Aaron Wilson Interview
Can you tell us how you got to make your first feature film?
It evolved from a short film that I made a few years ago. I was making a short about the lives of two war survivors from the war in Singapore in 1942 and as a part of making that film I ended up interviewing a lot of war survivors and POWs, and it sort of sucked me into this world of individuals sent off to foreign, hostile lands where they had no idea what was gonna happen. What I found in all these stories they told me, was a common through line of young people feeling vulnerable and not knowing wether they were going to survive. I felt that was something quite universal. Most of us have never been to war, yet we could possibly tap into the sense of fear, unknown and the vulnerability that these young people were experiencing. For me a lot of war films are the big events, the big spectacles but their stories were all about the intimate; the personal; the universal. And that was something that really attracted me as a screenwriter to this story.
And so how did you meet these veterans? What was the experience of actually getting in touch with them like?
It just sort of evolved. I randomly met Bill Flowers who was an ex-POW from Singapore, which then evolved into me speaking to more of his friends and then at the time I was friends with Bud Tingwell, who was a pilot in Europe during the Second World War and he introduced me to some of his friends, “you should speak to these guys, they’ve got great stories”. A lot of these people have stories about either being shot down and isolated by themselves in a foreign land, or as soldiers off in journeys where they were by themselves or with one other friend. There was such a connection between all these stories - the more I heard, the more connections there were between their experiences on a very intimate, individual level.
The film is somewhat impressionistic. How did you feel the audience would respond to its particular style? It is rather mute - not a traditional film in that sense - it works great as a film, but I wonder what you were intending from that choice.
I guess I didn’t really think of it as a film without dialogue when I first started writing or making the film. It just felt very natural, given the stories I heard, they were about people, individuals in a world where they wouldn’t be talking to somebody. There wouldn’t be a lot of dialogue; it’d be down to a lot of body language or different forms of communication with the world they were in, or maybe the other person they were with. It felt very organic and when I wrote the script it evolved out of how those stories felt to me - I wanted the world to be a character as well. I wanted the jungle to be not just a backdrop, but a character that has a voice, through the sounds around us; as day turns into night, how the sounds shift or how sounds that are foreign to us at night sound quite imposing and threatening. They play with the minds of the character in that situation. And if you add the sounds of war to that, it’s an extra dimension of the unknown. Is it a threatening sound that could cause my death, or is it just the jungle playing with my mind. I really wanted to explore the world as a character with a voice, rather than consciously thinking of not having dialogue.
Speaking of sound, this was the first Australian film to use the Dolby Atmos mix. Why did you go for that particular format? What did it offer?
We spent a lot of time in our sound design, about seven months, we recorded a lot of sounds in Singapore and brought them back and manipulated them to add to the voice of the jungle. We’d already created such a rich soundscape but the opportunity to do the Dolby Atmos mix came up when we were approached by Dolby, because they’d heard about our film and felt it’d be a good starting point for launching Atmos in Australia. Because the film relies very little on dialogue, it allows us to play with the world and give it a voice; similarly giving it depth and layers. The Dolby Atmos has so many tracks and opportunities to play with placement of sound that we can separate a lot of these sounds, be it the war, the jungle, the humans moving through the space, that it gives us the chance to make it really dynamic and something quite, not necessarily unique, but quite special. I think our desire to make it a rich sound piece, plus Dolby’s interest in our film as something that would really showcase the technology, those things really came together and that’s how we came to be doing the mix. We had a lot of support from Soundfirm, in putting this all together over the last few weeks.
Was there something specific to it, something you were really drawn to? It felt like there were sounds moving over the top of you throughout the film, but was there a particular thing that took your fancy?
I think in general, there’s a lot more speakers in roof and subwoofers in the back and there’s more speakers in the front sides, so if a sound is moving from the front, beside you and around the back, it’s a lot smoother. For example, there’s a scene where we’ve got our Australian soldier burrowed into the undergrowth, and then there’s soldiers moving around him, it’s a tense moment where we hope he doesn’t get discovered. I guess the new technology allows us to pan that sound and spread it around the sides and the back a lot more seamlessly than would have been achievable. It just makes it a lot more immersive for me as director in placing the audience in the space with out character. At the same time you can have sounds moving overhead, dropping from the roof to the floor - so if you’re in a jungle and you’re hearing a log fall, that might be catching the attention of the solider, you can achieve that a lot more realistically in the space of the cinema than you could have previously.
Speaking of that immersive quality, there was definitely something about your long, steadicam shots and using that to establish the geography that was otherwise difficult, because it was a shot of dense jungle, but because you had the camera moving in depth through the space, something translated and it almost felt like a stereoscopic shot. How did that come about? It feels like a very deliberate choice.
I think that when we first approached the jungle, we didn't want it to feel like an amorphous space - we wanted it to feel like a house with rooms, and as you move from one to the next you're experiencing different textures and sounds. So to do that we carefully chose each location in Singapore to feel different from the next. As our character moves through it, as day turns to night, the experience becomes different. It raises the levels of tension so he feels like he’s being manipulated as he moves through the jungle. The way we captured that, we used a lot of steadicam, but also a few tricks with flipping shots and changing the perspective so it feels a little more disorientating than it would otherwise, from more traditional angles. We wanted it to feel like the audience is there with our human characters. In juxtaposing that with now we’re with the jungle and the canopy, then back to humans. To make it a little more hypnotic but also at times consciously reminding people this isn’t a safe haven - you rip them out of that and make them aware that there’s more to fear in the jungle than first thought.
In terms of the jungle, the film was very obviously shot on location in Singapore, how did that come about, and as a director, how was the logistics of actually getting over there and assembling a crew over there?
I’d worked in Singapore for a bit before we shot the feature, with Singaporean crew, so it was a natural choice to work them. The film itself symbolically connects Australia and Singapore and our shared history that predates WWII, and really climaxed during the war. I wanted to explore that sense of connection throughout the filming, so we had probably a quarter of the crew Australian, the rest Singaporean and at some point there were about four or five different languages being spoken on set, which was quite an interesting mix of people. It was a really great collaborative project. As far as locations go, I’d scouted the locations for three or four years. We’d gone through all the natural spaces in Singapore and Malaysia to try and find the right feel. We settled on Singapore because apart from the locations being close to each other, there is a lot of Chinese graves scattered throughout the jungle and those graves themselves have a strong presence in the story. There’s a strong spiritual side of the story that we wanted to explore; again this is not just a backdrop of jungle, it is a character with a voice that affects the mood of our characters through the space. The inclusion of the Chinese graves lends something a little more spiritual and mysterious to this world, something that maybe the Chinese character of the film is conscious of, or has a respect for but the Australian character doesn’t appreciate or even realise until the film moves on and he subconsciously becomes aware that there’s something else at play; some other presence other than the literal humans moving through it, or the war beyond what he can see. Something otherworldly perhaps. For me that’s really intriguing because I wanted the overall experience to feel like the individual is immersed in this foreign world, but almost from the beginning, he pierces the world as a pilot who crashes through the canopy. From that moment, it’s almost as if he’s reborn and has to learn the skills to survive. Everything he does is almost instinctive and he has to learn how to survive in this new world.
Following up on the idea of scouting a jungle, does it change a lot over time? I imagine over months, years and even seasons as you go there it’s going to be vastly different. Did you find that to be a challenge?
A little bit. There are some areas where people manicure the jungle and we had to ask them not to, because we want it to feel overgrown. The Chinese graves have been there since the late 1800s, so we wanted it to feel like this was an area that had human interaction with it - it wasn’t totally a wilderness, but at the same time we didn’t want it to feel like manicured Singapore. Despite what people think there’s still a lot of natural wilderness to Singapore and we really wanted to capture the scale of that in the film and make it feel like we are in Singapore. It was a conscious choice to shoot there because we wanted to be in that world and utilise the quality of light that exists there. It’s very different to Australia. The foliage is different, the sounds are different. If you’re from Singapore, you going to hear the sounds in the film are from there. They’re not general jungle sounds. So as much as we could, we wanted to feel like we are in that space where these soldiers and servicemen were placed during the Second World War.
In terms of directing through a language barrier, how did you find that process? What was that like and how did you work around it?
So one of my key cast members is from Taiwan, his name is Tzu-yi Mo and he speaks English not terribly well and my Mandarin is pretty bad. We’d fumble through talking in both English and Mandarin but ultimately what we found was that we developed a short hand, a non-verbal form of communication, which is interesting for me because you adapt and you learn new things as a director. You find what is the most efficient way to communicate what you want in a scene. We found that once we got into filming we were communicating through gesture and he could read my wants. That was quite enlightening for me. Also it mirrors the connection between the two human characters in the film in the sense that they can’t really communicate for fear of alerting the enemy around them to their presence. So their connection and communication would be non verbal, which again is something that happened on set which relates to the story.
Can you go into a bit more detail on that? I’m really interested in how you direct through gesture, what sort of gestures are you describing?
Not so much physical direction, but moreso my body language. If I’m energetic and manic when I’m directing a scene, it would translate into what I wanted the performance to be and if I was really steady and calm, and maybe I’m gesturing something or I’m stopping to think about something, I thinkTzu-yi Mo would respond with something that was equally as meditative or calm. He’s very instinctive as an actor and his style is very different to Khan. I think he was able to respond to how I was around him. We’d have moments where we’d stop and we wouldn’t say much. We’d just be around each other, thinking. We’d walk around the spaces, seeing where we’re gonna film and when we’d come back, he’d nod and jump in the scene and it’d be what we created by just being in that space. It’s something that really evolved from being and living in that space; being in the jungle for weeks. Also responding to the sounds we were hearing, what the jungle was saying to us.
So did that follow through to Khan? What was his experience, I imagine he wasn’t in quite the same situation, but did that change his performance or needs from you as a director?
A little bit. I think it was interesting because Khan and I were obviously speaking in English, and we did a lot of rehearsal where we were talking, but there were time when I’d put him in the jungle, just so he could be alone and not have to talk to absorb the space without people being in his ear. What I found interesting about how I worked with Mo, he would adjust his way of responding. He would adjust his way of coming to that way and I think Mo did the same. I think that was also because I kept them separated during rehearsals, I let them explore the jungle separately, but I brought them together when we started filming, almost like as their characters meet in the film and have to learn to work together, so do these two actors, who have to adapt their acting styles to work in the scene. They were constantly evolving, because we filmed mostly in sequence, over the course of the film, so that by the end, it feels like they’ve got a nice shorthand going on. It’s symptomatic of filming in that space. We let the world as a character inform how the actors work with the space and together.
Does that looser directing style present a lot of challenges in the editing process? I feel like your continuity person may have found that approach quite a challenge. How did that translate further down the line?
I think you’d say it’s a creative challenge for my editor Cindy. I guess when we started editing we approached it as something a bit more poetic. We didn't approach it as a linear narrative and we had certain beats, emotions and themes we wanted to convey. But we let scenes speak to us, we let them play long as opposed to cutting them short. We wanted it to feel organic as these characters move through the jungle, how does their journey evolve as they move through the space? It isn’t just two guys moving through a jungle, as the film moves on its them changing as people as a consequence of being in the space. So I think our editing was a little more unconventional but it was a lot more creative in terms of Cindy and I finding what each scene was telling us. What each landscape was telling us. Was it different to the scene before? Does it look quite different? Does it need to? That sort of thing.
How did you get this off the ground with your producers, in terms of financiers? I imagine it was something of a difficult sell in some regards. Not that it’s entirely your area of focus, but it seems like a fascinating process and one you’d have to fight for in order to align everything.
Yeah, the interesting thing about the film is that it began as something much larger. As a story about legacy and the war experience spilling out over three generations. As we developed and started filming, we realised it was a story that could be spread across a few films, so what we’ve come up with is, if you think of Canopy as a film about the experience of an individual at war, the birthplace of trauma. The second film which will be my next, will be about the effect of that trauma on the family when our soldier returns home. Upon the next generation after that. The idea being that when people return from war, it doesn’t end there, it continues in some form and in the generations that follow. I think it evolved organically because we had time to refine the script and then find money, which is a bit of an unconventional approach to the story. We ended up funding the film piecemeal. We had a bit of money, did some filming, we stopped. We got a bit more money, did some more filming, stopped, got more money and completed post production and so on. That became a protracted experience over several years. Because we were using private funding, it allowed us to more organically come up with how the film would look and feel, and allowed us to split it up into these two films.
What influence did splitting it up have on the production itself? It’s a very continuous film set over a condensed period of time, how did you keep the consistency when you were splitting it up so much?
I think there were distinct chapters. There was the experience of war, and there was the return home. As we were filming the Singapore chapter, it became clear that we needed to obviously retract the scenes and the action in the jungle to make it feel like a more immersive experience, but it was like you say, over one night, but to make it feel very immersive and claustrophobic, so that when you are released from this world, you can breathe. It feels very different from what we take people into in the next film which will be Australians in a small country town, with a story told over several months. It’s a different pace from where we’ve come from withCanopy. It’s almost like Canopy, for people who’ve been to war might think back on as a memory fragment, or collections of memories. It’s not one clear memory, but something they might return to repeatedly. That will stay with them as an experience. So I wanted it to feel all encompassing over the period of one night; it was relentless as a film and as a memory in their minds.
Has their been much industry follow up to the film? You had a great reception overseas, but what’s been the follow up from the industry more broadly?
We’re yet to have our Australian premiere, that will happen at the Gold Coast Film Festival on the 12th of April, then our Australian cinema release after that. But from my peers and fellow filmmakers, I’ve shown it to a few of my close friends, who are filmmakers, and their feedback really helped during post production in refining the film. But I think everybody’s been really good at providing feedback on the films own terms. Not as “it should be structured like this”, but assessing it on its own terms, which I think is really bold and really interesting from my point of view, because we’re a bunch of filmmakers who make different films. We don’t all make the same pieces of work and for my money we should be supported to make a diverse range of films. We are a collection of individuals, as filmmakers, who make different things and different inspirations. For me it’s really rewarding to have peers who are able to engage with what I do and provide feedback on that work, not what they would see done. That’s really exciting because it sets the tone for a really vibrant community.
What advice would you give to filmmakers who follow your kind of path?
I guess there’s really no rules. You can go down the line of seeking government finance but ultimately whatever you choose to do and if you believe in it, that you’re pushing ahead into preproduction on a feature, is that you don’t give up, don’t stop. You keep going. There’s always going to be people who say you can’t do something or you shouldn't do it. That’s fine, but if you believe in it enough to want to push ahead and make your film, then the only thing I would say is don’t stop. Don’t give up. It’s going to be tough because you’ve got to come back to the question “Do you believe in this enough to keep going?”. If the answer is yes then don’t stop. There’s risk attached with everything but if you believe in something enough then you’ve got to see it through to execute it properly, despite what people say. You’ll also find that people will come on board who will support you if you do believe in what you’re doing, which is ultimately affirming for you and your creative vision.
You had a list of crowd funders in the credits, people who assisted with funds in that method. As a story teller what impact did that have? You often have to reveal a bunch of the production to entice people to donate. How did that assist or hinder you as a director?
It’s interesting launching a crowd funding campaign because typically with films, and typically doesn’t make sense anymore, because the world’s constantly evolving, but you wouldn’t release part of your film before you’re finished. You wouldn’t put part of a trailer out before you’re finished. It’s just a very odd thing to do. But with crowd funding we had to create a trailer from an unfinished film, that hadn’t been sound mixed, with incomplete visual effects and show it to the world, and hopefully attract people who might be interested in helping us finish. The advantage is that it forces you to really think and make strong decisions about what is it that you really want to put out there and tell people. You distill what the film’s about and focus on the key things that you think are important for an audience to know in an instant. That’s what we did and we backed up our campaign launch with a strong Facebook presence which we’d already nurtured. I think that’s important to have a strong following before you launch, so that when you launch you’re not finding people, well you are, but you’re using an existing base to try and reach new people, from a base who are helping promote what you do. In our case we raised enough funds to complete the film. One of the added benefits, apart from raising extra finance for the film was that you reach a whole new bunch of people who will come on board to ultimately promote the film in the future, and hopefully fans of what you’re trying to do. They get to come on that journey with you and become a part of your team, and you keep them updated and I think it’s a very interesting thing, because before we were finished we were already interacting with the greater community about what we were trying to achieve. That’s very heartening for a filmmaker, because you get to see straight away a response to something you haven't even finished creating yet.
What was the hardest thing in this process and what would you take away as a director for future projects?
On a personal level, the benefits of not giving up, that despite what people say, you just keep pushing it. On each film you’ll do things differently. You’ll approach them differently, but you learn a lot. As long as you’re open to learning from what you do, and always surrounding yourself with people who are damn good at what they do and most likely much better at that they do than you are at what you do, it helps you grow and develop your creative vision, so that next time you don’t necessarily do things better, but that you come from a more informed place. That’s the goal for me. I think as a director you become more aware of why you make films when you complete a feature. For me I think that because I’m such hyperactive person, everything in the world is happening so fast, I realised that I make films the way I do because they’re sort of meditative. For me they allow me to stop and be a bit calmer and analyse the way I actually look at the world, and allow me to maybe make a more distilled approach to the way I look at the little things that happen around me. They’re the sort of things that I end up building films about.