Making Occupation: Filmmaker Robin Summons writes about his gripping new short

Cinema Australia Original Content

Robin Summons on the set of Occupation

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Cinema Australia is proud to stream Robin Summons’ Occupation – a new short film about a therapist who is unable to leave her workplace where she helps abusive men.

Here, Summons writes exclusively for Cinema Australia about the making of his gripping, thought-provoking film.

Article by Robin Summons

Independent films commonly stem from a filmmaker’s concerns and obsessions. They can also be dictated by the filmmakers most recent output. The filmmaker may want to explore something completely different, ashamed of their last film or simply bored with a subject and approach. They might want to hone in further on a theme, kind of character, world, or technique. Occupation was very much a reaction to the last film I’d made.

Having most recently made a short film in the neorealist mode (Skewwhiff) I was keen to challenge myself as a filmmaker and also test what approach to storytelling suits me best. I equally love filmmakers with a recognisable style such as Andrea Arnold and Yorgos Lanthimos as I do filmmakers like Lynne Ramsay and Rolf De Heer who continue to surprise us as they traverse different genres and styles of filmmaking. As an emerging filmmaker, a great fear of mine is committing to a kind of filmmaking too early without having sufficiently experimented. Being boxed in by the success of one particular film without having tried other ways of filmmaking. So when this surreal image of a woman being screamed out by a group of men came to me apparently out of nowhere, I knew this was the film I had to make.

Tanya Schneider in a scene from Occupation

Around that time, podcasts and articles had been informing me of this incredibly prevalent but largely ignored social problem in Australia, of which we’re all aware to some degree, domestic abuse. Like many others, I didn’t comprehend the magnitude and scale of the dark underbelly of Australia we too easily accept. The more I researched, the more I recognised aspects of coercive control in the lives of people around me. So the image clearly didn’t come out of thin air. Yet it was a strange, cinematic image, not a statistic, and thus felt right for a film. I started to explore if further. Who was this woman? Was she helping these men? Why was she helping these men? I arrived at my own conclusions based off further reading, but perhaps because of a desire to do something different, approached these conclusions with a surreal sense of storytelling in mind. For better or worse, that’s how the script for Occupation came about.

The script flowed out of me fast and by the time it had been fine tuned through drafts and feedback from experts, the technique of shooting it seemed baked in. I knew shooting a circular shot to open and close the film would lend the film the symbolism it needed. I also knew with only one actor for most scenes we would be rather uninhibited in terms of how we wanted to frame things. We wouldn’t need to adjust our frames to suit the needs of multiple actors feeling out a scene, instead we had the pleasure of working alone with our lead actress Tanya Schneider for most of the film. So early on, I could really see this film.

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As a result, we began searching for a location early in the process. With all my shorts so far I’ve ensured the film can be shot entirely in one location. It’s my production background relentlessly reminding me to be sensible. But it’s not just a money thing, it’s a time thing. With usually only a couple of days to make a short, I don’t want to lose minutes we could be shooting to traffic. What’s more, a single location usually lends itself to a consistent look for the entire film, handy for a director without much cash. After scouring Melbourne’s RSLs and YMCAs we finally found a Polish Town Hall in Ardeer. It was a great location, with a challenge or two I’ll get to.

But I haven’t discussed the most important bit, casting. My producer Alex Gillespie had hooked me up with a casting director. This was my first time having a casting department, a great privilege. Peta Dermatis helped us find all our circle men, except one, who crashed the audition. We squeezed him in and he gave us an incredibly raw audition – a welcomed surprise. Tanya Schneider instantly wowed us with how emotionally accessible she was, but also the way she lent the role an almost corporate professionalism, something I think adds to the tone of the film and the ideas behind it immensely.

Occupation

So fast forward a couple of steps and now we had to shoot the thing. Only problem was my DOP Alice Stephens and I had come up with a very tricky circular tracking shot. I didn’t want to kill the performances with too much mucking around and somehow they worked almost immediately in unison on the day, without only a little rehearsal. But there is no way we could have got those circular shots without the help of some really experienced grips and gaffer to rig up the shot and light it. Having fetched these technicians many a coffee on set whilst working in production, these guys did us a huge solid and made our shot possible. The film would not have been possible without the incredible support of so many technicians of various levels of experience. I don’t think it’s advertised enough how integral every crew member is on a short, and the incredible generosity of so many crew out there, from those making the toasties to those lending us their dollies.

Oh yeah, the challenges. Just prior to shooting, our location told us we no longer could use the hall for one of our shoot days. Having already worked very hard to crew the film across the two days, entirely photo boarded and shot planned on location, we were in a pickle. We were contending with a massive celebration that had gotten lost in the community hall’s paper diary that I assume has been in use since the 60s. We were always going to lose – personal things seem to consistently trump filmmaking and fair enough too. So we convinced the location to allow us to shoot for the first half of the day before the celebration begun, squeezing a packed two day scheduled shoot into a day and a half. Our hardy art department took it on, and we got it done. Tanya pulled off a really tough scene, the last on our schedule, as 1000s of feet started to rattle above us upstairs as people entered the hall. I’m starting to realise this stuff is very common with low budget filmmaking. On every short, except the most recent one which is currently in post production (Victim), I’ve had my single location pull out on me within a week or two before shooting. Keeps us on our toes.

So was it worth trying to make a film that was completely different to my last film? Yes. I don’t think I’ll continue to make surreal films like Occupation. But that’s very useful to know. At least until after the next one.

Check out Occupation below. You can find out more about Robin Summons here.

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