Reel Authenticity

The special extended Onfilm website dance remix
of the interview with writer/director Brad McGann about feature film 'In My Father's Den'.
First published in Onfilm, September 2004. Nick Grant

ONFILM: You're a bit of a man of mystery - doing an internet search on you turned up surprisingly little, though I gather you made a couple of shorts prior to 'Possum' (1997) and that you attended film school in Australia?

Brad McGann Yeah I did a post-graduate course at Swinburne Film School (now VCA) in Melbourne back in 1989. It was a one year course and you had to make a 16mm film to release print, up to half an hour in length - for whatever reason, short films used to be longer back then. I made a 30 minute drama called 'A Home Away From Here', a kind of gritty suburban story about a relationship gone wrong. You know, it was almost inspired by those very early Mike Leigh, Ken Loach films, because we didn't have a great deal of resources and … I mean, people either spent all their money on production value or concentrated on actor-orientated pieces, which is the approach I took. But it was sort of unfortunate timing, because I graduated right at the beginning of the recession where there were no available jobs in the industry and I had a huge study debt to pay back. It wasn't until '95 that I decided I wanted to get back into doing my own work, and I applied to do a documentary with the ABC. We got funding to make a doco called 'Come As You Are', which I co-directed with filmmaker Emma-Kate Croghan, about alter-ego. It was quite a stylised, narrative driven piece that was shot on 16mm for a series called New Voices.

The ABC invited me back to write and direct a short narrative - they produced six short films where they brought filmmakers in who had a film school background. It was an experiment to see if they could go on to (hopefully) make feature films using the ABC TV crew, so they started making these short films. Which was a real challenge, because you had to make them within the established ABC environment… so you felt like you were a complete imposter. You know, it was a bit of a sausage factory compared to what it's like making a film independently. But I'm grateful and I gained a taste for working with inexperienced young actors (which I had to fight to do). I really wanted to explore that further. The NZ Film Commission had seen the result, called 'It Never Rains' and really liked the performances, and funded my next short - 'Possum'. That was how I came into contact with Trevor Haysom [producer of 'Possum' and 'In My Father's Den']…

Obviously Trevor's really the person to ask this, but do you have any idea what it was that attracted him to the novel, and did you respond to the same thing?

When he first offered the book 'In My Father's Den' to me, he said, "Can we turn this into a Montana Sunday Theatre one hour drama?" I read the book and I liked it - you know, it's really beautifully written and I responded to the themes. But the one thing I wasn't sure about was how to tell a story in an hour and whether I wanted to spend eight months on something that was going to be shown once on television.

So I turned it down on that basis. The other thing was it was about a New Zealand that had long since passed. It was set between the '30s and the '60s, it was published in 1972, and it was set in Henderson. But then I had a dream that prompted me to think about it in another way, something that could be set in a different location and based in contemporary times. It meant making some integral changes and taking a different approach.

I imagine Trevor would have been overjoyed at the idea - it's obviously much more achievable to make a contemporary drama than an historical one…

I just didn't know whether the politics of the novel - which went into Protestant ethics, the nature versus nurture debate, religious righteousness versus free-thinking - set in a post-war society would relate to a contemporary audience, especially outside of New Zealand. I felt this was very specific to a New Zealand of that time and I just needed to find ways that I could translate it so that it was going to work for an audience in 2004.

The book concentrated more on the conflict between the two brothers, one being the mother's son and the other being the father's son; a severance in the family that was created by religious dogma versus a more secular view, if you like. The mother and Andrew had this relationship based on God, righteousness and the right way to behave, while the father had the secret den, which he took Paul into, and their relationship was much more about free thought, philosophy, art and liberalism. Maurice Gee used these two differing relationships to explore these undercurrents and varying viewpoints in New Zealand society. The murder of Celia was performed by Andrew, so in some ways the book was pointing the finger at righteousness, you know what I mean, because he kills Celia believing she's the evil seed who has corrupted Paul's life.

So it was all much more conscious - murder as opposed to manslaughter…

Yeah, it was premeditated. And the mother, in a psycho-sexual way, fed into the murder of the 'evil seed', that being Celia. There was no blood-link between Paul and Celia, she was just a student of his, and the interest Paul had in her was tempered by both fatherly and sexual overtones - it had a slight Lolita-esque quality to it. I really wanted to keep some of these narrative threads, and do away with others or explore them in a different way. For example, I decided to reverse the sexual attraction, where Celia is more fascinated by Paul and I wanted the murder to take place in a way that felt like an accident but at the same time felt almost inevitable, where 'everyone and no-one' was to blame - that Celia's death was the result of all the mis-communication, the lies and the secrets surrounding her.

There were themes I felt a strong connection to and were more perhaps more relevant to the world we are living in now. In terms of the mechanics of the mystery I just needed to find ways that kept the murder-mystery aspects of the story but refrained from pointing the finger at anyone in particular. We live in a world where people finger-point, and it's something I particularly dislike. Like, now fundamentalist Christians are blaming the Muslims for everything that's wrong with the world, and extreme fundamentalist Muslims likewise… you know what I mean? If you enter into that debate of 'blame', there's nowhere to go. So I really wanted to get away from religious finger-pointing that made perfect sense in the context of the novel, published back in '72, but might be problematic in a contemporary context.

Pleased to hear you say that. I often find myself watching films where the makers don't seem to cognisant of - or concerned about - the messages they might be carrying. Like 'LOTR' - all the evil sub humans versus the Aryan heroes, you know? I recall producer Barrie Osborne saying the films would be more relevant in a post-September 11 world, and then I saw the evil humans with their robes and mascara in 'The Two Towers', who seemed fairly obviously modelled on Western perceptions of Middle Eastern people -

Yeah, yeah!

- and I thought, "Jesus, what are you doing?"

Yeah, and in an extreme case if you go back to the films that the Third Reich were making, you know, they were personifying the Jews as rats. Symbolism is rife in all types of filmmaking - even the '50s where it was all about the invasion of the Communists. The world has shifted where it's no longer about Communism versus Capitalism, it's about religious ideologies that challenge each other. Nonetheless it's still finger-pointing.

What I actually wanted to say is tragedy can result from people simply not listening to each other and not being honest with one another, and when the channels [of communication] have broken down, we point blame and therefore run the risk of harming each other.

I didn't want Celia to be a sacrificial lamb. I wanted her death to be more about the way innocence pays for the cost of … [looooooooooooong pause] … that when people are busy judging each other, it's usually the innocent who pay for that. The people who end up being the most affected are usually the most innocent, and they pay the price for all the anger that's occurring around them. The George Bushes of the world will always go home to their three-course meal and their cosy little bed while innocent people die in Iraq. And even though this sort of feels like a long way away from my film, I wanted it to echo the idea that tragedy can result from an un-preparedness to communicate and listen.

Also, murder mysteries often play into the good versus evil argument, you know, where the evil person is outed in the end and you realise that underneath they had all this seething sickness that rested beneath the surface. I wanted to play against that as much as I could - even though Andrew is involved in Celia's death, he's not the one who kills her, his reason for taking Celia back to the house was not to kill her. But he chooses to remain loyal to his wife and uses the 'what's done is done' analogy as a way of coming to terms with it. And in some ways I wanted to make him forgivable, because I think that makes it more tragic, you know, where you can't hate the killer. I was breaking a golden rule of the murder-mystery genre by doing that, because the audience expects the baddy's going to come out in the end, and when you don't deliver that they start thinking about other things - maybe that you've short-changed them. Hopefully they start to think, "How did this come to be?" Not who is to blame, but how did this happen in the first place?

The way you structured it really contributes to that I think and makes the viewing experience much more rewarding - because it's not linear you have to reconstruct the narrative in your head and ask yourself, what are the consequences of this action, and this and this …

Well, and it's also the idea that in a murder mystery you always have a hero or an anti-hero - it's either one or the other. But I didn't want Paul to be either, I wanted him to be a flawed character who is capable of doing things that are questionable. His fatal flaw in this story, I guess, is not telling Celia the truth when she outright asks him for it. And even though he gave her the ticket to Spain, he in himself - in his anger towards Andrew and his past, and his unprepared-ness to allow the world in - plays into her death as much as what Penny does, you know. For me, that just sort of echoes the idea that if we are ever to apportion blame, should we not look at ourselves first.

Your comments kind of remind me of how [though months after doing this interview, I'm not sure of why exactly] in the weeks immediately following the Twin Towers being destroyed, American humorist and political commentator Bill Maher pointed out that September 11 hijackers weren't cowards, as they were being generally dubbed, because they were willing to die. And he got fired from his TV show as a result…

Yeah, and what it actually also brings up is that truth is so subjective - you don't know what it means to be another person unless you've walked in their shoes, so how can you judge them. And sure, acts of evil do exist, but you have to be very careful when you start labelling people as "good" or "evil". It's just a very convenient and reductive way of looking at human beings, and to justify their actions of retaliation.

Can you tell me more about Paul's attitude to Celia?

As I said before, in the book it was more sexual in nature - he was fighting these feelings he had towards her. What I wanted in the film was for his feelings to be of a more protective nature - for this to be possibly the first time in his adult life that he's had feelings for another individual, but feelings he doesn't necessarily recognise as being protective. Also, he sees something of himself in her - who he used to be before the proverbial shit hit the fan. But at the same time he does some questionable things, like giving a 16-year old girl alcohol, a ticket to leave, and not telling her the truth when she asks for it. Things that have a double-edge to them - nothing is black and white.

And of course, while there might not be a sexual component to Paul and Celia's relationship, other characters supply that reading, which also prompts the viewer to wonder…

Well, it's there anyway - you just have to put a 34-year old man in a room with a 16-year old girl and people are going to read into that, so I didn't really need to labour on that; I knew it would be there.

But I like to think audiences are open to all forms of intimacy, and I think we do live in a time where intimacy can take many forms, it doesn't just have to be about sex or romantic love. I mean, that aspect of the story is really about two outsiders finding intimacy with each other, which is not at any point about a physical intimacy but a preparedness to open up to each other. Which I think happens in those scenes in the den in the second half of the film - I love those scenes because, you know, you kind of have a sense there's a purpose to this relationship and somehow these two people were destined to be together, talking about these things. And I do like that, but I wanted the context for that to be completely un-manufactured, and the moment I put any sexual undercurrent in there it would just taint the whole reading of those scenes.

I mean, I did play with that in the interview scene, where Celia flirts with Paul. Some of the investors were telling me to take out the humour and the flirtation, but to some extent it just felt right to go there, and I thought, you know, Celia probably would be interested in this guy and there's nothing wrong with that - it's an innocent crush.

In relocating the story to small town South Island, I thought you did a great job of giving a sense of what it's like to grow up in a tiny rural community - that sense of claustrophobia…

I was really interested in the stillness of Central Otago - it's just an area that, I don't know, it just resonates with me for some reason. I lived in the South Island for six years and I would have dreams about Central Otago. I don't know what the reason is, but I always had a yearning to go back there and it was really a cost factor, whether we could afford to do it. That was the wonderful thing about the co-production, it opened up the opportunity to go somewhere we otherwise probably wouldn't have been able to afford to go to.

How long were you working on the script?

I worked on the script over about a three-year period. But in doing that I'd also be working on something else and having breaks. Basically I don't think it's possible to work fulltime on a script - you need to get away from it. I did four drafts prior to production funding, and within each draft I would do two passes and a polish. And then there'd be about six or seven weeks before I'd start the next draft. Usually a single pass would take anywhere up to five weeks, and I'd work four to six hours a day. But it's not just writing, you also need to research and prepare along the way and that can be extremely time-consuming. What you see in a final script is just the 'end result', and not an indicator of the time and effort or the several different versions that were needed to produce that final result. I find that during the writing process, it's always undergoing change. When I read the first draft, for example, it's a completely different film from the one I went into production with. I've probably written 10 different versions of the film to get to the script we went with.

Were you always writing with the fact you were going to direct it in mind?

I guess near the beginning I was open to the idea of somebody else directing it only because I'd started seeing myself more as a writer by virtue of that's what I seemed to be doing with all my time, and I guess I wasn't entirely sure whether I had the skills to direct a feature. Trevor always had absolute faith in me and I think that's what kept me going - he never questioned that I wouldn't direct it. So I kinda just kept going with that [idea]. But I do remember at times thinking, "Fuck, how am I going to pull this off?"

When I had a wave of doubt, I'd deal with it by going for a swim in the ocean or by going to the video store and getting my favourite films out, and watching them almost meditatively. I'd draw on their inspiration, because I knew my story so well, and I felt like I really knew my characters. I'd start thinking, "Maybe I am the best person to tell this story, and the technical limitations I have from my lack of directing experience can be overcome by the fact that I do know what I'm after." In saying that I had made four short films and done my post-grad at a reputable film school, but the leap to a project of this scale is huge. It requires either a lot of confidence, a massive ego, or a degree of good faith. I think the latter in my case.

When one talks to crew, that's what they invariably say they want in a director - someone who knows what they want. The crew can do all the technical stuff…

Yeah, and it worked with my relationship with Stuart [Dryburgh, DOP] in a way, because provided I could express what I wanted emotionally from a scene, he was able to fulfil that on a technical level. I didn't need to know what devices he had to use to achieve that, I was only focusing on the result. I'm more comfortable with the idea of working with the actors and allowing the people who know about the technical side to work that out. In saying that, I was very involved in framing and suggesting camera moves because I had definite ideas how I wanted scenes to play out visually. And Stuart would always come up with something to add on my suggestions.

What I said to him at the beginning was I wanted the film to be very simple and quite sparse; I want the mechanical aspects of the filmmaking - ie, the camera moves and all those sorts of things - to be emotionally driven and to be actually part of the emotional experience of telling this story. But that meant he could suggest anything - he would often say, "I think we should go up high", or "I think we should do this on sticks", or "Let's just sit back and let it take place on screen". Often just being very simple was a good way to go. Particularly working with a lot of first time actors, that [approach] just gave them the space to improvise and to play with the characters and their performance in a way that wasn't being controlled by the crew.v There were a few people on the crew who had come from a much more 'industrial' way of working, where directors had obviously come with a lot of technical experience, and I think they were possibly resistant initially to the idea of actors being able to determine blocking and camera moves, you know what I mean.

Oh yeah - one sometimes gets the impression that when some crew use the word "talent" to describe actors, it's a term of ironic condescension…

Yeah yeah yeah. Not only that but I'm a 'first time' director - I hadn't worked in ad land, or television, I didn't come on set with a baseball cap and start talking tech with them, you know. So I think a few of them saw me as being inexperienced because I didn't speak the lingo or walk-the-talk. But then they would see the performances and you could see them go, "Hang on a minute, this is working." And, to be honest, the reason it worked was also because I had bloody good actors, thanks to [casting director] Dianna Rowan, who knew instinctively what I was trying to do - they had tuned into the emotional landscape of the film without questioning my vision. A lot of work had gone into creating that vision before even stepping on set.

You know, it was just about finding ways of working together where they could do their job and I could do mine. And we managed to achieve it and find a balance. It's a fine art in trying to find the balance between the technical aspects of the craft and those more immaterial forces, if you like, of performance. Authenticity is immaterial, it's either there or it's not, but you have to make room for it, otherwise it ends up just being about the shot.

I think a lot of DOPs really prefer working with directors who don't know a lot of technical stuff though. I recall reading an interview with Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot 'Sugarland Express' for Spielburg and he said it was great because he could just get on with his job. But when Zsigmond shot with him after that, he didn't enjoy it because Spielburg knew exactly which lens he wanted for what shot and so on, so he wasn't able to be as creative...

Strange, because Vilmos was actually one of the people we talked to about shooting this film. I met with him in LA, but we couldn't make it work because of the English co-pro thing. And also Stuart was really keen to do it. But Vilmos, yeah, he mentioned that during our meeting, and it was actually 'Sugarland Express' that made me interested in working with him, that and 'The Deer Hunter'. Because I was really trying to get away from 'maverick' filmmaking - you know, the idea that it's a contemporary film because it 'looks' contemporary. And it does seem to be coming more from the advertising, MTV sort of thing - these people who know every trick under the sun and make these films that look amazing -

Until next year…

Until next year, and it's almost like a style of shooting that's fashionable for a short period. Whereas the films I was using as a reference point were really old films.

What were some of those films? In fact, to go back further, were there any specific films that inspired you to be a filmmaker in the first place?

In terms of influences, you mean? There are many, many filmmakers I love - the ones that had a major influence on me were probably filmmakers who do more with less. Like John Cassavetes, who just made these wonderful gems that are being recognised 30 years down the track but at the time they were made were widely considered as inferior because of their supposed low production values. I love Terrence Malick and, as wanky as it sounds, some of those early Bertolucci films like 'The Conformist' and 'Last Tango in Paris', where there's a sort of grittiness, not only in the characterisation and landscapes but also in the way they were made - they had a handmade quality to them. I loved the 'Decalogue' series by Kieslowski. I like Tarkovsky - 'Ivan's Childhood' is just a film I constantly refer to, but then I really love the comedy of Bruce Robinson - 'Withnail and I' - while another film I thought was really beautiful was 'The Dream Life of Angels' - I looked at it quite recently. And Lukas Moodyson is just brilliant…

There's a minimalist style to these sorts of filmmakers, where they create cinematic space and allow the story to take place in its own unique way. They never give in to plot - there's always a plot within their stories but there seems to be this quite deep psychology or philosophy that's more important. It's a style of filmmaking that I think is hopefully coming back - I see more and more of it now - and it's quite minimal in the way it's achieved. It's simple, it's honest, it's intimate, it's personal, it's about interior landscapes, it's about going into dark avenues and not trying to commodify the psychology of its characters in a way that works purely just for the purpose of the film. It's much bigger than that. And it takes in the random nature of life, you know what I mean? The sorts of films that do that just always feel more real to me. And the films that really have an impact on me, I can't 'see' the writer and I can't 'see' the director - they're completely invisible. To me, suspension of disbelief is really effective when you don't feel someone pulling the strings, and I think a director who's prepared to hand over everything to their actors and really prioritise their reason for being there in the first place, as well as using the visual offerings of the medium in a unique and personal way that isn't forced - they're the sort of director I really aspire to.

I'm almost out of tape - do you want to make a closing peroration or something? Actually, got any projects you're working on?

I want to just write something off my own bat, as opposed to another adaptation. In some ways 'In My Father's Den' has made me aware there's an audience for quiet, personal films that are much more about people and place. Also, that genre is open to complete interpretation.

[Tape runs out]

© Copyright Onfilm magazine,
September 2004