Interview with Karina Fleming and Aaron Wilson, the makers of 'Canopy'
Greg Woodland of Script Central interviewed producer Katrina Fleming and writer-director Aaron Wilson by phone in a cafe in South Yarra, where they were having a very leisurely meeting with the director of St Tropez Film Festival, who had just agreed to screen their low-budget WW2 film Canopy as part of his ‘Antipodes Films’ section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
SC (to Katrina): How did you come to choose Canopy as your first feature film to produce?
KF: Aaron and I had been making TVCs and corporate content together and after a couple of years we started talking about making a first feature film. Aaron got a residency in the Objectifs Filmmaking School in Singapore, which paid him to fly out and work on developing a script idea. We wanted to make something about World War 2 since Aaron and I both had grandfathers that were involved in WW2 and we wanted to tell an intimate story around the theme of an older gentleman who had been in WW2. Aaron comes from a country town in NSW, and he started writing this story about a boy from the bush in WW2, shot down from his plane over Singapore, and how he survived and transcended language to develop a mateship with a Chinese Singaporean soldier. We were originally also going to tell the story of how that man’s (Jim’s) life was affected thirty years later in the 1970s. But after we filmed the first chapter we had such a fantastic experience that we realized we should just make this story on its own. Consequently we now have the sequel to make...!
SC: Why did you shoot it in Singapore? Couldn’t you have shot in the jungles of Queensland for instance?
KF: We’d been working with a great Singaporean crew, and also to cut costs it just made sense to shoot it all in the one location. And the jungle’s always so diverse in Singapore that any direction you turn you’ve got a totally different vista... It was all shot in Bukit Brown Ancient Chinese Cemetery and McRitchie’s National Park, on location where actual events had happened. Aaron’s very fussy about authenticity and details. For instance all the sounds were totally authentic, down to the right time of day.
SC: How did you come to team up with the Singapore co-producers, Chuan Films?
KF: Royston Tan is a good friend of Aaron’s and he’s a director of great note in Singapore and he had his own production company. It worked for us from a tax and legal point of view, to just contract a co-production partner in Singapore. We won one lump sum and they directly paid everyone. We had to pay for our own five Australian heads of department, and we all stayed in one self-contained house, but the production itself, locations and sets, were paid for by Chuan Films.
SC: Was Australian finance also involved, for instance Screen Australia’s Producer’s Offset?
KF: We didn’t qualify for the Offset at that time. The film’s final budget came to just over a million dollars. Crowdfunding helped us finish it off.
SC: How long was the shoot?
KF: The shoot was eight days in Singapore plus the Australian footage, two weeks all up.
SC: Amazing! A very short shoot, for a feature film. Was there a long rehearsal period?
KF: No, Aaron’s not into rehearsal. In fact we kept the two actors separate from each other...
Aaron Wilson: Yes but... What we did was put these characters in the jungle, let them be by themselves for a few weeks before and I gave the Singapore character, (Seng played by Taiwanese actor Mo Tsu-Yi) a bit more time in the jungle because I wanted him to feel more at home in the space. But they weren’t really rehearsals as such, they were more immersing the actors in the world, making sure they were familiar with it. With the Australian actor Khan Chittenden, I did the same for him but gave him less time in the jungle. I put him in a part of the jungle that we weren’t going to film in. But I didn’t tell him that until we started filming. I put him into the world so he could adjust to the humidity and the terrain and he thought “This is where we’re going to film...” and then when we started filming I put him into a totally different location and he was a bit shocked...
SC: It worked very well, because he really did look like a stranger in a strange land.
AW: I wanted him to feel a bit shocked as if he really had just dropped into a really foreign place.
And then when they meet in the film is when I actually brought them together, I kept them separate pretty much until that moment. So as they meet on screen they’re actually meeting and adjusting to each other’s acting styles.
SC: That really paid off and added to the film’s overall feeling of authenticity. The look, the design, the costumes, everything felt very authentic to 1942.
AW: Thanks. The jungle hasn’t changed much, and we worked with the War Memorial to get the look right. The rest is the actors. You strip away the fact that they’re soldiers, you strip away their background and dialogue, it’s just two human beings reacting to each other’s presence. And that’s what I really wanted to get at... They were boys often that were sent off to war, so they’re obviously going to feel things and these experiences will stay with them. It’s kind of like imagining what it was like in those moments when they were being affected at the birthplace of this trauma. That’s where it came from.
SC: Getting back to the script, did you arrive at your Singapore residency with any idea of the story?
AW: It was a combination of a few things. Firstly I grew up in a small town, Tocumwal in NSW, where you’re acutely aware of the war experience, people who’ve come back, people whose grandfathers or fathers are affected by that experience, and there’s a knockdown affect on the next generation. So it’s more from a personal level of how those experiences affect people when they return home. And when I was on the Residency, speaking to a lot of people, I got the sense that people now recalling what happened years ago, were recalling the moments between battles, when there wasn’t a lot going on and they were left to think about the predicament they were in. For someone who’s never been to war it felt like an in to understanding how these experiences might affect an individual and stay with them for the rest of their lives. It wasn’t about wanting to make a war film per se, it was about how individuals cope with experiences that are seemingly overwhelming and how those experiences affect them.
SC: It is very unusual for a war story, in that it’s a slow burner with a lot of tension, and a large part of it unfolds in the minds of the characters themselves.
AW: It becomes a different kind of battle, with themselves psychologically, and with the jungle, which becomes something they should be fearing as much as the Japanese. That’s something that’s very present in the stories I hear from those veterans. They still remember the sounds and textures of those worlds. They’re kind of stuck in those worlds, and part of them hasn’t returned.
SC: Did you always imagine sound was going to be such an important part of the script?
AW: My films are all about people where the environment is quite overwhelming to them and I allow the soundscape to create environment as a character. That was very important to me for this feature. How did these environments that these young Australian men were thrust into affect them then, and how does it affect them today, seventy years later? But obviously when I explored the jungles that we would be filming in it became clear that these worlds were rich and dense and I wanted to explore the jungle more as a character.
SC: The jungle is a kind of character in the film. Was that something that evolved on paper?
AW: Partly, but even in editing we decided that the jungle should be more of a character. For instance we kept repeating this sequence of the two soldiers coming back to the tree, almost as if it’s drawing them back again, it won’t let them leave. And it’s symbolic of their experience, that part of them will never leave, will be stuck here forever.
SC: I like the way the Japanese army is always present on the margins of the story, either off-screen on the soundtrack or overhead in the planes, but we hardly ever get to see the enemy as more than a few feet creeping through the jungle. Was that partly a function of the budget of the film?
AW: That was a benefit, but in my head it was all about keeping those things we typically see in war films away from what we were experiencing here. And the idea that you often fear things you can’t feel, that you don’t know it’s almost upon you until it happens. It’s the fear of the unknown. I wanted to establish that we were in this world, but I also wanted to avoid painting the Japanese as the bad guys. They were almost like a faceless enemy. You know it’s them, but really it’s not about them. It’s about knowing there’s an enemy, but not knowing how close or far away it is, or what kind of danger you’re in. From the script stage I wanted to make sure that it became part of the world, but not the all-consuming danger. And that allowed other dangers to creep in like the jungle, and other dangers that you manifest within yourself.
SC: Did you spend a lot of time developing the script?
AW: Yeah we did. It’s funny, because people say your script must have been nothing at all, but for me it’s the opposite. The script was quite structured, and we spent a few years developing it to the point where it might not have resembled a typical script, but it had not just dialogue, I put in the characters’ inner thoughts so the actors had a bit more to latch onto, even though they knew they’d never come out as words.
SC: It was very minimal on the dialogue, but obviously it was quite dense in the action.
AW: I really wanted it to be about what someone was feeling or thinking, and seeing that on their face. Not so much about not having dialogue, but relying on those other forms of communication between people, or the fact you can understand what someone means without hearing them say it. That allows the sound design and other elements of cinema to be used more strongly. And I would put that in the script as well, that we would hear the sound shift perspective, move from personal, to landscape, so rather than having any dialogue I’d describe what’s happening with the soundscape.
SC: I think we assessed a fairly early draft, second or third. Did you do many drafts after that?
AW: I did eight drafts... And it got deeper and deeper, richer and richer as I went. I’d come from short films where we were exploring worlds as character in sound design, and I ended up putting a lot of those sound design elements my head what I wanted it to be. And when I showed it to my cinematographer or editor or actors, I’d accompany it with imagery or pictures or colour palette and describe what was happening in the scene and give them something to grasp onto, that was more than just words.
SC: So it was more a treatment than a script finally?
AW: Yeah, Canopy was around 48 pages long, there was dialogue, and words that would be imagined in their (the actors’) head, but there wasn’t a lot of dialogue so it reads as a treatment. But I knew from my short films that my running time was usually pretty much double what I would see on the page. (Canopy is 78 minutes long.) And I’m now working on a thriller set in Hong Kong, and the script is quite long, and I need to refine and refine and refine because I know that even if it’s a genre film, I’ll let things expand. So we have to reduce what’s on the page. I know that from the way I direct stuff that what’s on the page will never be the actual running time. I’m working on the draft revision with the writer. The script’s about 100 pages and I’ve given him 70 pages of notes... much to his disgust!... and he’s now revising it.
SC: Tell us how you came to be picked up as director for Mercy Road (a US-Malaysia co-production)?
AW: My agent in LA has been sending me scripts for a while and I asked them to send me any thrillers or scripts set in Asia. They sent Mercy Road, and from a thematic point of view it resonated with me what this character has been going through. Maybe it’s an extension of what I’ve been exploring in the other films, the idea of an individual thrust into another world and how he has to adapt to achieve his goal. I’ll be working with the writer over the course of next year, but it’s something I really latched onto thematically.
SC: It’s set in Singapore is it, or Malaysia?
AW: Part of it will be set in America but it ends up in Indonesia. And we’ll be shooting it in Malaysia and Indonesia from next year onwards. I just have to get through some current projects at the moment. We’ve got the follow-up film to Canopy we have to finish off as well, and a few other things before we get to Mercy Road.
SC (to Katrina): The film has travelled to quite a few big film festivals now, starting with Toronto. Was that part of your marketing strategy?
KF: Yes. Aaron and I had both done student exchanges to Canada, and we loved Canada to start with. Jane the selector for Toronto comes to Screen Australia every year, and we met with her and showed her the film. And she loved it, and wanted the World Premiere. Then other festivals heard about it. But we were very excited to have our world premiere at Toronto.
SC: Has it sold to many territories yet?
KF: We’ve sold in the US and Canada, UK, Taiwan, and Eastern Europe, and we’ve been given an opportunity to screen on a Chinese online platform with 390 million subscribers – pay per view. So we’re hoping to make lots of money out of that!
SC: Has Canopy cured you of low-budget filmmaking?
KF: I don’t know how to answer that! ...I certainly only put up with the trauma of financing Canopy since it was our first feature. It felt like we had to do it from a career and a resume point of view, and basically we just kept saying “Well it’s our first feature, we’ll only do it with this one...” And I don’t think that we’ll finance another film in the piecemeal way that we did, because we won’t need to. The second film has a lot more support already because we’re a proven entity, we’re now recognized by Film Victoria and Screen Australia and film financiers and sales agents around the world. Thanks to our Toronto screening it makes it a different proposition.
SC: What’s next for Katrina and Aaron?
KF: We have the sequel (to Canopy) that we’re working on now, we’re very excited about that. 80% of it is set in Australia this time, and the rest in Singapore. I’m co-producing another comedy film called The Heckler. And Aaron has got his first American-Malaysian co-production film up and running... ‘Mercy Road’.
SC: Sounds like you’ve got a very exciting year or two coming up... Thanks for talking with us Katrina and Aaron, and good luck with ‘Canopy 2’, and Mercy Road.