Simon Lyndon Joanne Priest (courtesy of New Thought Productions)

The Crack That Lets the Light in: Interview with Director Shane T. Hall

Filmmaking is tough. The original vision is rarely the result. But the imperfections of the collaborative process can be just what the film needs, says Concealed director Shane T. Hall.

Shane T. Hall
New Thought Productions
1 May 2017 (AU)

Independent thriller Concealed (2017) is filmmaker Shane T. Hall’s sophomore feature. The story follows struggling actor Max (Simon Lyndon), who returns to Sydney with his girlfriend Sallie (Nadia Townsend) for an audition. When Max awakens the next morning to find Sallie gone, a desperate search begins, and he seeks the help of childhood friend Richard (Paul Tassone). Whilst their frustrations with the police enquiry grow, the search for Sallie becomes increasingly perilous as the pair find themselves drawn into the shadows of the Australian underworld.

The premise is a stark contrast to Hall’s debut Neophytes and Neon Lights (2001), set around an ensemble cast of five unemployed characters living in a world in which air travel has been replaced by teleportation. Yet the films are spatially connected, the city of Sydney a common stage in Hall’s creative vision.

In conversation with PopMatters ahead of the UK Premiere screening, Hall discusses the shadow of Stanley Kubrick and the words of wisdom of Leonard Cohen. He also reflects on the need to respect the audience even as one misdirects them, embracing filmmaking as an adaptive process and the overarching ambitions for a film’s reception.

Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Well, I guess film is the culmination of all the other art forms and it seems to be the predominant form of communication in today’s world. Growing up I just had a love of film and that’s what inspired me; great films by great filmmakers. So that was something I always wanted to do, and when I start to piece together an idea, it has always been around film. I started out as a writer and that lends itself quite easily to film. I began writing in television, but I do quite like that ability to culminate a story or idea over one and half or two hours.

Filmmakers and actors have frequently expressed that their respective crafts are a never-ending learning curve. How do you compare the experiences of your first two films?

Yeah, totally! Every time you set foot on the set or every time you write something new, with each of those experiences you’re learning something that is completely different. What you hope for each time is that you’re getting better and that you’re increasing your budget.

When I made my first film, we effectively shot it on 16mm and most of my budget went on stock processing and negative matching. By the time I came to make my second film, the RED camera had come out and we were able to shoot on digital, which essentially means that I wasn’t having to put all of my budget into camera gear, stock negative matching and processing. We could start to put money into other areas of the production, which allows you a greater scope as a filmmaker.

For me the greatest difference on a practical level between the two films was the entire shift in the way the films were not only made, but the potential distribution avenues. When I made my first film you had to shoot on film or there was absolutely no chance of getting theatrical distribution. By the time I came to make my second, there had been a digital revolution, as it were, in film, and effectively the means to theatrical distribution had vastly changed.

So I guess that’s the landscape changing, but on a personal level, every time you’re standing on a film set for four weeks trying to make a feature film, it’s a battle; every day you’re just trying to survive. You’re carrying this huge cast and crew with a budget, and trying to get them behind the vision that you’ve put down on paper.

I often recall Peter Jackson saying how he felt Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) was perfect until that first shot was in the can. As storytellers, is there a discrepancy between what we envision versus the actuality of the work, which requires a compromise? And do you consider there to be a need to shed the irrationality of the pursuit of perfection for a more rational expectation?

I don’t think perfection is ever achievable and if you thought it was, then you wouldn’t start. We all sort of live in the shadow of Kubrick, and if every time you set out you thought you were going to make 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you’d probably fail. I do have a little bit of that Leonard Cohen notion that it’s the crack that lets the light in; sometimes it’s the imperfections that bring the genius or the wonderful moment. If I strove for perfection, and I do, but it’s just that I don’t think I’m ever going to achieve it. So I allow for those little changes or imperfections because when you have to adapt or change, that’s what makes you creative.

I never think what I write is going to be what I film or what I will end up with in the edit room. They always say you make one film in the writing, one in the shooting, and one in the editing, and if you held to the fact that the perfection of your script was going to be the final product, then you’d go a bit crazy. I’m more open to embracing the changes of the process and trying to adapt that. When you start shooting and editing, every one of those creative professionals are going to hopefully bring something to the table that enriches what you’re trying to do. So I guess I see it as more of a collaborative approach to improve on what I’m trying to do. As long as I’m giving creative professionals the freedom to be creative, it’s never going to be absolutely what I imagined on the page.

Simon Lyndon as Max (courtesy of New Thought Productions)

In what ways did the film differ from those initial intentions?

The first change is that the title changed, and when I started writing I wanted to do the whole film from the lead character’s point of view. It wasn’t until I let go of that process that the script came alive. The second change was how it evolved through the casting. The script had some lighter moments in it and once I’d cast Simon, I realised that some of those had to go because he’s a pure method actor, and he’s quite serious. And so casting him began to change the tone of the film.

There’s an economy of storytelling present here in which you omit certain scenes. For example, when Max goes into the pawn shop. This is a type of scene the audience is familiar with, as it has been seen in any number of stories. The knowledge of the outcome is the only necessity, which is the act of you as a filmmaker using the audience’s familiarity to help you construct the film and make those storytelling choices.

As a filmmaker you’re constantly making decisions about how much information you give the audience. If you give them too much they get bored; if you give them too little they get confused. Choosing which scenes to omit that another filmmaker might think are important — it’s all a filmmaking decision.

The script did have this whole sequence within that pawn shop, but when I was starting to pull it back I realised: Do we really need to see that? Is that an important beat or can the audience understand what is going to happen in here and then move on? If you look at Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), we wait the whole film for the assassination, and then we never get it. I always thought that was quite a brave filmmaking choice. I don’t acquaint that scene to this, but it’s sometimes an omission that can be quite interesting for the audience because then they are having to piece together what might have happened. And sometimes what isn’t seen or shown can be more powerful.

Rarely do audiences enter a film without expectations, which can be cultivated by the various marketing materials, including the poster and trailers, or even the synopsis text. Personally I prefer to watch a film with little to next to no knowledge, presenting my mind as a blank canvas.

When you have seen the marketing campaign, the poster and the trailer, everything, then it obviously gives you so much information about the tone of the film, what it’s going to be like and your expectations in regards to it. There are certain films that get a great context from that lead up, and I think if the trailer campaign for The Sixth Sense (1999) hadn’t been what it was, the film might not have been because it gave such a context of misdirection.

Personally I agree with you, as to your point that I would much rather know nothing about a film going in, and then be led by the filmmaker. I find it far more thrilling to not have any expectations. In regards to the conventions in Concealed, I wrote the script to essentially try to misdirect the audience a little bit, by making you look in one direction while I’m trying to unravel something else.

Joanne Priest as Jacky (courtesy of New Thought Productions)

I recall a fellow student once remarking that a storyteller must play fair and not trick the audience. Whilst misdirection is acceptable, the clues or pointers have to be reasonably available. Listening to your point about intentionally misdirecting your audience, were you aware of playing fair and avoiding underhanded trickery?

Yeah, that’s exactly it; the balance I was talking about before. As a filmmaker you continually balance between giving the audience too much and not enough. In one of the early edits we had a voiceover on the last scene and there was a big discussion over whether that should stay or go, and if it stays then it probably makes it a much clearer ending for the audience. I quite like the debate and whenever we come out of screens there’s a big conversation about what exactly happened at the end.

I personally like those sorts of films that are not necessarily clear and allow the audiences to have an opinion or discussion around exactly what they believe happened. I just started to think: What would my favourite filmmakers do? Would they leave it as a more clear cut direct ending with a very clear answer, or would they leave it a little more opaque for the allowance of after film discussion? At the end of the day we came to the conclusion that it would be better to reach a point where audiences can discuss what they believe happened, rather than us telegraphing it for them.

Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

Each person that watches your film is going to take away something individual from it, and that’s what you hope. Whilst you try to create a universal story that relates on a personal level, it’s your overarching hope. So yeah, in that respect, people that watch the film are going to take away hopefully the core messages and ideas of the film, but then they might find personal stories within that relate to them. And they will have an ownership over the film that someone else or I as the filmmaker will not have.

To speak about themes, are you attentive to specific ones from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?

If I don’t have a premise; if I don’t have a central question or theme I’m trying to work it around, not only can I not write the film, but I can’t make the film. When everything is falling from the sky in flames and I’m trying to get this film through, I find the only thing you can ever hang your hat on and come back to is a premise’ the central idea or question that you’re trying to get across to the audience. I find that if I don’t have that, I’m like a rudderless ship on a stormy ocean. It might be simpler, just that one central idea I will pull back to rather than a plural of themes.

Photo of Shane T. Hall courtesy of New Thought Productions

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?

The process of making a film is years of your life, this thing that you live and breath. I’m sure that when I die the things that I will look back from my deathbed are those films that I’ve made and what they mean to me. If you’re a filmmaker they are definitely one of the most important things in your life, so you have to be transformed by the end of each one of them because it’s such an all encompassing experience.

I have almost died for both of my films; they pushed me to the absolute extremes. You’re intellectually drawn, emotionally spent and physically exhausted by the end of it. You’re trying to lead hundreds or sometimes a thousand people to coalesce around your vision, and it’s a pressure pot. You throw everything at that and so you can’t come out the back end of it and not be a changed; not be a different person.

As for the audience, yes you hope for those moments you have in the cinema that change who you are, that mean something to you, or give you a different reflection on what it means to be human. Or even if it’s just a smart, witty and fun film that really changes something within you or how you see cinema. All of those things can be transformative and I’m still watching 2001 every time it comes to the cinema because it was such a transformative moment for me as a filmmaker. So you hope to be able to make those films; I don’t think that many filmmakers do, but when they do, it’s magic.

The UK Premiere screening of Concealed takes place at The Castle Cinema, East London on 1 June 2018 at 9pm, with further screenings 2-8 June. The showing on 8 June will feature a Q&A with director Shane T Hall. For more information click here.