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.