:: Spotlight :: Interview with Unfinished Sky writer/director Peter Duncan
By: Matthew Pejkovic
Peter Duncan is the writer/director of new Australian film Unfinished Sky. He spoke to Matthew Pejkovic.
Q. Unfinished Sky is a re-make of The Polish Bride. Were you familiar with the film prior to being approached to re-make it?
A. No, I wasn’t. The first I heard of it was when I was approached by the producers.
Q. You were originally approached to write the screenplay, but then it was also decided that you would be the best director for the film. What was it about this project that made you made to want direct again after a several year absence from directing?
A. Well, it wasn’t that I had been turned off directing at all. It’s just that I had been really focusing on writing for a few years, and once the project was given to me you start to work not only ways of how to approach it in terms of adaptation, but also inherent in that process for me is looking at it in the directorial sense as well. After I thought about the story for a while, and the film as it existed, and how it would be adapted to Australia… because this is was in 2003/2004 I started to think about 9/11 and the impact that had on us. Not just in a practical sense, you know the hideousness of airports. But also just culturally and socially and how people have become more fearful of each other. And I thought making the film about how that sort of fear can be calcifying and can really diminish your life, and I thought it could be a really interesting thing to make from that point of view. A film about overcoming those fears.
Q. The film features a number of underlying political and social themes, namely were immigration and sex trafficking. Was it hard to keep those themes and issues at bay whilst developing a love story?
A. Well I hope not! It wasn’t hard in execution. We didn’t want to get into long tracks about specific issues of Australian immigration policy or how the sex trafficking works in Australia. They exist as a couple of threads in what is a much more complicated sort of fabric. I didn’t want to hit audiences over the head with political themes and ideas. So the trick was getting the balance right and making sure the drama was protected at all costs and if you can sneak in some undercurrent of ideas that’s a great thing as well.
Q. You have found yourself in a unique position where your lead actress was also the star of the film which you were re-making. How did the casting of Monic Hendrickx come about? Was she on your mind when you were writing the screenplay?
A. No, she wasn’t. As you probably are aware the company that produced Unfinished Sky – New Holland Pictures – was a sort of joint venture between a Dutch company IdtV Film and Australian producers Cathy and Mark Overett. And because there was a fair bit of Dutch investment it was put to me in a polite and gentle way to at least consider Monic, and I was a bit cynical about that. I said of course I would consider her but in the back of mind I was saying this isn’t the right thing, until I met her in Amsterdam. She is so strong and so smart and such a lovely person that it was within ninety seconds I thought she is fantastic! And she has got that dark look which was so authentically Afghani. In fact there was a fair bit of cynicism on the crews part too until they actually met her, and then there jaws dropped when the realised…I don’t know why they were expecting a blonde person or something. But she really impressed everyone.
Q. During the first few scenes of the movie, dialogue between William McInnes’ and Monic’s characters was sparse as they try to get over a language barrier. Could you delve into how you guide your actors during those scenes?
A. Well, it’s really about making sure that that everyone (the cast and crew) are aware where they are in the story at any time obviously, because we were not shooting in sequence. The issues really turned out to be issues of trust, because the more they grew to trust each other the more they could communicate, even if it was a non-verbal communication where they sort of work out a language of their own. So it was very much about in that first act keeping a pre-profound level of mistrust between the two, and as a result of that –and as a result obviously that they don’t share a common language – there is very little dialogue, and I think that really helps that tension.
Q. During those scenes you decided not to use subtitles when Monic spoke Arabic. Was that so the audience could relate with the confusion of William’s character?
A. Yes, that’s right. It’s pretty much from his point of view. He is the Australian; she comes to his farm… I think, or I am absolutely sure that it would have really dissipated the tension of the film if the audience understood her back story half and hour before he did. That is part of the mystery. That is part of the fun. (Laughter) When Monic first saw the film she thought there had been some mistake because there had been no subtitles! She had done so much work getting it absolutely right, and I said “Well, were never going to subtitle your dialogue”.
Q. There was a real nice, funny moment in the film where Monic sings Heartbreak Hotel to William’s character. Was that in the script? Or did it come through rehearsals…
A. That was something I wrote.
Q. I love the photography in the film. Could you please delve into the approach you and cinematographer (Robert Humphries) had for the film.
A. Bob and I had a really, really productive and fun creative partnership. We did something together that I had never done before: we sat down for many, many days and shot listed the whole movie. Not that we used the shot list prescriptively, because it was a tough shoot to day in five weeks, and we needed to plan within an inch of our lives. And out of those conversations came a lot of broad and detailed concepts. But what we were really looking for at the start of the move was something that was not… where the colours were crushed a bit, so it was a bit greyer. Shot more hand held – I don’t think used the dolly until half way through the movie – so there was a sort of jaded quality about it. There was something abrasive about it. Chasing. And that was something that formed the way Suresh (Ayyar, editor) cut the movie as well. So what happened in the second half, the romance starts to kick in, the camera movements become more fluid and the colours become more saturated and become richer.
Q. The Australian Film Industry is in an interesting place where we are producing some of our best work in years, yet audiences are choosing not to watch local productions. How would you describe the current state of filmmaking in Australia?
A. (Pause) Look, I think you are right. I think that we are making some of our best work in years. The production side seems to be something’s going right there. It’s just such a fierce market. In relative terms we don’t do to badly, the Australian hasn’t diminished over the last couple of years but it is still not that high. I think it is about looking at the distribution aspect of the Australian industry, and how we can help distributors and give them incentives to invest in distribution a bit more. Because it is very hard to cut through all the marketing that goes on every week for how many films are being released. But you know, you do get films that do break through. A film like “Kenny”, which is because it is good and has a good heart and it is from a good place, and people would come out of it feeling richer for it. It is not science, it is sort of a weird art form. Let’s hope that a fair few will crack through.