Burning Man is the latest Australian film to be released and it’s been getting some terrific reviews. Both Margaret and David on At The Movies gave it 4.5 stars. Director Jonathan Teplitzky was recently in Brisbane to promote the film and I had a chance to sit down with him for 10 minutes to ask a few questions…
Matt: This is your third feature film. There was Better Than Sex in 2000 and Gettin’ Square in 2003. Both of those films were excellent I might add. I wanted to start off by asking where you’ve been for the past 8 years?
Jonathan: The last two years have been making this film. Two years before that we were writing. So there were only about 2-3 “lost years” where I was doing other things.
10 years ago my partner passed away and I did Gettin’ Square soon after that. It was a great film to do given it was a comedy. After that, it was a time to take stock. I had a young son and I had a serious of projects where the script never quite got to where I wanted it to get to. The more you do it the more you realise that you have to be working to a good screenplay otherwise it’s too fragile.
Matt: Now that you have a couple of films under your belt, have you found it easier dealing with studios and financiers? Can you rely a little now on your reputation?
Jonathan: You hear horrific stories of Martin Scorsese trying to raise money for films and so it’s never easy. As filmmakers you have to be incredibly humble because you’re in such a privileged position – someone is going to put out millions of dollars for you to make a film. That aspect of it is never easy but when you start talking about doing new films, people take your track record into account without a doubt. Hopefully that helps.
Matt: Well it certainly did in this case.
Jonathan: Very much so. I’m moving on now towards an even bigger film and when people see Burning Man they go “ok, this is a serious director who we can trust with this project.”
Matt: You touched on it before but can you tell us a little about the background of this story? I know it’s a fictional tale but it was inspired by certain events in your life.
Jonathan: My partner passed away 10 years ago. I had a young son at the time and as time went on, I found that I was thinking about it as an experience a lot more and wanting to respond to it in a creative way. I really wanted to find a way of expressing the kind of unusual experience that I went through and that I’m sure many other people go through as well.
That was the starting point and then I had to find a way of telling the story that is entertaining, funny and moving. I wanted to be a visceral, emotional film which is why I tried to tell it in a fractured kind of way?
Matt: I wanted to ask about that because it is fractured. When I saw it for the first time it forced me to pay very close attention to try to understand the order of events. What were you trying to do with that style?
Jonathan: In a very simple way, it’s about a man who’s life is fractured so I tried to use the structure as much as I could to infuse the story of his life with that of the audience’s own experience watching it.
The structure in a sense represents his emotional, psychological landscape. His whole life has turned upside down and the experience, particularly in the year after the events, is a very surreal and strange place to be. On one hand, you have been gripped with sadness and tragedy. On the other hand, there’s a certain exhilaration because suddenly, all the rules that you’ve lived by seem to have been thrown out the window.
In many ways, it’s a deluded state but also a wonderful experience. You’re trying to weigh up all these things whilst also trying to numb the pain and get some kind of control over your emotional state. That can result in a lot of self destructive behaviour.
Matt: Matthew Goode’s first scene in the film is a cracker. Often a film takes a little while to get going and introduce the characters. The first scene here is of him masturbating in front of a prostitute. Is that what you were trying to do – get the audience straight in from the start?
Jonathan: When you make a film in this way you need to throw the audience in the deep end straight away. If you pussy foot around for too long, they’re going to resent going there with you. That’s why the first 3 or 4 minutes up to the car crash is like it is – it just gives you a sense of his world we’re dealing with.
I also found that many people have liked the film because they’re not led by the hand. It’s not sentimental and there’s an energy that leaves a lot of things open.
Matt: How’d you get Matthew Goode?
Jonathan: I met Matthew through a mutual friend in London. We kind of met at a time when he was looking to do something different and challenging. We talked for 3 to 4 weeks on and off. He loved the script and found it quite confronting but he really wanted to do it. He knew that if he wanted to break out as an actor, this was the sort of material he needed to do.
Matt: He’s putting together a great resume actually.
Jonathan: He is. Something like this really shows what he can do in a big way.
Matt: I saw you mention in another discussion that it’s a film that could be set anywhere but ultimately, you went with Sydney. Why is that?
Jonathan: I thought about doing the film in other parts of the world but in the end, there are very few places that are as good as Australia in terms of setting up medium budget, independent drama.
Matt: The film had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival which I was lucky enough to attend. Did you get a lot of interest from international investors and distributors?
Jonathan: There was a huge amount of interest. We got a great response from everyone in Toronto. There were fantastic audience Q&As and really big screenings. On the second screening, it was the biggest screen that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It was a great way to premiere the film.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking what’s next? You mentioned that you have another big project in the works.
Jonathan: It’s called The Railwaymen and it stars Colin Firth. It’s a big WWII drama about a guy that is tortured by the Japanese on the Burma railway, survives, and then goes back many years later to confront his torturers. It’s a great film about humanity, forgiveness and the thirst for life.
It will probably be shot in Scotland, Thailand and Queensland so we’ll be in the jungles around the Gold Coast for a few weeks.
Matt: Well I hope Burning Man is a big success at the box office and best of luck with your future endeavours.
Jonathan: Thanks very much.
You can read my review of Burning Man by clicking here.
All Rights Reserved. Matthew Toomey. 2012.