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:: Spotlight :: Lost Things - Interview with director Martin Murphy

By: Catherine Naghten

Dreams turn into nightmares for four teenagers in the new daylight horror film, Lost Things. Its Australian director, Martin Murphy, speaks about the spooky beach, the shoestring budget and the making his debut feature film…

Things has been screening at film festivals for some time?

Yeah, we launched it at Cannes in May 2003 and that kick-started the international festival circuit and its international sales. So its been going around the world for about 18 months now.

I’m sure you’ve scared a lot of ‘schoolies’ who are camping these holidays!

I hope so. I hope I’ve scared the ones who like being scared. Even for a lot of people who say they don’t like being scared by horror movies, there’s part of them that does enjoy it. Why else do they go into the cinema?

Have you always been a fan of the horror genre?

Oh yeah, and I also love comedy. I love to work in those genres because I feel I have a knack for it.

The film was inspired by a story from Nietzsche, right? Were you a fan?

I’d read some Nietzsche, but Steve (the writer) had read a lot of Nietzsche and it was his idea to use that story as our source for the story. What I like about the film is it has this intensity underneath it. It makes the audience go away asking a few questions, turning the possibilities over in their heads at the fate of our characters. What would I do in that situation, when faced with this terrible fate that they were faced with.

What’s your favourite scene in the film?

My favourite scene is actually a scene which I find very hard to watch. It’s the scene where the killer circles Tracy, and comes in and attacks her. It’s my favourite scene because to me it’s the most powerful scene. I shot it because I wanted us to empathise with the victim, to get a sense of how it might feel to be taunted slowly before you are attacked.

It’s just so horrific because there’s this girl sitting there. She’s so isolated and alone and it’s just evil. He is taking pleasure in harming her and there’s the definition of evil. You can see his enjoyment and you can see her fear and her terror and her loneliness and its just so wrong. I wanted to say that in this scene, “This is so wrong.” It’s so cruel. I wanted to portray that cruelty. That’s why it’s my favourite scene, because I think their performances just work beautifully there. Though I always, (laughs) I leave the cinema when its on. I find it a bit hard to watch now.

Where was it filmed?

That beautiful and scary beach was about 7kms north of the entrance on the central coast of New South Wales. It’s in a national park and it’s a very creepy place. It’s a natural nesting area for crows. It’s very windswept and a lot of weird things happen in that location. We were warned when we were shooting there to be careful if we were working there at night, and to have some sort of security.

What were you worried about?

Well, I don’t know. Weird things happen up there. I mean there were a couple of kids who were murdered there ten or so years before. We discovered that while we were making the film. It was shocking to find that out, but it also made sense. It is that sort of location that you might bury bodies. If you were in the business of burying bodies in remote locations, that would be a prime choice - very isolated and it just had a creepy sense about it.

Was it hard to make it look scary on a bright sunny day?

I thought it was scary anyway. I just responded to the environment and shot things which were consistent with this menacing character, and shot and cut the film like a nightmare. Steve wrote the film like a nightmare – disjointed, fractured memory. We wanted it, in every way, to feel and look like a nightmare. That really dictated the way it was cut.

Was it hard to keep track of the disjointed story while making it?

I had to map all the different sub-plots; the romantic subplots between Brad and Emily, and the friendship between Brad and Gary. Those four main characters all had different relationships. Once I’d done that complex work I knew where I was going, but it did take me a long time to work out. How do I tell this dense, complex narrative that Steve has written? Once I penetrated that, I worked out how I could make the film.

The character, Zippo is really interesting. Did you have a clear picture of him from the outset and how much did Steve Le Marquand bring to the role?

I had a clear picture of Zippo because I wanted Steve Le Marquand to play it and then Steve, any actor, will always bring their interpretation. They bring their intelligence and experience, and their lives to the role, and Steve certainly did that.

He had a terrible time of it. He had a motorbike accident on the first day of shooting. That was extraordinary. The message we got was that he’s had a motorcycle accident, he’s severed couple of fingers and he said he’s coming back to the set as soon as he can, and he did.

So the cast he’s wearing is real?

Yes.

How did you find working with the young actors?

It was great. They had no idea what they were in for. The demands of the eleven-day shoot were so enormous and taxing for them, they got a bit of a shock. But they were able to maintain the momentum. I stacked the cast with some very experienced actors so I could give more time to the young ones who have never shot anything before. They’d never worked on a film before. So I had two actors, Charlie and Alex, who played Brad and Tracey, who’ve never made a film before. The rest of the cast were experienced. I wouldn’t have done the whole film with new young people. That would’ve been too problematic.

Was there something that stood out about these two actors for you to cast them without experience?

Yeah, well Charlie just had this quality that was so vulnerable. Rather than his character being really heroic, I wanted him to be this skinny, dorky guy, and Charlie just had this quality that was hilarious and just so vulnerable. He was able to play this very clueless young guy who’s a real mummy’s boy, who just had no idea and who was just so innocent in that regard.

Brad’s really angelic, yet comic isn’t he?

Yeah, and awkward! And stupid! I mean, he’s an idiot in many ways. Really forgivable but annoying, you know? I think his character’s really annoying at the beginning of the film, but you feel for him by the end. Like “You dorky little mummy’s boy, you have no f**king idea and you’re gonna make all these mistakes”. And he does. But you feel sorry for him! …Or at least I do.

Have you known anyone like that?

Yes, and I’m sure I see myself in there as well. I guess because I thought, wanting characters that I could relate to, not that I would just admire for their beauty. So often when we see genre films, the actors are so beautiful and that’s part of the cultural sub-text. They’re like gods in a sense. Although they’re going through this tragedy, they’re mythical. They’re so beautiful, they’re above our normal experience. They might be victims in a horror film, but they’re beautiful victims.

I didn’t want this to fall to the same level as American genre movies, because you can’t compete with them. I wanted to do something different, so I thought ‘I’ll go in the other direction. I’ll cast really normal looking actors – people that are attractive but also look like people you know, like someone you might have grown up with. I think by doing that, it makes it more personal with the audience. We believe the story a little more and so we go into that horror more. That’s what I was planning. I wanted very natural performances in a very natural setting and for it to all feel like it could’ve really happened.

What was your budget for Lost Things?

It was under a million dollars Australian. Our initial budget for shooting was under $50,000. That’s about the minimum you can do a feature film for. Everything was scraped together and everybody deferred their fees – they’ve still deferred them. None of us have been paid this far down the track, so we’re hoping to recoup the money from the theatrical release and the DVD release. We want everyone to be paid!

This must be one of the only industries in the world that people will work for nothing because they believe in the project and just for the opportunity to make films. No other industry asks their workers to do that. These workers have volunteered. People want to make films so badly in Australia that they will stop at nothing to do it.

What were the conditions like for shooting the film?

Very, very windy and it was difficult. It was dusty and uncomfortable and we didn’t have a lot of standard comforts like chairs.

It was very tough for the actors. We joke about trailers because they’re seen as unnecessary luxuries or they’re ostentatious, but a caravan is somewhere quiet where an actor can go in order to rest so they can last a whole ten hours of shooting. Then when you roll camera, they give you their best as though it’s for the first time. They didn’t have that on our film. They didn’t even have anywhere to sit. Usually they were just sitting in the dunes. I’d never want to do that to a cast again.

You say its difficult to makes films in Australia. Do you feel pressure to go overseas for your work?

For me it's not pressure, it’s a great desire. I have a great desire to work overseas. I want to buy a house one day! I don’t want to keep living like a student. I am 35. And as soon as I get my opportunity in Hollywood I’m gonna take it. I’m going to go and look for it.

Because there aren’t the same opportunities in Australia…

Oh yeah! You’re not going to make a living working as a filmmaker here. You have to have some sort of overseas work in your career.

Is that discouraging?

No. If you want to do something that badly, whether you’re an actor or artist of any sort, you're gonna ignore all those things. Your'e gonna pursue being an actor, or a filmmaker, or a painter. You’ll go wherever you have to go to do that. I think it’s unrealistic to see it in terms of different countries. It’s a global industry.

Very few Australian filmmakers are able to stay here and work, but they’re exceptions. They obviously love doing what they do, but I’m not going to get to make the sort of movies I want to make if I stay here. The funding bodies aren’t going to fund those kind of movies and I’d be better off working overseas and having more opportunities like everybody else.

How long have you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer and, when I was about 21, I realised that I also wanted to make movies. I guess the last fourteen years has been in pursuit of that and at the same time I’ve pursued comedy. It takes such a long time to get production and live shows up. It takes so much work, so you’ve got to love that work. And I love it. It’s what makes me happy. They say if you love your job, you never work a day in your life.

Do you find it hard to fit your comedy in around the film-making?

No, nothing suffers. I think I’d be suffering if I wasn’t doing all of it.

I play this character, Bob Honking. He’s a failed artist. He’s a hopeless comedian who’s always trying to get a break. It’s just an endless source of amusement - the situations that he gets into - and for me it’s the story of any artist working in this country, given that it's so hard to get anything done and to make it. I find that very rich material.

How did this compare to other directing jobs?

It’s different from the commercial work I’ve done in television because that was someone else’s writing. In the sense that I was a hired gun. When you’re making your own work and working with collaborators, you’re not a hired gun. It’s a work of passion.

It’s really hard to express yourself in commercial television. You’ve got to follow the tone of the series, so you can’t deviate too much from the style of the series you’re working on, because it’ll jump out and that’s not fair to the series. So you’ve gotta surrender your ego in commercial television to continue the style of the work that you’re contributing to. In a low-budget film, you have the opportunity to be very expressive and that’s the strength of the work because there’s no house style; there’s no studio style. You can tell the film in a particular way. The way you feel is the best way to tell the film, not the best way some accountant thinks you should tell the film. It’s up to the writer, the directors, and the producers of independent cinema to really shape the stories the way they feel they need to be shaped.