MENACING STRANGERS: A Q&A with the makers of “CRAWL”

MENACING STRANGERS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR PAUL CHINA AND ACTOR GEORGE SHEVTSOV OF ‘CRAWL’

Kier-La Janisse

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It’s not often you hear of a filmmaker coming out of nowhere with an award-winning feature film without having made as much as a single short, but Australian writer/director Paul China’s Crawl may be the exception to the rule. The film walked away from the 2011 Screamfest with trophies for Best Actress, Best Director and Best Cinematography before making its way to the Cannes Film Market this past May. With an impressive crew and some showstopping onscreen talent, Crawl has emerged to be one of the surprises of this year’s festival circuit, even drawing bold comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. With a narrative stripped down to its bare essentials and minimal locations, Crawl is the story of an impish waitress (appropriately named Marilyn Burns, likely after Texas Chainsaw’s heroine) whose plans for a romantic evening turn horribly awry when her sleazy boss (radio DJ Paul Holmes in his acting debut) hires a mysterious Croatian (George Shevtsov) to kill a former business partner, and she inadvertently ends up in the middle of the assassin’s botched getaway plan. Waiting in her isolated country house alone for her boyfriend’s return with what – he’s hinted – is an engagement ring, she doesn’t realize that a nearby car accident will send the killer on a path to her house.

Actor George Shevtsov  – whose screen roles include Aussie renaissance-era indie Third Person Plural (1978) and wacky 1996 rom-com Love Serenade – is a revelation, not only for the way he glides through the film as the silent but deadly Croatian ‘Stranger’, but for his unforgettable glacial stare and Julian Richings-esque character face. Both Shevtsov and director Paul China weigh in on the special ingredients are that are giving Crawl its burgeoning festival legs.

(To Paul): You worked as a film critic before making the leap to director – in what was this background beneficial to the filmmaking process?

In terms of the technical aspects of filmmaking, I would say none. That required personal research and investigation. However, in terms of plot structure, character arcs, and general story-telling, I found it quite beneficial. I worked as a film critic, and journalist, for three years. Watching films constantly, and evaluating them, certainly had a conscious and sub-conscious effect when it came to crafting my first feature film. You see what works…and what doesn’t.

As this is your debut feature, and you didn’t go the usual route of starting with some short films, how did you feel confident that it would work?

Well, I’ve always been a writer, so I felt very confident with my screenplay. I knew how I wanted the story to unfold on screen, and how it was to be presented. Plus, having studied Film Theory at University in the U.K., and having worked as a film critic in Australia, I felt l had the necessary knowledge and belief that I could actually make it work. On top of that, I’d always wanted to be a film director — ever since I was a child watching horror films and Westerns at my Grandfather’s house. The desire was simply too strong to cast aside.

How were you able to get such a pedigreed crew (DP Brian Beheny, editor John Scott, composer Christopher Gordon etc) on board without some past work as a reference point? Had you worked with these folks before in another capacity?

It started with my script. Thankfully, the crew and cast were taken with the story, and were committed to bringing this vision to life. They believed in Ben, my brother who produced the film, and myself, despite the fact we had never made a film before. Brian we had met some years previous, on another project which sadly never came to fruition, so we had a strong bond. As for the rest of our fantastic team (Christopher Gordon, Bin Li, John Scott, Anita Morgan etc), we basically made a list of the best Australian crew members in the industry and started contacting them. The worst they were going to say was ‘no’.

I read that originally the script was a comedy supposed to be shot in Canada. What is the story behind how that became Crawl? Was that script an entirely different film, one that could be revisited later?

Originally, the script was titled Howl. Instead of it being a suspense-thriller, like Crawl, it was more of a black comedy type thriller, set in East Texas. The plan was to shoot the film in Canada, where the financing was, but sadly, as is often the case in independent filmmaking, the project fell through. I then crafted the story into a suspense piece; one that could be shot locally in Australia with a smaller budget and minimal locations. The desire then was to tell a small murder story gone awry; with a keen focus on tension, dread and rich characterization — not to mention a pinch of humour.

Was the cast for Crawl sought out specifically, or found through auditions?

I’d seen the two leads, Georgina Haig and George Shevtsov, audition a few years back for a project that never came through, so I’d always been aware of them. There isn’t much dialogue in Crawl, and so I needed two actors with tremendous screen presence and charisma. Georgina and George were perfect. Both are immensely talented actors. They spend much of the film on screen, alone, and therefore must hold the audience’s attention — if not, the story will ultimately fail. Both of them have such fascinating faces and brought extraordinary depth to their roles.

 

(To George): In Love Serenade you got to have these very loquacious scenes, and in Crawl you say almost nothing but manage to be just as charismatic. What appealed to you about the character considering the lack of dialogue? What kinds of things did you decide to put in place in order to convey this charisma?

Part of the appeal was the very lack of dialogue – film is a visual medium, so how exciting to have the opportunity to convey your thoughts and emotions without relying on dialogue?  The character is such an enigma, and to play with that, this was fascinating to me. I have never played such a role, and although I initially had worries about the violence – I worry about the level of violence in many films – this  film does not exploit violence for its own sake. As for how to convey charisma? Don’t give anything away. I think this was the key to the character – keep very cool, never let anybody in, keep them guessing – a strategy I think the stranger employs. It’s part of his makeup, it’s essential for his line of work. And he is a master at what he does.

Did you create a backstory for your character in Crawl?

I had a number of possible backstories in mind, but did not settle on one – I somehow felt they were all appropriate and did not want to tie the character down – keep myself guessing I suppose – maybe that helped keep the mystery which was so essential to the character. His very unknowableness was what Paul talked a lot about in our initial discussions, and we never talked about it again during the shoot.

In many films your voice is very sweet and disarming, but you’ve also frequently been called upon to play Eastern European characters like this one. Given your surname, were Eastern European accents something you grew up around?

Yes, my parents had an accent and I have played parts that have required all kinds of accents, from New York to French in theatre and film. Actors today have to be flexible in this area and an American accent is a must. Interestingly, an image for the character that I could not escape, that kept recurring for me, had nothing to do with Europe or Eastern Europe, but rather from the Far East: the image of a Samurai.

Have you been able to attend any of the screenings of CRAWL overseas?

No, unfortunately I have not been able to attend any screenings overseas, but I would love to feel how audiences in different parts of the world respond to this remarkable film.

(To Paul): Paul Holmes and George Shevtsov are well known in Australia – how do audience reactions differ in relation to their characters in Australia as opposed to when the film plays elsewhere?

I have not really noticed a major difference to be honest. Their performances seem to generate a lauded response at every festival the film has played so far — international and domestic.

It’s the first acting role of radio DJ Paul Holmes – how did you know he could act?

Paul is a renaissance man. Over the years he’s been everything from a game show host to a drummer in a band. He is a very popular radio DJ on the Gold Coast in Australia, so I was obviously aware of who he was. Even though he hadn’t acted in a number of years, his audition was superb. He really understood his character, Slim, and brought a wonderful amount of humour and charm to an otherwise unlikeable role. Paul also has the most dialogue in the film, which can be quite unnerving, yet he handled it all with ease and professionalism.

Tell me a bit about the soundtrack – it’s very dramatic. It often seems to contrast what’s happening onscreen. For example, if movement is slow and cautious, the sound is abrupt and piercing. Can you tell me about the process of working with composer Christopher Gordon on creating this soundscape?

Many composers, when presented with scenes involving no dialogue, relish at the opportunity of showing off their work. Christopher is different. He was focused entirely on the story, and the flow of the film, and would necessarily leave scenes without a score — so all that we can hear are the diegetic sounds on screen. This would amp up the dread and suspense to maximum effect. He would then add music whenever a character had motivation — strings that would creep in and take the story to new heights. He really is a fantastic composer. Very clever.

Tell me about the beautiful long takes. The film really stretches out the dread as much as it can, much more than any film I’ve seen in recent memory. What kind of guidelines did you set up around the editing?

My intention was to tell a simple, dark tale, but tell it well. Influenced by the likes of Hitchcock and Polanski, I was fascinated not just by the stories themselves, but how those stories are actually told. Many films these days rely too heavily on fast-cutting and a barrage of information — they speak down to their audiences and question their intelligence. I never wanted to spoon feed the viewer. I wanted to create an intelligent and entertaining piece of cinema — one that was well framed, well paced and entirely cinematic. Ambiguous as well. A professional film, basically, and not some hand-held slasher flick that many first time filmmakers usually opt for.

(To George): Given that movement is so slow and deliberate throughout the film, did you have to move according to certain beats or was it choreographed at all?

Paul encouraged me to take as much time as I needed in every take – he gave me plenty of space and freedom to play the action as I felt it, and the slowness and deliberateness were essential to the character. I would like to think that each take contains different elements.

How much did your background in improvisation come into play here, if at all?

I have no specific training in improvisation, but you do it in acting exercises and I always consider that rehearsals are essentially improvisations -not inventing dialogue necessarily – but discovering actions and physicality and movement, obeying impulses and instincts that are stimulated by the script and the moment. I try to bring something of this to  each take.

(To Paul): I recently interviewed actor John Jarratt and he didn’t seem to think the Australian indie scene was doing very well, but from our perspective over here, we’re seeing some impressive films like The Loved Ones, Snowtown, Acolytes, The Horseman and obviously Wolf Creek – to me it seems to be the most robust era for Australian genre films since the late 70s/early 80s. What’s your take on this?

To a certain extent I certainly agree. There are some fantastic filmmakers in this country that are cutting their teeth on genre. Unfortunately, while they find success overseas in the U.S., Europe and Asia, they struggle in their own country. Australia seems reluctant to accept their own genre films. They’re never really taken seriously. Which, of course, is an absolute shame.

About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, Editor-in-Chief of Spectacular Optical Publications, founding director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She has written for Incite: Journal of Experimental Media, Filmmaker, Offscreen, Shindig!, Rue Morgue and Fangoria magazines, has contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), and is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). She recently co-edited and published the anthology books KID POWER! (Spectacular Optical, 2014) about kids in cult film and television and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. She is currently working on the book A Song From the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time about children’s programming from 1965-1985.

Comments

  1. wendy spencer Reply

    hi im in a play with dawn china im so very impressed with this trailer it had me sitting on the edge of my chair i would love to see more i think its a winner.

    5 yearss ago

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