November 20, 2014
It’s been a rough year for Australian films at the multiplex, with even well-reviewed films struggling to drag audiences away from big budget blockbusters. So Australian crime comedy The Mule is trying something different: aside from a series of “spotlight” screenings with cast and crew members in attendance, it’s going direct to Video On Demand, being available to purchase and download on all major digital platforms from November 21st.
By skipping cinemas it avoids the mandatory three month delay between a cinema release and becoming available at home which, according to some, kills any buzz a film may have generated in cinemas. This way all the promotion is focused in one short period: now you’ve heard about it you can watch it without having to try and find a cinema showing or waiting 90 days before you can check it out at home.
As for the film itself… well, the year is 1983, the America’s Cup is in full swing, and Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson, who also co-wrote and co-directed) is a shy, quiet guy forced into a life of crime. On an end-of-season footy trip to Thailand, Ray’s friends and family see the perfect opportunity for him to return home with a kilo of heroin stuck up his backside. When his return to Australia doesn’t go to plan, he ends up in a hotel room with detectives Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Paris (Ewen Leslie). Croft would rather pummel a confession out of him; Paris is inclined to sit back and wait. After all, they know where the drugs are: there’s only one way they’re leaving Ray, and they’ve got that exit guarded…
We caught up with Angus Sampson and Hugo Weaving.
TheVine: What drove you to make a movie about a guy holding in his shit for a week?
Hugo Weaving: [Looks at Angus] Well, you should answer that because you wrote it.
Angus Sampson: There’s a number of reasons, but first and foremost we were like ‘that’s a pretty unique premise’. I guess we were curious as to whether a) it had ever been done before and b) whether or not you could make a suspenseful film about whether someone was going to go to the bathroom or not.
I guess we walked that difficult route of ‘how do you set it up so that you empathise with someone who does something so morally… I don’t want to say reprehensible, but I guess it is. But we didn’t want to jump straight into ‘he’s muling and he’s been caught – now sympathise with him’, though that was certainly something on a creative level where we were going ‘I wonder if we could do that?’
But fundamentally there was just a perverse curiosity as to whether we could write a film where the human was the ticking timebomb and where the protagonist of the story had a very simple situation: had something lethal inside him where if he didn’t get them out, and if he did get them out, he’d be incarcerated.
HW: There’s a great inbuilt tension in the film. It’s a great premise and a very simple idea – you’re wanting him to hold on, everyone else is waiting for it to come out, and there’s this fabulous ‘what’s going to happen?’ angle.
AS: Because you can’t stop your digestive system, as we found out.
How did you find the balance between the character moments and the bodily comedy. It does go pretty far in a few scenes, but you probably could have pushed it further…
HW: That would have been awful. We weren’t interested in that stuff, and it wasn’t what the script was – there was always that delicate balance between the two. Reading it, it was very funny, doing it was a lot of fun to do, but we all approached it as ‘this is what’s really happening, this is what’s going on’. I think finding that balance would have been hard if it was badly written, but it was very well written. Not crystal clear, because it can’t be, but it was always very delicate – it was just very clear tonally where we were. Establishing the tone in a film before shooting is very hard and I thought the tone in this script was just impeccably balanced.
We spend a lot of time with Ray Jenkins before he gets busted at the airport; for a film with such a strong hook, was there ever any though about getting to the hotel room earlier?
AS: Absolutely – one version I edited in nine days and tested it in America and Australia just to see if people would watch a film where faeces was kind of… featured. And we did one version of the film that just started right away in Bangkok, but it’s difficult to find the line – I watch the film now and there’s bit’s of me that go ‘come on! Get to Hugo!’ Even watching it last night, I was like ‘how can we get to the action earlier?’ Like I said, there was one version where we just started in Bangkok, but we felt you needed to align yourself with the family and him. In short, the answer is yes.
HW: But I also think people align themselves with you pretty quickly as a character. That bit early on where the hapless Ray has to give a speech and is like [makes a strangled throat clearing sound] – what do you say? Hello? And then whoosh, titles come up – ‘The Mule’. [laughs]
AS: Hugo and Leslie come in around the 17-minute mark, which is maybe one fifth of the way into the film, and by that stage you’re already going ‘what is this film? Where is it going?’ Every scene, we wanted the audience to go ‘what is going to happen next?’ William Goldman, this great writer, says that is all you need: to have the audience go ‘what will happen next?’
We have this incredible ensemble of incredible humans. They’re interesting because they’re interested. And I don’t mean that on-screen, I mean that off-screen – they’re interested in things, so they’re interesting. And we very much approached this as a story that needs to be told by a community, we didn’t want to have professional extras, we didn’t want to say ‘this is the lead, and these are the satellite characters’. We didn’t want to have a hierarchy, I didn’t want to people to have 1,2,3,4,5 on the call sheet – but of course, it’s confusing if you don’t.
There’s a strong structure to the film, but it’s only visible in hindsight.
AS: I guess the thing that really thrills me is that when the police officers arrive, the audience at that point, we’ve got ‘em. I’ve sat in enough screenings now that they are never coming back after Croft walks in, slams the door – and it’s not even a slam – he just saunters in. There’s a shot where Croft is standing up and Detective Paris is sitting down and – I’m sorry, but I love this – there’s just this shot of Croft’s crotch. On a 40-foot screen there’s just this huge dick in frame and I love it so much, it makes me laugh so much. I guess when I watch the first act now I’m like ‘c’mon, get there’, but I wanted to over-compensate on justifying Ray’s actions than just by jumping straight in there.
It continually builds – constantly throwing new things into the mix, not sure where it’s going to go.
AS: There’s not a period where it’s just static, where we’re just going through the motions to hit an inciting incident. This is a film where information is constantly offered up-
HW: – and withheld. This is a movie where everybody’s got a secret. We talked about this before shooting – all these characters have secrets, they all think they can manage this situation according to their own rules of life, and everyone has something that they’re holding onto or sitting on. That’s a real key to the drama and the interaction between the characters. They’re quite densely human in that respect.
And yet the two characters you play are in some ways the most straightforward in the film.
HW: They’re both oddly admirable by the end. You come away thinking they’re morally bendy but they’re not as morally bankrupt as many of the other characters. It’s about getting caught up in something but then applying the brakes when you realise that you’re caught up, but you don’t really like what it’s doing to you. It’s sort of what happens to Ray, and it a way it happens to Crofty as well. They’re both going ‘what is this life that I’m leading, what the hell am I doing?’ I, Hugo, I feel like that a lot in this life, we’re all caught up in this thing ‘why are we living like that, what’s going on?’
Does that tie in to why you set in back in 1983? Did you see it as a more innocent time in a way?
AS: It certainly presented a lot more opportunities plot-wise in the narrative where things couldn’t be solved with a quick phone call – or legislation even. There’s a great scene with Croft and Paris where Paris says “Well well well, never had a mule refuse to shit before.” And Crofty says, “Well, how long can the bastard last?” There’s a justification there for just having the characters sit around and wait. It’s fascinating watching people not knowing what they’re doing, and as a young parent that happens to me every day. What are we doing? A situation is presented to us and somehow we navigate through it.
HW: As a parent you’re just minders, aren’t you, you’re navigating and minding this thing that is growing – just like Crofty and Paris are waiting for this… baby to be born. [laughs] What can you do while you’re waiting? Just play golf.
AS: That was a great thing that Hugo came up with, he said to me ‘so how are they spending their days while they’re waiting – what are they doing?’ Because it wasn’t in the script, in development I had all these things like they were taking bets on how long he’d last but it’s hard to film that. There’s this great scene that was completely Hugo’s suggestion of the guys playing chess against one another, and a silent one at that.
HW: It was nice where you put that as well, you’re developing the intrigue between those two characters.
AS: And he says “best of seven”, which is the same as the America’s Cup. We were originally going to set it in ‘82 but then we read about the America’s Cup and suddenly all these things made sense.
HW: There was this whole thing at the time about the hidden intentions of the Australians and these different sides playing off against each other and all this flag waving nationalism leading into who we are as a nation. Which ties in perfectly here.
AS: And then the Australians hid the design of their keel to get ahead! We were fascinated by the way Alan Bond was lauded as some kind of underdog yet it was the fourth time he’d tried, he was this multi-multi-millionaire and lo and behold, it later turned out he was a criminal. So when you see Crofty arrive and the door opens you can hear the commentary saying that America has just won race one, and every time America wins, Crofty and co get closer to their man. We just thought it was a really nice plot device that helped us write and navigate our way through. And the more we read the better it was, stuff like the commentator saying “Liberty has lost”-
HW: The great Bob Hawke line about any boss who won’t give their workers the day off is a bum take on a whole new connotation in this film.
That angle on cops and criminals is very Australian too – the idea of approaching them in this kind of knockabout larrikin way while still taking them seriously.
HW: There’s a reason why we keep coming back to it, because in some way it expresses who we are very well I think. We understand it – since this country was settled by Europeans we understand that kind of inbuilt corruption and game playing very well. That kind of cops and robbers part of the culture is quite large, and there’s a very specific tone to it here that’s a point of difference between us and the States or anywhere else.
AS: We loved Chopper, we loved Animal Kingdom, there’s so many great Australian films that we loved. And there’s so many foreign films that we loved. But you know, we just set out to write a really entertaining piece with a lot of charismatic characters played by a lot of even more charismatic actors. I can’t tell you how encouraging Screen Australia were for us to make this film, how encouraging they were for us to bypass cinema – contractually I’m obliged to put it on in the cinemas through eOne, but Screen Australia have always been like ‘yep, we can see that working’. We’ve got the pick of the litter with our cast I reckon, to have Noni Halzehurst and Geoff Morell, two foxes at the top of their game – suddenly you’re making this dish with all these incredible ingredients and all I did was just say, “you jump in the dish together.”
The Mule is available on all major digital platforms from November 21st.—