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low budget, high ideals

sandy cameron: south australian film corporation’s filmlab

Sandy Cameron is an Adelaide-based writer and producer. He is producing the FilmLab-backed project The Infinite Man.

52 Tuesdays (film still), photo Bryan  Mason 52 Tuesdays (film still), photo Bryan Mason
courtesy Closer Productions
“IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT FOR AN INITIATIVE LIKE THIS TO HAVE A CLEAR IDEOLOGY,” REFLECTS STEPHEN CLEARY, KEY CONSULTANT FOR THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN FILM CORPORATION’S AMBITIOUS FILMLAB PROGRAM. FILMLAB WAS LAUNCHED IN 2009 WITH THE AIM OF FUNDING EIGHT FEATURE FILMS BY NEW DIRECTING TALENT AT BUDGET LEVELS OF $350,000 EACH, A FIGURE AROUND FOUR PERCENT OF THE 2010 AVERAGE FOR FILMS MADE WITHIN THE COUNTRY, ACCORDING TO SCREEN AUSTRALIA.

The quest to find a distinct identity for each film, and to encourage each director to find their unique authorial voice, has been at the heart of an endeavour that has actively tried to invert the usual approach of public financiers. Cleary, former head of development at British Screen and devotee of Aristotle, starts with the broad principle: “FilmLab asks, ‘What type of filmmaker do you want to be?’”

The projects selected in the two rounds of FilmLab are starting to mature, mainly sitting at the latter stages of development or on the cusp of production. One has already seen the light of day and had very notable success: Matt Bate’s pop-grunge documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (RT107, p23) which premiered at Sundance in 2011 and has had multiple territory sales and national award recognition. As the seven slower-brewing fictional pieces will start to roll out in 2012 now seems a useful juncture to have a look at what the alternative approaches championed by FilmLab are, how they are playing out and how the scheme can contribute to a wider debate about how feature films are developed and financed in Australia.

taking the pressure off

The first philosophical underpinning Cleary outlines is to create an environment of non-competitiveness and to relieve pressure on the selected filmmakers as much as possible. Instead of an intensive, bureaucracy-heavy selection process requiring final script and full production package, FilmLab asks for one-page ideas and little else. Filmmakers are not pinned down to one particular project but are encouraged to explore a range of ideas during a four-week intensive “creative laboratory” and then receive a small allocation of development funding to grow their eventual film.

This creates the unusual situation where filmmakers find themselves guaranteed production funds before they have a script or even a firm idea of what they will make. Similarly, teams are not required to have or seek extra market finance attachments. “I’m always interested in questioning the assumptions of public funding development, to turn things over, to find better ways of doing things,” explains Cleary. “The assumption in the public system is that it should mimic the private market.” To his mind public funding systems in places such as Australia and the United Kingdom act as proxy private financiers, looking for film “packages,” or triggering their funds with the attachment of market investors, and as a result harvesting a competitive, first-past-the-post culture. “For low budget films, there’s no reason why this should be so. Let’s not make filmmakers think they have to go through some gateway.”

FilmLab flips this with its financial certainty at the earliest possible stage. “This leaves what happens with the money up to the filmmaker rather than the financier, and puts the power back in the hands of filmmakers.” With the usual financing pressures alleviated, creative freedom should flourish.

low budget strength

The second ideological form of FilmLab deals with the place of low budget films in the current cultural landscape, and primarily seeks to answer the question: how can a film be a stronger work because of, rather than despite, its low budget? For fake found-footage films such as Paranormal Activity (2007), the low budget is key to the authenticity of the film’s concept, but there must be other ways to answer this question for sophisticated and rapacious audiences. “We didn’t want to dictate an answer but to create a debate for the filmmakers to engage in,” says Cleary. “One of the most interesting things about FilmLab is that there are a lot of different filmmakers wrestling with that question and coming up with different solutions...some have gone radical and innovative in their approach and others are trying to make a film that looks like it has higher production value and is made in a more conventional way.”

identity, not branding

Cleary cites FilmLab 2009 project 52 Tuesdays (director Sophie Hyde) as an example of a radical methodological approach, with the filmmakers shooting for one day a week for a year the framework of one character undergoing a change in gender identity. The frame of the story is fictionalised but the character’s transformation is real. In this way the process of the dramatised work with ambient documentary elements becomes a marketing tool for festivals that often have selectors interested in how different craft practices impact on the artistic outcomes of cinema. Other projects such as the horror film Inner Demon (Ursula Dabrowsky) and the thriller Touch (Christopher Houghton) are looking to operate within the framework of a genre: “In low budget genre, the question becomes, is the filmmaker good enough in a generic sense to thrill or excite to the extent that budget becomes a non-issue?” Cleary believes that the lower the budget, the more important clear hooks and selling points become for a film. This doesn’t necessarily mean gimmickry, but creating a distinct identity for a film that is easily processed and understood. “I’m not talking about brand, as that’s something you put on top; identity is getting to the heart of who you are, what you want to do and therefore what kind of films you want to make…I also think there is a correlation with the bravery you show as a filmmaker and the distinction of identity that your film will have.”

theory into practice

FilmLab’s theories were put into practice in the intensive four-week laboratory. Teams were tasked with a mixture of practical filmmaking exercises as well as activities in other artistic disciplines. “The idea was to get people into unfamiliar territory, to have fun doing things you hadn’t thought of, to experiment and explore things from new angles.” So alongside shooting and cutting film sequences or truncated versions of their story ideas, teams also painted, sculpted and even sang in a choir. This happened alongside more traditional script development and project initiation to get both sides of the brain spinning into action.

The practical filmmaking elements of the development lab to test ideas and hone aesthetics and tone are rare in Australia. “Public funding development is usually a literary process,” says Cleary, “an understandable necessity of the assessment process as funders need to get through a pile of ideas.” As a result the visual storytelling of the artform itself, and directors, or at least the directorial process, can get backgrounded during the development stages. “The director goes from having a minor role in development to the primary role in production,” which can end in a disjointed, unbalanced process. The FilmLab process is one attempt to redress this balance.

Cleary stresses that FilmLab is not the answer to all the problems of development in the public funding sector, but is merely part of a dialogue as the industry undergoes significant change. “Low budget filmmaking is not going to go away…and I think possibly in the end [filmmaking practice] is not going to be in the hands of public funders at all, as the methodologies and processes of filmmaking become much more democratic. I think [FilmLab] is contributing to the debate, rather than leading it.” In the end he sees FilmLab as part of a longer game and snap judgments on its impact can’t be made on the films it generates. “Ultimately, the marker of success of FilmLab will be where all the directors will be in four years’ time.”


South Australian Film Corporation, FilmLab, www.safilmlab.com.au

Sandy Cameron is an Adelaide-based writer and producer. He is producing the FilmLab-backed project The Infinite Man.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 18

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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