I was fortunate to interview director Kieran Darcy Smith for the inaugural issue of the Australian Directors Guild magazine Screen Director, where we spoke about his career, writing and directing his first film Wish You Were Here
You’ve previously mentioned that a lot of directing is in the writing. How have you approached that and switched gears between the two? Does it stop and how do you delineate between writing and directing is there a point where that happens?
It’s funny, because at the moment I’m attached to a couple of project I didn’t write but I’ve also got one that I did write. And I also used to say that, and I particularly felt this with Wish You Were Here, that such a large element of the direction takes place in the screenplay. Because you’re sort of really seeing it through as you’re writing it. You’re sort of feeling the energy, to know exactly when to get in and out of a scene. You know exactly what the transition’s going to be. You can kind of picture camera, how it’s working, picture performance levels and so on and so forth. And I guess it’s not that different from when you come onto a script that someone else has written. Because you’ll invariably do a director’s pass on it anyway. So you tend to lay into it all of those transitions and you sort of play it out orchestrally in your head and navigate that as you’re going. So I still feel a lot of directing goes on, on the page. In terms of moving between one stage and the next, you go into a different mode I guess, once you’ve sort of seen it through on the page and you feel like it’s working. And you’ve got to really feel confident, and you’ve got to see through every sequence. And every transition and every scene, and picture the whole thing and know that it’s holding up in your head, and then you’ve got to trust that. Because no one else will if you don’t. You’ve really got to back yourself and go in there with utter confidence. And if you have that confidence, you get into preproduction and you test it. You get into conversations with all your various heads of department. And I’d occasionally do little previs setups out in the carpark and just test a couple of things to make sure they’re working, but I only did that on three or four scenes. And they were working, and I felt like I had a bit of a handle on it. I have to admit I really loved preproduction, because you’re just surrounded by all these incredible people who are just giving so much, and they do trust you, and you’ve got a lot of responsibility then, to really think about the decisions that you’re making. Cause you don’t want to let them down. You also don’t want to waste the money, you want to make the film well. You switch gears and it becomes a lot more visual and then it all becomes about communication because how do you get across what’s in your head really clearly to these people? It’s like going to get a haircut, you know, you say to the guy or the girl I want this and she says ‘yeah great, I know exactly what you want’ and you walk out and it’s completely different, and a lot of that goes on. It’s hard at first to convey exactly what you’re seeing and feeling, and I remember that with our production designer Alex Holmes; there was this massive pen drop moment - he’d been coming in with all this stuff and it wasn’t quite right and then it clicked for him one day and he went “fuck, I get it” and he came in with all this stuff and I said “man that’s it”. It took him a while to figure out what I was getting at.
Because no one else will if you don’t. You’ve really got to back yourself and go in there with utter confidence.
In the special features on the DVD you were talking about you and Jules’ (DP) relationship with each other and how he was challenging you and there was that back and forth. Can you talk about a scene or moment that really challenged each other and you butted heads, but ultimately it benefitted the end product.
See in terms of specific scenes, I couldn’t really pull up an example, but in the early stages, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted the camera to do, and I wanted it to be very unobtrusive and very pretty. I take a lot of photographs and I do love a pretty picture but I also love that fly on the wall sensibility and just capturing something real and being there with the people and not drawing attention to the camera. And Jules had done six movies by then, and every DP loves their toys, and he’s always be saying “Well look, you know Kiz, you’re using so much handheld in here, and why can’t we put a really nice drift across that or whatever” and I’d say “Yeah, it just doesn’t feel right” and then I’d have to find ways of justifying and contextualising that within the scene and the drama and what was actually going down, and the mood and the feel, and the music of it. We’d go backwards and forwards and if I’d made my point and it was clear and he got it, he was like “great, let’s do that, let’s lock that in!” But if he wasn’t convinced, he’d keep arguing and he wasn’t arguing for the sake of it, he wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And the good thing about that was it meant that by the time we were shooting, I remember the first couple of days, the first couple of days are pretty freaky, you’ve never done it before and you’re just suddenly, you know, in the past, you might have made a short film that’s four minutes long and it took you three days to make and now you’re doing a four minute scene in two hours and you’re moving on and you’ve gotta forget about it and move onto the next thing and you’ve got a whole day ahead of you. It’s pretty scary, but I remember the rushes came in on day three from the first two days and everything was working, everything was exactly the way I’d seen it. And it was cutting like butter. And from that moment on I just trusted myself and Jules, he was already trusting me by then, but I just knew it was gonna work. And so that’s when you can make really bold choices. And there were certain times when I really did want a specific move but it was very intentional, very deliberate, very subtle a lot of the time but that was the main thing in terms of camera style.
In terms of collaboration how was your relationship with the actors and what was that like?
I didn’t get on very well with the lead actress Felicity (laughs) - Nah I’m kidding, obviously she’s my wife and she’s just there. Obviously it’s a very unique situation with Felicity and I, in that I’m working with my wife, and the great thing about that was, and I’ll have to admit, and she’ll probably clobber me, but she’s said this before, but because we cowrote the script, she was always attached to play that role which is great, I’d seen all of her work prior to that and she’s a terrific actress, but she’d never carried a feature film before, and that’s a very different thing. I’ve worked for years as an actor myself and I’ve done plenty of supporting roles and lead guest roles and stuff like that, but it’s a very different thing to carrying a feature film. Carrying a feature film is an art unto itself. It’s not so much that it’s an art, it’s that it takes a particular kind of personality,and that’s why some people become movie stars and others who are just as great an actor will never carry the story they’ll always be second or third billed. So I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know if she could cut that, but the great thing was, she knew that I was never gonna let anything go that I wouldn’t believe, because she knew me well enough and knew what I was after and all an actor wants is a director they can trust and feel safe, and all a director wants from their actor is trust, and she trusted me implicitly, and she was prepared to walk on fire, to jump off a cliff for me, and it meant that I had this gift, this incredible tool to work with because she is a really terrific actress and when the first couple days of rushes came in I saw that she was just nailing it, she was smoking the stuff and then we just got on with it. There was never a harsh word between us, writing the script or anything, and Joel’s been my best friend for twenty years; we went to drama school together and we’ve lived together and we’ve got a company together and so he trusted me and I trusted him so there’s no worries there. It was a love fest, it was a really blessed project. Everything had aligned and no one got sick, we didn’t lose any days, we didn’t have bad weather, everything just lined up. It was a pretty lucky shoot.
Speaking of Blue Tongue [Films], what was that like? I think it’s a really special thing that Australia has the Blue Tongue school of filmmakers, in a similar way to the Mexicans having Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Innaritu...
That’s good company you’re putting us in...
I really love the Blue Tongue stuff, there’s a real atmosphere that’s present, from The Square, to Animal Kingdom to this, that there’s a mood and sense of dread, that urban noir, and how do you find that collaboration throughout everyone who’s making these separate projects?
I think there’s a modicum of luck and happenstance there. When it first started out it was me and Nash (Edgerton), Joel (Edgerton), and another friend of ours Tony Lynch and this was like 1995, and we all shared the same sensibility; none of us had ever done anything so we kind of learned how to do all that together on the street, it sort of developed its own voice I guess, but it was something we all happened to be drawn to. The only parallel I could draw is that you find a rock band like U2, those guys happened to go to the same school together and they happened to start jamming and form a band and they’re completely cohesive and they’ve gone on to be U2 and there’s so many of those bands that have come together and clicked and they’ve found one another, but on the flip side there’s countless others together, but it just doesn’t work, because you’re of a different sensibility. And I think we all viewed cinema similarly and we had a similar taste. in the beginning and that drew people to us and us to them, and Spencer (Susser) and David Michod and Mirrah (Foulkes) and Luke Doolan, we all sort of found one another cause they were interested in what were doing and they were interested in us and we all became really good friends. But they wouldn’t have been drawn if they didn’t like it, so there’s no mystery there. But no one’s ever discussed a style, a technique or a way, no one’s ever discussed much at all except for the scripts and the cuts. We all sort of collaborate in a sense if one of us is in town and the other one is shooting something we’ll jump in and grab a camera or whatever, but I dunno, the majority of the collaboration comes to the script itself, we’re always running it by one another, or at the cutting stage, post production stage, getting people in. But there’s never been a discussion about style, there’s not been many discussions about much really (laughs) we just sort of hang out together and make movies and fortunately we’ve been lucky so far.
There’s a scene in Wish You Were Here where Joel Edgerton’s character is being watched and there’s this sense of voyerism that permeates through many of the Blue Tongue films. How do you approach a scene or aesthetic like that?
I’ve always been interested in mystery and thrillers and a lot of my favourite films are some of the Australian films made in the 70s, you know all the sort of stuff Quentin Tarantino talks about loving as well. I just love Long Weekend and Summerville that’s set down in Australia and even Picnic at Hanging Rock, there’s something about those movies, there’s kind of a dark scary, atmospheric thing that I’ve always been drawn to. It’s tricky because at the end of the day I have a pretty short attention span and so I’m a massive reader but I have real trouble watching television; the only thing I ever really watch is cinema, we don’t even have a TV set and haven’t for years. I find it hard to sit in one spot, but I read tons. I’ve read just about everything but I do need story, and I need cause and effect and I need to have that constant thing of ‘what are they gonna do?’, ‘how’s he gonna get out of this?’. And I think that came from when I was growing up, my dad had tons of great literature but he also had the world’s largest collection of airport novels, like Glenn Dayton, Alistair McClaine, Robert Ludlum and guys like that and I’d devour that stuff when I was like 12, 13, I was just ripping through this stuff. And I think it developed in me a need to just keep the ball in the air, rather than just waffle on too much. For example, with Crime and Punishment, I just can’t finish it, it’s my wife’s favourite book and I can’t finish it. I’ve tried three times. It just goes on and on and on and on, before getting to the next plot point. Great characters and great psychology and great intrigue, but I just need story. And when I’m developing any kind of idea I’ve got that thriller-esque tone in the back of my head. And I like little drip fed bits of information that keep you wondering, but they’ve gotta pay off. When we were writing this script, intitially it didn’t have much of that tension throughout the middle of it, it was more of a domestic psychological implosion, but as we developed it further and further and i had this kind of thriller-esque framework I wanted to hang it off, things like that would just pop up. And you’d know where they tied in and how to make em play. But I couldn’t have imagined the music of the film not having those little bits of tension and suspicion and fear and danger in them, and they’re really easy things to craft in and shoot too.
It really does keep the momentum going forward. Going a bit more broadly and theoretical here, how conscious of the portrayal of Asia and the idea of the ‘orient’ were you going into the film? It almost seems like at the end of the film when Joel goes into the bar at the end of the film, it’s a bit Deer Hunter like. It’s really dangerous and scary and it feels like another world. How did you approach that and on the day, given that you are filming in a foreign country, was there relationship to that an issue, and how did you balance it?
Oh man, we could spend two hours answering that question! The first place I ever went overseas was Bangkok and I was 25 years of age, I got off a plane at 6:30 in the morning in Bangkok city in 1989 and it was fucking bedlam. It just blew my mind and I was hooked from that second! And then I fell into this mad love affair with South East Asia and I travelled a lot through that area and prior to that I had always been drawn to these shocking Asia videos that were going round in video shops back in the 80s and there was something very mysterious and dangerous and evocative about South East Asia. And you’d get off a plane and you’d smell it. It just hits you. There’s just so much history. It’s just this fat, thick, smoky, wet air, full of stories and like I say it was like a love affair. I was just into it. So I spent years traveling around, well over the years, a month here, a month there, whatever, and ended up spending quite a lot of time in Cambodia. And back in the day too, when the war was still on and it was crazy in those days and it had a really bad and violent history, these extraordinary people. It really got me. And I ended up writing another movie. The first script I ever got any funding on, this was 1996 I think it was. I got some money from the Film and TV Office to go and write a script and I went over there and wrote it. So I spent about eight weeks in Cambodia then and I just kept going back. I guess the thing about South East Asia back then, and I’m so glad you used the word ‘orient’, cause I always used to think of it as ‘the orient’, ‘the far east’ this other, dark mysterious voodoo-esque kind of world that was just like really on our doorstep. And a kind of right of passage for Australian tourists too. So when we started developing this story, we were originally talking about Bali and Thailand and all these different places and it just had to be Cambodia. Michael Cody who ended up being our line producer for the Cambodian shoot is a very old dear friend of ours and he has spent years in the region working as a journalist and producer on TVCs and stuff, and he’s just shot a movie over there that he co-directed with Amiel Courtin-Wilson who did Hail. Michael produced Hail. And I think they’re actually there right now. So he was our on the ground guy and he found a way of us pulling it off and it had to be Cambodia. That whole opening sequence where you see the snakes and the gun and the elephant and the pigs, that was all written in. Every single shot you see was written in. And we just went out and chased it down and found it. But the reason it takes so long to answer is because the shoot itself that was down in the brothel, was the real deal. We were down in a little place called chicken village, which was a little place down in a tiny place, a world unto itself, out the back of Seenookville Port and it’s where the poorest of the poor sailors and fishermen go to find prostitutes. And it’s heavy duty. It’s run by the Vietnamese mafia. Everything we’d written into the film was based on reality and it was all true. And that scene that Joel’s character ends up in, is a scene that I experienced in Thailand on the Burmese border many many years before. And so I just tried to make it as real as I possibly could. It was the hardest thing to shoot. We shot that over two nights. And it was madness. It was bedlam. And I had Cambodian cast who didn’t speak a word of English, Cambodian crew who didn’t speak English, Vietnamese cast who didn’t speak English, three translators, it was crowded, hot and crazy. There were guys with machine guns coming down the street with police bringing gangsters down the street and taking them to a lock up just round the corner and it was insane. I could write a book on it, but I don’t know how to start explaining.
What were the best and hardest parts of the film?
The part I enjoyed the most I guess was preproduction, I used to say, when I was in it I’d love to do this every day of my life. And I could do pre production 365 days of the year for the rest of my life because it’s such a buzz. Because you’re just being so creative and you’ve got all these great people coming to you bringing you ideas and I just love that sort of collaboration. But then the pressure of shooting I really really enjoyed. And it sort of took me by surprise because I’d always wondered if I’d go to water directing a movie. Because I don’t know that everyone can do it. That doesn’t mean that I or anyone who directs a movie is special, but you are under a lot of pressure, but what I liked about it, and I have to admit that I’m quite an anxious guy, I’ve had problems with anxiety since I was 17 and there’s all sorts of things I was worried about. But at the end of the day I realised I’m the kind of guy that when the pressure’s real and it’s ramped up, I actually change and become more focused and calm than I’ve ever been in my life. And more leader like than I’ve ever been too. And so rather than going to water I actually became far more effective, articulate and clear, and just much more on top of things than had I not been under pressure and so I really ended up just loving thriving on the pressure. So I loved that element of the shoot. Even when things were going crazy in Cambodia; we had locations being demolished in front of our eyes, and people not turning up; it was nuts, but even that, I just got off on it. And even that I just have to say I really loved post. I really loved the idea that the shoot’s finished and that you go in every day and just keep creating with all these various people. You know the whole sound design, the music, the mix, the grade and the cut, it’s just so much fun! And then releasing the thing. It was so rewarding. I remember our opening night at Sundance, Felicity and I after the screening, there was this massive party thrown and I remember I walked outside with Flick and we just stood there and this snow just pelting down, these massive flakes of snow and no wind and just snow all around us and we’d realised it was five years to the day since we’d first sat down to write the script. And it was just beautiful. We had this whole room of people a hundred meters away just kissing our arses, it was ridiculous, we’d never experienced anything like that before. I’d always kind of been the guy who missed out when everyone else was getting the glory. So that was a really special moment. But there’s been so many. We’ve got two little tiny kids and they were born whilst we were writing the script and they’ve gone right through the whole thing with us and they’re here with us now and all they’ve known is Wish You Were Here. It’s brought us here, (to LA), our life is great.
Gregor Jordan said “get a good pair of shoes”
What would you repeat or avoid in future?
Before we started shooting I tracked down a lot of my director friends who’d directed movies before and I said, “what’s the best bit of advice you can give me? Give me something” and they all found it really hard to think of anything. Gregor Jordan said “get a good pair of shoes” which was all he had to say which was better than most people said and I guess if someone asked me the same question now I dunno what I’d say to them except, be prepared and make sure you’ve tested all your choices and you’re confident with them. To be honest, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone say this about their first movie, and I guess I’m really proud of it, is that I wouldn’t change a frame of the film. It’s exactly what I wanted. And the shoot went exactly the way I wanted it to, and the result has been more than I ever wanted. So all it’s taught me is to kind of back myself and keep writing and just continue to try and do it. But I don’t have any regrets and I don’t have any things that I wish I hadn’t have done, and I don’t think that there’s anything that I’d not repeat. And I think I’d just do it all exactly the same way again.
So what’s next in store for you? You’re in LA now, what’s that writing and developing process like and what can we look forward to next?
There was a script that I wrote before Sundance and before Wish You Were Here that I’d been developing for quite a long time. I remember over the years I was writing that and watching so many friends of mine make their first movies and end up going to a significant festival and films that i’d been in as an actor as well, I’d seen them go off to festivals and the very first thing they’d say to me when they’d got back was “everyone’s asking me what am I doing next, what have I got?” and most of them didn’t really have anything in their back pocket and so I just decided years and years ago whatever happened, if I was ever fortunate enough to get into an international film festival like that with a movie, that I’d have something in my back pocket so I was kind of lucky that I had this one script good to go. So we hit the ground running with that and Angie Fielder who produced Wish You Were Here is producing that with an American producer here and everyone wanted to read and talk about it, so it just kicked the ball off and that’s going really well and we’ve got two actors attached and it’s going to market now, but at the same time there’s two scripts I was really lucky to sign onto here, both with really significant companies and both in really good shape and they’re both going to market as well, so it’s funny I’ve got two scripts going to Cannes and to projects going with cast attached. So I’ve been working really hard on all of those mostly with meeting with actors, doing rewrites, just getting them ready. And I don’t know which one’s going to go first. And no one does. But it feels pretty good. Something will happen. I just don’t know what. They’re all really good projects, they’re all really different. There’s one that’s really different to what I thought I would have done, but it’s such a great script and such a great story I just couldn’t say no. I’m also starting to write a second draft of a script I was commissioned to write in Australia as a sequel to a movie and I’ve got to finish that off as well. So there’s always something to do.