The St Kilda Film Festival attracts all types – comedian, singer, TV host and kids’ book author Paul McDermott among them. He spoke to Kylie Northover about his latest short film.
ANYONE who has followed his career will be unsurprised to learn that Paul McDermott — late of the ABC’s burlesque variety offering The Sideshow — has a short film screening in the St Kilda Film Festival, which opens tonight. Still, they may be a little surprised to learn that the intricately detailed animated film, for which he painstakingly created all the drawings, is based on a book he wrote and illustrated. And they may be astonished to learn that he intended that book for children.
The Girl Who Swallowed Bees is a dark fable about a girl who tries to commit suicide by swallowing hundreds of the stinging insects, but instead is transformed after the bees start making honey inside her heart. Finally, she becomes their queen. It owes, McDermott says, quite a debt to the stories he lapped up in his own childhood.
"The stories in my youth were quite dark," says the 46-year-old. "Even Grimm’s Fairy Tales had dark underpinnings to ways of explaining existence. I don’t think you get that from Hot Potato, Hot Potato."
The St Kilda Film Festival, which celebrates the short-film format and displays emerging filmmakers, is in its 25th year. This year, the festival will screen 100 Australian short films, selected from a field of about 700 entrants, over six days. McDermott’s film, which has already screened at festivals around the world and won several awards, including the AFI, is a stylish mixture of animation and live action, combining cutouts, hand-painted pieces and pen and ink.
Is McDermott some sort of Renaissance man? "I prefer to think of myself as a Byzantine man," he says with a laugh.
McDermott may be best known for the caustic wit he displayed with the Doug Anthony All-Stars and as a versatile TV show host, but he says his true ambition was always to be an artist.
He was studying graphic art at university in Canberra when he met and began performing with buskers Richard Fidler and Tim Ferguson, with whom he would go on to great success as the All-Stars.
"I’m a painter and illustrator; the reason I started performing was because I needed money," he explains. "Art was fundamental to everything I did with the All-Stars."
McDermott has kept up his artwork — he designed the sets for The Sideshow — but until he started making films, it was mostly something outside his career.
"I was looking for a while to combine all the elements that I enjoy into one medium," he says. "I think film provides that for me."
His first short film, The Scree, was also based on one of his illustrated storybooks. The Girl Who Swallowed Bees was, like the first, self-published. "They’re fables, but not necessarily for children," he says, perhaps by way of explaining why the world of children’s book publishing has not beaten a path to his door. "It’s a broad palette. They’re little Gothic, dark, morality tales. They’re not like Bob the Builder or the Wiggles."
Written in verse and narrated by Hugo Weaving, Bees lends itself perfectly to the short-film format, of which McDermott is a fan. "I love the short film," he says. "It’s a gorgeous way to deliver an idea to an audience, and it also enables you to be as playful or provocative or aggressive or humorous as you want to be within that short time you have.
"With a feature film you must pull X number of people in to justify its enormous budget. With short films, you don’t have the problem of advertising or promotion. It can be very liberating. You can still make a profound, interesting statement and you can often see film talent for the first time — extraordinary ideas that are not constrained by other aspects of marketing or money."
THAT’S a sentiment echoed by emerging filmmaker Nash Edgerton. The 35-year-old former stuntman-turned-actor-turned-director/producer has two shorts in this year’s festival, and a music video in the festival’s SoundKilda section, a side event that gives audiences the chance to watch music videos on cinema screens.
Edgerton has worked as a stuntman and actor on more than 100 films, and is tipped by industry insiders as a "next big thing". He is directing his first feature film, The Square (a thriller written by his brother, the actor Joel Edgerton), and was producer on the 2005 low-budget Australian hit The Magician.
But he has no plans to ditch the shorter medium now he has stepped up to the feature format. "I enjoy doing shorts," he says. "Because some stories are just … short. Usually if I have a good idea, it plagues my head until I make it. Most of the shorts I’ve done have been things that have been stewing in my head for a while."
Besides, he says, shorts are a good way to reach audiences. "There are a lot of markets for short content, especially now, because of the information superhighway. Random people put my films up on YouTube."
Is he not fazed about breach of copyright? "With shorts I just let it happen," he says. "It’s amazing how far it can reach."
The St Kilda Film Festival runs until May 11. Details: stkildafilmfestival.com.au