Zak Hilditch Interview
Can you tell us how you got to make your first feature film?
[Laughs] Who let me do that exactly? How it happened I guess, was putting myself in the right place at the right time, and having chiselled away at the last ten years or so before it, with a few backyard features, a few self funded shorts, a few funded shorts. Constantly trying to develop my craft as a writer/director and I think that there were other projects that I thought were maybe gonna be my first funded feature film that fell by the wayside. I am a believer that everything happens for a reason and I kind of look back at the disappointment I had in those projects falling over but I really felt like they deserved to fall over, and this one withstood the fire and brimstone of development because there was enough meat on the bone, enough of a cool central idea and enough of an emotional journey that the main character was going to go on. Just all the right elements and at the end of the day just a really interesting story and a very basic premise of ‘what would you do on the last day on earth?’. I think all those planets aligned just in the right way. Ever since we put the first draft, which I call the vomit draft, that I just vomited out of my system into the inaugural Springboard that Screen Australia were running, with my producer Liz Kearney. Ever since we put that in, literally it felt like the right people read it, the right people gave me the right encouragement and told me to really stick at it. It wasn’t great on the page, but there was enough there for people to really tell me to “stick with this one Zak” and “you might have something here”. It was getting into that in 2009/2010 and in being able to make a short film through that development scheme, called Transmission, where I just felt like I was working at a higher level than I ever had before, with the most experienced crew we could get, great actors and everyone getting paid the right way. Doing a film properly. It really solidified Liz and my relationship as a director-producer. I feel making the short and chipping away at the feature, and then the right people then saying “yes” to the feature to get the bit of funding we needed from ScreenWest, followed up by Screen Australia, followed up by MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival), everything just sort of came together, with just enough money to pull it off.
In terms of the Feature Navigator program, where you make a short first, what sort of impact did making Transmission have on the later feature These Final Hours?
Transmission wasn’t at all a short version of These Final Hours, it was a very moody, tonal, companion piece to the film, almost from an aesthetics style, but story wise they were incredibly different. It galvanised myself and Liz and our DP Bonnie Elliot, who we found through the process of doing the short, and we definitely wanted to keep that relationship together for the feature. It was almost like a big dress rehearsal, but it also got me writing for the first time in a genre way. I’d never really contemplated doing a sci-fi film before, and These Final Hours and Transmission, they’re not just genre films, I guess you’d call them elevated genre. The most interesting genre films to me are the ones that focus on the people dealing with the extraordinary situation, be it a horror film, or an apocalyptic film, or set in space, whatever it is. It’s always the ones that focus on the people and give you characters you can relate to, despite the far fetched situations they’re in, they’re real people. It resonates with me. That’s what I was trying to do with this film, my own take on 12 Monkeys or 28 Days Later, my favourite sci-fi films that are fantastic in examples of the genre but also there’s a real human story behind them as well. It’s just a really simple hero’s journey.
In that way, was there a challenge in going to the longer form? That presents its own obstacles, but was that a thing you found daunting?
It was incredibly daunting, but I had done three backyard features off the smell of an oily rag leading up to it over the last ten years. I had already experimented and given it a shot, because you have nothing to lose, everyone was working for free out of the kindness of their own hearts, just testing the waters, finding what it takes to tell a long form story. So I’d done it three times by the time we got to These Final Hours but it did feel very much like doing it all again. Because that’s how you feel with every film I guess. Subconsciously it must of helped a lot, yet being on set, day one, it all counted for nothing. It was just “wow, I really hope we don’t fuck this up.”
So what were the main challenges in getting it off the ground? What was the biggest obstacle you found, that once you overcame it, it was all downhill from there?
I think like anyone, writing is just such a… who would want to write anything? It’s so painful and so horrible, and you’ve really got to have a thick skin and be passionate enough to listen to the naysayers, and take on board what they have to say, but also stick to your guns. The early drafts of These Final Hours, I would say I didn’t get the encouragement from the people employed to tell you what’s wrong with the script and say maybe you could try this, this and this. It really was hammered and I really felt like “Oh my god, maybe there is nothing here. Maybe I’ve got it wrong again. Maybe it’s back to the drawing board.” And I really could have given it all away at a certain point, but then when we got into Springboard, a completely different set of eyes and a different set of people read the same exact material and said “hang on, there’s something really good here, it’s not right yet, but stick with this.” For me it was about that encouragement and deep down knowing that I thought that there was something there with the script. But then having the right people who could teach me the right set of skills to fix my own script, that was a real game changer. I would say that the Springboard process and Jonathan Rawlonson and Simon Van de Board, they really smacked the script upside the head, but in the best possible way. I learned so much through that workshop about something I’d been doing a lot, writing but looking at it in a new way.
What sort of ways were that? Can you go into a bit more detail about what they were focusing on?
The thing is it was nothing new. I’d read a couple of the screenwriting books, but at the end of the day, I really just write on instinct and then try and fix it after the vomit draft stage, and they really came in with a really simple formula, of breaking your film down into eight short films, eight sequences and making sure everyone of those sequences needs an active question from your main character; Will James leave his girlfriend?, will James go to the party?, will James help the little girl? And I realised these things were subconsciously in the script, I just had to really make them clearer, to make the audience sit there, understanding that there’s always gonna be that very active question - there is something on the screen happening and that is the immersive part of it. They’re really rooting for this guy and from one of those eight shorts to the next, that make up the entire film. It might not work for everyone’s script but for our particular story the process actually really did line up nicely. They just really simplified the craft of trying to write a screenplay.
So what was your relationship like with your producer, Liz Kearney, in terms of how that evolved over time and then even to the financiers? How were you able to carry the conviction that you had something great and you could get all the funding you required to make it happen?
The good thing about Liz is that we were friends before we worked together as a director/producer, so I really kind of trusted her when we decided to start working together this way. We’d worked together on other things, other scripts we were getting developed and falling apart. But this one was good, because we’d been through all of that together, we’d been through these development workshops, and we’d thought we had something and we didn’t. So we’d been from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. With this one, when it really stuck and was starting to take better shape, you know, it really galvanised us, and we thought “you know what? Finally, we might actually have something here worth telling!” and that was exciting, because we had done the hard yards together the years previous, it was great. We’d come through the ranks together and yeah, finding a good producer is so hard. It isn't the easiest thing in the world to find and having someone you can trust is such an important part of it. And having someone that can tell you when they think something's shit, and why, is also so important. Us making our first film 'for realizes' with a proper budget and everything, we definitely learned so much through making this movie and I really couldn't have done it without her.
And what were the hardest things in terms of the actual production itself? As a director, what was challenging you the most when you got on set?
Just the day to day battle. We only had 25 days and trying to pull of a convincing end of the world, look and feel, and it was making sure that everyone was on the same page. We just didn't have time to fuck around. We didn't have time to not be a strong unit, working towards the same goal. Luckily we just had them. We just managed to put together an amazing cast and crew. Just looking at the cast, using the little girl and Gary from the short in the feature again was like a great dress rehearsal, and to meet her on that short and go "Oh my god, this is a child prodigy, how could we not cast her in the feature?". Then getting Nathan Phillips, we cast it all around Australia and we never expected it to be him playing James, but his audition absolutely blew me away. Again, when people absolutely demand that you cast them by just showing you what they can do, who are you to say no? He absolutely got the character. It was a perfect match. Having the two together to bouncy off each other, you never know how it's going to go; child actor and your leading man, but he was so encouraging of her and they just bonded so well. He's just got such a big heart, especially with kids. If we had an arsehole playing the lead with all these things he's gotta do with this little girl, someone who didn't have that compassion or that ability to just be there for her, it could have backfired horribly. But the two of them got on like a house on fire and it's one of those situations where you can't imagine anyone else playing those characters, and then you back it up with all the supporting actors who appear in the film. I still look back and think "How the hell did we get such an awesome cast?" Everyone blew me away and were so much more experienced than me. To have Dan Henshall, Sarah Snook, Catherine Beck, Jess de Gouw and Lynette Curran, was amazing to have that cast.
In getting your words on their feet, was there a big rehearsal period leading up to the film? How did that evolve, and how did you work with them?
There wasn't really too much time. I had a couple of days with Nathan getting to meet Angourie for the first time, and we'd go out to lunch, then back to the office and we'd run through a few scenes, just basic line reading, just talking about the scene and whatnot. We did a little bit of rehearsal, but I didn't want to overcook anything for Nathan's sake. If anything, he's so organic as an actor, I'd rather keep him fresh, as would he. With Angourie, we would have had to do a lot of that, if she wasn't such a mature soul. She was just ready to go. I didn't really overcook the rehearsal period. With the other actors and their schedules, just flying in and out, we tried to get as much rehearsal time in with them as possible, but again, they were so experienced, it was just a matter of mores talking about the scenes and characters, rather than having to workshop them too much.
In terms of visual style and collaborating with your Cinematographer [Bonnie Elliot], was it a very hands on relationship, or were you very focused on performance and her on the image? Or was it a constant conversation?
That's where someone like Bonnie Elliot absolutely took the bull by the horns with this movie. She has such an amazing eye, much more than I have. I had to get schooled on what a colour palate even was! I'd never thought about a colour palate! But with Transmission and These Final Hours, it was like me going back to film school with Bonnie Elliot. She totally showed me things about cinema and visual style and visual language. I was like "Oh my god, that's something I'm going to keep forever thank you very much!" So I guess I am more of a performance focused director. I've got the shot in my head, but I just love the moment when you talk it through with your cinematographer and your shot becomes an even better shot, or it becomes a completely different shot. Or their shot is so much better than anything you thought for that scene. It's just those discussions where its such a collaborative process, especially with your cinematographer, it's just so much fun just getting our hands dirty and thinking through, from scene to scene, what is the best way to cover this? We had a rising colour palate that constantly changed, from gold to orange to red as it got hotter and hotter throughout the film, so that was great for this film, to always be very clear on what the colour palate needed to be. Bonnie's just such a talented DP, she just brought so much to this film.
I suppose your other main collaborator was your editor. What was that process like? How long did it take you, what were you struggling with and how did you work through them, identifying the problems of the film and making them better?
Again, Nick Meyers is a genius. He was doing things to scenes which I didn't think were possible. To walk in and go "Wow, we can actually do that?", "How did you cheat that?", "How did you cut around that problem?" Again this was me getting schooled with someone who was so experienced but so passionate about the film and even wanting to do the film in the first place was amazing, he's a big sci-fi fan and he really wanted to have a crack at it. We were able to shoot pickups as well, which we absolutely needed during the editing process and again it was great working with Nick, and in a different way where I wasn't even in the edit suite all the time, I'd just let him do his thing, come in and it'd be amazing, and we'd talk about two or three things that I was questioning, or maybe thought wasn't working. It was just such an easy way to work, but just handing the keys over to someone, to a maestro who is just that experienced, that was just amazing and very liberating.
We've been hearing, the film hasn't been widely released yet, outside of its premiere at MIFF, but what has been the industry feedback in response to it so far and how have they responded to you as a director?
Yeah, we premiered at MIFF, in July 2013 and that was just a great time. To have picked up The Age's Critics Award for Best Australian Film, that was some stiff competition! We went to the awards ceremony thinking "Ok, this is going to be a great night, we'll have some drinks and have some fun" but then we actually won the award and it was very surreal. We were up against The Turning, The Rocket and the list goes on and on, there were so many amazing Australian films there. So Liz and I were gobsmacked to say the least and from there, it’s since screened in competition in Adelaide, which was also a great response to the film. We screened down in Busselton at Cinefest Oz and so far with our domestic screenings we’ve had a great response. It really couldn't have gone better.
Kingston (Anderson) mentioned you’ve been approached by Hollywood, is that correct?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say ‘approached by Hollywood’ but I went to LA before the end of the year and haver since picked up an American agent and manager, and am reading a whole bunch of scripts and writing my own scripts, thinking carefully about the next project.
And so how did that process eventuate? You get your first feature under your belt and you head over there, what is that like?
It was amazing. I’ve been to LA a few times before but never for this amount of meetings. This manager of mine, he organised meetings with producers and agents and sometimes I’d have three a day driving around town and navigating crazy LA traffic, going from one to the other. It was insane and full on, but I met some amazing producers. It was just great being able to start that process, which I’d never really experienced before, and I just hope that now it’s gonna lead to something good.
What sort of projects are they offering you? There’s the old adage, that they expect you to make the film you just did. Is that what’s happening in this case or are you looking to expand and challenge yourself in a different narrative style or genre?
I just want to tell good and interesting stories. I am reading a lot of elevated genre screenplays. I literally have a pile I’m working through. So I guess that’s the niche brand that I’m being labelled with after the film, but I would work in any genera as long as it was an amazing story. Nothing can trump an amazing idea or amazing story. That much is clear to me now.
So what advice would you give to budding filmmakers who’ve made a couple of shorts and looking to make the next step? Are development projects the way to go?
I think development is absolutely the way to go, because you can’t keep these things insular. You can’t do it all yourself. And if you want the money, you have to do the development. I think it’s important to listen to enough people when they’re saying this isn’t right, or maybe you should change this or this, and if all that starts lining up, maybe they’re right. But at the same time, that happened on quite a few of my projects, and in hindsight they absolutely were right. Until that led me to the one that I did with These Final Hours. Knowing that there was that thing the others were missing, which was that central core idea that would withstand anything because it was such and interesting premise. You’ve gotta have a thick skin, but you’ve gotta listen. But you’ve also got to know when you’re right. Hopefully other people will also think that you are.
So what’s next? Can you speak a little about this transmedia project and what that’s leading towards?
So that’s just a really cool way to help promote the film, but to give fans of the film - hopefully people who will go and see the film their own experience of the last day on Earth. It’s all about that user experience right now with what we’re doing. It’s going to be a really cool idea and I’m not a gamer, not the person who would have ever thought of this as an idea, but now that we’re here, I think it’s gonna be something really innovative. I don’t know if an Australian feature has ever done anything as elaborate or ambitious as what we’re trying to pull off with it, so we’ll see how it goes. We’re really excited about it, because it’s further exploring the story world that you see in such a small microcosm in the film, of the last 12 hours through one characters eyes in Perth, but this is fleshing it out to a worldwide story.
It sounds great and I hope it does really well. Thanks for speaking to us and we wish you all the best with the film.
Thanks for having me.