"Anti-action filmmaking": An interview with Praise director John Curran

By Needeya Islam

(Originally published in RealTime/OnScreen #31
and used with permission.)

Despite the critical focus on the frank sexuality, intense performances and deadpan wit of Praise, perhaps the most striking quality about this recent Australian film is the care with which it has been constructed as a poignant cinematic poem about failure. It is a character rather than plot driven film; one where nothing really happens beyond a study of the rhythms of a dysfunctional relationship. Within the confines of a seedy Brisbane boarding house Gordon (Peter Fenton), the inert protagonist and his demanding, eczema suffering girlfriend Cynthia (Sacha Horler) repeatedly attempt to connect with each other.

Rarely has such profoundly personal, embodied enervation and discomfort, been given such painstaking attention. Being a loser is a narrative mainstay particularly of independent films, but in Praise it is the emotional strata of this state that is uncompromisingly laid bare. Cynthia's hilarious crudeness becomes part of an ultimately heartbreaking cycle of self-defeating behaviour. And while Gordon is no less amusing than any number of anti-heroes in cinema in his twentysomething torpor, his lack of purpose and ambition is not simply played for laughs. In an insightful turn, it is what lies behind this that is explored; that is, the often painful human dimension of post-adolescent ennui rather than the all too familiar posturing.

I spoke to director John Curran about his "almost anti-film" in terms of the contemporary climate of independent cinema where clever plot twists, retro-mania and gimmicky stylistic playfulness predominate.

NI:Andrew McGahan's novel does not strike one as obviously cinematic. How did the idea to adapt it to a film arise?

I was working with the producer Martha Coleman and she came along with this book and said "I love it, I want to get the rights to it." She gave it to all of us to read for our comments and I hadn't heard of it but read it and loved it. I reacted in the way that a lot of people had. It was a really refreshing, frank and unorthodox book. It was a love story, but it captured a time of youth that I think a lot of people related to--a period where you¹re done with school, but it's before reality and you're kind of treading water a bit. It's about what happens in that time both in relationships and in how you motivate yourself. And I just loved the voice to it, and the distinct non-style--it was episodic and rambling and pointless, but that was kind of the point. But I had misgivings about adapting it to a film. When I read the draft though it was the best of the book--they pulled out the love story and made it about love, as opposed to youth and music and drugs.

NI: So she had an immediate sense of its potential as a film.

Martha really thought it was a film when she read it, but I wouldn't have read that book and thought that this is a film I have to make. Maybe because at the time I was closer, I related to that guy and related even to her. Maybe if I read it now I would see it as cinema. But ultimately any story really comes down to the heart and humour of the character and if you empathise with the plight of that character. Whether it's going to be a film or not depends I guess on how you truncate it. To become a film every book has to be digested and truncated into something more specific, that has a different rhythm to it than a book would have.

NI: What other filmmakers influenced you stylistically or in terms of subject matter? Praise didn't strike me as a film that wore its influences on its sleeve, yet it seemed to be very conscious of the possibilities of cinema, and of what these could add to the story.

This is a question I always get asked and I have a different answer every time. I love filmmakers like Terence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, on a different level David Lynch, and even people like the Coen brothers, all for different reasons. With someone like Kubrick it's about being obsessive about every detail and a reductive process, whereby incredibly complex ideas become presented in a very simplistic manner. But the depth is still there. It's not just a simple static shot, there's a lot going on there that's been thought out and obsessed over. I love that sense of reduction because I like simplistic pieces where the characters can become the strongest element,but that doesn't mean that you just put them in the corner and shoot them. There's a lot of sub-text that can be implied through composition and lighting. I like working that way. With the Coen brothers I love that they can jump from genre to genre but still maintain their own voice. I love David Lynch's use of sound and what that brings to the film almost in an invisible way. And with Malick I just love how he uses film as an expressionist medium. It's like painting.

NI: Malick is a very personal filmmaker, even when he is making something as epic in scale as The Thin Red Line.

As a filmmaker it's almost dangerous to talk about a film as personal. It sounds pretentious. But with Praise, for good or for bad, I have to thank the funding system--I had the freedom to sink or swim with it. It's a film where you can't hide behind the flash of anything- it's an anti- action film, and essentially it's an anti-film. And the opportunity to do something personal I saw as a responsibility, to take it as far as it could go. Going back to someone like Kubrick, because the tone of the character of Gordon is reductive, I knew it would be a reductive film and quite static. So there was a process where I over-intellectualised everything and if I talked about what I was thinking about it would sound very pretentious and it does become very personal. But hopefully you arrive at a point where there is some kind of power to where you've arrived at. The cricket scene for example, was originally going to have a cast of hundreds, and because of budget restraints I had fight for the scene and then had to argue with myself about what the point of it was. And the point was that within the dynamic of his family Gordon is an outsider and is left alone in the outfield without responsibility, and people cover for him. There's a bit of a backstory to that one little scene.

NI: Speaking of a reduction, some of the most resonant images in the film for me were the close-ups of Sacha Horler's face. They seemed to be short-hand for a dozen different narratives of pain and loss.

There are only about three close-ups in the entire film. We deliberately shot wide because eczema was a necessary manifestation of the conflict within her character but you recognise that to be cinematically quite repulsive and we have to see her as Gordon does. I played that line carefully. But when we went to close-up it was not a gratuitous here's a moment that says look how beautiful she is or here's her being emotive or something, it was about the pain.

NI: How did you capture the strong sense of place, of Brisbane, that the film has, given that it was shot entirely in Sydney? The production design seemed very deliberate and was incredibly effective.

Because of economic restraints, we couldn't shoot it in Brisbane, but I went up there and did extensive research. I went and hung out and stayed in a hotel in the area that the book takes place in. Even then I knew I would be shooting a film that predominantly takes place in a room.  I knew that it was not going to be a documentation of a place. But every city ultimately becomes reduced to a cliche. And I'm interested in that because ultimately there is a reason why that cliche exists. I knew there were elements of Brisbane that I could work with even within a room- the heat, the quality of light, the birdsounds, the shadows of foliage, the kinds of plants that are up there. I found that a really fascinating, interesting kind of thing to do. The designer Michael Philips, the cinematographer Dion Beebe and I worked really closely trying to analyse what's different about a room in Brisbane and a room in Sydney. We came up with things like the clapboard siding for example. I wanted a feeling of age and decay- it was an opportunity to create an environment that's part of a passing era.

NI: It's also interesting because you obviously don¹t have a local perspective.

I'm a foreigner here and I love a lot of what you take for granted here like the Federation architecture. So I love that I could create colours and textures that to me are inherently Australian--there's that maroon, and mustard yellow that I used a lot in the film. That's very Australian to me.  And that wintergreen that you see in pubs. I embraced those traditional graphic elements that I knew in ten years time we wouldn't see anymore. I would have loved to have shot it in Brisbane, because I fell in love with street corners and angles that were so uniquely Brisbane. But what it came down to was that it wasn't really relevant to the script that we shoot in there--I could force an exterior view a bit but that wasn't in the script, which was essentially interiors. The room was Gordon's headspace.

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