August 29, 2014
For director Ivan Sen, his latest piece, the brooding and harrowing drama Mystery Road, explores themes very close to home, as he studies indigenous culture in the unforgiving landscape of the Australian Outback. When we had the pleasure of speaking to the talented filmmaker, he discusses the issues that come with tackling such territory and then selling it to an Australian crowd. Sen also talks about his own, truly personal attachment to the project, and the current state of the Australian film industry.
So where did the idea for Mystery Road first come on? What inspired this screenplay?
I guess the idea come from an event that happened in my distant family. A relative of mine was an aboriginal girl living out in the rural area of New South Wales, near an indigenous community. Her body was found under a roadway about eight years ago. I guess the police follow up to the situation was insensitive and lacked focus. Nobody was ever charged with the murder. That was the seed of it and I have wanted to move more into genre territory, so a murder mystery provided the outlet for an expression of what has been going on in a lot of indigenous families in Australia. These crimes against women in particular, and the follow up from the police.
It must be quite important for you to study and explore the indigenous culture on screen, because it’s not something we too much of in cinema.
Australians aren’t used to seeing what it’s like on the inside, from an indigenous perspective. Film is a recent thing for indigenous people to be empowered with, and in the last 10 to 20 years there has been a bit of a movement going on and the stories are starting to get out into Australian consciousness. In saying that, it’s not a pretty history here in Australia and a lot of people aren’t willing to face up to what’s gone on and what’s going on at the moment, so there’s plenty of challenges ahead in getting these stories to the public. When you create indigenous themed films which are a little lighter and more fluffy, the audiences are much keener to go on the journey, but when we show the darker side it’s a little more difficult.
Have you personally struggled with Mystery Road, in that regard?
It hasn’t been difficult to get the film financed, but for me the struggle is with the audiences here. Generally speaking, people just don’t want to know about it. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a part of the problem, people just get on with their lives and don’t spare a thought to those actually from this land, it’s original inhabitants. We’re all living here off the natural resources, and all that’s here now is because there were people here protecting it for a long time.
These severe themes you speak about are dressed up somewhat in Mystery Road as a thriller, murder mystery – do you think that it helps to make them a little more accessible?
Yeah and it’s an evolving thing. My last film was a very social realist piece and used non-actors from the community my mother is from. I wasn’t very happy with how it was received by audiences, so I did make a conscious step to open up the audience for the next film and use a genre structure to inform the story and to possibly widen the demographic. I’m not finished either – this is a stepping stone to where I want to go in the future. Those future films will not necessarily be indigenous films, but will have an indigenous perspective – my perspective.
It sounds like you put so much of yourself into your films – can you personally relate to the protagonist, in being caught between two cultures?
Oh yeah for sure. Jay Swan is someone who has a similar history to my own. I grew up in a little country town and had to move between my local indigenous family and the white part of the town. I spent a lot of time going between the two of them and didn’t feel like I belonged to either camp.
Mystery Road seems like such a passion project for you, and you were involved in so many areas of production. Is that how you like to work – to have that sense of control?
I think it just comes from where I started – I originally studied photography so I was always alone out on the field taking photographs. It was a natural progression into documentary, and then when I went to film school it hit me that I was supposed to have all these other people working for you as well. But after film school I knew it was a really personal thing, like a painting and its painter, where you have a blank canvas and a pallet and you put your hand on the brush and you choose the colours as you’re going. I tried to keep that as much of possible in the arena of making a film, which is a difficult thing to do, because you’re going against the forces of a film construction where you have so many people. In the future I won’t do so many things, in the next few projects I already have amazing musicians lined up and I’m willing to hand over to them, which I’m looking forward to.
It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear you have a background in photography, because the Outback looks incredible on the big screen. It seems like a popular setting too, with Tracks and The Rover also set there. What do you think it is about this scenery that makes for such remarkable cinematic territory?
I’ve been on a lot of locations for my next film, and the minute you get out there, and it’s red and it’s dusty and a real desert experience, you just feel it. You can actually feel. You look at a photograph and you don’t even need to have the story or actors, you have a stronger sense of what you’re looking at and you feel like you’re there. You can feel that dirt under your nails. That’s why audiences enjoy watching these films, and why filmmakers are drawn to those areas too. There’s just something about the ambiance where you can feel the beauty and the danger. You go to areas towards the coast where things are a little greener and not so barren and you don’t have such a strong feeling. I’ve been trying to work it out myself as I’ve been looking at locations recently. It’s a texture thing.
You get the impression that the dusty and hot conditions made it tough for the detective within the story – but how was it actually shooting out there? Was it challenging at times?
We had a problem with the weather and we lost maybe 10 days because of the rain, actually. I’m not a fan of shooting in the heat, and out there you’re looking at 45 degrees on a daily basis and I didn’t want to put the crew and the actors through that. So we only shot in the winter, so in that sense it was comfortable, with a nice temperature every day. But we got unlucky in getting one of the wettest winters on record and we had to shoot nothing for a while.
Did that threaten the momentum at all?
Not really. We managed to do a few pick-ups here and there and shot a few interiors, so we got the camera out on occasion, and took the opportunity to do a lot of rehearsing. We had all the stunt guys there during the rainy period, so we got under a big shed at the local show-ground and rehearsed the final shoot out scene over and over for a few days so everybody knew what they were doing.
Recently we’ve been lucky enough to speak to the likes of David Michod and Emily Browning, who have been discussing the current state of the Australian film industry. Do you think it’s in quite a good place at the moment?
It’s how you define it I guess, how do you define a good place? Whether you want to look at box office percentages, where it’s probably around the 4% mark like it usually is. Or maybe a bit under. The difficult thing for us is that we don’t have any protection in the box office. I don’t know what it’s like in the UK but it’s getting more and more difficult to get screenings in this country and I really feel like we need a quota system like some countries have to protect their industry. It’s just getting harder and harder as the bigger Hollywood films just walk in and take all the screens, making it hard for Australian people to see their own films.
It must be frustrating, because there are so many actors and directors from Australia, and yet they feel the need to go to the US or UK to make their movies.
Yeah, I guess the average Aussie film goer is not interested in Australian stories or Australian films – they’re interested in the factory fodder that comes out on Hollywood like a lot of countries are. Australian filmmakers then try to make their films more ‘Hollywood’, but that’s not the way to go about it, because we are dictated by Hollywood. I think a healthy film industry caters to all kind of taste. We could do with more genre films in Australia and that may help attract more audience members. Look at Japan and South Korea, they have very healthy national film audiences over there – the majority of the box office is of domestic films, and we are way, way under that. South Korea was like 54% or something and Japan was similar just last year, so we are way under what some countries are doing.
So finally, what’s your next project?
I have two projects coming up. I have a science fiction film, aimed at a very wide, international audience that is set in a Chinese future city, with quite a big budget. I also have a follow up to Mystery Road which involves Jay Swan again, but it’s a totally different story, set in a mining town, about human trafficking and corruption within indigenous land councils and the local government and mining corporations, it’s a bit of a conspiracy thriller.
Mystery Road is out in cinemas now across the UK, and you can read our five star review of the movie here.