“I’M A DANGER TO ME”
“I’M A DANGER TO ME”
Director Amiel Courtin-Wilson talks about his breathtaking narrative debut HAIL
Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s HAIL is the gem of the festival for me. While granting the film any kind of genre film categorization is a stretch, this docu-drama about the aftermath of a hulking but hyper-sensitive convict’s release from prison and reunion with his beloved is both moving and frightening. Wilson’s background in documentary comes through in the intensity of domestic moments, and his ability to capture protagonist and co-writer Daniel P. Jones’ very real outbursts that stem from overwhelming feelings of confusion and loss. Wilson put aside some time to talk to Spectacular Optical about the genesis of the film and the ways fact and fiction intersect in his work.
You open on a shot of Arbo’s painting of Odin’s Wild Hunt. What is the significance of this? Is it because seeing the wild hunt was supposed to preface a pending catastrophe?
Yes the painting of the Wild Hunt was something I stumbled across just as I was finishing the writing process and it provided the perfect sense of portent and romantic scale to the story- it also reflects the way in which for Danny there is constantly the threat of a malevolent force hovering above him- ready to pluck him from his daily existence and thrust him into total chaos.
You and your star Daniel P. Jones met eachother in a theatre program for rehabilitated prisoners. How did that develop into this longer-term collaboration?
Yes I met the lead actor Danny about eight years ago in a theater company made up of ex-prison inmates. I was making a documentary about this group in Melbourne and we’d been filming for about six months. I turned up to one of the rehearsals one day and saw a guy who was standing outside the rehearsal space and I walked up to introduce myself. He turned around and I don’t think I’d ever met someone with as intense a gaze as Danny had the moment I met him. He’d been out of jail for about 18 hours at that point.
Dan became part of the theatre company and he was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of his performance. There is this hyper-vigilant, perceptive quality to Dan as a human being when you engage with him so there’s an amazing immediacy in his performances. You inevitably travel in his slipstream because he’s such a presence.
It wasn’t until Dan had two deaths in his family and I ended up staying with him through that period of his life that we became extremely close friends.
How much of Hail was scripted?
Hail was financed with a very sparse twenty page scene breakdown written in prose form. This was then built into a more substantial document using transcriptions from our intensive three month casting and rehearsal process until our shoot. I also drew upon a file of several hundred pages of transcribed interviews with Daniel that I conducted over a period of five years.
Each scene was rehearsed extremely rigorously and scenes were constructed in a way that they could collapse or expand depending on the dynamic of the other non-actors in the shoot.
Where do you see truth and fiction as intersecting in the story?
To answer most simply I want audiences to watch this film as a fiction rather than any kind of hybrid drama documentary piece. I am not interested in those kind of distinctions as it can so often bring too much undue attention to the processes surrounding a simple story.
Having said that I think there is an emotional truth in Daniel’s journey of revenge in the film and despite the violence throughout I can see a great fidelity to Daniel’s ability for anger. At the same time the character Daniel plays is a total departure in terms of his specific actions and it was an extremely difficult process to let go of my need to capture Daniel the man I am friends and allow him to take bloom as a character in the context of a film. Except for a couple of characters in the latter half of the film Danny is old friends with nearly everyone on screen so the intimacy and beautiful language of familiarity in the film is really erring on observational documentary- even though the scenarios that these friends are playing out is a fiction.
It’s lucky, because I feel the film wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Leanne hadn’t also been capable of such a brilliant performance. But the two of them together are just amazing. Their relationship seems so solid but so fragile too, because of the external factors that impose on their existence and bring out the worst in each of them. Are these things you struggle with in their actual relationship, this tendency to sabotage?
I think that facet of Danny and Leanne’s relationship is certainly present in their actual lives but what was beautiful to witness was the therapeutic nature of recreating these moments on film. Both Danny and Leanne have spoken about how much closer they have become since the shooting of the film.
Since the story and characters are so closely based on Danny’s real life, did it ever feel creepy fictionalizing a future for Danny, specifically such a grim one?
There was a real issue in the edit of Hail that arose around the idea of fidelity to Danny’s real life persona and at what point I could depart from that. Again coming from a documentary background it was difficult to let go of trying to encompass all the innate contradictions in Dan’s character- especially in terms of his amazing intelligence and humour- most of which had to be cut to serve the narrative arc of the film. Once Peter the editor and I let go of that notion it was a lot easier to push the film into a more visceral emotionally punishing realm. Danny had total faith in the process and I am extremely thankful for that allowance for creative license- hence the credit at the end of the film â€œBased on the life and stories of Daniel P Jones’ which enables a certain ambiguity to enter the otherwise biographical content.
Both Danny and Jack Charles – the aboriginal actor/burglar/street person who formed the subject of your earlier documentary Bastardy – lived with you at some point during filming. What made you cross that line between biographer and friend and how do you think it impacted the work?
I make films to be humbled by the immensity of others- to explore what it is to be alive- to chart the chasms between people as well as the things that bind and ignite us.
In terms of my friendship with Danny and Jack it just made sense to become very close to both of them as I love them both as human beings. There was a clear point at which the friendships took precedence over the films and in that way it was a great liberation as it enabled a freedom to try things under the auspices of a very, very close relationship. Both films are love letters to their subjects and I hope that intimacy manifests in the work to some degree.
Danny and Jack had similar upbringings, living in boys’ homes, operating in a criminal underworld– what do you see as the major differences between them that prompted you to immortalize them both on film?
Jack Charles and Danny both have very particular relationships to their life of crime but I actually see more similarities than differences in the two men. Jack and Danny are both highly sensitive artists with a remarkably compassionate and nuanced view of the world and while Jack discovered acting at a very early age Danny has always had the mercurial performer within him- it was just later in life that it blossomed into his current career as an actor.
How was it decided that Hail would be a dramatic feature as opposed to a documentary?
I knew I wanted to make a film about Danny as soon as I met him but it was only after becoming extremely close with Danny and his girlfriend Leanne over a period of years and hearing endless amazing stories from both of them about their criminal exploits that I decided to make a feature film rather than a documentary. I wrote a treatment based on the last five years of their life together and cast them both as the leads in a dramatic feature film in which they actually play themselves in the context of a dramatic narrative. I was deeply inspired by the love they have for one another and I wanted to juxtapose what could have just been a kitchen sink drama about the details of their daily lives post release from prison with something almost operatic in tone- something mythical, romantic and highly impressionistic. Stylistically Hail is forged from a triumvirate of influences- documentary, experimental film by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, and the revenge crime film genre- especially works such as Thief by Michael Mann. Another huge influence which would be right at home at Fantasia is the William Lustig film Maniac which I absolutely love. I have always been fascinated by the stylistic abandon of genre and exploitation films and the energy that manifests from that type of filmmaking process.
Tell me about selecting the music for the film - it’s punctuated with a lot of beautiful songs that often contrast with what’s happening onscreen – specifically, chaos and violence are often muted with comparatively serene music.
Music is quite often the inspiration for entire sequences in my work and I was thrilled to be able to include such a range of music from experimental artists such as Moondog, Exuma, Terry Riley, Rhys Chatham and the Boxtops. The original score was composed by my long time collaborator Steve Benwell who I have worked with on four films now. Steve is a remarkable musician and his ambient textured lo-fi aesthetic has the perfect handmade and intimate sonic quality to mesh with Danny and Leanne’s world.
Probably the most talked-about shot in the film is the horse falling from the sky. How was this filmed?
I discussed this shot for a long time with my producer Michael Cody and it’s a testament to his tenacity and drive that we were able to achieve the shot as I had hoped. As I have come from a documentary background and haven’t worked in studios or with VFX it just made sense that if I wanted a shot of a horse falling through the sky then we should just throw it out of a plane. Michael researched the possibilities for that shot for several months including options to shoot in Cambodia, Mexico, the United States, Thailand and finally Australia. After exploring dropping horses, ponies and even other types of animals, we finally found a small company in Australia who were willing to drop a dead horse from 12,000 feet from a helicoptor. A sky diving cinematographer with a 16mm helmet camera pin dropped through the sky- chasing the horse corpse as it flailed wildly in the wind.
It was one of the most amazing sights of my life and while it only lasts about 16 seconds in the film I’m extremely happy we managed to do it for real.
HAIL has its Canadian Premiere on Aug 5 at 10pm and screens again Aug 8 at 1pm, both in the Salle JA De Seve. More info on the film page HERE.