What drew you to Christos Tsiolkas’ source material?
The issues that Christos was dealing with are issues I find really fascinating. What it means to have ties/heritage from Europe and how Europe hasn’t dealt with its past in lots of ways; … the hatred that lies just [beneath] the surface. I think it was a really fresh take on things a lot of us think about and it was so visual as well. It was an intense read and … I kind of became obsessed with it. So it was those…things that I was hoping to get across in [the] film.
Despite the fact that you were adapting the material from novel to film, it’s collapsed into a very short running time. Was that the intent?
It was yeah and also it was really an instinct thing looking at the book when we (Lou Fox and Krawitz) were adapting it. It was always about trying to [get] to its essence and trying to create a film that sort of started off feeling social realist, almost documentary. Isaac (Ewan Leslie) going to Europe, [hoping] things might get better for him and then to really try and tighten the screws. It was kind of fun dealing with almost the thriller genre but in a way, but making it seem like its documentary. When we were going through the script and going through the edit it was just that thing that the tighter we made it the better it seemed to work. The beginning of the film could handle like beautiful stuff like them tripping or running through the fields and almost like once he leaves Greece and finds out about the curse it just felt right, it broke it up.
Was there a specific ‘aesthetic’ that you wanted to impose upon the material?
Actually the way Germain (McMicking - Cinematographer) was shooting it was almost as if we see Europe as the way Isaac sees Europe. In that way as he becomes more paranoid and claustrophobic, so does the film. Also that thing we all do when we are tourists thinking ‘oh that looks great I’ll take a photo of that’ and we often like steal photos. We are taking photos of people without their permission. And I find that really interesting as character like Isaac thinking he is completely humane and upstanding kind of guy but he’s often just taking photos of people he doesn’t even know and he somehow feels a bit separate to it through the camera (which a lot of photo journalists talk about) and he kind of gets trapped in it.
Were there films that influenced those aesthetic choices?
Yeah there were lots of things at different times like Don’t Look Now was something we spoke about during the writing of it which helped Lou Fox in terms of someone who does not trust what he’s seeing and dealing with grief. I kept thinking … a lot of Iranian films which blend fact and fiction, so you’re watching it and you’re not sure if these are actors or if it is actually a documentary and watching people live their actual life. The Moroccan sequences from Babel for example or Michael Winterbottom’s beautiful film In This World, about the two boys who go across Europe and were shot in a doco style and the thing I liked about those films in terms of this was like what we were talking about before with photograph – it is a blend of fact and fiction and for the character… he doesn’t know what’s real and not. So I kind of like that idea as a film maker instead of going down the more thriller kind of path like we’ve seen before and making it very heighten, actually what’s more scary than [the] spooky stuff is reality, trying to make sort of doco reality as scary thing as possible.
This is your second collaboration with Ewen Leslie, was he always the first after working with him on Jewboy?
We hadn’t met him before Jewboy and we had such a great time together and he had hardly met any Jewish people before he did that and I was just so impressed how he disappeared into the role and so many Jewish people I know... Hasidic Jews I know were really surprised to find out that he wasn’t Jewish afterwards. So I always had him in the back of my mind, but he came in like all the other actors came in for a casting and we saw some really great actors but just the read he gave had bravery and willingness even in the casting room cause we did some improvisations as well where he was really vulnerable and it’s a hard role – obviously from watching the film and was a hard shoot cause we were moving so much and we just needed someone who would throw themselves into researching the character. So I was really excited being a friend of his now to see that ‘oh wow he can do this.’
And you also added another great performance to the resume of Kodi Smit-McPhee. Can you describe what it’s like working with the young star?
I felt so lucky when he came on board… and the producers’ as well; we’ve been working on this awhile. Ethically it’s a really tough role for a teenager. We wanted to have someone who could handle the complexities of the character and the back story and stuff. Kodi’s just such an extraordinary actor like from Matching Jack with the kid that was dying – He’s always looked for really strong, tough and interesting material, so I’ve always been a huge fan of his as an actor so when he said yes I knew from that point of view that we were working with someone that could have enough emotional maturity I guess for the role. So that was the one side besides being a teenager but he’s just an extraordinary actor he just gets better and better and he’s just one of those actors, I can’t wait to see his next films. He’s growing really fast (in height) and he’s one of the most exciting actors of his generation I think.
Not right at this moment specifically, I am always looking for stuff and I suppose also cause I came to this country in the 80s and cause I’m Jewish the things I’m drawn to are things I so loved about Christos’ work and … things that aren’t necessarily Anglo-Saxon based. So those are the kind of things I’m looking for and whether they’re contemporary or period – there’s so many of those kinds of stories still to be told in this country. It’s really exciting to see so many indigenous film makers coming up and telling all these indigenous stories that we haven’t heard before.
Dead Europe is released on DVD on the 27th of March 2013
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.