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Categories: Interviews

The director and cinematographer of Thirty-Three, Mike Booth and Burak Oguz Saguner, talk about the ins and outs of adapting the acclaimed play for the screen.

Cinematographer Burak Oguz Saguner and Director Mike Booth on the set of Thirty-Three Movie, moments before the last take – photo by Tim Fay

When did you decide you wanted to turn Thirty-Three into a feature film? What made you feel this was an idea suited for the medium?

Mike Booth: We had performed for a month at The Old Fitzroy and for the whole time doing the play it never occurred to me to make a film of it. Maybe it was a week or so after it closed that my friend Oli said, “Oh, you should shoot this whilst your actors are hot and they know their lines, and before they go away for Christmas.” So I thought, yeah, that’s a good idea. Because that would have to be very soon, I thought, well we’ll get a couple of cameras and we can run this at speed, for the most part, and make this sort of documentary-style recording of the play. So that was the genesis.

Whether I thought if it was perfectly suited for the medium, I think I thought this will be a good experiment to do, and not too expensive so it’s just completely worth doing. So, that was how it came about and then of course it is not as easy as that to get all the personnel and a venue for that matter. Then the Christmas came and actors went on holidays. So, we kept pushing it back until I myself had to go away and ran into your (Burak Oguz Saguner) good self and then the idea came that maybe not just two cameras but one camera and a proper cinematographer.

Burak Oguz Saguner: Yeah, I remember telling you “get a proper cinematographer, here I am.” The feature we were shooting together at that time – Into The Waves –, the one that sort of brought us back together, was a good coincidence and when you first sent me that play script and I got the chance to read it I thought it was perfectly suited for the medium. Nearly, to the way that it was written, not needing to make that many changes in terms of scriptwriting, apart from a few details that you would explain verbally in a stage play because you can’t visualise them for the audience. But, apart from that, the script was written very dialogue based, it is conversation and the conversations tell the story and the back story and the details and nuances. So, reading that kind of script and reading that kind of conversation ends up making you visualise stuff rather than going like “He walks into the room. Turns the door knob and there it is. He is now chopping onion” or whatever. But instead of that in this script they could be doing anything but their stories were in their conversations and that was not going to change. So that made a perfectly visualisable film script.   

Mike: Given that, in its essence, theatre is a spoken medium, a verbal medium, and cinema is a visual medium in it’s essence, would that not apply, what you were saying, pretty much to most play scripts?

Burak: Well, it does. Most of the times when I read plays, I don’t understand why people believe the adaptation of it would be so hard. In that regard, I think a lot of stylisation gets in the way of it and makes it awkward. Other than that, yeah, for sure. If you look at it as people’s reactions, interactions and people’s life with a non-judgemental point of view, most plays that were well written for stage would make good screenplays for cinema. As long as you don’t go, “Hey man, I am making cinema. So I’ll slap this fluff here and that fluff over there. Oh, the adaptation turned to shit.”

Mike: Yeah.

Burak: Which was something we didn’t do and that makes me very happy.

Mike: Yeah, I happen to think perhaps it works better as cinema because you can see more in the subtleties than you can on stage. So it is like putting things under a microscope.

Burak: Yep, that’s right.

Mike: So, in a sense, cinema is the best medium to serve this script. I think when people say a film still has its theatrical origins they are generally referring to its limited locations and, also when people say that things are “stagy”, they usually mean that the performance style is large. You know? There is that word “theatrical” therefore it must be big and hammy and, given that play itself was written and performed to be “un-theatrical” and very “naturalistic”, it naturally lent itself to be very realistic on camera.

Burak: Exactly.

Tell us about the cast of the film, were they all familiar with the play as performers? How did that impact their performances? Was the transition from live performance to filmed performance seamless or did changes have to be made?

Mike: Certainly by the time we rolled the camera they were very familiar with the piece because they had rehearsed, I think about six weeks before the play went on which then ran a month, so there is ten weeks of work and having a month in front of a live audience is going to teach you about what works and what doesn’t in terms of how the piece is received. And it was received extremely well. So we had a confidence in that it carried as a piece. But then there was a six months hiatus between the play and when we got back to rehearsing it and preparing for the film shoot and so we kind of started it in a way from scratch, exploring the given circumstances all over again. Around the table, reading with the actors, and when we got it on its feet—certainly when Burak came in to rehearse with the camera—I think the biggest adjustment was, as I just said earlier, things tend to be larger than life on stage and, actually yes, we noticed that. They had to pull back their performances. Certainly physically. They had to stand a little closer together and really trust talking to each other and that they don’t have to have an awareness of filling a room. They don’t have to have an awareness to being heard from a supposed audience and that was an adjustment. It wasn’t a massive one and they took to it. So that was certainly an experience from the actor’s perspective.

Actors Rose Maher, James Bell, Sam Trotman, Georgia Scott and Ben Dalton on the set of Thirty-Three Movie, moments before the last take – photo by Tim Fay

Burak: In a way, I think, it worked well that there was the six to seven months of cooling off period from stage to re-working the script and doing the rehearsals for the filming. Because, it was a fresh start. I think I joined you guys a few weeks later than you started but even before the camera rehearsals started we did a lot of table reading. I think restarting all that, giving it time, the new space, the new medium and the new way sinks in. I mean, the biggest thing when adapting a theatre play, especially the way we shot this — the long takes, roaming camera —, it is like there is a walking audience. Joining in, dropping in on the conversation. Once that started coming in to play we started feeling like we are having a party. In fact, one of our rehearsals was a party.

Mike: I forgot about that one.

Burak: That was a good approach to realistically adapting a theatre play that is a “party piece” into film.

Mike: Wasn’t that the last run through, or the second last?

Burak: Second last.

Mike: And we filmed that rehearsal.

Burak: Yes, we did.

Mike: I want to see that. That would be interesting because it was so free. Dare I say, more free than the final result. (laughs)

Burak: (laughs) Well, you know, you got to go to the edge to see where it is, no?

Mike: (laughing) Yeah. Well, I remember, we could drink beer if we wanted to, and real wine, and it was literally a party. And we had meditation before hand. That was the first time we had a meditation. Wasn’t it?

Burak: Yep.

Mike: A guided meditation by mister Alan Watts.

Burak: It can be searched under “A Listening Meditation” on YouTube, if anyone is curious to check it out. It is a fantastic nine-minute piece as a guide in how to be present in a conversation.

Mike: I should have listened to that before I went on my dinner date last night.

Burak: (laughs) That would be a good practice.

Mike: (laughs) Yeah. There is another thing I must say. I think a lovely discovery between the theatre production and the film was just through reading the script again and again and fine-tuning the script, was distilling the piece’s premise dramatically. Even though I co-wrote the thing it doesn’t necessarily mean that I know what it’s about, which is I think perfectly fine. In fact, if any artist, if they know exactly what their work is about then it can’t be that great a work because it didn’t come out of their subconscious. It must have come out of their conscious and that isn’t that interesting. Unless you are a magician and not many magicians are considered artists.

Anyway, I digress. I don’t know if I am going to spoil the story but it really is a story about a brother and a sister and of course we always knew that but I think, dramatically, that was clearer going into the shoot and for the actors in rehearsal. So for Sam and Jess, who played the brother and sister, that ultimately is what the story is about and everything else is in support of that. Which gives the piece as a film a real clear through-line dramatically. Where its heart lies and why this story is being told. That this is a story of a significant event in two people’s lives, an indelible event. Something happens this night that alters their lives permanently and possibly needed to happen, good or bad. I guess this is called dramaturgy—that sort of work happened in between the play and the film.

Burak: This was one of the really beautiful parts about our collaboration. That we got to talk about it so much. All the rehearsals we had and especially us living together all those weeks prior to shooting and being able to discuss it pretty much anytime we can. That way we really tapped into the subconscious of the story and the dialogue. I mean, obviously we are making the film about the conversations being had but, because we got to discover what they mean truly by heart, then it affected the film’s subliminal ways. Which is showing in a very simple form of filmmaking but actually it is not that simple to make.

Mike: Well, it was your suggestion to cut a significant section of dialogue out of the ending which, for me, lead to that realisation of what the piece is about and why that became clear with said dialogue removed, it made it more economic but more to the point. Un-muddied. So a subtle change made a big difference.

Burak: And we had to make those changes before we rolled camera because we wouldn’t be able to do it any other time.

Mike: That’s right. That was the other unique thing about the way we made this film. We effectively had to edit before we shoot.

The film was shot predominantly as long takes to capture the raw feeling of that party atmosphere and human interaction, what were the biggest hurdles in doing that within such a confined, intimate, space?

Mike: For me, as a director, I had to let go of particular moments or obsessing over particular mistakes. If an actor flubbed their line or didn’t nail a particular moment I had to let it go for the greater good of the whole piece and maybe that little moment will remain in the film, or that beautiful moment I loved in the previous take won’t be in the film because it is not connected to the overall take that worked the best. That was one thing as a challenge for me to accept. Because, as a director, I do like to be hands-on with certain moments. So then I had to give my instructions to the actors as best as I could and then let it rip and I don’t have any regrets about that, but that was a challenge.

Burak: As director this is almost like a true theatre play experience for you as well. From the beginning we made a promise to the material.  Which was, well, this is a theatre play and we want to stick with the experience of it, in terms of what the play created as an experience, we wanted to create that experience in a different medium. We didn’t want to turn it into a filmic experience.

Mike: That is exactly right and that was our guiding motivation for the whole project: to recreate the essence of the experience the audience had in the theatre. Re-discover the essence of the experience and that experience was something palpable and raw and a little unnerving because there was a sense of reality and danger.

Burak: And long takes ended up being a good choice for it because then we challenged ourselves by lighting the entire space for the entire shoot before we roll the camera and didn’t touch the lights. You ended up giving your directions in the beginning of a scene that goes for thirty minutes and never interject again until, if, it got re-shot. Which would be the case for us if we were doing it as a theatre play. We would set up and wouldn’t intervene the actors work with our presence once the play started and it made things real in that what went on in the selected scenes remained untouched, as is. We didn’t interrupt the motion of a scene just because it could be done differently or for perfection. We did let it unfold and it is real because in reality there is nothing called “perfect.” Perfect is just a concept of the human mind.

Behind the scenes, Thirty Three Movie – Photo by Adelle Dover

Mike: What is that Japanese word? Wabi-sabi, I think. It is a Japanese word that celebrates the imperfect. That a cracked bowl is better than an un-cracked bowl. Yes, certainly the long takes allowed for unplanned magic to happen and, subconsciously, the audience will know that that was unplanned.  They will know that. Where as if you used editing and if you cut to a moment you can never be certain that that moment was contrived then and there for the camera. I always remember in Broadcast News, that movie with William Hurt doing an interview — they are probably doing fake news to this day — where they interview a person and then they insert the cutaways of the interviewer afterwards. He may have decided to put tears in his eyes because that’ll look better in the end result. So that’s where you have documentary that’s actually fictionalised. Whereas we have fiction that we have “documentarised.” Which is the philosophy of how I like to make films, in a way. It is a fictional documentary without being mockumentary.

Burak: And space being confined has been helpful. Actually, we tried to make it more confined than it was. So that we had some borders and boundaries around segments of actions and it was helpful to have some edges because otherwise we could have gone too wide and too far, which we didn’t want to do since we only shot with one lens as well. Another bit of naturalism we had actually: the lens never changes and the aperture never changes. Doesn’t matter what time of the day it is, doesn’t matter what time of the night it is, it remains the same. It is close to a human eye experience.

Mike: Also, I was going to say, it should not be to surprising from an actor’s point of view that they acted for half an hour because that is exactly what they did on stage and they were well prepared.

Burak: It must be a little nervy to know we only have five days to shoot this thing. That is about five takes for the entire piece averaging and most of the takes are over 20 minutes. I certainly had thoughts, you know, “We are 28 minutes into a 30-minute take, everything went flyingly up until this moment and we got one more move. I don’t want fuck this one up now”. Which creates an interesting edge to work this way, exciting and nice.

Mike: Yeah, a little nerve-wracking. I watched an interview with Alfred Hitchcock recently, talking about making Rope. Which I imagine you can compare this to on that technical level. Although, their takes were twelve minutes max because that’s as much film as they could fit in the magazine. He generally didn’t enjoy shooting films anyway because he is such a technician and a perfectionist and he pretty much made the film before he shoots it. But, yeah, he said it was excruciating getting nine minutes into a shot and then there would be a technical stuff-up and then having to go again. He just couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t actually like that for us. Once we were rolling and you’re part of it you’re breathing and exploring as you go as well, so it’s just riding it.

Burak: I mean, I was playing catch-up all the time. I was not thinking about “where’s my right mark at what moment?”. I knew those but was remaining in a state of catch-up because I thought if I happened to walk into this party because I found the door open and nobody could see me being there and if I was listening these people, I’d be like, “what the hell is going on here, man?”.

Mike: Which is what we imagined our audience will experience and I hope that it gets to be seen on as big a screen as possible. I think the experience will be all the better for the size of the screen, to feel like you are there at the house.

Burak: And the speakers.

Mike:  And the speakers and to put the edge of frame as far as your periphery really. You know? You really want to have the edge of frame where almost you have to move your eye to see everything. So that it is a physical experience and, having watched it back on a small screen where you don’t have to move your eyes at all to see the entire picture, that’s why we watched it back sitting up close. Because, to look from one person to the other, you actually have to move your eyes. It changes the experience and that’s getting back to what we set out to do: create an experience for an audience, you know, and we are not making this in 3D and surround sound will help too.

Given that the shooting style also makes for very few cuts in the film, how did you approach that in the editing room? Did you want the audience to really feel the cuts in the film or did you want to keep them as invisible as possible?

Burak: (laughs) Which cuts?

Mike: (laughs) Yeah. Given that there are so few cuts and we are not trying to hide the cuts that, because we are in still post-production, we may make some adjustments to how the cuts actually will feel, whether it is a cut or a transition. But I think the cuts are making a very clear statement and they are very strong. Every cut serves a very important purpose. Put it that way. Which I appreciate because films of today are saturated with so many cuts and that’s a general comment that is made, certainly by filmmakers, on what is different in films of today and films of thirty years ago. It’s just the shots are getting shorter in duration and therefore, there are so many cuts and they start to lose their meaning. The shots lose their meaning and the cuts lose their meaning and that is something I feel strongly about.

Burak: In some films it is even hard to properly see the shots when you are watching. I mean, to look and acknowledge that something is there is one thing; to be able to see it and see the detail and understand its meaning is something else. It takes time for the stuff to sink in, it takes time to feel. It is not just an aesthetic concern, it is about being able to settle into a moment rather than showing it and then getting on with it.

Mike: Yeah, that’s right. Again, it comes back to the word experience. You know, it is a time-based medium, that is the beauty of cinema. It is a three-way based medium: it is vision and it is sound but it is also time. There are people that go to the Louvre in Paris, get to the Mona Lisa take a photo of it with their iPhone and then move on and don’t properly absorb it. You can choose to stay for hours but the people behind you might get a bit disgruntled and that is what’s so powerful making films, that the duration is our call. With intent, and it’s always a form of contention when it comes to the edit and when it comes to certain audiences in terms of the films I made. How long to stay on a shot? Often the feedback would be that shot was too long and, I wonder, maybe it’s too long for you, but can you speak for a collective audience? How do you know that that was too long? And, what does that mean when a shot is too long? I mean; it is a finesse, it is a feel, it is an intuition, it’s an instinct and there is no rulebook.  And it depends on my mood. I can look at a shot and say, “Yes, it is too long,” and on another day go “It’s perfect.”

Burak: And sometimes it can depend on how tired you came back home after work and sometimes it can depend on how long you had to wait in traffic to get to the cinema.

Mike: That’s right. Therefore, the experience of the films will change each time you watch it. You know, you can glance at a sunset or sometimes you can take it in. I always admire Sophia Coppola in her movie Somewhere because when they put the clay on Stephen Dorff’s head to create a plaster mould for some special effects in the story, they leave him there sitting in a chair covered in clay and hold on that one shot—him doing nothing but breathing through two holes where his nostrils are. That shot stays there for 90 seconds. Now, that is probably way too long for most people. Probably the producers of that film thought it was too long. I’m going to guess, speculate, that they had a conversation with Sophia about it. And I might have thought it was long when I watched it, but I also marvelled at it because I became mesmerised. But it was only about 40 seconds in did I become mesmerised. Had it cut in the first 15 seconds I wouldn’t have had that experience. And, I think, I admire her for having that fortitude. It’s called, “Sticking to one’s guns.” It is also called, “being pretentious”, and I am not saying that but that could be a way of someone looking at it.

Burak: Well, if someone said that shot was “boring” or “pretentious,” I reckon, I’d say to them, “Well, you try sitting in clay for half a day and let’s see how that feels for you.”

Mike: Yeah, and in our film we are not doing any of that because the shots are only dictated by the action. We didn’t edit Thirty-Three for the sake of the shots or the rhythm of the film or anything. Like we said, we had to cut before we shot it.

Burak: The way we timed our film, especially the opening scene that we get it on the last day of the shoot as the last take—we shot that four times, every day once because the scene starts late afternoon and it ends in the evening. And the light outside the windows naturally changes from sunny to blue hour and, then to dark of the night, all continuously real-time. So, we could only shoot once every day and we kept shooting it and then went back and watched it after the end of our shooting day and questioned what was wrong with it until we eventually figured it out, which happened to be the night before the last day. Eventually we got the beat right and informed everyone and there it was.

Mike: Yes, yes, that was my moment of “This take is too long” and we managed to cut eleven minutes.

Burak: That’s right, and without an editing desk. That was a long night. (laughs)

Mike: (laughs) Yes, I think we had one hour of sleep in between and nearly missed the dawn shot. But that was a miracle day, you know. That was when the mighty forces came upon us. It was a great example of feeling something is working or something is not working and our instincts on the second last day said, “Something is not working and we need to fix this and we need to fix this now.”

Burak: “Before we don’t have a film.”

Mike: Yes, “We don’t have a film if we don’t fix this.”    

Burak: Yes, that’s right. That was high stakes.

Mike: It was high stakes.

Burak: Good, I love high stakes.

Mike: I love high stakes, especially when we’re able to rise to the occasion. Which is what they do, you know. That was a mettle-testing moment. Therefore, we are — I’ll speak for myself — all the more, proud for it and so joyful that we achieved it.

Burak: Yeah, totally. It made that wrap party call such a joy to make. Because we finished shooting the scene with the possibility in our minds that, if it didn’t turn out the way we want, we will give up on the idea of natural light changing progressively and shoot it again throughout the evening, until the scene is right. So, we went away and watched the take on set before making the final call.

Mike: Yeah, with the actors on standby ready to go again waiting to hear, “go again.” Normally you know when a wrap is going to be, more or less. But we ended up wrapping an hour earlier than expected. It is nice to have an extra hour up your sleeve to celebrate.

Why do you think writers always come back to the party setting, especially in film? Is it that connection to theatre or is there something more going on? 

Mike: It might be a connection to the theatre. I am trying to think the films that are “party pieces” and whether or not many of those are adapted from the stage. But, I think, it’s cheap. It’s economic to shoot in limited locations.

Burak: Not that I am one of the writers, but there is always something interesting going on at the parties. I mean, at a party, there is so much more going on than the party itself. Doesn’t matter whose party or why it’s been held. Is it Halloween or someone’s wedding party? Everybody there has their own socially representable way, the way they act in society, the mask, and then when you look through they have their undercurrent going on.

Mike: Well, that’s right. That’s right. If you are observant, and this works beautifully on stage, and like we said earlier it’s no different on film. If anything it’s the subtleties that are brought out, that there is an undercurrent. I remember, a wedding party took place at a bar that I used to work at, and the father and the mother of the bride were estranged. I think he had recently left her and this I could figure out from behind the bar. This was just, watching a woman, from her perspective. She was the one who was very happy at the start of the night and then she got very drunk, until I had to cut her off, and then I had to console her — she was weeping in the back room — because her husband left her, I think six months earlier? And I think this was the first time they had been in the same room together since then. Oh boy. It was real life drama. But I could see it unfolding throughout the night in a very subtle way. I guess that is why I like what we are doing. That’s why I choose to do what I’m doing. So, look, for writers it’s fodder for human interaction, I think, particularly playwrights. So, yeah, there is a theatrical origin there for human interaction with undercurrents and multiple-character chaos as well and an energy and a spirit that makes things bouncy.

Actors Jessica Wren, Rose Maher, James Bell, Sam Trotman in a scene from Thirty-Three Movie

Burak: There is also that, and that is probably why it is so suitable for theatre, because physically there is only one stage and parties are one stage and there are a lot of people and you can tell whole life’s story in that one space. This is why I also like independent films, because they are not always about heroes necessarily. I mean, normal people have stories, simple people have stories, and parties include all those stories and those stories can be fascinating and amazing and interesting if you listen or watch those people or have a conversation. I used to shoot weddings for a bit of extra cash when I was finishing my studies and to get a bit of hands-on experience with cameras. And there was not one wedding I’ve been to, although they all pretty much looked the same from outside, they were all hectic with undercurrents of relationships. Like, bride’s father hates the groom, groom’s mum not liking the bride’s mother and these people are getting married and they are putting a show on camera, and then you got these four-hundred people who are invited which 70 percent of them aren’t close to the families or bride and the groom. But, they are there because if they were not invited they would be offended because someone they know of was invited and here is a rivalry going on at the back table. So, you kind of go like, “Man, this is like an old ancient Greek theatre. Who is going to pull out the sword first?”

Mike: Well, there is an element of spectacle in a contained environment, and it’s an environment often for people to behave badly. So that’s interesting if not entertaining.

Burak: (laughs) Yeah, the lid will come off, man.    

Different schools of thought compare feature film to different artistic mediums. Some say music while others say theatre or literature. What does the relationship between film and theatre mean to you?

Mike: That’s a good question. I generally prefer going to the cinema, but I think the theatre that I have seen at its best has stayed with me or made more of an indelible impression as an experience that I had. I was there then. Because I trained in the theatre, which I think is a background that as a film director and writer I’m proud to have. Because the distinction of theatre versus film — and I stand by this — theatre is an actor’s medium in its execution and it’s a writer’s medium in its creation. And then in film it’s a director’s medium and then the technician’s that go around that. It’s certainly not an actor’s medium. And so with my background focused on an actor’s medium, I became a director because there is a joy I had in working with actors to tell the story and to get the most out of every moment or every scene. First and foremost—or initially in my development—as a focus.

Maybe I’m just drawing a distinction as to what’s different between theatre and film. But I was gonna say, I was in Chicago acting in a play when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company were in preview of their production of a play called August: Osage County. And some of my teachers were in that production. I remember hanging out with them during the rehearsals and asking, “How’s this new play going?” and they said “We have a good feeling about it.” Then I went along to the preview—the very first preview of this production—and it’s three and a half hours long, and two intervals, and there was probably about eight of us from our group that went along to this. I remember coming out during the first interval just shaking with excitement. There was just a real buzz of, like, “Oh, wow! This… This is something”. I remember saying to my friend, “I feel like we’re witnessing a moment in history of the American stage. This play is so exciting. And you know what’s the best thing? There’s two more hours to go!”. When it’s that good it’s never long enough.

I had a feeling it would be up there with the great plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? and it certainly went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and went to New York and won the Tony Award and then it toured the world for four years — that production. But I’ll never forget that night. I saw it three times. I saw it again in Chicago and then I saw it again in Sydney and seeing it four years later in Sydney brought back all the memories of seeing it in Chicago and it was very much intact as the same piece. Now, when they translated that into the cinema, with their Hollywood cast of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, there was something missing. The magic wasn’t there. I won’t go into why that was. But that was a moment where there’s something magical about theatre that can’t be replicated, or certainly wasn’t in that instance.

Burak: Well, you know, I think it would be a wrong way to go around if you tried to replicate theatre to cinema. I mean — any artistic medium — you should not try to replicate. Think photography and painting for example. I mean, they capture different aspects of human psyche. Like when you think about a person who’s painting a portrait of someone for eight hours of that day, in that eight hours the painter goes through stuff, the person who’s standing there being the model is going through stuff. By every stroke of a brush it’s kind of representing itself, if these people are really in tune with it. Same with, you know Again I am quite, maybe “proud” is not the word, but I’m really happy with our effort that we put in, in terms of sticking to the elements of theatre as we were filming this film, but not necessarily went down the road to replicate the experience or the form itself.

Mike: No, no, no. Absolutely.

Burak: I think that’s when the adaptations go wrong. I mean, they adapt a book, a novel, trying to replicate the experience of the novel while it was read. You can’t do that. Same as theatre. For me, why I love theatre and how it’s connected to cinema is that ultimately it’s before cinema, and it actually gave the seeds of how cinema started evolving — from theatre. It started from there. As soon as the camera was out. This is something that is forgotten quite often now. Now that things can be done technically very easily as well, in terms of stylising. But I think cinema is about capturing human emotion and they are the most powerful moments of cinema, not the amazing landscape shot that is actually a work of art and you would hang it on your wall — that’s true — but what is really the element is the human. I mean, that’s why films stopped being an actor’s medium as well. I wonder in our case at least, it became a bit of an actor’s medium to a certain extent doing Thirty-Three.

Mike: Um… no.

Burak: No? You reckon?

Mike: Well…

Burak: I mean, we did not stop them because the camera bumped onto a couch. If that was the best take it was gonna go in.

Mike: No, that’s true, true, true. What I mean when I say “no” — and I said that quite affirmatively — simply is that the overall piece, in its look and its tone and its flavour, is dictated by the director’s decisions.

Burak: Yeah, totally.

Mike: Inside of that the actors are free to do whatever they want. I’m not taking anything away from the actors; I just want to make a point about the medium is that I could shoot the sky all day, doesn’t make it a sky’s medium. You know — that’s what’s happening within the frame. But the choice of the frame is directorial, whereas in theatre…

Burak: Hmm. You know, you didn’t have much control on that either, though. Those concepts are pretty loose. This is also something we went through heaps. We had certain spots and marks and certain moments of action — where to and what to do and where to stand, which you have in theatre as well. But not necessarily, they were not determined by “Oh, this part of the room looks cool from this angle, put them over here, and then change them around to stand over somewhere else to get their close-up” kind of thing. Nothing really changed in what we did because it technically could have been done better and then actors should be repeating what they do, which is what film does. And that takes it away from actors’ medium.

Mike: Yep.

Burak: So, I think obviously it did not change technically the way the medium played its role, because its technological and there’s equipment involved. But then I think also because we wanted to honour that; like the actors should be able to act their part.

Mike: Oh, definitely. Definitely. Yes.

Burak: Just to give us a little pat on the shoulder, because, you know, I’m very passionate about that. I hate people constantly breaking into a scene going, “No, no, say that again,” and “No, no move five centimetres this way,” because the light is not right! (laughs)

Mike: Oh, I hate that.

Burak: I’m sure you do, you’re an actor as well. (laughs)

Mike: When it comes to that, I’m the worst.

Burak: You missed your mark!

Mike: Oh, yeah.

Burak: I’d like to pay a little tribute to our focus puller Tim Fay who was the only camera assistant, one and only. With hardly any marks, he worked. And a lot of improvisation. What shows in the recording is he’s a good follower of story and human emotion.

Mike: Oh, his instincts are incredible. They were bang on. I mean, I sat there with him watching the monitor, and I didn’t give him much of a brief of who should be in focus or who not. He might look over at me and I might nod and give him a thumbs up and then we’d kind of feel it out, silently point to the other person and then he’d pull focus to the other person. You know, I let him go. He knew what was going on. That was fun.

Getting back to holding our breath and being wracked with nerves throughout a take, it’s just like riding it, you know? He was riding it. I like to watch the film through the monitor rather than in the real setting, without through the camera. Just because the frame changes everything. It’s ultimately what’s going to be seen.

Burak: Yeah, that’s right. Gotta be used carefully, but also should not be the whole determining factor.

Mike: I partly love film because it uses those other mediums. It’s the uber medium.

Burak: It’s the whole package. If you use it well.

Mike: It is, you know. I’m not a fan of technology. I feel like in five-hundred years we may say that the 20th century was the worst century for all the technological advances that seemed like a good idea at the time, especially the motor car. We think “wow”. We didn’t have cars before the 1900s, really. What have they done? They’ve taken the experience out of the journey, and made it all about getting somewhere. They’ve created pollution. And inside of the journey people don’t communicate when passing on the road. “How are you, sir?” you know. “Nice donkey.” None of that. And mass production. And therefore we have wars over oil, because of petrol consumption. And a leading cause of death in a lot of countries is car accidents. If you’re gonna die young, chances are it’ll be in a car crash. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a road trip and I like the odd car. My point is: there is one invention that I think has actually done wonders, is the greatest thing that got made in the last hundred, hundred-and-fifty years, and that’s the movie camera. That cinema was created. I feel like that’s the thing that elevated human lives. Of course, it’s being squandered now, and cameras are actually now ruining lives, because 1984, you know. But everything can be celebrated or exploited. We are free to decide. 

Burak: The intention behind the use of the technologies ends up being the cracks of it, you know.  Most of the times. But that’s another very deep philosophical conversation because we didn’t have to go around and make nuclear bombs out of knowing the fact that atoms give energy very explosively, you know. But, on this point, just one line — why parties are good for making films — because you can pick really awesome music as well. Because parties have good music if they have good DJs.

Mike: Which is where we’re at in post-production, folks. So if anyone out there wants to donate to our cause, we’re gonna have a rollicking soundtrack of Dire Straits and Rolling Stones, because that’s what the people at the party were listening to at the time. And this film won’t be released until we can afford to pay these licences. And so please dig deep, because we wanna rock out.

So, what do you hope people will take away from the experience of the film?

Burak: Don’t do drugs at parties.

Mike: Well, actually, drugs don’t get a bad rap in this film.

Burak: No.

Mike: Which I appreciate. We’re not making a comment on that.

Burak: Nothing’s really getting a bad rap in this film anyway because we are not really coming from a “What is good? What is bad?” judgemental moral high ground, high horse, sense.

Mike: Oh, no. Definitely not. In fact, I hope never to do that. 

Burak: I’m certainly hoping that people once they get into the room at the beginning of the party feel like they are in that room, not in the cinema itself, or wherever they’re watching. I certainly would hope they would never want to leave the party until the end.

Mike: Yeah. My hope is that it’s a very moving experience. It’s a fun, entertaining experience to be a part of this party. But also a very touching and moving, cathartic, emotional roller-coaster and a very relatable experience and I hope that people will recognise themselves in it and want to give their loved one a little cuddle after, maybe.

Actors Jessica Wren, James Bell, in a scene from Thirty-Three Movie

Burak: At least hopefully they are, even if they’re not giving their loved one a cuddle or if they don’t have a loved one to give a cuddle to, hopefully they will keep being engaged with what’s unfolding in front of them. That’s what I felt for the most part of shooting it. That’s pretty much how I based my judgement of whether we got a take or not, during the shoot, was if I did not realise how long it’s been since we started recording the scene and if I was excitedly engaged. That’s kind of hard, since I know the story so well and I saw so many rehearsals and recorded it so many times. But pretty much all the scenes that are in the film I kind of felt that engagement from the beginning to the end and that hopefully will feel the same to people who watch it.

Explain the Cathode Ray Tube ensemble for our readers. How did you all come together, and what’s your signature?

Mike: I’d had a theatre company for about six, seven years called The Group Theatre and my buddy Amos, who I ran that with, had gotten out of the game. So I was kind of on my own, directing plays, putting on maybe one play a year. I’d directed a big piece at a bigger theatre than I’d done — at the Darlinghurst Theatre — with a big cast of eleven actors. It wasn’t personally as satisfying or as successful as I would’ve liked, because I think too much was out of my hands. I just really wanted to get back to basics and work just with a small group of people and just do little things. (laughs) This is 2008. I thought “Who are the two best actors I know — Jess and Alistair — and two of my closest friends…” and by “best actors” I mean I truly believe that they have special powers and that’s unique. Meaning that I am genuinely excited to see them in whatever role they do. I’d be perfectly happy just to put on a play with just the two of them and I’d direct it. Put on Miss Julie or something. It was like “Let’s just start a band.” Just the three of us. Just put on shit. Keep it simple. So that was the genesis from where I was coming from. We kinda started hanging out and reading plays. I think we might have even looked at Miss Julie.

Eventually — I’d already written a play — we ended up putting that on. Which had five actors in it. So we called in another couple of friends, who I’d worked with in the past. Then — because Alistair’s also a playwright — rather than finding another play already published, we wrote together a play called Thirty-Three! So, that’s how Cathode came together. What was unique about those early productions was that they did not have a director. In theatre that’s unheard of. People were baffled by that. “What? You don’t have a director?” and I thought “well, we can pretty much direct ourselves”. If one of us is not in the scene they can sit out and watch and give notes. But we’re figuring it all out together. I always felt quite strongly that theatre is not a director’s medium. That the director’s job in theatre is to facilitate the actors to bring the most out of the script. The play’s the thing. The writing is the thing. I probably just don’t like taking direction as an actor. (laughs) It messes with my confidence. I’m very insecure.

Burak: You probably have taken too many bad directions as well.

Mike: Well, that’s right. But the more direction I get from an outsider I begin to doubt myself; I doubt my instincts. I start to kind of do something but then be looking over to the director and going “Something like this?” and it’s death and it takes the joy out of it. Fuck that. If there’s no director, we’re free just to play. The way a band of musicians doesn’t have a director. Per se. So that created a sort of a looseness I suppose in the feel of the plays that we put on. Of course, they were directed. They were directed by us. Of course that gave licence for critics to say “It was good but it lacked direction” and maybe there was an element of truth to that. We even considered making up a name just so we wouldn’t get that criticism.  So the focus was on just plays that were very believable and very relatable. And set in Sydney. The audience were seeing themselves in these stories. Even amongst ourselves “Cathode” became an adjective. “Oh, that’s very Cathode” and the name itself was completely arbitrary. I wanted a name that had no meaning associated with what we were doing whatsoever. I don’t know what U2, which I think is a German submarine, has to do with Bono. Anyway. Now we’ve taken that into the cinema. Sam Shepard said about theatre, what he loved about theatre is you can just get two or three people in a room and a table and chair and just cook it up. That’s kind of the attitude of making films as well, I suppose.

Burak: Yeah, the name is now becoming more relatable. Now the thing is moving into cinema, a bit more, as the medium. But it’s finding its own meaning. In its time.

Mike: Mmm. (to Burak) Do you have any thoughts about Cathode?

Burak: Yes, I do. I mean, I am kind of feeling like I am the last addition to the table in terms of the legs of the table. Pretty much the philosophy you are talking about, and also something that you and I talked about heaps. Over the years. I mean, Mike and I go back fifteen years at least, and talking around these trajectories and making stuff and what making stuff means. Looking at the stories that we tell or things we create as our little babies. From the foetus to the graduation from university until they become public. Although I don’t like the education system much myself.

Actors Rose Maher, Ben Dalton in a scene from Thirty-Three Movie

Mike: Yeah, our babies are all high school dropouts.

Burak: (laughs) Yeah, That’s it. They’re little punks. I’m proud of them! Which is what I was going to say. We talk about making stuff that is… You know, things are really technically beautiful, I think, today. But I think also the cinema itself especially lost its essence and soul. And that’s not in a melancholic “Oh the good old golden days” mentality, because I’m not that old really. But just kind of losing that element of things like we want to tell human stories, we want to capture human emotions. We are not necessarily about banging a drum, creating superheroes, coming and making a social statement or a judgement on issues or carrying banners. I mean, I watch films because I like watching films. I don’t watch films because they are made cool now, or “Ah, the pink and the blue looks really good together; colour contrast, what an amazing thing.” I mean, sometimes it is, but sometimes you go, “Eh, there’s so much eye candy and style that I can’t see what’s going on in the story.” So, we are wanting to put that back in. Like, the quality is not coming from its style, it is what you do. It’s coming from a craftsmanship, and we want to bring that in.

Mike: Well, that definitely harks back for me right back to what I was saying about, from the theatre origins, that the theatre not being a director’s medium. Because my beef with the directing that I was seeing in theatre was they were imposing so much style and form that was getting in the way of the story, drawing attention to itself, and trying to be cool. So, yes, taking things back to their essence. “Style” is a very dirty word.

Burak: I mean, you know, I love style. I love clothes and I love different kind of clothes.

Mike: Well, yes. Yes. Me too. Me too.

Mike: Yeah, Cathode will have a style. I think. But to me it’s invisible. The style is to get style out of the way so we can see clearly what we’re doing. If that makes sense.

Burak: Yeah. I mean, we talked about this everyday nearly, during pre-production. Because there’s style that comes from the concept of having that style, and then there’s style that emerges out of what you do. Just because you’re doing it that way.

Mike: Yeah. People might say the acting in your work has a style. It’s very naturalistic or hyper naturalistic. Well, to me therefore that’s completely un-stylised. It’s people being true. What’s stylised about that? You know? Of course, there’s the notion that all acting is to be somewhat heightened. So, Cathode is sort of the four of us, with you, Burak, as the new member. The new member of the band. But I also feel, and this is true with everyone we’ve collaborated with over the years, there’s a Cathode family as well. For instance, Gemma Atkinson, who’s been in almost all of the plays since the first one, and in my earlier short film, and is the lead in the other feature film that I’ve been working on, Red Slumber. You know, she’s part of Cathode as well, in her own way. It’s just a philosophy as well (laughs). We can talk and she’ll use that adjective: “Oh, that’s very Cathode.” Or “I saw a film, you’d like it, it’s really up Cathode’s alley.” Something like that. And we know what that means. And it’s a nice feeling. There’s a community there. And for the four of us as sort of the essence, or the core, it’s a nice balance of roles.

Burak: Yeah, it feels like the table is well supported. It’s not creaking all the time.

Mike: Yep.

Burak: Yeah. And, you know, we have the understanding of taste, I think, in collaboration, which for me is really important. Being a collective and creating something collectively. Because, you know, taste changes, but understanding of “what taste is” is completely different than a person’s individual taste and I think we have the similar understanding of the taste. There is thing of “simple but sophisticated”. That’s how I would try to describe my understanding of taste, in a nutshell. I think that’s going all around. That does not mean we just will make films in just one room forever.

Mike: No, no, no. I’m really getting excited about the historical epic romantic drama that we want to roll out in a maybe a year or two.

What’s next for you?

Mike: Well, what’s next is another adaptation of another play that Alistair wrote called The Great Lie of the Western World, which was the play we did in 2012 after Thirty-Three, about a married couple. She’s a nurse, working nights in a hospital, working all hours. He’s working nine to five in the corporate sector. And he’s a gambling addict. And she has no clue that this is happening. And he’s spending the nest egg. And an old friend of his comes to stay. A real free spirit. And he can sniff out the lies they are both telling to each other and themselves. And that’s when things start getting interesting. I think it’s a good piece. (laughs)

Burak: It is. I’m very excited. I want to get into it.

Mike: We’re developing the script now. Should have a new draft in a few weeks. Alistair’s very very excited about it and if Alistair’s excited, then wow. Well, he’s also excited because he and I haven’t worked on something in six years. Together. In fact, the last time we worked on a script together was that piece as a play and then after that I think I’d like to… well, these are the things we have to determine — what happens next — but things might steer their own organic course. There’s lots of projects and story ideas in the pipeline that should take us around the world.

Burak: Yeah, we have a big itinerary.

Mike: A big itinerary. There’s the Australian expat living in Macau, hiding in the casinos of Macau, making his way back to Australia. Sort of an epic — not a road trip — a voyage.

Burak: Yeah, can’t wait to play poker in Macau, man. Gotta save up some money for that.

Mike: Yeah. Well, hopefully this film will do well, we can put some money in the Cathode coffers that will go towards that “research” in Macau.

Burak: Mmm.

Mike: And that’s why we do it.

  

www.cathoderaytube.com.au

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on Mar 30, 2018

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