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Melbourne independent filmmakers

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Mark Zenner


123 Interviews

Originally published in June 1990 in Super Eight - the newsletter/magazine of the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group.



How did the idea for ‘Original Copy’ develop?


It developed just before the film was made in a very rudimentary fashion. I had a vague idea about the narrative and then on about the third day of shooting the final form it would take crystallized around the presence of the actors and actual sets.

As for where I got the idea from, I really don’t know. It arose from an old notion I had that I might try to show somebody whose image of himself at any given moment is hopelessly out of time with what his actual image to others is. Somebody whose reflection in the mirror doesn’t always square with the way he thinks he looks.


Whose image of George do we see on the screen?


            It’s left ambiguous. It’s up to the audience what they see. He might be dead. He might be dreamt by someone. Or he might be dreaming.


How did you work within the limitations of super 8 to achieve such a strong expressionistic style, something not normally attempted on that gauge?


            The idea for such effects as I had, once they had crystallized on the third day of shooting, actually came from the limitations of the medium. In other words, I had what I knew I could have. As for the lighting, you can use that expressionistically in any medium.

            Perhaps the basic formal idea was that you discover the limitations of the medium by pushing it, by trying for something that usually isn’t tried and that seems a bit more difficult than normal. You soon discover what you come up against. It’s a way of testing the medium, it’s flex.


What sort of things did you discover?


            I discovered that there’s no truth to the myth that you cannot get smooth pans on Super 8.

There’s no truth to the myth that you cannot edit as much as you please and have shots as short as you please. If spliced carefully they won’t jump.

You can get very good quality, detailed images if you use fine grain stock by virtue of the fact that you just can’t print them. It’s precisely the fine-grain, high- resolution stocks in Super 8 colour that are impossible to print because no suitable low-contrast reversal print material exists for those.


In Super 8 you get, relative to the distance from camera and relative to other mediums, a higher depth of field. The smaller the film gauge, the bigger the depth of field you can get without having to follow focus.


Given that some of the scenes in ‘Original Copy’ were shot using direct sound, how did you overcome the problem of the one second sound delay when editing the footage?


I used a rather rough and ready method. I transferred everything on the mag stripe from the projector, through an amplifier and onto quarter inch reel tape. Then, still using the pre-amp, I equalized that and retransferred it in cases where an overlap would have been disturbing. I simply had to juggle around the tape and the projector until I found dead synch, which at 18f.p.s. is slightly easier than 24f.p.s.


What compromises were you forced to make during the shooting of the film?


Initially I wanted the ending to be far more violent. I wanted the cane broken over George’s face, and copious blood. But I’m not unhappy with the ending as it is. Because the first idea would have been too physical, too present somehow, and it would have detracted from the ghostly sense of George’s character that I wanted to convey.

            The limitations of Super 8 mainly confine themselves to the sound quality you get. You have to be super careful when filming indoors not to let even a quiet camera reverberate and reflect off bare walls or highly reflective surfaces. And using a high quality microphone doesn’t help you in these instances because the higher the quality the better it will pick up that reflection. One must always blimp cameras, and blimp them thoroughly when filming indoors. There simply is no way around that.


With the filming of ‘Original Copy’ you didn’t have a fixed vision of what each and every shot would look like before day 1. Instead, you maintained a flexibility and discovered possibilities in the midst of actual shooting, much like Godard is said to have done with ‘A Bout de Souffle’. Do you think this is the way to go with super 8?


            If you have a too precise vision of what you want before a film is made you are much better advised to go into a larger format, especially if opticals are involved.

            On the other hand, if you know the limitations and specific advantages of each gauge, and the well thought out idea or theme fits within those limitations, then there’s no reason why within them you can’t use what’s available to its maximum possible extension.


Could you have made a better version of ‘Original Copy’ on 16mm?


The question is neither here nor there because at this stage all I can see are the film’s flaws, and if I was to do it again on 16mm it actually wouldn’t be the same film. Whatever I did not quite right on Super 8 would be done right on 16mm, so it actually wouldn’t be the same film. Technically it would probably have a lot more polish, but you can never re-make a film exactly on a larger format because that ‘re’ means you’re repeating something, and by repeating it you’ll improve it. The question can never arise.


Tell me about your other ideas for films you’d like to make, such as ‘The Vultures’.


            ‘The Vultures’ is basically the idea of a love story, although of a particular kind. It would be about a person who falls in love with another and who, in being totally preoccupied with that other person, becomes psychically, spiritually, emotionally and finally physically depleted. A diabolical element might or might not come into it, with the ambiguity of whether the loved person is or is not aware of the effect he or she is having upon the lover, and if he or she is not in fact exacerbating precisely that effect to derive some mysterious advantage or feeling of power from the thing. I envisage it as primarily an emotional advantage. It would add to the intimate chamber quality of the idea, without in any way lessoning the element of diabolism, parasitism, and perhaps vampirism involved.

            Vampirism is an old theme. It goes back to Byron and was adumbrated in a short novel by Henry James written in 1899 entitled “The Sacred Fount”, and, in short, it would be a good subject for a film, if one could get the actors one needed.

            Then there is an idea for a documentary I wanted to entitle “Death at Work”. It was to involve finding a real person with a terminal disease, probably cancer, and obtaining that person’s permission to come in every day during the duration and up to the termination of his illness, and briefly taking a film shot of him. Placed next to this sequence of shots, which would of course illustrate graphically a kind of time-lapse process of deterioration in the person’s face, there would be snap shots of this same person juxtaposed at the beginning and end of the thing as a form of brackets. And after a final view of that photo, go back to that person as he is now, at the end, or very near the end.

            It’s a documentary and also an experiment in as much as I wanted to see if on that face anything besides purely physical deterioration appears. That foreknowledge of what has to happen and cannot not happen. A spiritual endeavour if you will, or research.

            Another idea I had was to illustrate how a sudden and violent act has in a sense already been recuperated by the possibilities of communicating that through various media.

            For example, someone reads a newspaper on a bench, awaiting an old friend in the grounds of a commission flat. They have an argument, then a fight, and the other is killed by main force. The idea I had was that with each subsequent scene in the piece the picture would recede into the view of the grounds’ security camera. This would be a television image and this would turn into a video tape that some reporters or police would examine and a press conference would be in progress, and this would turn into a voice coming out of a radio in a woman’s flat. The woman would listen a while, keep on vacuuming, go over to the window and look down. Suddenly, as if we were seeing ghosts, two men would meet. We’d go down to them, then find out they weren’t the same two, they were just reporters who’d come to take pictures of the place for the Sunday tabloids. So we’d go from that into the photos they take and then these photos would be littering some desk of exhibits in a news room, which would then again turn into a photo, and so on. Finally a newspaper half-tone photo of the entire process would turn into a newspaper being read by a man on a bench, the same man we saw at the beginning, or possibly another, waiting for his friend. The man folds his newspaper, throws it into a bin and begins to take his walk.

            The basic idea is that no act, no matter how sudden or capricious, unmediated, unforeseeable or unique, can exist that hasn’t already found its proper form or image. That everything, in a sense, has already happened and will continue to happen. It’s that cycle I wanted to show.


Why do you make films?


I make them to please myself. The challenge of making something that somehow stands as a structure and is unified is its own reward. If I, months later, can come back and project the thing, and look at it and believe in that world, then I’m happy. If audiences manage to get some kind of …well I don’t know…entertainment, food for thought, thrills? Who knows what they get out of films? Even the audiences don’t know …If they manage to get something out of it too, particularly a strong, intense feeling that it was intended they should have at a given point, that’s also a source of satisfaction. If you intend fear and they feel it, you’ve done your job.


You sketch, you write, but you love making films the most. What do you love about film?


It’s got everything. It’s got a visceral excitement, a power to create spaces and atmosphere and moods that never existed. Characters out of nothing. With that corporeality, it paradoxically allows you to create everything out of absolutely nothing.


You made some 16mm films in the early eighties. Would you like to work in that gauge again?


Very much.


So you do have plans of making a 16mm film in the future?


            I have nothing to lose by at least submitting an application for a grant and submitting it more than once. But in the event of that not going through, I have the option of being able to make it independently by private means.


And how would you go about getting the film exhibited?


            A lot of telephoning and running around I presume.


In Melbourne?


            Not necessarily. I’m hoping to film the thing overseas. Screening a good film in Melbourne is really like casting pearls before swine.


Why is Australian filmmaking so dull?


            Because the mentalities of the people making them are dull and the mentalities of the people issuing grants to them are even duller. Plus the quality of the scripts is very poor. Most people who attend film schools, on close examination, would be found to be semi-literate, very badly read. And on the whole, people are afraid to take imaginative chances because of the situation of money for filmmaking. In other words, filmmaking as such issuing from the fiat of government funding bodies.


Wouldn’t the case be the same in other countries?


            Well, there are governments and there are governments. Those in Australia are not noted for being up with the times, or being particularly devoted to experiment.


Give me a hint of what your next super 8 project is going to be about.


            It’s about how fear isolates. Unusually for me it will be a sombre film, but also very romantic and dark. With a kind of magic invisibility shrouding everything. Much of the film will be shot at night using a fast stock.


Can you give me the title?


‘3 AM.’ That stands for ‘ante meridian’.


(This interview was recorded on the evening of May 21, 1990)


Mark La Rosa, 1990

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Melbourne independent filmmakers is compiled by Bill Mousoulis