Interview: Ivan Sen

Ivan Sen.

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It was October 2013 and Cinema Australia was in its infancy.

I had been building my online Australian film publication for less than a month when I was offered an interview with Ivan Sen to talk about this new movie he was promoting called Mystery Road.

I remember the weather was humid and I was wearing boots, jeans and a cotton shirt, which didn’t help at all with my nervous sweats.

Sitting face-to-face with Sen, it didn’t take long for imposter syndrome to set in. Who was I to sit here talking about movies with one of Australia’s most respected filmmakers?

Sen could sense I was nervous. But such is the filmmaker’s gentle and calming nature, he made me feel at ease by taking my mind off my questions regarding Mystery Road, and telling me about his next film, “a sci-fi film. An action romance.”

There was no title at the time, but Sen was talking about what is now Loveland.

In between that interview and the release of Loveland, Sen’s Mystery Road movie blew up to become one of Australia’s most beloved franchises spawning a sequel, Goldstone, two television mini-series, and a prequel series currently filming in Western Australia.

All of that is worlds away from Loveland.

Filmed in Hong Kong with his Australian cast and crew, Loveland has elements of sci-fi and action, with shootouts and mysterious side characters. Predominantly though, it’s a love story which follows Ryan Kwanten’s hardened assassin Jack as he falls for Jillian Nguyen’s nightclub singer, April.

Sen is now preparing to lift the curtain on the long-awaited Loveland following months of delays caused by Covid.

I recently caught up with Sen to talk about Loveland, and thankfully this time, I was nowhere near as nervous.

Ivan Sen and Ryan Kwanten on the set of Loveland.

Interview by Matthew Eeles

I’ve seen most of your films now, but Dreamland is still an elusive one for me. I can’t track it down.
Yeah. Good luck with that one.

What’s up with that?
Basically, I went off and shot this experimental film in Nevada, in America, around Area 51. We did it, we shot it on our credit cards, basically, me and the producer, David Jowsey, who I’m still with. I finished the film, we had a screening in competition at Busan in Korea, and we had a MIFF screening, and a Brisbane one. Then I felt like, I don’t know, I just didn’t feel like I had captured what I wanted to capture, and not on the scale I wanted to do it on, and so I pulled it. It had those three screenings, and a handful of people managed to see it then. I don’t know how it’s managed to stay off the internet, it’s a wonder it’s not on YouTube floating around somewhere.

YouTube was the first place I looked. 
Yeah, I do have plans. I have expanded the story in another screenplay, on a grander scale. It will make a comeback at some point, but not in its original form.

When you did go off to America to shoot Dreamland, did you intend on launching a career in America at that time?
No, not really. I had gone on a road trip around the Southwest of the States, and a part of that trip was going to Area 51, and a little town called Rachel, which is an outpost, which borders the secret base, and has all kinds of interesting characters there. It just stuck with me from that road trip, and I felt like I wanted to go back there and make a film. I wrote this abstract, existentialist piece, black and white film, set around Area 51. Like I said, I felt there’s another way of doing it, where you can tap into a wider audience. In the end, I feel this type of film, it really should be seen by more people, I think.

I’m curious to know what the reaction was from the audience who caught the film at MIFF. Was it well-received?
I actually wasn’t there. But, I think, Dan [Daniel Roberts] was there, the actor, and I don’t know. Actually, I didn’t have a lot to do with the screening, but, I think a couple of critics had seen it, and it was reviewed pretty positively, I think.

I might have to track down some of those reviews and have a read. That might be the only way I find out more about this film.
Yeah. I actually did revisit the film, just recently, to look at possibly releasing the film, re-editing the film and releasing it, as is. Which I actually might do, after I remake the film first.

Similar to what Alex Proyas did recently with Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds.
It was never intended to be just some product, it was like an expression, which is very rare these days with film. It’s basically about a guy looking for UFOs and basically connecting with nature along the way, and making the connection the connection that he’s looking for. I think it’s a really  important story, and I feel like I can attempt this and give it another crack later on.

Do you get asked about it often?
I do actually, yeah. It’s got a bit of interest. There’s a bit of a curiosity out there.

It’s frustrating for reviewers, and critics, and Australian film enthusiasts, like me, who can pretty much watch your entire catalog, but when there’s this elusive film that we can’t get our hands on, it’s quite frustrating.
I love the film myself, but I just feel like it’s not where I wanted it to be. But the new version won’t be the same as the old version. The old version would be more abstract which is very, very cool. But I’ll try and release the old one at some point, definitely.

Ivan Sen on the set of Loveland.

I want to talk about Mystery Road for a moment, because I know a lot of our readers want to know where you’re at with this franchise after so many years. We don’t know much about the new series Mystery Road: Origin, other than that it’s a prequel series starring Mark Coles Smith as a younger Jay Swan. Are you involved in this series in any way?
I’m not heavily involved. You probably know more than I do. I know that there’s an appreciation for the character of Jay Swan and his story, and it’s been going from strength-to-strength, and audiences are lapping it up. I think even though Aaron Pedersen isn’t in this series it’s going to maintain that attraction that Jay Swan has of his indigenous cop who’s stuck between two worlds.

Do you have any creative control over the series in general? Did you have any involvement in them wanting to make a prequel with a younger detective?
Yeah, it was actually my idea. It was partly my idea, I guess, to go younger, because Aaron wasn’t going to be available. I thought, “Okay, how about you go younger?” That’s what they did.

Did you recommend Mark Coles Smith for the role?
No, I try not to get too involved in it, and let David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin, and the ABC do their thing with it. After doing the two films I stepped away from it and let other people come up with their version of Jay Swan. From there, I’ve attempted to step into the television world a few times, and every time I try to write something for TV it just keeps turning into a movie.

So you can see yourself returning to the character as the writer and director of a new film?
The third film has always been on the cards, and Aaron has always been keen to do that film. At some point, we will do it, when he’s ready and when I’m ready. I’m pretty sure it will happen, and it will maintain that cinematic quality that the other films have had.

I don’t know what it is about Detective Jay Swan. For some reason he has stuck with me so deeply. I find myself mowing the lawn or doing the dishes and I’ll often think to myself, “I wonder what the detective is up to. I hope he is looking after himself.”
[Laughs]. I don’t know, there’s just something about him. He’s just so unique. There’s such a truth to him. Especially when you see him within the Australian landscape. He comes from the land, he comes from this ancient landscape, he’s a part of it, his blood comes from here; you know he belongs here even though he is wearing cowboy boots on his feet, you know that those feet actually have a strong connection to the land. At the same time, he has stepped into the White world, and has to make progress there as he’s trying to help his people. It’s this combination of elements and the whole Western thing that I can’t really explain why. Obviously Aaron has a very strong presence. I originally wrote this whole thing for Aaron and having him totally in mind for Jay. I met him one night, it was in Kings Cross, it was late one night, and I saw him getting into a taxi, and I just ran over to him and I said, “I’m just writing this thing for you and I’ll be in touch.” He said, “Oh yeah, sounds great, mate.” Five years later, I sent the script to him, something like that.

Had you met him before that night?
Yeah, I knew him, but not at the level that I know him now. Because it was this idea of being created and being formed around him, and the presence that he’s capable of, and I think that’s why people feel like that when they see Aaron as Jay Swan it fits like a glove. It fits him so well.

There’s a bit of a segue here, from Mystery Road to Loveland, because I spoke to Ryan Kwanten recently who you worked with on Mystery Road. He spoke about turning away from social media, which I found interesting because actors are under more pressure than ever to have a large social media following. You joined Instagram recently, and you’ve shared a lot of your own stunning stills photography from your film sets. Were you reluctant to start a public profile on Instagram, or did you do it because you had a new movie coming out?
I’ve never really been interested in it. Aaron as well, Aaron’s really totally got no interest. I don’t know, maybe it’s, I just turned 50, and so maybe it’s like, I’ve got this whole gallery of work, which nobody has seen, it’s just sitting on hard drives, sitting in drawers, and I just thought it’s a shame to leave it like that.I think it’s a nice thing to put it out there, into the public arena, and leave it there for whatever future there is and for whatever use it has. It’s better off being out there than in here where no one can see it, and giving insights into the themes that I’ve been working on as well as interesting imagery.

It’s much more interesting than seeing what you’ve had for lunch, that’s for sure.
Social media can be a lot of different things, I guess. I just felt it was time. Maybe I’m just getting older, and I feel like it’s time to show some stuff from my past. I don’t give away my privacy or anything like that, but I did see that when I got on it, Ryan got off it. I think he was never really on it, seriously, anyway. I don’t know. Originally, I just thought it was a negative thing, but now I can feel that there is something, there are positive elements to it, that’s for sure.

Especially as a filmmaker. You can create this audience around your film. It works well from a promotional point of view. Would you agree with that?
Oh yeah, I guess it would, yeah. I’ve been giving insights into Loveland. It’s not like I’ve got a million followers or anything, but it’s definitely useful because in the past you had to rely on traditional media, which can be bit hit and miss, because it’s not so focused. If you have a chance to focus on people who are interested in your work, I think that it makes a big difference.

Loveland leans heavily into our obsession with technology and how we’re all affected by it. It’s essentially turning us into robots. Why did you want to explore these themes on film?
It’s a manifestation of what I feel, the position of the human race today and where we’re heading into the future, especially in areas of the world where there’s more competition than Australia. After spending a lot of time in China, and Hong Kong, and around Asia, it’s this sense of competition and letting go of our humanity for the purpose of surviving. I think this theme is something that very suitable to the sci-fi genre or a futuristic setting, where you can push that envelope a little bit more, and come up with your own world, and your own version of where we are heading in the future.

Ivan Sen and Hugo Weaving on the set of Loveland.

It was during that interview back in 2013 that you first mentioned your new action romance sci-fi to me. How long before that had this idea been kicking around for?
Around 2008 actually. I was still messing around with Dreamland, at that point. I went to Hong Kong and I just thought, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to go to Hong Kong.” When I got there, I was blown away by the place, and I wanted to make a film there. It slowly evolved over the years. When I actually spoke to you about it was more of an action film. Yeah, mate, martial arts were not in Australia then. It was such a long time ago. But as I made other films like Mystery Road and Goldstone it was on the back burner and evolving and also influencing the films I was making like Mystery Road and Goldstone. They both have strong Loveland influences within them, and the whole outback noir thing, and the neon noir in the outback. The noir elements have actually come from Loveland.

What is it with neon?
I don’t know. It’s just the feeling of it. It’s the natural elements floating around the space, there’s something about it that’s connected to us, and it’s actually a real thing from nature. I don’t know. When it glows and lights up things, it’s like love. It’s like this electrical energy, or something. Witnessing all of the neon in Hong Kong over 10 years ago, it’s actually disappearing these days though, and being replaced by LEDs or not being replaced at all. In some way, Loveland has captured some parts of Hong Kong that have been disappearing, not only the lighting, but also a lot of the restaurants and things like that. I think, three of them, of the classy Hong Kong diners, or the ones that we filmed anyway, have closed their doors.

It’s quite sad. Neon truly is a dying art.
Yeah. It’s expensive to make and expensive to run. LEDs take much less electricity. It’s funny, sometimes the human being accidentally stumbles across art and making art, in the purpose of their day-to-day life, and then it’s easily lost because it doesn’t fulfil the purpose anymore.

What was it like to shoot among the chaos that was going on in Hong Kong at the time?
It was just before the protest movement got into full swing, and I actually went back there to do some pickups in the middle of it. I found myself in the middle of it, being tear gassed, and shot at with rubber bullets, and stuff. But even without the protests, Hong Kong is still a pretty chaotic place to shoot a movie. Especially when you go chasing it. It was amazing. I’m very comfortable in Hong Kong, and I’ve been there many times, and my cameras. It was very different going with the crew, and the actors, this time when we shot the film, though. There was a bit of anxiety about getting it done because we shot half the film there in, I don’t know, six days, or something. We just went crazy, and running around with a steady cam on the streets of Hong Kong, trying to dodge people, and not take them out with the camera. It was a lot of fun, and the actors really connected with it, and used it as a part of their performance, and the crew just had a ball.

You chose not to close down any streets, and you shot the film completely raw, right?
Yeah. Over in Hong Kong, there’s this thing where you don’t have to actually worry too much about people on the street, and showing their faces, and also worrying about brands and advertising, and all that stuff on the street. Hong Kong has a very big tradition of just showing it as it is, and to tap into that, it was incredible. It’s very difficult to shoot that type of film in Australia, where you actually are forced to lock stuff down, and bring extras in, and this type of caper, and then what have you got? You’ve just got some artificial thing.

Did you have much trouble during post-production with people in the background looking at the camera, or anything like that?
Surprisingly, no. I found out that while I was shooting some of our Hong Kong crew, they were calling out a lot of the times as we were moving through the crowd. Then, at one point, I asked someone, “What are they calling out?” The answer was, they were calling out to people not to look at the camera in Cantonese, and quite forcefully too, I might add. The people were, I don’t know, walking around and instead of looking at the camera, they were doing the opposite. They looked down and away from the camera. There were a couple of moments where I’d had to use the old softening effects here and there. Also, the area that we shot in, in Hong Kong, there’s been thousands of films shot. People are so used to film crews and TV shows filming on the street, that they’re over it; they’re not really interested. When we were filming there, we saw a bunch of other shows, like films and TV shows, shooting.

Jillian Nguyen in Loveland.

I’ve interviewed Ryan, and everyone’s going to be talking about him and Hugo Weaving in this film, but I’m interested to learn more about Jillian, because she’s terrific in this. For someone who doesn’t have a lot of acting experience under her belt, she’s so captivating. Can you tell us about working with Jillian to bring April to life?
It was so hard to cast April. I was looking in the Philippines, I was looking in China, and even the States, and then I came across Jillian by accident. She’s got this amazing presence, but she’s also got this incredible voice that cuts through everything. She had this Vietnamese background, and she could speak Vietnamese, and she had a very good understanding of April, the character, who’s a migrant worker, who’s come from somewhere in Vietnam, and to the big city. She escaped Vietnam, her parents escaped Vietnam, and she was born in a camp in Malaysia, and then they found their way to Australia. That whole migrant experience is something she can connect with. Another thing is, I think, Hong Kong is her favourite place on the planet. She was super excited to know that this story was set in Hong Kong, and that she would have the chance to go there, and actually act in Hong Kong. I’m used to people not having a lot of experience when I pass them, and so I had no real worries about her ability. She did an amazing tape, and she sang, and she spoke Vietnamese. I thought she was amazing, and in the film she gives a performance that is well beyond her years.

She certainly steals the show, that’s for sure. This may be a major stretch, but in Dreamland Tasma Walton plays a character named April, and Jillian’s character here is named April. Is there a story behind the name April for you, and why that name appears in two of your films?
I sometimes do this cross naming thing. It’s just something I do. Sometimes when I first write a character, I’ll borrow a name from another script, and then with plans to change it, at some point, sometimes I actually don’t change it. I thought, “Oh, look, I didn’t release Dreamland, so I might as well keep it as April anyway.” But everything as a writer-director, everything you do is connected, and I was saying before, there’s so many elements of Loveland within Mystery Road and Goldstone, because I was in that world as I wrote those two films. I wrote Toomelah in Hong Kong, and I wrote Mystery Road in Chengdu, in Western China, and I wrote Goldstone in Brisbane. But everything you do is connected and I’m aware of it, and, I think, it’s a nice thing actually. I don’t try to separate from it.

You speak very passionately about Asia, and Hong Kong, and places like that. Do you have a connection to those places?
I don’t know, I just feel very comfortable in China, and in Hong Kong, and Macau, for that matter. I just feel very, very connected to the people. I find it easy to be around Chinese people, I don’t know why, I’ve just always felt that. Maybe when I was young, it’s the whole Monkey connection or something, I don’t know, even though that’s a Japanese version of a Chinese story. You know the old ABC Monkey series?

Yes.
I think that’s probably when I first saw anything to do with Chinese culture, and the early Bruce Lee films as well. But I think that’s probably why I wanted to go to Hong Kong, is from some of the Bruce Lee films, when I was really young.

Sci-fi films are often laden with Easter eggs. Does Loveland have any Easter eggs?
Easter eggs? What’s an Easter eggs?

A visual cue to another film. A nod to the audience, or something relating to yourself.
Oh, no.

I guess I ask because of the number on April’s chest. It jumped out at me and I had a gut feeling that that number meant something to you.
Oh, wow, wow, wow. Yes. Actually that number comes from somewhere. I’ve come across a lot of the characters of Jack and April, specifically, I’ve come across their characters on my travels within China and Hong Kong. 398 was a number that came from a guy who was a cleaner, actually. He was just standing in a hotel lobby. He’s from Vietnam, and he had a name tag on him, which was 398, and that’s actually where that number came from. Just from some young guy who was probably about 18, or 19, or something like that. I saw him standing there in the doorway. That’s where that number came from.

Well there you go. I knew that there was something with that number on her chest.
398. Very, very good. Yeah, it’s a specific thing.

That’s your little Loveland Easter egg if you’re every asked about it again.
[Laughs]. Thanks.

I think it’s important to speak about COVID and how it has affected this film, because people are going to be reading this in years to come, so I want to include it for historical purposes. Can you tell us how COVID has impacted you personally, and this film in general.
Initially, it has been good, in a way, because I’ve had a chance to spend more time on the post-production of the film, without pressure of delivering the film on time. I got a chance, I probably got an extra year and a half, to do extra work in post-production, which is kind of a bad thing, because you spend so much time on it because you can; in that way, it’s been good. But the film, we were supposed to release, God, a year and a half ago or something, and it’s just going on and on. We were releasing a month ago, and then the whole Omicron outbreak happened, and the cinemas were, I think, probably closed, or pretty much closed around the country. It was a bit like Russian roulette, it was like, you pick a date and then you see what happens. Luckily, we were able to pull out a few times, otherwise, the film would’ve come out to empty cinemas. But another good thing is, because we’ve delayed a few times, we’ve done our publicity a few times, as well, so that’s had a chance to gain some momentum with a challenged marketing budget. If we had released a film to empty cinemas, it would’ve been a really terrible thing, but in the end, it hasn’t worked out too bad because we’ve managed to ride with it.

You’ve got your Loveland Q&A tour coming up, and then are you ready to move on? Are you ready to push this one aside now, and move onto your next project?
Yeah, it’s starting to feel a bit weird, because I actually did a bit more work for the film just a few days ago, and we’re just sending the film out to cinemas now. It’s a weird thing, usually you can let go of a film, you move onto the next one, which I’m doing. I’ve got another film, an outback police thing I’m going to be doing this Winter. I’m moving into that film soon and letting go of this one, but Loveland has been very difficult film to let go of because it’s been going for so long. It’s weird because I just delivered the film a few days ago, and it’s like, “Oh, wow. It’s like, cut time now.”

When you say you’re moving onto your next film in the Winter, do you mean pre-production or shooting?
Shooting, yeah. Shooting the next one.

Wow. Okay, great. I can’t wait to hear more about that.
I can’t say too much. I’ve got it cast, but it’s not quite at the point to announce the cast yet. That will happen very soon, but I’m very excited. It’s a bit of a neo-Western, as well. It’s not a Jay Swan film, but it’s about a, I guess, maybe a racist, you could call him a racistly inclined detective, who arrives in a small town to work on a cold case, a 20 year old case, with an indigenous family. Basically, they both form a bond and a relationship with each other, as this guy’s there to review this cold case. It’s very much, probably more of a drama than the other films, like the Mystery Road films, and I’m very excited about it.

What is it about you and police and detectives?
I wanted to be a cop. I actually applied for the federal cops when I was out of high school, and I didn’t get in. I went down to Sydney to do the exam, and was in Redfern, in the old TNT buildings there, and then I didn’t make it. I’m probably obsessed with crime shows, reality ones. Not so much the dramas, but I watch The First 48 Hours, and all that kind of stuff, I’m mad on that stuff.

Loveland is in cinemas March 17.

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