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Joshua Conn is the pure embodiment of an independent filmmaker.
He’s a true all-rounder who wrote, produced, directed and edited his debut feature film Crow Valley – a bloody revenge thriller which he also stars in the film alongside an impressive Nicole Freeman who also co-produced the film.
The weight of so much responsibility comes through in Josh’s exhaustive performance as Benny as he’s brutally beaten and tortured by Freeman’s Greta whose lies and sanity start to unravel as he finds himself in a desperate fight for survival.
We caught up with Conn ahead of Crow Valley’s world premiere at Monster Fest in December to discuss the new film.
“Taking on so many jobs was really more out of desperation and a lack of money than anything else. Rebel Without a Crew director Robert Rodriguez set the template for this type of approach – just make it, anyway you can! It worked for us… just.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
What’s your filmmaking background? How did you become interested in filmmaking in general?
I’ve always loved movies ever since I was a kid. I grew up in quite a remote country town so making movies was something that never really seemed within the realm of possibility. As an adult I worked as a journalist for a long time and a friend had just completed a movie script. It was like a lightning bolt – there was nothing stopping me from writing a movie! I read a bunch of books on scriptwriting and sat down at the computer to create my masterpiece. I soon realised It was much harder than I thought. I eventually finished that script and was lucky enough to have it picked up by The Gibson Group in New Zealand. I worked with the owner of the company, Dave Gibson in developing the script. Unfortunately Dave left to become CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission and the project fell apart. But by that time I was off and running.
Crow Valley marks your debut as a feature film director. Most filmmakers start out making short films before taking the leap into feature films. Had you made anything prior to Crow Valley that you haven’t credited yourself for publicly?
I think this comes down to me being really lazy about IMDb! After my time with the Gibson Group I threw myself into filmmaking. We made six short films in total before tackling Crow Valley. They were of extremely varying quality. Of those six I’m probably most fond of the first film we made, which was effectively a black and white silent comedy called Lenny. It was really well received and played at the Peninsula Film Festival a few years ago. It starred a friend of mine, Michael Auciello who is an amazing actor. But he won’t act because, as he once told me, “I don’t like it, I don’t want to do it, and I don’t like”. That’s a direct quote. [Laughs].. You’ll be able to find another film we made on YouTube called Hypnotised. It features an early acting effort by me and hints at the tone of Crow Valley.
As well as writing, directing, editing and co-producing Crow Valley, you also star as the main character, Benny. What was it like to balance so many duties?
Taking on so many jobs was really more out of desperation and a lack of money than anything else. Rebel Without a Crew director Robert Rodriguez set the template for this type of approach – just make it, anyway you can! It worked for us… just. But I really need to say here that even though I have quite a few credits, this movie was very much a team effort. Our DP Adrian Olsson was a huge part of the movie and really helped lift the final product. Adrian is an architect by trade but is also a hugely talented photographer and brought a real eye for detail to the project. Nicole Freeman, our lead actress, is also very talented and we spent a lot of time discussing ideas and ways to approach the various scenes. On set it was an extremely collaborative process.
Benny is a cyclist. Are you a cyclist yourself, or someone who enjoys the outdoors on an athletic level?
I’m a very keen surfer so perhaps writing about adventure sport tapped into that on some level. From a story point of view I was hoping the expansive nature of mountain biking would contrast nicely and hopefully intensify the claustrophobia of being stuck in a cramped cabin. Big, open spaces versus tiny, locked down spaces. They’re both scary in their own way.
Rob Reiner’s Misery was obviously a huge influence for you while writing Crow Valley. Can you tell us about that, and the other films that influenced the making of Crow Valley.
Misery was a reference point and also John Carpenter’s The Thing, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and Halloween. They’re all hugely suspenseful and have been massively influential to so many filmmakers over the years. When it comes to horror I definitely lean more towards atmosphere rather than gore (although The Thing does pretty well on that front). I know it’s fake blood but it still freaks me out. From a broader movie perspective, I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m constantly astonished by the performances he gets and the onscreen intensity. There Will Be Blood is one of my favourite movies of all time but generally I have pretty diverse tastes. Comedy, drama, action, romance – you name it, I’ll watch it. I’m always looking for gold.
As well as being an intense thriller, you’ve also added a supernatural component to Greta’s instability. Why did you want to include supernatural themes in the film.
I liked the idea of externalising Greta’s issues and making them come to life. I think part of the issue with dealing with mental illness is that it’s hidden and unseen. Imagine if we could see it? How horrible it would be. I think Nicole also did an absolutely wonderful job of realising Greta’s struggles in a very authentic way. She’s super talented.
The cabin is a vital part of the film’s aesthetic, and it acts as a third main character of the film. I’m curious to know about this location and how you found it.
The cabin’s interior was located in Aireys Inlet and owned by friends. It was knocked down shortly after we finished filming so we were lucky to grab it while we could. It was a genuine 1950s beach shack, an absolute classic. The only trouble was it was freezing in winter and boiling in summer. The linoleum alone was worth putting in a museum. It definitely had an atmosphere of its own, maybe even a little too much! Creaking floorboards, howling winds, banging doors. It had it all. We had several lucky moments that made it possible for us to finish the film, and finding this cabin was one of them.
Have you seen any Australian films lately that have stood out for you, and do you keep up with the local film in general?
I try and watch as many Aussie films as I can. We have such a unique way of telling stories and it’s amazing to see so much talent finding their voice at the moment. Paper Champions is a top flick that was made in our region and is now on Netflix. They did a fantastic job and made a really funny film. I finally managed to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock recently, which blew my mind. It also featured a young John Jarratt which was a bit of a surprise. I have a huge soft spot for Aussie genre and really need to name check the original Mad Max here. What a movie.
Crow Valley will screen at Monster Fest on Saturday, 11 December at Cinema Nova. Details here.