First published on 26 Oct 2012. Updated on 28 Oct 2012.
Hail is an independent Australian film that needs to be seen worldwide. It's a tale of love, loss and loyalty, all based on incidents in the life of real-life ex-con Daniel P Jones. There's ugliness in his world, sure. But stylistically this film is breathtaking, and as a form of social commentary, it's a beauty. It makes flesh the hopes, dreams and failings of the criminal underclass – a group that is so frequently stereotyped in film.
Producer Michael Cody and director Amiel Courtin-Wilson – best known for Bastardy, his documentary about Aboriginal actor Jack Charles – bunkered up in a warehouse for the duration of Hail's production, living and breathing the film 24-7. Their star, Jones, had begun his acting career up on release from prison, with a group aimed at rehabilitating ex-cons – and stepped up to the plate for this performance.
Jones plays himself, with his girlfriend portrayed by real-life partner Leanne Letch. The characters that revolve around them are non-actors, also playing versions of themselves. Yet whereas this could be yet another gritty Aussie lowlife flick, the end result is something profound and sacred.
The beautifully shot, lingering close-ups made this feel more like a wildlife documentary.
Amiel: Thematically the idea was to take a world that potentially could have been dealt with very easily in a kitchen sink, social realist fashion. It’s looking at the internal psychology of these two characters, but instead turning their bodies into planets or universes unto themselves. So it’s this idea that through the close-ups throughout the film getting a sense of the immensity of their psychological state and in the end that eternal immensity of their love… and subsequent to that, the immensity of their loss and grief and tumult. So initially it’s trying to peer inside of them, so when the film does take that very dramatic gearshift and you’ve got that tearing white light sequence, our intention was to literally place our audience in Danny’s head at that point.
There’s a great scene where Danny is flicking his hair in slow motion and it’s imbued with great beauty and meaning… whereas I suspect if he was sat across a table from me, I wouldn’t be admiring his hair.
Amiel: It was really great to work with Cody in terms of discussions around the themes of the film. We were looking at the idea of imminence and how a world can be imbued with the sacred. So there’s the hair stuff and the water motif throughout the film – for example the car yard when Danny’s just got his job and there’s this reverie of dignity and pride as he polishes the car. The flipside of that is when the inanimate landscape shifts between being a benevolent to a malevolent force when he’s undergoing that loss of Leanne and you revisit that motif of the water in the shower in that scene. Again, it was great to imbue the film with those sort of larger thematic concerns.
Michael: A gesture like that, with the hair, is to take the film into a more psychological realm, out of naturalism and into a more poetic place. That particular scene we got a special sort of camera called a Phantom that shoots a thousand frames per second instead of the usual 24, so it’s the highest speed camera you can get. You can only shoot an eight-second shot at a time but it will slow it down to super-slow motion.
So basically Danny just tossed his head?
Michael: Yeah… with a windblower we hired from a hardware store.
It was so subjective that every time there was a drag of a cigarette it was visceral.
Amiel: If you can garner a scene with a certain intimacy, a single drag on a cigarette can become a dramatic high point – when you’re focusing on that kind of scale. Certainly the kind of cinema that I’ve always loved most is the films that feel truly alive in that way and you really are witnessing something unfold in front of you that feels like it’s taking place in that moment.
There seemed to be no ego on the part of any performer, even though they were playing themselves. Did you have to hammer that out in early takes?
Amiel: Interestingly, the film is quite often incorrectly framed as a docudrama. It does use documentary techniques, but it is very much a fiction. Even though the performances feel very spontaneous and loose, it was actually based on a really intensely rigorous four months of rehearsals – so that performance style was truly honed and distilled.
By the time we started shooting, Dan and Leanne were so fluid in their ability to be on camera – and Germaine, the cinematographer, had known Dan and Leanne for six years. Having said that, the way in which we’d work, we’d shoot very long takes and we wouldn’t get traditional coverage. It was more the manner of documentary style coverage: you’d shoot two or three takes and give total precedence to the performers so the cinematographer would quite often not know where they were going in any given scene – and then at the end of that you pick off any of your necessary close-ups or live shots just to give the editor the material they needed.
It was a testament to Danny’s skill as a performer, too, because not everyone in the film is an actor. For the most part Danny was able to commandeer the performances of the employees for example because when Danny walks into a room people tend to forget to forget there’s a camera there.
You’ve done some screenings with Q&As… have you had any responses you weren’t expecting?
Michael: In Tasmania a lot of the legal fraternity turned up so we had some judges – which is actually really great because Dan, the lead actor, is very used to dealing with those questions about recidivism, having been involved in organisations that were offering rehabilitation through the arts. That’s one of the things Dan says about how he got involved in the theatre company initially – “It was that or picking up papers in the park.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t interested in acting – he was really interested and he’s a very unusual character in that respect. He has a real facility for it and he prepared incredibly rigorously for the role in the film; he really approached it like an actor. He’s just got back from the States as he’s done another feature as a lead and he’s been testing for stuff here. The reviews of his performance have been amazing and he’s an actor now.
Are lots of characters from Dan and Leanne’s past crawling out of the woodwork?
Michael: A little bit, he’s expecting that that could happen in both good and bad ways so we’ll see. The Melbourne Q&A could be interesting in that respect because you don’t know who could show up. That’s one of the interesting things about hanging out with him; as a straight person, you kind of get this sense of another world that’s operating all around you – an underworld – but you don’t see it unless you know about it. So when you’re with him you might be walking down the street and bump into someone that he’ll tell you an anecdote about – and you suddenly realise that there’s this whole network going around.
It’s fascinating to see the loves and sorrows of characters you would ordinarily try to avoid if you saw them boarding the 86 tram.
Michael: That was deliberate in the way that Amiel wanted to approach making the film because we are so used to seeing criminals portrayed in a caricaturish way in Australian cinema. You actually you find when you spend time with them that they are philosophers and they’re very funny. They’re very compassionate and they’re very loyal and those sorts of things – yet they do tend to be reduced to these fairly sort of one dimensional psychopathic characters.
Amiel had already made a short film, Cicada, with Daniel.
Michael: We were all pretty good friends, Amiel had known Dan for a long time, he’d started off seeing him as a potential subject for a documentary and as they got closer and all sorts of things happened they ended up living together and they became friends and the project dropped away and they approached it more as friends working together.
Were the rest of the cast actors?
Amiel: There’s not a single trained actor in the film. It quickly became evident that with improvisation we could cast people that were as close to the character as possible.
Michael: We had eight young documentary filmmakers go onto the streets and find interesting people. This was over a few months and we had open casting calls auditioning about 1600 people.
And was it all shot around north Melbourne?
Amiel: Fitzroy North, Preston, Coburg. Those guys live up there but you know, again it was pretty remarkable the kind of guys that were coming in. I think there were a lot of ex-criminals. There’s that great scene towards the end of the scene where Dan’s accosting those kids on the street and we were casting actual heroin dealers.
When people would come in for an audition, there was this great three-layered process and Dan was there for all the auditions because it wasn’t like a usual casting process where you would have a script, it was more about being in the moment. He was amazingly committed, so he would actually be there for every single audition process.
Even though we started with a very sparse, 20-page scene outline, we did actually end up having a quite meticulously crafted script, it was just kind of topsy-turvy in its process.
So the pair of you wound up living in your production warehouse here in Fitzroy North – Amiel in a caravan, Michael in a tent.
Amiel: It was a very clear decision to create a space that was a kind of ramshackle commune. Because of the budget of the film we had a lot of people who were coming in as film students and living in the office during the shoot. Once people met Danny and Leanne it was so easy to be enamoured by their charm; people would just commit to the film in a way that I have never seen ever in terms of giving their all. It’s just lovely to foster that kind of environment in a film that’s so intimate and dedicated on trust and friendship. There’s a lot of late night dinners and jamming.
When making Bastardy and now Hail, did you feel a duty of care, given that you were portraying real people?
Amiel: That was a really long series of discussions with Danny and Leanne – hence the very specific wording of the title at the end of the film where it says “based on the life and stories of Danny”. Not only a heightened version of Danny and Leanne’s life but very much a fictionalised version. In some ways its an interesting inversion of the usual biopic: you get a film about Muhammad Ali and the larger events are the things that are true to life, but it’s the minutiae of this world that are the scripted elements. It’s like flipping the telescope.
Do you know what the run is going to be like?
Amiel: It’s hard to say because obviously we got an R rating and it’s a pretty modest release but I really believe that it’s got quite broad appeal. At pervious screenings it’s always older women that seem to be our strongest advocates for the film, because there’s a strange connection with Danny.
It is disturbingly erotic in parts.
Amiel: Yeah, and seeing that vulnerability and the love story between two people at that age… I think I would love to see how the film would play at a multiplex in Altona. With a movie like this, it’s so word-of-mouth dependent so we’ll hopefully slowly climb that mountain. It’s so tethered to this really beautiful love story, which is why we made the film in the first place, to portray this gorgeous intoxicating love that these guys have for one another. I think audiences would go on quite a rough ride with Danny through the piece if they weren’t anchored by that really authentic love. It would be another film entirely.
Hail screens at Cinema Nova until October 31. Rated R.