Playground: A filmmaking journey - Part A

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Written by Luke Creely


“What I do like is hiking. And that's what filmmaking is. It's a hike. It's challenging and exhausting, and you don't know what the terrain is going to be or necessarily even which direction you're going in... but it sure is beautiful.” Joss Whedon



I am writing this article from my perspective as the writer and director of Playground. It will chronicle and outline my experiences throughout the entire filmmaking process, from the early days of conception and scripting, to pre-production, principal photography and filming, and finally to post-production. This article will hopefully provide you with a unique insight into the minutiae of low-budget filmmaking (or, micro-budget and virtually no-budget filmmaking in our case), where I was challenged, how I overcame those challenges, and the amount of work that writing and directing necessitates. Part A will focus primarily on Playground’s initial development and the scripting process I undertook. Part B will focus on casting and rehearsing with our actors. Part C will focus on principal photography, the post production process, and our August 8 premiere. Filmmaking is magic, it’s ‘beautiful’ as Mr. Whedon articulates and, to me, there is nothing more exhilarating than building a film project from the ground up. Let’s start at the ground.




Part A: Story development and scripting


It all begins with a concept or an idea. It might be a particular character, a plot element or story event, a piece of dialogue, a theme or underlying message, or a cool story twist. A screenplay always begins somewhere at one of these specific points. Everything else is then built around that point. This is how I like to develop my stories and scripts and this is how Playground came to fruition. The original concept for Playground was to make something unmistakably ‘Australian’: to set the film within the Australian bush, to reference and reinforce Australian cinematic history and culture, and to create characters who embody the X-gen Australian male archetype, the old-school country fella who lives on the land, works with his hands, and doesn’t mind a beer, a swear word, or two. Think John Jarratt and Jack Thompson, or the fictional Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple, the sorts of characters we see in classic Australian cinematic masterpieces They’re A Weird Mob, Wake In Fright, Sunday Too Far Away or The Odd Angry Shot. Or, to give you a more contemporary example, picture the way Mick Taylor (played by Jarratt) walks, talks and presents himself in Wolf Creek (maybe minus the serial killer part). My previous short films weren’t very ‘Australian’ at all, and being a lover and researcher of Australian cinema, it was important to me that Playground showcased our country for what it is and for who we are. Ultimately, I envisaged a piece of cinema that would present Australia in the most authentic and natural way possible and therefore set out to create something that looks and feels innately familiar and ‘real’.


With this solid concept in mind, and a very clear creative vision for the film (long takes, improvised ‘Mumblecore’ style dialogue, controlled camera and careful framing, dynamic performances, lots of silences and oodles of subtext), my story development and scripting process began to take shape. There are 3 parts to my process which worked well in tandem and held me in good stead while writing the Playground script. Part 1 involved story brainstorming and many, many discussions with my story development team. Alongside selected members of our production crew such as my Producer Jack and other members such as Sam, Nicole and Jeff, various ideas where shot back and forth, story ideas were suggested, and weeks of conversation took place. This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the filmmaking process: being right at the beginning, creating, thinking left field, and sharing your vision and passion with other like-minded people. I pride myself on inclusivity and collaboration and absolutely value and cherish the suggestions and input of others. I believe this is by far the best approach to take as a writer and director, as no single person, not even a director, has all the answers. As a filmmaker, I learn off everyone else just as much as they learn off me. Thus, after much interaction, the basic skeleton framework for Playground, and the bare bones of a story that I would later convert into a screenplay, was formed. It was at this point that I required some space, locked myself away, and went about doing my thing.


Before putting pen to paper and before beginning any screenplay, I like to flesh out the basic story framework, give it some meat, and begin constructing a coherent and detailed narrative. This is where Part 2 comes in, and it’s the best part of the entire process: relentless and non-stop film binges and movie marathons. This is a vital step for me. To write properly, to get my creative juices flowing and to get into the right headspace, I like to immerse myself in as much film as possible. I’m talking a crazy amount. I spent a few weeks watching a hell of a lot of films: films from different genres, different types and sorts of films, new films, old films, short films, old classics, old favourites, films I had never seen before, films which I wanted to reference in Playground. Given my initial concept and vision for Playground, my obvious starting point was Australian cinema. I re-watched as many Aussie films as I could, such as the films listed above, many other AFC-funded films from the 70s (Picnic At Hanging Rock is of course one of my personal favourites), a lot of B-grade Ozploitation horror films again from the 70s and also the 80s (check out The Cars That Ate Paris, Patrick and Razorback, three low-budget gems), and more contemporary titles such as the messed-up but totally awesome The Loved Ones, 100 Bloody Acres and the genuinely frightening The Babadook. Partly due to my love of European cinema, but also because of my vision to imitate European-style framing and camerawork in Playground, I re-watched a lot of French cinema (French New Wave films from the late 50s and 60s such as Breathless and The 400 Blows, the fantastic Three Colours trilogy from the 90s, and modern horror masterpieces such as Martyrs and the underrated Them), got stuck back into the filmography of one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, Michael Haneke (be sure to watch his films Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Cache and Amour), and re-watched the film that creatively inspires my directing style more than any other: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, written and directed by the awesome Romanian-born filmmaker Cristian Mungiu. As Playground is a horror/thriller film, I re-watched plenty of horror gems such as some classic slashers (Halloween, Friday the 13th etc.), The Shining, the Evil Dead franchise, and legendary thriller films such as Deliverance. Mumblecore was also on the menu, with my personal favourite being Joe Swanberg’s dramedy Drinking Buddies. With sleep-deprived red eyes and a sore head (but it was totally worth it) I was then ready to tackle the next phase of my screenwriting process.


Part 3 is the hardest part of the process but certainly the most important: exercising patience and allowing the story to fester and develop naturally. I never rush screenwriting or script development. Doing so is counter-intuitive. Generally, and as I exercised when writing Playground, I will sit with the basic concept and story framework for a while, give it room to breathe, and trust in my creativity and gut instincts to formulate the best screenplay possible. As a filmmaker you have no choice but to be bold in your vision and to trust your gut. For Playground, the story sat with me for a while as I pieced together the finer details of the plot, brainstormed ideas, took mental notes, continued watching as many other films as possible, visualised the film in my mind and mentally watched the scenes play out. Even with a blank canvas, I’d allow the film roll in my head. More often than not, I found that what I visualised in fact ended up in the screenplay and in the film’s final edit. It’s about allowing your creativity and imagination to take over and having faith in your abilities. Usually, your first instinct is the right one. And as with anything, once one idea pops in, or once one scene is constructed and locked away, everything else seems to flow easily. It’s like a domino effect.


So within a month a draft was written and presented to Jack. It was discussed and some changes were made. Another draft was then written and a couple of minor changes were made. And then, in late 2014, I completed the final draft and had never been prouder of anything I had ever written previously. With the screenplay locked away, it was then time to get cracking on pre-production: Jack got to work scheduling out our game plan, putting it into action, and I got busy thinking about and looking for the perfect cast. And boy, were they perfect.



Click here to continue reading Part B of Luke’s Playground filmmaking journey – Casting and rehearsing with actors.


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