digital liberation

sandy cameron talks with boxing day director kriv stenders

Richard Green, Boxing Day

Richard Green, Boxing Day

KRIV STENDERS’ BOXING DAY IS A DOMESTIC DRAMA FOCUSING ON A MAN ON HOME DETENTION WHO UNCOVERS A DISTURBING TRUTH WHILE ATTEMPTING TO RECONCILE HIS ESTRANGED FAMILY. SOLELY FUNDED BY THE ADELAIDE FILM FESTIVAL AND UNFOLDING IN REAL TIME IN ESSENTIALLY ONE CONTINUOUS TAKE, THE FILM IS A FOLLOW UP, NOT JUST CHRONOLOGICALLY BUT METHODOLOGICALLY, TO STENDERS’ MICRO-BUDGET BLACKTOWN, WHICH WAS A HIT AT THE 2006 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL (WHERE IT TOOK OUT THE AUDIENCE AWARD), MELBOURNE, BRISBANE, PERTH AND CANBERRA FILM FESTIVALS.

Blacktown is shortly to be released on DVD by Madman Entertainment. Ahead of Boxing Day’s world premiere at AFF, I spoke to Kriv Stenders about his working methods, casting strategies and stylistic formalism.

“The seed for the film happened ten years ago when I made a short film called Two/Out,” says Stenders of his first collaboration with Boxing Day co-writer and star, indigenous poet, musician and sometime actor, Richard Green. “I met both Tony Ryan [star of Blacktown, RT67, p22] and Richard through making Two/Out. Richard and I stayed in loose contact, and when I made Blacktown with Tony I touched base with Richard. Then, because of the experience I had with Blacktown, I thought it would be great to make a film with Richard in a lead role. Basically having that experience under my belt I decided to do Boxing Day.”

The film’s scenario involves Green’s character, Chris Sykes, a recovering alcoholic and criminal, preparing Christmas lunch when an old friend turns up uninvited at his doorstep and reveals a secret regarding his family. When Chris’ daughter, his wife and her new boyfriend finally arrive, the situation inevitability escalates in tension towards revelation and conflict. Dark and relentless when compared to some of the relatively lighter and romantic moments of Blacktown, the film’s tone was dictated by Green’s presence: “ Tony [in Blacktown], who’s very gregarious, with a lot of light inside him, he was ideal for that type of film, while Richard is a lot more conflicted. I knew that he’d be able to play intensity really convincingly, absolutely perfect for some kind of heavily dramatic role. And it just kind of fed from there. Well, we thought, what about a siege situation? He’d be really good in that. How about that? What about a domestic situation, the ones you read about in the papers at Christmas when families go off the rails? Perfect. That’s where it started. Richard can do this sort of character. What kind of story would that character inhabit? Work with that, and the story kind of wrote itself from that point. And it became this kind of confronting, quite unrelenting piece. Hopefully with some kind of light in it as well.”

The writing process for Boxing Day never advanced to a full draft screenplay, but what Stenders calls a “scriptment”, which had precisely laid out story beats and sample dialogue, but with enormous scope for flexibility and improvisation. A limited cast of six and one location was suited to this form of organic evolution of narrative and character. “Basically we had a three week period to produce the film. So for the first two weeks we rehearsed the film chronologically, and shot it. At the end of the first week we had a version of the film, which we could sit back and watch. Every night I’d pick the best bits and cut it together. So at any point of the day we had the film, and we just added on the next dramatic layer. By the second week we had a second version of the film and we really knew what the weak points were, what the twists and turns were, and were really able to refine the story and address a lot of dramatic issues and character issues.” This was a more structured approach than the guerrilla approach to the making of Blacktown. “Blacktown was shot over about eight months. And it wasn’t as concentrated or disciplined as this. Boxing Day is a much more contained enterprise. It was more finite. But because we had finite resources and finite time, I think it worked really well, because it really helped focus everything.”

Stenders is a passionate advocate of backing the abilities of non-actors, as long as they bring an intrinsic talent and legitimacy to the role, and he encourages them in certain scenarios to construct their own dialogue and action. “Because you’re not bound by script or hitting lines, it can help alleviate stilted performances, and it’s important to get actors who are more like jazz musicians, who are able to improvise, riff off a melody, and come back to the basic rhythm again.” A non-actor, Stuart Clark, plays Chris’s drug-dealing colleague in Boxing Day, his services attained through contact with the Offenders Aid and Rehabilitation Services of SA. A similar process was used to cast Stenders’ short film Two/Out, “and it’s a risky thing to do because some of these guys are struggling with internal issues. But Stuart brought something inherent, he brought some authenticity and a lot of credibility to Boxing Day.” The end result of Clark’s natural performance is compelling, full of implied menace and idiosyncratic phrasing.

While most of the cast were taking their first roles, they were also offset by the presence of two professional actors in Syd Brisbane and Tammy Anderson. This blending of experience and rawness was very deliberate: “In a funny kind of way they feed off each other. Non-actors can be more tangential and unpredictable but the actors can always bring them into line, and vice versa…it’s all about casting. From my point of view directing is 99% casting.”

Trained as a cinematographer, Stenders himself shot Boxing Day with a hand held, intimately observational approach of one extended take in a digital format. Aware that this brand of cinematic experiment has been attempted before, he acknowledges predecessors like Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sukorov, 2002) and Time Code (Mike Figgis, 2000): “So it’s not that groundbreaking, but I think what’s different about Boxing Day is that we’re telling a linear story. It’s all about the story, really.” His ambition for Boxing Day is to balance an aesthetic style, a narrative structure, and the technology of the medium, into something cohesive:

I really love digital as a medium and I really like to find new ways of telling stories to make films. In a funny kind of way, I think digital has been the best thing to happen to cinema in the last twenty years, because the freedom it gives you to work outside of normal systems, styles, formats or traditions is great. So I wanted to do something where the form and content were the one thing and kind of inform each other. And I just really like the idea of doing long takes, and never cutting and always being in the moment.

Having made Illustrated Family Doctor, a traditional feature on 35mm—although that was a lot of fun—the thing I learn as I make more and more films is that if I frighten myself, if I put myself in compromising positions I find that the payoff is more rewarding than by being safe.

Adelaide Film Festival, Feb 22-March 4, www.adelaidefilmfestival.org

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 17

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

1 February 2007