September 22, 2014
In this exclusive essay for Junsui Films, Production Designer Matt Putland discusses his attraction to the bizarre and foreign, road-tripping through the remote country of Queensland, and reveals all about his latest film, MYSTERY ROAD…
Breaking into the business
I was lucky enough to attend a high school that had a Film and TV course. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do in film, but the ability to communicate through the moving image was definitely something that intrigued me.
I landed a Bachelor of Visual Arts, majoring in Film and Television, and throughout this degree found myself designing as many student productions as possible.
During a brief stint of work experience on a local TV series, fate was on my side when a current crew member left, and, being in the right place at the right time, I scored my first film job as the Art Dept. Runner. The next twelve months were hard work, long hours and tight deadlines but my desire to work in the industry was cemented.
I have always been drawn to surreal worlds that can only be found in film. Being transported to an alternate reality, that’s bizarre and foreign. Norman Garwood’s work inBrazil (1985) was one such film that delivered in spades and had a huge impact on me. Another film that I always refer to is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1995). The richness of the palette and the textures found in the film are exceptional and inspiring.
On a professional level, I worked a lot as an assistant to a particular Set Decorator, Sandy Wingrove. I learned an enormous amount from her, in particular the importance of communication and dealing with other personalities on a film set.
What it is to be a Production Designer
The role of a production designer is essentially to create an environment that enables the actors to tell their story and in doing so providing a back-story or context to the main narrative. Pre-production for me is the most enjoyable. This is where you get to dream / conceptualise and at this stage anything is possible.
Gradually the reality of location restrictions, budget limitations and schedule pressures force their way in and slowly mould the original concept. So the challenge of trying to stay as close as possible to the original design is one I relish.
The importance of a well-crafted team, specific to the trials of the project is paramount. Everyone in that team will spend an intense period together and has to be running in the same direction for the department to succeed.
When filming starts, organisation and flexibility are essential. You find yourself juggling the ins and outs of locations, construction deadlines, and surprise curve-balls. Many moving pieces need to be wrangled and prepped for tight deadlines.
Sometimes the shooting crew appears like a massive beast gobbling up everything you lay before it. After it passes, all that is left is a trail of crumbs to be mopped up.
Your time and work on Mystery Road
Mystery Road was an amazing experience for me. I had worked with [director] Ivan Sen back in my University years and was thrilled that he wanted to work with me on this project. Ivan had written the screenplay and was to direct, shoot, edit and score the film, so I was chuffed he let me into his creative bubble.
The journey began with a week-long road-trip through the remote country of Queensland, scouting locations. We spent many hours on the road discussing the look and style for the town. Eventually we decided to shoot the bulk of the film in Winton QLD, and a smaller section in Moree, NSW.
I was allowed a very small but dedicated team. A Decorator, Runner, Standby Props, Vehicle Wrangler and myself, made up the Art Dept. All other caps – construction, scenic, graphics, animals, greens were shared among us.
Pre-production consisted of a few weeks in Brisbane to source and load as much stuff as we could manage into a truck and drive it 15 hours to Winton. Once in Winton, we knew access to supplies/dressings would be restricted [the local hardware store had closed down so even buying a tin of paint was a 2 hour drive to the next town]. It was amazing though how resourceful and helpful the locals were, giving us keys to their houses and offering up all sorts of furniture and dressings to borrow.
The shoot was originally scheduled for five weeks, but due to actor availability, we needed to reschedule – shooting for a block of four weeks initially, travelling back to Brisbane and waiting 3 weeks. Then, shooting 3 days in Brisbane [mainly interiors], travelling back to Winton for 2 days, then off to Moree for the final 2 days. This was a logistics challenge, especially with vehicles. Having a dedicated Vehicle Wrangler certainly paid off.
The other big challenge out in Winton was the weather. Winton usually receives two weeks of rain a year and this year, those two weeks just happened to be while we were in town. This affected access to some of our locations, meaning new locations, closer to the township, had to be found. Once located they needed to be dressed to match already shot sequences.
A few locations that weren’t readily available in Winton had to be devised to keep the filming unit in one place. The low-rent Truckers hotel didn’t exist near town and had to be created using disused railway accommodation demountables. Also Winton didn’t have a gun shop, so an abandoned butchers shop on the main street was given a makeover. Overall we tried to keep everything real and believable so the actors could feel comfortable and at home in their sets.
Reflections on the finished film
Watching Mystery Road for the first time made me feel very proud of what we achieved. Even though the shooting locations were quite disjointed, the community we presented on-screen was cohesive and believable. Working with Ivan and the rest of the crew out in the middle of Queensland is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had. I will always look back on those few months fondly.
I must prioritise graphics. Graphics are never budgeted for and they always seem to slip through the cracks and get thrown together at the last minute. They are very important details and should never be rushed.
I’m very excited about a follow up project that Ivan is working on called Goldstone. Jay Swan is set to make an appearance, so I really want to be available to work on that one when it gets moving.