Bombastic budgets are promising to thrill and dazzle us this summer with every augmented pixel they can muster. The popcorn floweth.
At the other end of the box office are indie flicks, trumpeting their own tunes amongst the mainstream fanfare. The Magician, from the humblest of Australian beginnings, is a good example.
It takes the guise of a mockumentary of Ray Shoesmith, a prosaic, urban, Aussie hitman, filmed by his next-door neighbour, Max. It was pulled together with an abundance of self-belief and commitment by its star/director/writer/producer/co-editor Scott Ryan.
On the eve of the film's international release, I chatted with Scott in London about all things low budget.
Paul Griffiths: You've been writing for a number of years now, but this is your first acting role, isn't it?
Scott Ryan: I've never really acted. I did a few short films for friends, but I'm not a trained actor. or anything.
PG: People are praising you for your performance as Ray. What do you think helped bring him to life and not just be a caricature, or a monster?
SR: What I think about acting is' just relax. A lot of people don't. You talk to them in real life and they're OK. Put them in front of a camera and they're like [stiffens up straight and goes motionless]. There should be no difference between acting and real life. It should be the same thing. I think that's all it is about Ray Shoesmith. He's very relaxed; he doesn't get nasty; he doesn't lose his cool. You never see him get seriously angry. Ever.
PG: He doesn't have any kind of psycho explosion, although it's there.
SR: Because you never really see it, you think it's got to be there somewhere and it adds that extra element of menace to the character.
PG: How much of the film was improv?
SR: About 90% improvised. When I'm going to do a scene, I know exactly what I want to happen. I'll discuss it with the actors - you're going to say this, this is your point of view, this is what I'm going to say, this is how it ends and begins. So the actors know who they are and they know the framework of the scene, but what they say is completely up to them.
PG: Considering the praise you've got for this, would you have another crack at acting?
SR: Yes ' in the next film. I'll definitely play the lead. It should be fun.
PG: Is that the zombie picture you're working on?
PG: A bit more of a budget this time?
SR: Certainly a couple of times bigger than the one we had last time. Probably $2million, which for a zombie film is very, very low.
PG: Can you tell us anything about that picture? Is the screenplay written?
SR: I'm at the final draft stage with the screenplay. It's the whole ex-special forces guy thing, wife killed in a car accident, tragic. He's on anti-depressants.
PG: Nothing to live for?
SR: The challenge is to do it in a way that nobody's ever quite done before. I want it to be character driven, rather than story driven. So there's this guy who works as a security guard in a shopping mall'
PG: An everyday kind of setting?
SR: Yeah, so he's like a zombie himself. His boss is an arsehole, he lives in a hovel, he's a nobody. Then all of a sudden, the shit hits the fan and he's suddenly got something to live for. He's the perfect guy you want to have around when this stuff happens!
PG: I guess that's many months down the line?
SR: At least a year before it's shot, edited and released.
PG: Would you say The Magician was very much guerrilla-style shooting?
SR: Absolutely. We had no permission. We just rocked up on the day and shot where we felt like. If in a cafe, or pub, we'd just go in and ask if it was OK. Very much guerrilla. Didn't pay anybody up front, just made sure I fed everybody and that was about it.
PG: The relative affordability of digital filmmaking lends itself to that. Do you see this as the way forward?
SR: Definitely. The next thing I shoot will probably be HD, a step up. There's no reason why you can't go out there and shoot something on a little HD camera and get results. There's nothing to stop you at all.
PG: With the digital medium do you think that you're blazing a trail?
SR: Absolutely. When I was going to make the film everyone said, 'Video is for home movies. Don't do it.' But it's been done. With the technology now, there's no reason why you can't. And we've got digital projectors now in a lot of cinemas, especially here in the UK, which is fantastic. You can shoot it and you don't need to transfer to 35mm, which is where a lot of your money goes, post-production. You can shoot it on an HD camera, edit it on an iMac, get it in cinemas for, I reckon, ' $50,000.
PG: What is your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
SR: Do it! Don't listen to anybody. The people who told me I can't do it, they're still trying to get their films made back in Australia. I've made mine and I'm going onto the next. Just don't listen to them.
PG: Did you have many knock backs from the conventional side of filmmaking?
SR: I told people what I wanted to do and people were like, 'This guy's a wanker.' I just said, 'I'm going to make a film, with no crew, for a very small amount of money and I'm going to get it released theatrically, not just in Australia, but overseas eventually.'
PG: That was what you were going for right from the start?
SR: That was the aim. And to win Academy Awards and stuff, but that's probably not going to happen. If you don't have a dream, what are you going to do? You're not going to do anything. If you aim high, maybe you'll get halfway there. If you get halfway there and your dreams are big enough, then that's fine.
PG: Better than nowhere.
PG: So having achieved your dream of international distribution, do you have other plans for the film now?
SR: This is the first step. If it does well here, that's going to encourage other countries in Europe to grab the film. The States, as well.
PG: Given the recordability of the digital medium and the fact that the film is 'destined for cult status', as they said at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year, is anyone considering a DVD release?
SR: The DVD's released in Australia now. That'll happen here once it's finished it's theatrical run.
PG: Is there much additional footage? Extras?
SR: Not on the rental version, but we're working on the special features version at the moment. There's a documentary about the making of the film, deleted scenes, director's commentary ' we just did that last week. There will be a couple of hours of extras. It's made specifically for aspiring filmmakers. It's the sort of thing that I would like to have seen before I was making this film: about the nuts and bolts of how it was done, post-production, getting the money, how it was made.
PG: You see it answering some of those questions you asked when everyone was telling you "no"?
SR: Exactly. It's like a help school. People should just do it. You may not get your film released theatrically, as that is very difficult, but at least you will learn a lot more about the process of making a film than at film school.
SR: I learnt everything just making this film. Use it as a learning process and then on the next one take what you've learnt and you're not a first time filmmaker anymore. You've got something to show - from the preparation to the product.
PG: Looking back, what do you think was the most successful thing you did and the biggest mistake you made?
SR: The biggest mistake I made was that I should have written a full script. You can ignore it once you've written it, but at least it lets you explore the material. Also, make sure you've got good sound. That's very hard to fix once you're in post. People will put up with OK camerawork, but if it's poor sound they just won't tolerate it.
I think the thing that works for the film is that it seems real. The performances are genuinely pretty authentic and the story's authentic, taken from books I have read, real life situations. If you look at cinema now, especially with reality TV, everything's a lot more authentic and I think that's what people are interested in. They're a bit sick of seeing these Hollywood movies with Hollywood actors in over bloated big budget films, story driven, where the characters are virtually non-existent. I think people want to see somebody they can like, can be interested in, rather than just plot.
At the end of the day, character costs you nothing. I see special effects, I fall asleep. I don't go to the cinema to see special effects, I go to see characters.