‘Payload’ dir. Stuart Willis
A family living in the shadow of a space elevator struggles to survive in a dystopian future.
Writer-Director: Stuart Wilis
Producer: Thomas Bicknell
DOP Robert C. Morton
Key Cast: Margaret Rivette, Shane Nagle & Dylan Russell
C8: Where did the idea for Payload come from?
SW: Payload was initially inspired by a series of photographs called The Spacehip Junkard by Jonas Bendiksen [http://www.magnumphotos.com/Catalogue/Jonas-Bendiksen/2000/Spaceship-Junkyard-NN144467.html. They documented the daily lives of the locals around the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan. They would drive around in their trucks and scavenge the fallen refuse from the rockets.
It was an image that affected me profoundly – the people the future left behind.
C8: The film is ambitious for a graduation film. How did you manage to convince your tutors that the project was feasible?
SW:I was lucky to attend the Victorian College of the Arts which tends to have an open-mind towards feasibility. Their attitude is that you need to let students taken on risky projects, because for every project that failed there is another that succeed. It certainly helped that the year before mine there was an amazing, amazing short film from the VCA called ‘Deeper Than Yesterday’. It showed me that with determination and planning, logistical hurdles can be overcome.
It certainly helped that I have a background in visual effects, so I wasn’t daunted by the VFX component of the film. My opening scene was something like “Exterior Space. A gigantic SPACE ELEVATOR crawls up a well-lit cable and into the night”. It was a fully CG shot! Insanity!
But the reality is that VFX is mostly a question of skill and time. I was lucky to be supported by some amazing friends on the project.
The actual intimidating side of the shoot was working at night, in the desert, with children, with a student crew and having to cover three locations. That is the hard stuff of filmmaking – getting good material in the can.
C8: Did you have to get funding from other sources?
SW: I was supported by the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, who provided funding for some additional post-production. That helped pay for a Digital Intermediate at Rising Sun Pictures, who had cut me a great deal. And it also enabled us to re-record David Barber’s excellent score with a real string trio. That was really important to me- to balance the stark and grim visuals with the warmth of real instruments played by real human players.
C8: How did you work with Margaret Rivette (Dave), Shane Nagle (Adam) and Dylan Russell (Simon) to achieve the family dynamic?
SW: I like doing a lot of ‘rehearsal’ before shooting. I use the term loosely, but it’s not practising lines from scenes or the script. It is off-script improvisation to allow the actors to build a shared, emotional world for their characters to inhabit. This improvisation wouldn’t necessarily be goal-oriented. One of the early rehearsals was just letting the actors play out a normal family dinner between these characters. We would do costume fittings and makeup tests as a group. It was all about building familiarity.
On set, the family trio would hang-out between setups and takes, which was amazing to see! They had such a strong relationship that on the last day of shooting – which was the deal scene – Shane (Adam, the father) came down to be on set. It was a gift, too. During the last few takes, I asked Shane to whisper in Dylan’s ear – to tell him that Adam understands what Simon is doing and that it is the right decision. It really worked and unlocked the scene for us.
C8: Why did you decide to shoot on the Red One MX camera?
SW: We didn’t have a choice, really! None of our exterior locations had any lighting, and we had to bring it all in. The Red MX allowed us to shoot at 800ASA and therefore use less light and less power. Shooting on anything else (at the time) would have made the lighting cost prohibitive
There are some pickup shots that we shot on a Red One. We had to denoise them with Neat Video so they would intercut seamlessly.
C8: How did you work with Director of Photography Robert C. Morton to achieve your vision?
SW: Working with Rob is fantastic. He has a great eye and the technical chops to pull it off. He’s also a super hardworking guy. He is actually based in another state from where I made Payload. We would have epic Skype conversations, sharing dropbox references and notes made via Google Docs. He would fly down for location scouts. A week before the shoot, he flew down and crashed on the floor (for a fortnight!) so he could spend the week preparing.
I guess the key things for us and our collaboration is a strong reference library and a ‘style bible’. We sort through materials and constantly talk about what we liked and what we didn’t. We’d write the rules of the cinematic language together. I think those rules are crucial. We’re both into planning, so on location scouts we’d use stills cameras to block out potential coverage, and then draw up mud maps afterwards.
When it came to the shoot, we had a shared vision of the film, and it just worked. We used a directors’ viewfinder or a D90 to ‘shop for shots’ when planning our coverage.
C8: You’ve worked on features with larger budgets such as ‘Superman Returns’ (2006) and ‘Harry Potter 5′ (2007). Do you feel as though these films prepared you for working with limited budgets?
SW: Not really, ha! The budgets they were working with are so astronomically beyond what we had on ‘Payload’ that there wasn’t I learned directly. But what was interesting about ‘Harry Potter 5′ was that despite being the fifth film in a very successful franchise they were conservative with how they spent their money. Its not that they were cheap, but that they were very considered in their choices. That was an important lesson.
C8: You wrote, directed and edited the film. Did you find it hard keeping these roles separate or did the lines blur somewhat?
SW: I’m not sure I tried to keep them separate. They’re just different stages of making the same film. The important part, for me at least, is to listen to the film and how it wants to be made. It sounds metaphysical, but I think filmmaking really is sculpting in time. And part of sculpting is reacting to the materials you are working with. If you force the materials – even somewhere you think you want to go – then you risk breaking the whole work.
In editing, objectivity and distance is an important part of the process, so I worked with my long-time collaborator, James Fenton, who edited the film with me. He did the initial assemble and rough cut without my involvement as I wanted to see how he would react to the raw materials, and from there we would send edits back and forth to each other. I really like that way of working.
C8: If you did the whole process again, is there anything you would do differently?
SW: Of course! There’s plenty I’d do differently. About six months after I finished the film I wrote a scene-by-scene takedown, borrowing the pixar philosophy of ‘things to keep and things to lose’.
But the short version of what I’d do differently? Give myself more time on set. We shot for about 7 days, and I think the film would’ve been stronger if we shot for even just a day longer. 10 would’ve been my ideal in hindsight.
More time makes everything better. You’re able to explore, to consider, to make better decisions, and get more.
C8: If you could give young filmmakers a piece of advice what would it be?
SW: I still like to think of myself as a young filmmaker and I’m still learning like crazy. Even so, the ‘advice’ I always remind myself of is that there are no excuses. Your audience won’t give you any excuses, so you can’t give yourself any either. If a scene doesn’t play, they audience isn’t going to go aw, well, they were really rushed for time that day.
C8: What do you feel is the essence of a good collaboration?
SW: Communication is the absolute foundation. Everything flows from that.
C8: What’s next for you? Any plans for future projects?
SW: I’ve been working hard on developing some feature project and, cross-fingers, we’ll have something soon. But I’m also actively developing a couple of shorts, trying to work out my next one, and hopefully we’ll shoot one early next year.