Kill the Writer: Jason Raftopoulos on Directing 'West of Sunshine'
Raftopoulos wrote the screenplay for his debut crime thriller, and then his ruthless director persona stepped in to finish the task.
West of Sunshine
1 Sep 2017 (IT)Other
Following its World Premiere at Venice Film Festival, Jason Raftopoulos' independently produced directorial feature debut West of Sunshine (2017) screens in the Discovery section of London's East End Film Festival. The story unfolds over a single day, which sees Jim (Damian Hill) separated from his wife and child and caught in a cycle of gambling and debt racing against the clock to repay a loan shark. His day is complicated when he must look after his young son Alex (Ty Perham), which presents an opportunity for the two to reconnect and give hope to a second chance at fixing their broken family.
In conversation with PopMatters, Raftopoulos discusses the arduous nature of the process and the Aristotelian crux of contemporary storytelling. He also reflects on the importance of theme, crafting tension through expectation and anticipation, and the need for self-awareness to trigger change.
How did your expectations of your directorial feature debut compare to the realities of the experience?
It's really hard; it's like climbing a mountain with a pair of thongs. Getting a feature film made is probably one of the hardest things you can get done because there are so many variables, from finance, cast and location, to stitching it all together is incredibly difficult. However, once we were off and running, what I didn't realise and I learned was how intense the actual experience of shooting a film is; how fit and how mentally switched on you have to be. It felt like running a marathon everyday for the entire shoot.
In The Hero (2017), Sam Elliott describes a film as another persons dream. Would you agree with this sentiment or is this a romantic idea of the cinema?
I think what you are trying to achieve is the conveyance of an idea through sound and image, and there's something quite dreamlike about that. When you are writing in preparation for a film, you are constantly having -- or I am having -- quite vivid dreams, and I take some of those dreams, ideas and images into my films. So it's not a far off statement, as long as it's attached to an idea and a theme I'm trying to impart.
Interviewing filmmaker Sean Brosnan for My Father Die (2016), he explained: "I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they'll pick a story and then say: 'What do I want to explore?' I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it." Each storyteller takes a different approach, but to speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?
A lot of the times you might start writing a screenplay with only a character in mind, unsure what the theme will be until the screenplay goes through a couple of drafts and a theme pops up. But on this particular film I was pretty clear that I wanted to explore the theme that love is something that you do in spite of what you feel. I knew that as an idea was kind of floating inside of me, and I wanted to see how I could demonstrate this, and from that idea I researched all kinds of different addictions, as well as love and fantasy, and what love is. And through that I found this human being, this flawed character who needs to learn something about love and connection that he didn't know before.
I recall speaking with Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who expressed an opinion that the film is discovered in the final cut. This ties into a perspective shared by filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Although Terence Davies contextualised this transition as more of a death.
Oh, I think that's absolutely right. As a writer-director I write the screenplay, but when I direct it I have to in some ways kill the writer, and author the film. And when I'm in the edit suite, some of those things I shot which I loved, I had to be ruthless about. So you are right, the final cut of the film becomes the last draft of the screenplay, and you do find a new version of the film in the edit. You know essentially what you have when you're shooting, you know you have all the ingredients in front of you, but the edit room is where you bake the cake. And the edit room is still one of the most frustrating and exciting parts of the process for me.
There's a necessity for a film to have a sense of self belief, to believe that it is genuine, neither scripted nor performed, or to at least convey that impression to the audience. Part of that is elicited through the performances, which emphasis the importance of the actors. In West of Sunshine, your two lead actors dominate the frame from start to finish.
The performance of the actors is absolutely vital for me as a director, and how I prepare with actors is very detailed and specific. I make sure that they understand what the meanings and the depths of those are; what's at stake. And obviously I try to help elicit the best possible performance I can out of them. I had some beautiful actors in Ty Perham and Damian Hill, as well as the other cast members, and working on that relationship or striving for authenticity is absolutely vital.
So as director, part of what you must do is develop a taste for what you consider to be good acting, and what you need to do is create an environment for the actor to enable himself to be unencumbered in those circumstances. So yeah, it's vitally important for me that these actors are comfortable and are deeply researched in the role so they ultimately leave themselves alone, to allow the world of the film to enact on them.
A film can be defined by its small details, and the actors are crucial here because as filmmaker Babak Anvari offered to me: "…when it comes to the shoot, even a slight facial expression or looking in a certain direction could change everything… Just a minor adjustment can transform a scene."
Some of the most moving parts of a film for me are the most subtle, and it's again going back to what your tastes are. Sometimes what I find moving and can be heartbreaking or glorious, or wondrous, is a simple action or the simple gestures between two human beings that can take on a much greater meaning. And you're right, those looks and those glances, or those simple actions that occur between human beings when they don't take each other for granted, when they deeply understand that what is in front of them is another human being, can be quite a profound experience.
Ty Perman as Alex (trailer screen capture)
A compelling aspect of West of Sunshine is the gradual pacing, and as a cine-literate audience we are aware that for the sake of drama and conflict the resolution will not be simple. This brings up the idea of anticipation and there's the idea that storytellers have to try to subvert expectations, to do something different. Yet there's merit to telling a familiar tale well, which doesn't take away the pleasure.
For example, in the scene when Jim bets on the horse racing, we know something is going to happen and in this moment you are toying with our anticipation, not necessarily trying to subvert, but to embrace and use the cine-literacy of the audience as a collaborator in crafting tension.
As a filmmaker, what you are constantly trying to do is create tension, which is crafted by mingling uncertainty with expectation, and I think that's really going to the core of what you're talking about. Audiences are quite happy to know where something is going, but the trick is to have the uncertainty as to how those things may happen, and that's the key. So you're right in terms of the gambling and the tension that rises is: What's going to happen now? Something is going to happen, but I don't know how.
I think part of the craft of keeping an audience engaged is to have that tension, which doesn't have to be overwrought. It can be a very subtle thing, where what's going to happen and how it's going to happen creates tension. So it's one of those nice little kind of equations where tension is the mingling of uncertainty and expectation, and crafting that throughout a story hopefully gives you a sense of being engaged.
The theme of fate in the context of self-awareness and punishment by our own hand plays a part in this film. There are opportunities for us to punish ourselves by our own hand rather than look to the outside world for administration, and here fate presents Jim with such an opportunity. It's an effective little philosophical idea or reflection that is embedded within the fabric of the story.
When I make a film I try to craft it on three different levels. There's kind of the macro structural level, there's a macro organisational level, and this is what the characters live in. So within the structural overarching city that becomes an oppressive one, and on the macro organisational level he lives in this world of a kind of debt cycle of gambling.
Then there's a micro level, which is the interpersonal relationships between he and his son, and his own broken relationships with his father, and ultimately how it's a repeating habit. I bring that up only because of all these forces that are impinging on the character, how does he then learn the lessons he needs to in order to elicit change in himself? And there are societal structures, there are organisational structures, and there are interpersonal problems that always get in the way of this character being in control, because at the start of the film he is out of control. So what I think they need to do, and hopefully, these characters need to have insight that comes from within.
All these structures ultimately impose a shift in his own psychology, which enables him to learn something for him to make different choices, and that's what I'm trying to achieve with it. I hope that's clear and I wasn't waffling on about too many structures. Ultimately the character needs to find within him or herself the trigger in order to make the change required.
Director Jason Raftopoulos on set (image courtesy of Exile Entertainment)
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 does the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience? Is this a means to measure the merit or success of a film?
I don't know if you can measure the success of the filmmaking based on that. I'd like to go back to Aristotle, who said there are two types of story; there are comedies and there are tragedies. A comedy is where a character learns the lessons they need to learn within the story, and then decides to make a change. Whereas in a tragedy, a character learns the lessons within the story, but then decides not to change. Both of them can have a profound effect on the experience of watching them, and so what is interesting is that these two kinds of stories -- and I know there are other kinds -- but these broad Aristotelian ideas of storytelling about characters journey form the basis of where most of our filmmaking sits. I think both are absolutely valid and necessary, and both are vital in terms of the human experience we have in watching films, and how we participate with art in general.