Jack Huston

It’s an interesting choice for a remake and I recently spoke to actor Jack Huston about his starring role in the new Ben-Hur…

Matt:  The 1959 Ben-Hur was an epic in all sense of the word – in terms of its length, and box-office, and Oscars haul.  We’ve even coined the phrase “bigger than Ben Hur”.  A lot of people might be sceptical of a remake.  What was your first reaction when you heard about another film being made of Lew Wallace's novel?

Jack:  I’m a big lover of the 1959 version and I loved what Charlton Heston did with it but it was a very different time of making movies.  Performances were very theatrical and operatic back then.  I terms of this film, we were very conscious that we wanted this to be a very humanised story that people can relate to.  It’s set 2000 years ago but we quickly realised it’s a current story in the sense that we still have wars that are driven by religion and politics.  While the 1959 film was very much about revenge, this more about hope, forgiveness, redemption, kindness and love.

Matt:  An interesting theme for me was the way in which the spectacle of competitive sport is a powerful tool for getting people to put aside differences and come together.  Morgan Freeman’s character talks about the way you can dent a society’s pride by beating them in the sporting arena.  Is that something you found interesting in the script?

Jack:  It’s very interesting.  There’s a scene late in the film after the race and looks around and starts to worry if he’s done the wrong thing.  Judah is seeking revenge and when he gets it, he realises that he’s never felt lower.  There’s a moment where my character drops a rock and symbolises the release of the anger and hated that’s built up inside of him.  When you look at politics today, it’s how the world is controlled – by instilling a sense of fear in everybody.

Matt:  Given Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning performance is so iconic, how did you go about reinvigorating the character for this new version?  I’m guess there’s a lot of pressure from particularly the older generation that will be comparing you to Heston?

Jack:  They might but it’s funny because when I read the script, I realised this wasn’t a remake of the 1959 version.  It’s a completely reimagined story of Lew Wallace’s novel that was written 130 years ago.  It’s been adapted quite a few times for the stage, cinema and television.  The reason is because it’s a great story.  Film is an interpretive art form.

When I read the script, I saw my Judah Ben-Hur as very different to what Charlton Heston did and it was a big reason why I wanted to do the role.  Heston was very much a “man’s man” but my character is more of a “lost child” who has a deep love for his brother and struggling to find his own way.  He’s at a crossroads and is struggling to make a decision.  By staying neutral, he’s not committing to anything and it’s through the betrayal that he goes on this journey or redemption.

Matt:  You get the chance here to work alongside the great Morgan Freeman who must have cinema’s most iconic voices.  What was it like?  You’ve been in the business a little while now but is there a lot you can learn from someone with his vast experience?

Jack:  Every day I learned from him.  He’s a humble man with an amazing presence.  He’s funny as hell though.  He instantly puts you at ease and he’s wonderful to work with.

Matt:  It’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate these days between what’s real and what’s visual effects.  Can you tell me how Timur Bek-mam-be-tov was able bring those to life?  Are you actually riding a chariot?

Jack:  Every time you see us on a horse with the chariots, that’s actually us doing it.  We trained tirelessly for months.  We didn’t use any CGI except for when we had an accident such as a horse being injured.  When you see me standing on a chariot and smashing into things, all of that was real.

Matt:  All actors love to do their own stunts but do you actually fear for your life when you’re dong that stuff?  It looks so intense on screen.

Jack:  This is about as dangerous as it gets.  Everyone was very open about that.  For modern audiences to experience this and believe in the story, we knew we had to be on those chariots.  Timur put GoPro cameras all over the place and we shot 6 weeks on the first unit and 5 weeks on the second unit just for the chariot race sequence.    

Matt:  Are there actually scenes shot on a GoPro camera that ended up in the finished product?

Jack:  Absolutely.  We wanted the audience to feel like they were on those chariots.  It’s utterly immersive.

Matt:  Was the chariot ring a giant set?

Jack:  They actually built the circus to scale.  There were times when we had 32 horses going around that arena at one time.

Matt:  I’m guessing you’re a fit guy anyway but was there a lot of additional preparation required to get into shape for this character?

Jack:  I actually had to lose 30 pounds before shooting because Judah spends 5 years working in the galley of a slave ship and if you wouldn’t exactly be ripping with muscle.  I was incredibly strong because I was in the gym but I had a very specific diet to keep my weight down.  It was tough trying to do.

Matt:  When you have a film that’s set 2,000 years ago, there’s really nothing to refer back to in terms of the way people spoke back then.  How do you therefore settle on an accent, a way of speaking for your character?

Jack:  The movie has a very diverse cast which I think Timur was smart about.  He wanted it to be a multicultural film.  We spoke in a way that would make the film accessible to audiences.  Times change but human interaction doesn’t.  We love, we hate, we fear.

Matt:  Hollywood feels like it’s becoming more and more risk averse with its reliance on comic book movies and animated sequels.  What’s the hook with this remake?  What type of audience are you trying to attract and what are you hoping they’ll take away from it?

Jack:  I think we might be getting a bit of superhero fatigue.  People might want to call this a remake but it’s not in any way.  This is a completely reimagined version of a beautiful story.  It’s the reason we make cinema.  You have to experience this on the big screen and as a movie lover, I feel honoured because this is part of the reason I got into movies and now I’m a part of them.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment.  What are we going to see you in next?

Jack:  I’ve got a movie called The Yellow Birds, Their Finest and Above Suspicion all coming out soon.  I’m just trying to keep it all going by playing some fun, diverse roles.

Abe Forsythe

Down Under marks the second feature film of writer-director Abe Forsythe and is a dark comedy set against the backdrop of the 2005 Cronulla riots.  I recently caught up with Abe and he provided some great insight into his film. You can listen to the full interview by clicking here.

Matt:  There are so many parts to Australia’s history and culture.  Where did the inspiration come from to make a dark comedy centred on the Cronulla riots?

Abe:  It was when I found out I was going to be a father back in 2010.  I realised that I didn’t have much time left to write a script before I was going to be busy with a child.  It also left me questioning what kind of world that I wanted my child to be brought into and the theme of masculinity since I knew I was having a son.  That led me to the Cronulla riots themselves.  I’d been experimenting with short films that dealt with social issues in a comedic way and everything kind of poured out of me after that.

Matt:  The Coen Brothers always set the benchmark for me when it comes to making a dark comedy.  How tough was it to write this script?  To find a film that highlights a darker side of Australia while also doing so in a humorous manner?

Abe:  The Coen Brothers are filmmakers I respect above and beyond almost all others.  A movie like Fargo is a perfect example.  They can be very funny but very dark and ultimately very poignant.  That’s what I was aiming for tonally.  There are some big comic moments and performances in this film but it was important for me that we treated the subject with the care and seriousness that it deserved.  I’ve seen from screenings so far that audiences have been surprised.

Matt:  What kind of research can do you to create characters for a film like this?  How easy was it to get an understanding of the sheer stupidity of some of these people while also trying to get an appreciation of why they have developed such a warped sense of right and wrong?

Abe:  These characters are stereotypes in a way.  They’re big, broad, comic performances.  However, the actors who play the roles also know how to play different levels.  It’s not just comedy with nothing else going on.  Each of these actors is able to convey what it is behind their exterior that is causing them to act in that way.  It’s important for audiences to see that it’s a complicated situation and people act in this way for many, many different reasons.  Racist behaviour is often an outlet for getting frustration out on other things that they don’t have working in their lives.  

Matt:  What sort of reactions did you get when trying to source funding for the film?  Similar to Snowtown, this is a dark chapter in Australian history that needs to be spoken out but there’s often a reluctance to do so, particularly on the big screen.

Abe:  We didn’t encounter too much difficulty.  When people read the script, they understood the tone and what the film ultimately says.  In terms of the comparison to Snowtown, even though this film starts at the riots, it’s a fictional tale with character that represent people there but not one person in particular.  That was important to me.

Matt:  Watching the early parts of this film, I was wondering it might be bit goofy and stereotypical like Housos Vs. Authority but the ending certainly got me.  It really does pack an emotional punch.  So I want to ask what is the end goal with a film like this?  What are you hoping people will take away it and do you think it has the ability to sway public view?

Abe:  I’m not ignorant enough to think that one single movie can change ingrained behaviour.  What a movie can do is put you in a space where you sit down in a cinema, have a shared experience with an audience, and maybe think about something in a different way.  That’s part of the reason we use comedy in the movie.  We want people to laugh but then make sure they don’t get let off the hook at the end.  It would have been irresponsible of me if I didn’t end the film the way that I did.  We wanted to give audiences something to discuss and carry around with them.

Matt:  I heard you speak at the Brisbane premiere that you’ve been getting some nasty comments on social media since the film’s premiere in Sydney.  What sort of stuff have people been saying?  Is that tough to deal with?

Abe:  It’s been eye opening.  People have been reacting to some articles where I’ve made comments about racism, ignorance and ingrained behaviour.  I’ve been saying that we all need to take a step back and start listening to each other.  For the first time in my life as a white Australian male, I’ve been on the receiving end of a level of abuse and hatred that some people encounter every day.  I learned so much making the movie and talking to people that have experienced prejudice in all sorts of ways.  It’s been a learning experience for me.

Matt:  The film has quite a big cast.  How easy was it to find the right actors you wanted for the roles?  There’s a broad mix of ethnicities and personalities.

Abe:  I’m not going to lie – it was daunting to begin with.  We have 8 main characters and lots of other significant roles.  One miscast role could have brought everything down around it.  I was lucky in that I didn’t have to recruit a big Hollywood star or an Australian household name to get the money.  I was able to go with exactly who was right for each role.  We saw a lot of people during the audition process.  Once selected, it was then a matter of getting everyone working together and making sure the chemistry was there.  For such a dark subject matter, I couldn’t have asked for a better cast to be surrounded by.

Matt:  The story is set in 2005 which isn’t quite the current day but it’s not far off either.  I often wonder whether that throws up some challenges when picking locations and attire because you don’t want it to look too new.

Abe:  It’s interesting.  With 2005, you think it’ll be easy but you’re surprised by how many things trip you up.  There’s a scene set in a video store and back then you had both VHS tapes and DVDs.  Trying to find those VHS tapes to put on a shelf was really hard.

Matt:  There are some interesting choices in the soundtrack but the one that stood out was the song from The Neverending Story.  Was there any inspiration behind that?

Abe:  We have quite an ecclectic group of songs.  I was looking for songs known internationally so that it could play for a very broad audience.  We were lucky with that particular track because it wasn’t too expensive to get the rights.  At the same time, that song beautifully summed up the absurdity of this situation.  The song makes you think of your childhood and makes you remember a time when the majority of us were unaware of the intricacies and dangers of the world.  They sing along to the song and it’s a sweet moment of innocence in the film before the impending finale.

Matt:  Your first feature film was Ned and in this film, one of the characters is covered in Ned Kelly tattoos.  Is that just a coincidence or was there something more to it?

Abe:  It is just a coincidence.  There was one moment where I asked myself “am I going to do this?” but I realised that it necessary to pull off an important joke in the film.

Matt:  Any plans to take the film overseas and possibly to any international film festivals?

Abe:  Yes.  I can’t announce one of the film festivals just yet but the film will be at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas for its North American premiere.  I’ve always wanted to go there as a punter so I can’t wait to immerse myself in film for a week.  With Down Under, part of the audiences will be able to remove themselves from the story because they’re unfamiliar with the Cronulla riots but at the same time, there are frightening parallels with other events that are currently going on overseas.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by what working on next?

Abe:  I’ve spent 6 years working on Down Under and trying to get it out there.  I love this movie and I’m so proud of it but I can’t wait have a break from it. 

Xavier Samuel

Love & Friendship is based on a novel by Jane Austen and is about to find its way into Australian cinemas.  I spoke with one of the film’s stars, Australian Xavier Samuel, about the project…

Matt:  I first remember seeing you in Peter Carstairs’ September which came out almost 10 years ago now.  What thoughts do you have looking back on your career at this point?  Did you think you’d have such an interesting resume under your belt after graduating from drama school?

Xavier:  I’ve been very lucky so that many different opportunities have come my way.  It’s been very cool.

Matt:  We see shows like Entourage that offer a look into Hollywood and how actors can make it big with a big movie franchise.  Is that something you’re looking for over the next few years or do you prefer lower-budget, independent movies like Love & Friendship?

Xavier:  There’s no grand plan to be involved in massive films.  I’d look at it on a case-by-case basis and hopefully the work is interesting and challenging as it was with Love & Friendship.  It’s based on the Jane Austen novella and writer Whit Stillman has given it an Oscar Wilde-like feel in adapting it for the screen.

Matt:  How did this script first come across your radar?

Xavier:  I met Whit Stillman in Los Angeles and read a couple of scenes with him.  That’s how it kicked off.

Matt:  A friend was chatting to writer-director Whit Stillman recently and he mentioned you almost pulled out of this to work on another Aussie film but he really wanted you and was able to work things out.  That’s a nice display of confidence from your director?

Xavier:  It is, especially considering he is an auteur.  I was very thankfully that he wanted to work with me.  It was an amazing experience to be part of an ensemble that included Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry and James Fleet. 

Matt:  Most of Jane Austen’s works have been adapted for the screen countless times but before I’d heard about this project, I’ve never heard of Lady Susan.  Was it a work you were familiar with?

Xavier:  I wasn’t familiar with it either.  It’s a weird novella in that it’s a series of letter.  Whit has interpreted and reimagined it and created something very funny.  Kate Beckinsale’s character is very manipulative but we end up cheering for her because he’s so charming.

Matt:  Taking on a role like this, do you read the novel to try to get an insight into the character or is best to avoid the source material and stick with the guidance provided by Whit?

Xavier:  You read anything you can get your hands on and be as informed of the world as you can be.  There were still a lot of conversations with Whit though about the direction he wanted to take it in.

Matt:  What was it like working with Whit?  I remember loving The Last Days of Disco which also had Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny but I haven’t heard much at all from him in recent years?

Xavier:  He’s a very collaborative director and he writes as he goes along.  He incorporated more scenes with Tom Bennett as we were going along because he was so funny.  He has a very particular sensibility that people will know from films like Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco.  His characters love discussing ideas and talking about society. 

Matt:  You’ve had the chance previously in Anonymous but you’re working here again as part of a period piece film.  Does that genre throw up challenges that are different from other films you’ve worked on?  Is it harder to get the dialogue and timing precise?

Xavier:  It’s harder trying to find a frame of reference.  No one knows exactly how people spoke in Elizabethan times for example.  The helpful thing is that there is a lot of reading and research that is available.    

Matt:  Does a lot of work go into getting the dialogue precise?  I guess there’s no room for improvisation in a film like this.

Xavier:  Yeah (laughs).  It’d he hard to improvise using Jane Austen dialect.  There’s a musicality to the way Whit writes and it is fun to learn and work through.  All the scenes in the film are battles of wit and it’s really enjoyable to be a part of it.

Matt:  Are you a natural dancer or does that take a bit of work?

Xavier:  I don’t know if anyone is a natural when it comes to dancing the way they did back then.  It’s very formal and the whole courting process was hilarious to actually do.

Matt:  I always love the costumes in period piece films.  Does it take a long time to get fitted?

Xavier:  They put a lot of effort into that for Love & Friendship.  I had curlers in my hair and sideburns being applied every morning.  It was quite amusing.

Matt:  The key to any romantic film is about creating chemistry between the characters and here you a strong connection with both Kate Beckinsale and Morfydd Clark.  How easy is it to illustrate that chemistry on screen?

Xavier:  It’s a testament to Whit’s casting and the way that he’s brought people together.  Kate and Chloe worked together on The Last Days of Disco and they have a great rapport.  It’s not something that you have to necessarily work at if you trust the director.  One of the funny things in Love & Friendship is that the characters are on very different pages.  You may think two people are getting along well but one of them is actually being manipulated. 

Matt:  When are we going to see you on screen next?  I believe The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is opening the Melbourne Film Festival. 

Xavier:  Yeah, I’m going to watch that for the first time on opening night.  I also just finished a film in Adelaide called Bad Blood which is directed by David Pulbrook and is a psychological thriller.  I also just finished a 6-part series for the ABC called Seven Types of Ambiguity with Hugo Weaving, Leeanna Walsman and some other amazing actors.  It’s the first time I’ve properly done television which was a great thing to be a part of.

Ivan Sen

It was selected to open the Sydney Film Festival and it’s about to be released in Australian cinemas.  I caught up with Goldstone writer-director Ivan Sen to talk about the project…

Matt:  Australia has made some great films with indigenous characters at the centre like Ten Canoes, Samson & Delilah and The Sapphires but it seems to be that we don’t make a lot of them.  Would you say that’s the case?

Ivan:  Yeah.  It’s a small percentage but I think indigenous films punch well above their weight.  They seem to make a difference when they do come around.

Matt:  You’re someone who has now put together several feature films that have won and been nominated for awards.  Do you find it easier to secure funding for your productions or is the industry as tough as ever?

Ivan:  Every time you make a film you get a chance to learn stuff and I think people in control of the finance trust you a little bit more each time.  It therefore gets easier each time you go around.

Matt:  Someone was telling me that you wrote the script here in Brisbane in a coffee shop?  Is that true? 

Ivan:  Yeah, my local cinema is the Palace Barracks and I often go there and do a bit of writing.  It was great to write the film there and then have the Queensland premiere at the same place.  It was amazing.

Matt:  How long did it take to write the script?

Ivan:  It was a very quick write to start.  It initially only took a couple of weeks to get the first draft and then maybe about 3 months after that to get it finished and ready for finance.

Matt:  When you’re writing a script, how do you know you’re on the right track?  Is it gut instinct or do you have friends, or maybe even a muse, that you show it too and bounce ideas off?

Ivan:  It’s different every time.  I have a script that’s about 7 years old and I’m still going with it.  It’s a matter of following your gut and instinct in most cases.

Matt:  There are some quite sinister characters and subplots in this film.  Is it purely a work of fantasy or was there someone or something in your life that inspired it?

Ivan:  It’s hard to come up with any pure fantasy in this world.  You’re always getting bits and pieces from reality and this is no different.  It involves corruption on many different levels within the mining industry, the local government, and even the Aboriginal Land Council.  Similar tales have been heard in the news and that’s the beauty of film.  You can pick different parts from reality, put them all together, and package it up as entertainment.

Matt:  I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a scene early in the film where Jay (Aaron Pedersen) is fired upon with a barrage of bullets in a caravan.  It’s a dramatic, unexpected scene and I was curious to know how you settled on that as the film’s big action introduction.

Ivan:  It was important to set the film up as a thriller and so action and tension is a part of that.  It’s something that I wanted to make more of in this film compared to Mystery Road.  This is a bit of a spin off which is more laid back and more of an investigation story.

Matt:  Your last film, Mystery Road, was shot in and around Winton.  Where did the filming of Goldstone take place? 

Ivan:  I wrote this script and I then had to find a place to shoot the film.  I drove all over Queensland and I couldn’t find anything as strong as the land around Winton.  We went a few hours the other side of Winton this time and I think it’s the most spectacular landscape anywhere in Queensland.

Matt:  I can imagine it is hard shooting in such a remote location.  Was it a real challenge?

Ivan:  Yeah, it was very difficult to get out there and get set up.  There was no power, no water, no phone and no internet.  There was nothing at all really.  We had to bring in all our own accommodation and that chewed up most of the budget.  Once we were there, it became easier as we were out on location the whole time and there were no distractions.

Matt:  Did you need generators to power up the cameras?

Ivan:  Yeah.  We had massive generator trucks because we were out there for almost two months.  We also had to cook our own food which was trucked in from Longreach.

Matt:  There are some great flyover shots that provide a great perspective of some events.  Is that a drone that you used for those?  The camera looks so incredibly still.

Ivan:  Yeah.  Drones offer incredible technology these days.  Every time you do a film, the technology grows so much.  We had to use a helicopter in Mystery Road because drones weren’t available to us three years ago. 

Matt:  You’re working again with Aaron Pedersen after you combined so beautifully Mystery Road.  Did you write the roll with him in mind or was there a broader casting process?

Ivan:  I wrote the film Mystery Road for Aaron Pedersen and set up the character of this detective caught between worlds.  It made sense to do another one and I knew he had a lot more to offer.  He’s keen for me to write a third instalment or maybe even a TV series down the track.

Matt:  Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is played by Tommy Lewis – he’s caught trying to please so many groups of people that he seems to have lost all sense of right and wrong.  Did you see him that way when putting the screenplay together?

Ivan:  Definitely.  He’s a character we haven’t seen much in Australian cinema in that he’s an Aboriginal villain which is quite rare.  He plays someone with huge responsibilities in the indigenous community and shows that pressure from the outside can create unwanted temptations.

Matt:  And what was it like working with Jacki Weaver, a two-time Academy Award nominee?

Ivan:   It was amazing as I wrote the character specifically for her.  I felt like I couldn’t make the film without her.  To hear her say the lines that I’d written for her was great.  We only had her on local for a few days but she definitely packs a punch in the movie.

Matt:  You’ve been taking this film around the country with preview screenings in the lead up to its release this week.  I’d love to know what sort of responses you’ve been getting from audiences and in particular, indigenous Australians?

Ivan:  The feedback has been positive which is great.  We took the film to Winton for a premiere and indigenous audiences there were very interested in the representation of the Land Council and the connection with the mining companies.  Aside from that, they were wrapped up in the story and engaged by this thriller.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment?

Ivan:  I’m in talks with a couple of companies about two different films.  They’re both science fiction films which are quite big compared to Goldstone.