Wish You Were Here, which opened the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, begins with an unexplained disappearance. Four young Australians have taken a holiday to Cambodia, but only three return. “It’s ostensibly a mystery thriller,” explains first-time director Kieran Darcy-Smith. “But what [the audience is] connecting with, what they’re invested in, what they ultimately care about, is the relationship."
That relationship is the one back home between married couple Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price). They’re left to confront the issues raised by the mysterious absence of Jeremy (Antony Starr), the boyfriend of Steph (Teresa Palmer), Alice’s sister. As an actor himself - Darcy-Smith has appeared in films The Reef and September, as well as Home and Away - it’s perhaps no surprise that the director put authentic performances high on the list when making the movie. He cites contemporary Danish filmmakers Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen as inspirations in terms of creating “grounded characters”. But it is a little more surprising as to how Darcy-Smith strives for truth aesthetically as well: “I like it to feel incredibly real, but also [look] really beautiful. I’m as finicky and fussy with locations as I am with cast, or crewing the movie. It’s all about light, about angles, about depth.”
He's also keenly aware of pacing. “I have a very short attention span. I’ve always needed a keep-the-ball-in-the-air, keep-the-pace-churning quality in a story.” Likening himself to a hyperactive child, Darcy-Smith says that being on set is the Ritalin to his restlessness. While filming in Cambodia, he says he was “so adrenalised” by the pressure that he felt forced to be “hyper-aware, hyper-calm and hyper-effective”.
Darcy-Smith had been working on the script for what will be his second film, Memorial Day (which won an Inside Film Award for its screenplay and will be filmed in the US later this year), when his wife, Felicity Price, came up with the germ of the idea behind Wish You Were Here. Knowing it would be difficult as a first-time filmmaker to generate the support he needed to produce Memorial Day, they decided to write the new screenplay together.
“We were living and breathing it for nearly four years. You’re changing nappies, having a shower, cooking dinner, and you’re constantly talking about it. Our story is about a couple with two little kids, and we have two little kids. We always approached it from the point-of-view of how would we respond in this situation.”
Although confident in his skills as a writer and director, Darcy-Smith wasn’t comfortable asking the guy who was best man at his wedding to be in his “small independent film”. He and Edgerton (Warrior, The Thing), both founding members of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue Tongue Films, went to the same drama school and have been friends since they were 17. He laughs, “I didn’t want him to put him in a position whereby he was going to say no… I didn’t want him to think that I was going to call on him straight away - or at all - just to finance my movie.” Happily, Edgerton volunteered.
Wish You Were Here opens Apr 5.