Friends, Foes, and Fireworks: An Interview

Have you ever decided to make a movie on New Years Eve unscripted and completely impromptu? Check out these awesome filmmakers who decided to do just that. I mean they planned a bit, but outside of that, the film you see is how it all went down. 

Check out more about their film Friends, Foes, and Fireworks on their website HERE

 

Facebook  *  Instagram  *  Udemy

I interviewed the two masterminds aka directors Ivan Malekin and Sarah Jayne  below about their process in making the film. 

Who are you and what do you do?

SJ - I am Melbourne born, with a Maltese heritage, and if I were to label myself I would say I am a storyteller. I am a former Art Director / Production Designer with over a decade of onset experience in many roles and I started my indie film career back in 2006. Since 2013 I have been directing short films and feature films under Nexus Production Group. I live in Malta now and continue to write and direct my own work. My proudest moment is writing, directing and co-producing my award-winning film Daughter back in 2015, which deals with gendered violence and victim blaming and stars Katherine Langford, who has since moved on to work in Hollywood. I now predominantly work only on feature films and enjoy being my own boss, and Ivan’s boss when I can!  

IM - I am a filmmaker, video editor, writer, reader, traveler, explorer, list-maker, schedule-keeper, cat lover, procrastinator, coffee drinker, secret wrestling connoisseur, begrudging Facebook user, son, brother, husband.

Disliker of labels.

In the past I have been a film curator and event organizer, running the Made In Melbourne Film Festival for eight years as well as monthly film nights and guest programming at a variety of festivals, and will likely do so again in the future.

At the moment I make improvised films about relationships and the many complications that stem from human desires and insecurities. I enjoy the freedom and exhilaration of creating on the run with cast and crew. I doubt I will go back to using formal scripts for a long time.

I am also currently an online teacher on Udemy and enjoy sharing knowledge. I am an introvert. I dislike talking about myself. I am a Gemini. Sometimes, I want to get up on stage and sing.

I am stubborn, I learn by doing, I have too much pride. I am calm, I like to reflect, I tend to overdo the rule of three.

I am from Melbourne but I now live in Malta. I like the fact I just bought tickets to see Dita Von Teese with Sarah in Paris later this year and it will only cost €120 euro for flights, return, instead of $3000 AUD.

 Photography by http://www.FacesByRaphael.com | Melbourne Actors Headshots

What inspired the idea of making a film all in one night that had no set lines?

IM - It was a couple of factors actually. The first was frustration. We had just completed a big short film backed by council funding called Half for the Made In Melbourne Film Festival, but it was a difficult shoot in the country, cold, rainy, politically-charged and driven by egos. It was a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen – five producers and a director and partners of producers all with something to say. It was a tension-filled production, one neither Sarah nor I enjoyed.

So we wanted to make a film to rediscover our love for film again. Create because we enjoy telling stories, free of expectations, traditional structure, rigid rules. We wanted to experiment and work with a small and intimate team we trusted.

While the New Year’s Eve storyline was the result of reflection on past celebrations. The night was always so full of hype, but for us it was invariably a letdown, crowds and drunks and disappointing parties and boredom. So let's do something we typically enjoy on NYE instead. Let’s make a film.

Once that idea and storyline was established it was a natural progression to film it all in a single night as the filming would mirror the story. So we had committed to making an improvised film, on NYE, in a single night. Now we had to work out how we would do it. 

Did you have locations already in mind?

SJ - Somewhat. We lived in St Kilda at the time the idea for Friends, Foes & Fireworks hit us. Previously, we had shot my short film Daughter completely in St Kilda, so it was a familiar area to Ivan and I. Plus we love St Kilda and the beach vibe, there is a certain manic and creative energy there, which is fun for a NYE backdrop.

However we still needed to source the locations and the trickiest, we felt, would be getting an apartment to use on NYE. But I put it out on Facebook in a St Kilda community group and we had a lovely woman, Joy, contact us. She would be out of town for New Year and her apartment, overlooking the St Kilda shopping streets and Luna Park, would be empty. It was perfect.

 Photography by http://www.FacesByRaphael.com | Melbourne Actors Headshots

What kind of cameras did you shoot on?

 SJ - We shot on a couple of neat FS100’s, which is a small but stable low-light camera, perfect for this kind of shoot, where we used minimal lighting and predominantly street lights for ambiance. We did our research with this by watching online videos of different footage shot on various cameras and of course, we took the advice of our DP, Stephen Ramplin. Steve is experienced in shooting footage for news and doing so quickly and in any conditions, and this run and gun style was exactly what we needed for the film.

How did you cast the film?

SJ - With a bunch of superstar local Melbourne actors we already knew and had worked with in the past, directly on our films, or on other people’s projects. Because we knew or had met the female actors before, we had an idea of their skills, and if they could pull off improvisation, while also being easy to work with.

With Dan Hill, the only male character, he actually stepped in for another actor we had written the role for. We were super blessed Dan said yes as he comes with so much experience in the improvisation technique due to being part of his own improvised series on YouTube called Improv Sessions, of which he has produced and acted in over 100 episodes.

Ivan and I had been busy within the Melbourne indie film scene for a decade each at the time of production, so we knew who was who and this helped us tremendously with casting.

Did you actually shoot on New Years Eve?  

IM - Yes. New Year’s Eve in Melbourne is the middle of Summer, and it’s typically a hot and humid night with the streets and beaches packed with revelers. We were a little worried about the crowds – would the girls get harassed, would passersby see the camera and wave, would music from clubs ruin the sound, etc. It was one of the reasons we wanted to keep the crew small and as inconspicuous as possible. We also had a friend of ours who works in security as part of the team as an extra safety precaution. But, as fate would have it, we actually ended up facing the opposite problem on the night. It was cold and it was windy so the crowds were down. The beach and pier were a little too empty for our liking but there was nothing much we could do but find the one group of people already chilling on the beach and park ourselves next to them to add to the illusion of crowds in the background.

 cast

cast

Did you do any prepro for the film?  

IM - We did extensive pre-production and rehearsals for the film. We did camera tests at various outdoor locations, seeing how the street light would appear on camera as the plan was always to keep lightning natural or as minimal as possible. We scouted difference locations, discussed how we would capture sound with our recordist Gerard Mack considering we wanted the action to be free-flowing, two cameras, no blocking. I also had to learn how to use a Sony FS100 myself, as our second camera operator pulled out, and we had nobody to replace her, so I took that camera home and experimented and practiced.

We had meetings with all the actors, one and one, where we spent a lot of time breaking down the scene outlines, story beats, character interactions, relationship, and backgrounds. We filmed “self-tapes” for each actor as a way of introducing the characters to the audience we were building on social media, but also so the actors could further develop their own character. They were actors playing actors in the film, so the self-tape route made sense in the world we were creating. 

 Photography by http://www.FacesByRaphael.com | Melbourne Actors Headshots

We had group rehearsals with the cast, comparing notes with everyone, ironing out any inconsistencies so everyone was on the same page. We encouraged actors to meet in character, build on their relationships and chemistry. We played improv games. And, with no lines to learn, we recreated history in rehearsal. We took experiences the characters had shared in the past together and filmed them as scenes. One such scene was a dinner party where two characters, Fiona and Zoe, got into a tense argument due to some insensitive comments from Zoe. The cast improvised for 45 minutes straight, the party degenerating into tears. Then, as the film opens, Fiona and Zoe are the first to meet. The tension and awkwardness in the air is palpable, a direct extension from the rehearsal scene we had just filmed.

How long did it take you to finish the complete film?  

IM - It took a long time in post. When you have a micro budget you work around the schedules of sound designers, colourists, VFX artists. It was the end of July when we finished the film. I remember because we were actually uploading a private link of the film to Vimeo to share with cast and crew as we were packing to leave Melbourne the next day and live in Malta. Australian internet being a national disgrace, it took all night to upload and then some, so were at the airport terminal sending out links to the film just before we boarded the plane. So that’s seven months after we shot it that the film was completed, but this included going back and making changes after a cast and crew screening where we got valuable feedback. Though I can tell you our sound designer, though being totally understanding, wasn't overly pleased as it was a complicated procedure to change the edit and sound after picture lock. I don’t recommend it. 

 Could you talk to me about the co-directing process? how did you guys divide the responsibilities of on set work?

IM - We have contrasting styles as directors but somehow we find a balance. For instance, I tend to push too far – louder, harder, more extreme, while Sarah is more conservative and always wants to tone things down. In there we find a happy middle. But it is great having a second director you trust on set as you can bounce ideas off each other, seek feedback, trust your partner to pick up things you may miss yourself. It also forces you to explain why you want to do things a certain way and what is the meaning behind the angle, the colour, the performance, etc. A co-director holds you accountable.

And honestly, without co-directing, we would not have been able to shoot Friends, Foes & Fireworks in a single night. Prior to midnight, we were all together as a group, but after midnight the characters and stories split, and so did our teams. So I am shooting in the apartment with a sound recordist and a pair of actors, while Sarah is out at Catani Gardens filming with Steve and another pair of actors. And we even sometimes used this method when we were all in the same location too such as the apartment – I would shoot a scene in the bathroom while Sarah would be simultaneously shooting a scene on the balcony.

What advice would you give yourselves if you could go back in time for shooting this film in 24 hours?

SJ - Post production VFX was a chore in the end, and costly too, so looking back the only advice I would give myself and Ivan would be to be more mindful of what is in the shot when we film and collect more pickups from each scene. “Fix it in Post” is a term that is always thrown around on set and said so lightly, but in all seriousness, it is not always possible. Or if it is, you need a good VFX team in place. However, due to the nature and speed of the shoot, it could not always be helped on this set – most of the time we had two cameras circling a group of actors, with one director trying to navigate both cameras, which is fine, but it is bound to make things tricky for anyone filming like this, even in the edit.

Should the advice have a huge budget beforehand so maybe so we ‘can fix it in post’? Perhaps, but that is the lazy approach and not all films need a big budget to be watchable and a big budget was not the nature of the shoot, nor was it part of the challenge we set for ourselves and our cast and crew. So I would not change anything, I had a blast, but if I were to give advice I would say be mindful of your surroundings and to cover yourself, shoot loads of pick-ups of little things just to have extra coverage in case you need to cover a shadow or a crossover of cameras.

IM - HD monitors on set. There were too many times a boom shadow is visible on the wall, or a wire is showing in the corner of a shot, and when you are running around with just the small built-in camera monitor picking this stuff up on the night is not always possible. So ideally, I would have the directors standing in another room watching what is happening on both cameras simultaneously. It means having a budget of course, and it wasn’t possible on FFF as I was one of the camera operators, so poor Sarah is running around from one camera to the next trying to keep track of everything that is going on at once. That’s another thing; I wouldn’t shoot myself if I could do it again. We’ve gone on to make another improvised feature called In Corpore in Melbourne, Malta, Berlin and New York, and we’ve had two camera operators on each crew, so if we can’t afford a dual monitor setup (we couldn’t) at least we could have me and Sarah placed on a camera each.

In-Corpore-Poster-Berlin-WEB.jpg

 

I would also have Gerard Mack, our sound recordist, stay the whole shoot and run lapels along with boom all night long. On the shoot, the group scenes were completed at midnight, then it was one on one scenes from there, so we thought we could get rid of the lapels and give Gerard the rest of the night off. It was partly an oversight on my part, partly feeling guilty about asking a friend to help us out all night long on New Year’s Eve. But having an extra expert hand at sound, and extra safety in terms of number of microphones, would have saved a lot of time in sound post.

 


 

Fun questions

 

1. if you were stuck on an abandoned island what five items would you want with you? 

 

SJ - I am not really into possessions. I guess I would need a hairbrush, an anthology of crime stories, my two pairs of glasses as my eyes will deteriorate as I age, something like a spear to catch fish, an endless supply of crunchy peanut butter.

 

IM - A bookcase full of books I haven’t read and some I have, a cat, a comfy bed, my laptop, a wifi connection.

 

2. who is someone that has influenced or inspired your work?

 

IM - I always have a little difficulty with this question. I don’t seek out or follow the work of any particular director; rather I am inspired and influenced by individual films. The dreamlike quality and beautiful editing of Spring Breakers, led by music, repetition, and an immersive soundscape. The quiet, still, and raw exploration of humanity by an outsider in Under the Skin. The flowing camera work in Tangerine. The decidedly unflowing camera in Force Majeure. The ode to the beauty and insanity that is love in Betty Blue. The easy conversations and improvisation of Drinking Buddies. The father and son relationship in Bicycle Thieves. Melbourne’s first mumblecore Pretty Good Friends. I’m inspired by work that pushes boundaries, that doesn’t shy away from the beautiful and ugly in humanity, the intimate, the dirty, the contradictions of men and women, of love, sex, loneliness, confusion – it’s an exhaustive list and it changes every day depending on my mood.

 

SJ - Pan's Labyrinth by Guillermo Del Toro is my all time favorite film and he is one of my favorite directors. If I had a big Hollywood type budget I would write something as elaborate as my imagination would allow and let the set dressing and production design team to go nuts, just as he does. Stepping into the films I enjoy to watch these days, I am inspired by indie filmmakers who push boundaries and work on films similar to the type of films I am directing. As I age I grow as a person and a filmmaker and so does my knowledge and my thirst for it and exploration into my art. I keep discovering, which is wonderful as I never studied film or film history so I don’t have that film buff background where I know everything about the history of the film industry. More recently in terms of films and director that inspire me, Greta Gerwig as an actor and director, Sean Baker for what he did with Tangerine (I love the pace, the movement of the camera and the intensity of the story), and more recently I am in love with the directing style of Ruben Östlund, who directed the awkward relationship movie Force Majeure and his recent film The Square, which is a satire or an observation into humans within the art world and is hilariously fascinating.

 

3. where is the craziest location you have shot a film in?

 

SJ - Somewhere boring like a rundown warehouse building in Footscray, where I worked on a feature film that saw an apartment set get constructed. The building was so old and rundown that the toilet bowls were black like hell pits and the drive to set felt like you stumbled through an apocalyptic film prologue. Or maybe even on the streets of St Kilda during the filming of Daughter — that got pretty wild indeed. Lots of memorable characters said hello to us including drug dealers and homeless people who helped themselves to our catering table, and one chap who had the crew in hysterics as he skipped down the street twirling a crate above his head yelling out “I’m a washing machine!”

 

IM - I wouldn’t call any locations crazy, just had a few interesting challenges or experiences at locations we’ve chosen.

A short called El Western - we shot in a western town set build for the TV series Ponderosa and The Man from Snowy River. Only this was twenty years after the sets had stopped being used regularly and they were not the sturdiest materials, to begin with. There were a lot of areas blocked off because they were too dangerous and during one day of filming an awning from the roof collapsed, landing only a meter away from the gaffer’s sports car. He stopped parking near the set after that.

A short called Zina - we filmed guerrilla at Melbourne Airport. Just went there with a tiny crew and filmed our character arriving in Melbourne without security shutting us down. We thought that was a minor miracle. Then we caught a taxi and filmed our character traveling into the city. We asked several drivers at the taxi rank if we could film while he drove, a couple turning us down, one angrily, the taxi rank official losing her patience, before another driver said yes and off we went.

A short called Mirror of Filth - we filmed in a sex shop, a tattoo parlour, just by going around door knocking. We also filmed in a strip club and up until the day before we had no confirmation that the location would let us in. The schedule was set, call sheets were out, cast and crew and equipment ready, extras booked, but no confirmation from the location. See, the owner was as high as a rocket when I met him to discuss the film. After keeping me waiting for hours, he met me with eyes glazed and red, said yes, agreed on the price and day, but all my attempts to reach him leading up to the shoot to iron out details were a bust. Finally, the night before, I got through to him by using a different phone number, and we were on.

 

4. what is one thing you love about indie filmmaking?

IM - I love the freedom they create, to explore ideas in your own time and at your own pace and be beholden to nothing but your own expectations. I love that you don’t need to wait for permission to create and you don’t have to compromise either. Most of all though l love working with passionate cast and crew from all over the world, artists who tell stories through film not because they seek fame and fortune but because it is in their souls. We have met so many beautiful people through filmmaking and each one has had an impact on our lives and our journey whether they know it or not.

SJ - Being the ‘underdog’ of the filmmaking world and feeling like a champion nonetheless. There is a contentment in accepting what you are and just producing your best work as who you are. Having that inner self-awareness that you are enjoying what you do, but you are not going to be hired to direct a film as colossal as Jurassic Park, yet remain unfazed by the fact. That's a good way to be. That acceptance keeps you hungry for success, keeps you going, but humble at the same time and devoid of ego. I admire indie filmmakers and their ‘get it done attitude’ despite the odds stacked against them, despite their (sometimes) lack of support and recognition – they put their heart into their work and get it out to the world whether the world cares or not. 

 

5. what is your favorite to drink in the mornings? - coffee or tea?

 

IM - Definitely coffee.

 

SJ - Warm glass of green or fennel tea. Every morning.