There's a nice new Australian film out this week called Summer Coda. I had the chance to catch up with first time director Richard Gray to talk about the film and the interesting journey in getting it to the big screen.
For those too lazy to read all of this (tsk tsk), you can download a podcast of the interview in my special interview section. Just click here.
Matt: You started out working in a cinema. Is that correct? What was your role there?
Richard: That’s right. From the age of 15, I’ve been working in cinemas. When you’re a film nerd, the best place to work is at a cinema because you get free movie tickets. I worked from making popcorn, to selling tickets, to working the projection booth. I always tried to hang out up there so I could watch hundreds of films.
Matt: So does this mean you get to see the same films over and over? Is that actually a good way to learn the craft?
Richard: It’s funny. Where I worked there were 7 cinemas and there were black and white monitors up in the projection area that you’d watch to make sure they were playing in the right aspect ratio and there was nothing wrong with the prints. It was a great way to learn how to edit because when it’s mute and you’re not listening to the audio, all you can see are the cuts in the film. So I found that really fascinating – I’d just sit there and watch the monitors.
Matt: So what was it then that kicked you off – that made you decide to be a filmmaker?
Richard: I started making my own short films when I was 15 after I found out I wasn’t a very good actor. It’s when you work with great actors that you realise what an amazing craft it is. I just wanted to write stories to be able to work with great actors. I was lucky enough to go to school with Cassandra Magrath who is an actor in the film. We went to high school together and she was great to put in short films and it went from there.
Matt: You did the whole short film thing trying to make a name for yourself?
Richard: Yeah. I made a bunch of short films and then went to the Victorian College of the Arts and did a Bachelor of Film there. That was great. I learned how to shoot on 16mm which is kind of dying now, learning to shoot on film. It was great for me to get in there with the swansong of film and learn how to make films on film. I made a few short films there and the last one did well at film festivals and that gave me a kick into the industry.
Matt: Let’s talk now about Summer Coda. I believe like any film, especially for a first time filmmaker, it takes a long time to get up off the ground. How long did it actually take?
Richard: I wrote Summer Coda in 2004 so it’s been six years. It’s very hard to fund an Australian film so you go through the funding bodies and it takes a long time. The cast comes in and goes out of the film too. We were lucky to get everything together at the right time – this time last year. Getting people like Rachael Taylor, Alex Dimitriades, Jackie Weaver, Susie Porter, Angus Sampson really gives a great confidence to your investors that the story is one worth telling. We also wanted to make it commercial – a really good looking film that people would want to go and see at the cinema. We hope that we’ve done that.
Matt: Because it takes so long, what happens in the meantime? What keeps you occupied? What keeps the money rolling in while you’re waiting to get the film made?
Richard: For me it’s cooking shows and lifestyle television. I love that side of my day job. It’s relaxing. Financing a feature film is stressful stuff. It’s nice to be able to sit back on a cooking show set eating fine food and drinking fine wine.
Matt: So what was your role on the cooking show?
Richard: I produced and directed a series called Stefano’s Cooking Paradiso. Stefano de Pieri people will know from A Gondola On The Murray, a TV series.
After going up to Mildura over five years looking for locations, I developed a really close bond with Stefano and we made the cooking series last year for the Lifestyle Channel. I’ve also done a bunch of docos and different lifestyle television but working with Stefano on the cooking show is my favourite thing to do.
Matt: You’ve touched on Mildura, the film’s setting. We’ll talk about the cinematography as well because it was stunning. Why was that particular location the one you wanted for the film?
Richard: Although my family is all from the country - Bendigo and a place called Hamilton – I actually grew up in the city. So I went to my grandparents’ house in the country to write the film because I needed some peace and quiet and a clear head. It was the best thing I ever did.
But I didn’t know where oranges came from in Australia and I knew I wanted to tell this story about fruit picking because of stories I’d heard growing up as a kid. So I googled “citrus” and up came “Mildura” and then I clicked on “Mildura” and up came the name “Stefano”. I then went up and had a meeting with Stefano. I found Mildura that way.
Mildura is such an amazing place. Because of the river and the irrigation, it’s like an oasis. You drive into the town and it’s all palm trees and orchards and vines but you’re six hours from the coast. It’s kind of a surreal place but also a beautiful place.
Matt: When I hear stories being made of these Australian films in small towns, the people of the town love to get behind the film. Did you have that here? Did you have a lot of people wanting to play a part or helping out where they could with the making of the movie?
Richard: It a cliché sometimes when people say that the location is a character in the film but with Summer Coda it most certainly is. Rachael Taylor is travelling home from America and she comes across this town and she goes off on this fruit picking adventure. We couldn’t have made the film without the help of the people of Mildura. They provided citrus blocks, avocado trees, houses, roads, their properties. They taught Alex Dimitriades how to drive tractors and operate machinery.
All the fruit pickers learned how to pick at a place called Orange World which is like the Disneyland of citrus. All the fruit pickers, Angus Sampson and Nathan Phillips, came up two weeks early for orange picking “boot camp”. The town provided tremendous support and in fact one of our major sponsors was the Mildura Brewery which kept us cool in the 45 degree heat.
Matt: Let’s talk quickly about the cast. Rachael Taylor is a great up and coming actress. Alex Dimitriades who has been around for a while now, a very familiar name. The key with any romantic drama is that you need the connection between the two characters. You want the audience to engage and go along the journey them. What was it about these two actors? How did you know they were the ones who’d be perfect for your movie?
Richard: I’d watched Alex Dimitriades for a long time growing up in some great films and television but I hadn’t seen him in a romantic lead. I really wanted to see him in a romantic film where he was just playing the lead role. He wasn’t playing a Greek role, or an Italian role, or a crime role or a drug role – he was just the romantic lead. He was such an amazing guy to work with.
Rachael Taylor on the other hand… many people will have seen her in Transformers and her other big U.S. films but I saw her in this film called Bottle Shock which is about the beginning of the wine industry in the Napa Valley. She’s lovely in it and she’s acting opposite Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman. Seeing her in that made me think she’d be perfect for this film.
Also because people think of her as American and the character in Summer Coda is American. Rachael actually comes from Launceston in Tasmania. She was very “country” and very astute at knowing what a small town is like. She was a delight to work with. She actually did 4 months of violin training at UCLA before she came over for the role.
Matt: I noticed there were a few scenes that were shot in the United States. Cost wise, is that difficult to be able to do that?
Richard: Summer Coda was privately funded but back when it was going to be government funded, we were always going to shoot the American scenes in Australia. I was against that however. I really wanted to make the two deserts look different. When Rachael Taylor’s character comes from the Nevada desert to the Mildura desert, I wanted to show people how different those two sceneries look. We don’t have cactus and we don’t have snow capped mountains behind our deserts.
From a money side of things, you find that when doing things independently, your dollar goes a lot further. We had a tremendous supporter in Virgin Blue that took care of us and flew us over. It enabled us to do a lot of things and make it look as big as it does… to make the price of a cinema ticket worthwhile.
Matt: The thing that struck me most about the film was the cinematography. It captures that part of Australia so beautifully. It’s so clear the way it appears on screen but I believe it wasn’t shot using film. How did you pull that off? How did you make it look so good?
Richard: The cinematographer was Greg De Marigny and it was his first film. I think because it was my first film as well that we both put a lot of work into the craft of the film – trying to make it for the big screen.
As Greg is from Africa but also from New Zealand, he looks at the Australian landscape differently. We sometimes take it for granted but Greg saw such beauty in our landscape and he was able to capture that. We were really wary of wanting the film to look like a big and beautiful romantic drama. We don’t much like handheld or gritty or depressing films. Greg did an amazing job.
Matt: You used a different type of camera, didn’t you?
Richard: Yeah. For many years we held off making Summer Coda because HD video technology just wasn’t up to scratch and film was too expensive. In recent years there’s been a camera come out called The Red. I won’t bore you with the details but it’s revolutionary at its price point. It’s high definition pictures but it’s not video. To my eye it looks like something in between film and video but if you put fantastic film lenses on your camera, you are blown away by the results.
People watch Summer Coda and can’t believe it wasn’t shot on 35mm film. That’s what we want. As we move forward, it’s so expensive to go the movies. You don’t want to be paying more for a movie ticket and getting less quality pictures which was happening with HD video.
Matt: Let’s talk about the score, the soundtrack. We’ve got orchestral music and we’ve got traditional type songs as well. I’m a big lover of film composition. I’ve got a bunch of soundtracks at home – Thomas Newman, James Horner and John Williams. Now you’re the guy in charge of a film and you get a composer in. How awesome is that?
Richard: The music is my favourite part as well. Since I’ve been 18, instead of rocking out to hard core music, I’ve been playing movie soundtracks from the guys you’ve mentioned. When I’m writing a film, that’s the music I’m listening too and it was a big influence on our soundtrack.
The beautiful thing about Summer Coda was that because Rachael Taylor’s character plays the violin, it allowed us to have a really big orchestral score. When I often go to Australian movies, the soundtrack isn’t that great. It doesn’t leave you wanting to buy the soundtrack like a European or American film.
We actually had Australian greatest violinist play the solo violin in the film and we were able to piece together a big orchestral score around that. The score has a country-type feel when Rachael’s hitch-hiking through the desert but when she arrives at the orange grove, it kicks into a big score which is great.
I became friends with the composer while I was at film school. As she’s travelled the world playing violin, I’ve been sending her little scenes and she’d be composing to those scenes. Whenever she knew she’d be in a place where she could record score, she’s do so. It was cool because we had different musicians doing different genres. Whether it was Prague or London or Sydney, it was slowly coming together. We planned the music well ahead of time so it wouldn’t feel like an add on.
Matt: Now that it’s all finished, do you get nervous waiting to see how it goes at the box-office and what the critics make of it?
Richard: It’s really exciting. I got asked the other night whether I get bored watching the film. Often I just stand in the wings off to the side and watch people’s faces for their reactions. I never get tired because it’s such a privilege to be able to make a film in Australia. I’m so lucky. As long as people will have me, I’ll be doing screenings at people’s homes and in their lounge rooms… wherever they will take me.
It is a nervous time though because it is a privately invested film. If people don’t go to the box-office and support it then the investors don’t make their money back. If they do, then they’re likely to invest again and we’ll make another film. We really hope people will go along and see it.
Matt: One thing I haven’t spoken about yet is Project Greenlight Australia. I didn’t realise when I first saw the film but this was the runner-up. You almost won the competition which would have given you $1m to make the film but you missed out. Do you think not winning was a good thing in hindsight?
Richard: Project Greenlight was a screenwriting competition that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon started in the United States. They brought it over here with Sam Worthington and Pia Miranda being the judges. Out of 1,100 screenplays, Summer Coda was runner-up. I was devastated at the time but in retrospect, it’s been amazing for us because the cast and team we have now wouldn’t have been possible back then. The project wasn’t developed enough.
What it did do is give my career a boost because people had read the screenplay and getting it to producers and actors was a turning point. It wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t entered the competition.
Matt: I’ll guess I’ll finish by asking what’s next for Richard Gray?
Richard: After I travel with Summer Coda around Australia, the film will go to New Zealand and around the world. Then, we’re going to do a big romantic comedy called Good Vibrations. I think romantic comedies are something we don't do very well in Australia but I don’t see any reason why we can’t make a fantastic romantic comedy because we’ve got such great actors in this country.