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Feature Interview: Lliam Worthington (One Less God)

Inspired by true events, and told from the perspectives of both hostages and terrorists over the course of the devastating three-day siege in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the award-winning debut feature ONE LESS GOD by writer/director/producer Lliam Worthington, was named Best Film at the 2017 Byron Bay Film Festival and received both the Grand Jury Prize – Best Feature and the Industry Choice Award at Los Angeles’ 2017 Dances with Films Festival – the only feature in the twenty-year history of the festival to receive both honours.

The film stars a diverse Australian cast bringing to life the hostages, international guests, the hotel staff and the terrorists, including Joseph Mahler Taylor, Mihika Rao, Kabir Singh, SukhRaj Deepak, Kieran Kumar, Nathan Kaye, Martelle Hammer, Reilly O’Byrne-Inglis, Igor Kreyman, Joseph JU Taylor, Quentin Yung, Nicole Fantl, Jan Langford-Penny, Philip RK John, Nicolas François, Kaliopi Eleni and Rhavin Banda – many of whom make their screen debuts.

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Mumbai 26/11 tragedy, a portion of all Australian and Indian box office receipts will be donated to the I Love Mumbai Foundation – one of the most active charities working with the victims and their families.

I had an opportunity to speak to Lliam Worthington about this dramatic film.

The Mumbai attack happened in 2008.  I understand that it took you and your team about nine years to get your filmed account to fruition.

What inspired you to write the story?

I first travelled alone to Mumbai when I was 22 years old. I was earnestly seeking to better understand myself and the world I lived in, and I believe the wisdom of India’s people and her spiritual traditions played a significant part in helping me become a better human being. So I have always felt a very strong sense of gratitude and affinity for India and Mumbai.

When the 26/11 attacks began, like most people, the events shook and stunned me. There were two Australians killed and many more caught up in the attacks, which resonated strongly here in Australia. But it was my co story creator and producer, Nelson Lau and I both learnt we each had friends who lost people close to them in the attacks that an even deeper personal attachment and a sincere moral commitment was born.  Beyond anything else I think we began by just desperately wanting to try and understand what could drive and motivate such a profound tragedy.

What were the stumbling blocks (if any) to receiving the proper funding, considering it was your debut feature?

While the Australian film industry receives significant Government support, to even be able to compete for those funds first required the attachment of a domestic distributor that intends to release your film theatrically and an international sales agent who acquire the rights to your film to sell to territories around the world.

Unless you are working with very established producers, that is an incredibly difficult thing to secure up front for any new Australian film makers. Emerging filmmakers more commonly secure these elements after the film has been completed – but most fail to ever attach them at all.

In other countries most first time filmmakers utilise private equity to fund their films, but in Australia only 4% of financing for our film/TV/Doco’s is coming from private equity. The hard facts are that our domestic market place is highly competitive, with 85% of our theatrical content being American, so everyone else, including the rest of the world are all battling within that last 15% of market share. So it’s very hard to build a financial model that has any realistic hope to appeal to an investor.

So these are very significant obstacles that we had to face and overcome to both finance and make our film.

How hard was it to get the story and script right to your satisfaction?

It took a long time. I’d written content for very serious subject matter before and you learn you really have to immerse yourself before any hope of a deeper understanding may start to emerge.  You have to go a long way past, who shot who, where and when. That really is just the beginning.

Early drafts of the script oscillated between a wide array of survival stories, but they always felt wrong, and it took a lot of deep introspection to understand why.

There were many acts of courage and resilience in the attacks, and it was clearly important to pay homage to some of those, but the true character of the events was not a tale of triumph over adversity or of human resilience. Because the number of stories about courage and resilience were vastly overwhelmed by those of pain and loss.  This was a tragedy.  If ever there was one.  And it was built upon many cycles of tragedy.

Once I realised this I understood it was imperative that I did not provide an audience with a vicarious experience of terrorism and then tuck them up into bed happily ever after.  I realised I needed to try and distil the most powerful and common elements and craft a story that could walk the minefield between demonisation and apologetics, and ultimately be a genuine movement towards greater humanism and compassion. So that’s why it took a long time to craft.

How was it compiling the research material and then speaking to the many people involved in the incident?

I began by extensively researching the events and the many, many stories of people caught up in or affected by the attacks. I was fortunate in that there has been a huge amount of factual material generated around the events but it was devastating and painful to live in that space for so long.  And month by month, year by year, the rabbit hole just kept growing deeper and deeper as more and more information emerged.  And I realised to truly understand the attacks, they could not be separated from the geo-politics between India and Pakistan, the agenda of the terrorist organisations behind the attacks and how they function, the rising wave of terrorist attacks and Jihadist organisations around the world, and human nature itself. So I delved deeply into all these areas.

The events covered a lot of pain and suffering. How hard was it to portray that into a film, and not simply make a documentary?

The timeline and specifics of 26/11 (like with all terrorist attacks) had been endlessly covered. Indians had been saturated with that kind of coverage, so I could perceive no value in creating yet another re-enactment film. As you say, if this is the approach, I believe you are better served with a well made documentary. And just do it bigger with stars is a Hollywood mantra not ours.

But the territory I was interested in seemed to be where no one else was focused. And it was the terrain that those whom I had spoken to who lost loved ones in the attacks were understandably wrestling with. It was not who did what and where. It was the why. And how to move beyond that why, that they now wrestled with.

To do that it was vital to capture the emotional authenticity of those who suffered in the attacks but equally vital to counter pose that with a genuine exploration into the psyches of the terrorists. One that delved into their emotional and ethical fault lines. And then use those two conflicting yet parallel journeys as a means to explore the broader and much more salient questions, around man’s inhumanity to man and the nature of belief itself.

The title “One Less God” attracts curiosity.  Why those words?

Hinduism is polytheist with a vast and wonderful array of gods that I feel in a great many ways reflects the human psyche.  I first heard the words One Less God in a discussion where a Christian monotheist was being challenged for finding it so easy to dismiss everyone else’s gods as make believe except for his own.  And it was pointed out that were he to apply his own logic to himself, he would not have believed in anything at all.

That discussion of what we do or do not believe, of what we should or should not believe, and at what cost, was a central component to these events and so it seemed an apt and worthy title.

Trying to capture the dynamic of the tragedy and method in using the appropriate voices amongst the actors must have been an interesting exercise. How did you manage to create the skill required in getting it to the finished product?

In working with such a diverse cast, I think it is the skill of truly listening—and by that I mean mentally, emotionally, and physically—that is most important. And this was significantly amplified by both the sheer number of actors and in working in multiple languages that I did not speak myself.

As a director your foremost responsibility is to be of service to your actors. To do this, I really had to zero in on not just the mechanics or broader emotional beats, but the subtler rhythms and transitions that the actor is, or perhaps is not, making. It can be both liberating and challenging. It’s somewhat akin to acting exercises where you dispense with words and interact just through looking and listening such as in Meisner, or when using jibberish or just sounds instead of words to focus upon the intention and emotion and shift the actor’s attention from only being cerebral.

This can be incredibly tricky when working in languages like Hindi or Urdu. The sentence structure is not like English: subject—verb—object. Hindi is instead subject—object—verb. So keywords that you may intuitively find yourself listening for, like, say, the word ‘”elevator,” in the line “I want you to take the elevator to the 10th floor,” will not be where you expect it to be, and the lines themselves can be up to three times as long in their rhythm, so you can easily lose your sense of where you are. If you are not very fluent in both languages, it will also make subtitling a lot more challenging, and this goes some measure to explaining the bad subtitling phenomenon so often chuckled about.

Have you had a good response from the film?  You must be pleased with the awards you’ve already won?

The responses from audiences and also yes festival juries has been incredibly rewarding.  So far of the many thousands of people who have seen the film, only those who are clearly quite extreme in their views, cynical by disposition, or to be frank, are just not very well informed, have looked past or down upon the film’s central message. But everyone knows that those who are determined to criticise or be angry will always find a way.

We have now had such a large number of face to face experiences with people deeply moved and affected by the film, that we all have trust that the greater message is firmly embodied in the film, and those whose hearts are not closed will see it for what it is.

Our festival wins have been an incredible shot in the arm. Beating out much bigger budgeted and star studded films was very affirming for all the love and hard work that had gone in. And winning the double in Los Angeles at Dances with Films, which is ranked in the top 20 Indie festivals in the world, blew everyone away and really helped us move forward and sell the film into lots of countries around the world.

For me though the greatest experiences are those that come in sharing with our audiences. I was recently very moved at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne where a teenage Muslim girl, who with her group of teenage friends, had chosen on a Saturday night to come and watch a film about the 26/11 attacks.

She stood up crying at the end during the Q&A because she wanted to express how terribly moved and saddened she was by the tragedy, but also how much she loved and appreciated the message of the film and core subjects we delved into. The next pair who spoke were an older Indian couple, who spoke beautifully and similarly loved the film. No film is for everyone. But I can’t ask for much more than that.

There have been a number of terrorist attacks since 2008.  Have we been able to respond in the right way? 

There have been many positive responses and movements. But the divisive political landscape and the accompanying rise of both xenophobia and jihadist attacks certainly suggests we need to find ways to do far better yet.

The reality we face now is that we live in a time where terrorist attacks are increasing, this is turbo charging the popularity of xenophobic nationalist parties, social media enflames everything, the political divide widens, bigotry rises, people are increasingly victimised and feel aggrieved, charismatic recruiters seize on this… This symbiosis between the extremes feeding each other is very disturbing. It’s a scenario where only extremist recruiters from both sides truly prosper.

Terrorist organisation believe in destroying what they call the ‘grey area.’ They want to paint the world as black and white, as us versus them. And those who are prejudiced against Muslims… they also believe there is no grey area, and believe it us versus them. This illustrates how important it is that we don’t think or talk around these issues in such binary ways.

So it is vital we become more skilled at walking the middle road in our conversations and grappling in good faith with each other and the complexities of these issues and accepting the discomfort that may require.

That’s very hard when people on both extremes are weaponising the issues, and our media landscape has become ever more geared towards gaining clicks and time on site. Because that’s clearly more readily achieved by telling audiences in easily digestible pieces what they want to hear, rather than long, complex, and uncomfortable discourse or debate. So we have a difficult task in front of us. But not speaking to these issues is not an option, because they are not going away any time soon. So how we speak to them, why we speak to them, and when we speak to them is imperative.

What have you been working on since One Less God?

My father, Martyn Worthington, is a famous airbrush artist in the surfboard industry, so I grew up at the epicentre of the Australian surf scene. We have a powerful story called TORN, which is both a shark thriller and a deep exploration into Australian surf culture, that explores the nature of men’s violence, predation, and how we can hope to master and transcend it.

Rating: MA15+

Running Time: 133 mins

International Sales: Multivisionnaire

Australian Theatrical Distribution: Umbrella Entertainment

ONE LESS GOD will screen from 19 – 22 November at Dendy Opera Quays in Sydney.

There is also a screening on Sunday 18 November with a Q & A at Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, NSW

NOTE:  The 10th Anniversary of the attacks is on 26 November 2018




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