was interviewing people. They would tell stories about not seeing their families for a long time, or they would tell stories about other people who were on their own but they actually owned million dollar properties on the coast. There were all kinds of stories of estranged lives and characters. I thought that would be the perfect entry point into the community from this outsider who has a strong connection to the community without being a part of it directly.

She’s us. She’s the viewer essentially.
That’s right. She is.

You’ve made Strange Colours with a handful of people you collaborated with on your first short film There is no Such Thing as a Jellyfish including producer Kate Laurie and production designer Leah Popple. Was it a priority for you to work with these creatives again on Strange Colours?
Yes, absolutely. It was such a pleasure to be able to bring these extremely talented people onboard. There was so much trust on set. We didn’t have a lot of time on this project because we were on a deadline set out by the funding body who had set out a particular timeline. We had to shoot right away and we had to deliver the cut very quickly. The other collaborator was Luca Cappelli who edited this and Jellyfish. Having that trust and experience and knowing each other was really vital to getting this project made in time.

Justin Courtin in Strange Colours.

I’m in absolute awe of the performances you’ve drawn out of the actual actors in the film. They left me completely spellbound. What’s your process with your actors as a director?
The film is a combination of trained actors and other actors. Kate Cheel is a classically trained actor and Daniel Jones comes with a lot of experience having spent a lot of time of feature film sets. The rest of the cast are people mainly from the community playing themselves. Justin Courtin, who plays Frank, is not a professional actor but he was someone who really wanted to give it a go, so he auditioned for the part.

Was Justin a local?
He’s from Melbourne. He was someone who we brought in with ourselves. Everyone I worked with had completely different ideas about filming a scene and rehearsing. As a director the process was a very organic trial and error process of figuring out how to work best with each of the cast to draw out their best performance, to make them the most comfortable and relaxed. With some people, like Kate and Daniel, I spent a bit more time in rehearsal. All that time was put into figuring out what the beats of each scene were that we had to hit. We would play around with them and film different rehearsals and feed that back into the script. In a way the script was morphing based on that process. With some of the guys from Lightning Ridge, they were best if I could just chuck them in front of a camera and let them do their thing. It was all very experimental.

Were you ok with these guys drinking so much during the shoot?
It was challenging. [Laughs]. In the end all that mattered to me was that they gave me their best performance, even if it meant having a few beers and a few joints. It was a challenge because we didn’t have the typical disciplines of a film set.

Kate Cheel in Strange Colours.

Has this first feature filmmaking experience shaped the way you want to make films going forward?
I would love more freedom in terms of time and money, who wouldn’t want that? At the same time I have no ambition to work on a big budget film at the moment. What I love about the filmmaking process is the connections you build with people and the sense of intimacy and exploration on set. I wouldn’t want to compromise that. I also love working with people who aren’t professional actors. For me it’s about who’s right for the part, and that could be anyone really. There are no clear parameters, you just have to work with your gut to bring that story to life.

This process is exciting as a viewer. It was refreshing going into this film not knowing any of the actors and being taken into this completely unfamiliar world.
Creating a surprising cinematic experience is my deepest desire. To surprise and shake things up for the viewer is a great honour.

Strange Colours is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival from August 15. Details here.

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