Filmmaking in Brisbane: An interview with Chris Sommers
Willem Whitfield | On 19, Jan 2016
How do we get our own stories told?
Ever wanted to make it big in show business, but felt trapped in the backwater of Brisbane? We sat down for an in-depth talk with actor Chris Sommers about how he gets things done. HavingÂ just come from starring in the Zombie-Western ‘Bullets For The Dead’, a film produced in collaboration with Griffith University, Chris had some inspiring thoughts to share.
TCI: How did you get involved with Bullets For The Dead?
Chris Sommers– My agent send me the script. What was interesting about the project was that they’d done a lot of the pre-visualization and storyboarding. The script changed quite a bit based on what they first started with to what we ended up shooting. But they had done a lot of prep on it and so therefore visually they kind of knew the palate they were going to use. The short film was visually more just a reference to the style they were going for, so that was something I was very aware of, going into auditions.
There was quite a gap between the first audition and the second audition, and when I did get the role it there was a period of “is it happening? Is it not happening?”.
So it was a role that I originally thought I was going to do before The Water Diviner with Russell Crowe, and another three films in between – all of which was really helpful, because I was learning more about techniques and on-the-job things. Watching actors like Russell Crowe, Ethan Hawke and John Cusack, knowing I was going to be taking a lead role, was a really interesting kind of prep.
Then there was another casting session -Â I was reading opposite the girl they cast as “Annie” via Sykpe, so that was pretty bizarre. But then, lo and behold, by December 2014 we were shooting a film!
TCI: What kind of films do you want to be in as an actor?
CS: This year I’ve played an American scientist in a in a sci-fi show called Hunters (2016) that Gale Anne Herd, who produces The Walking Dead, is producing. I was in an Australian show called Wanted (2016) as a country bush-bashing yokel. This year and last year I got to do the Western and I got to be a soldier at Gallipoli. I also got to do a sci-fi and before that there was comedy, so I kind of feel that there’s nothing I haven’t done. I’d like to do more thriller stuff, like a detective in a thriller. But at the moment it’s just really interesting to see what comes my way. As you get older and as you change your appearance there are lots of different roles you’re able to play. I can’t complain about the diverse roles I’ve been playing these last two years.
TCI: Do you think there need to be more films made in Brisbane?
CS: I think there needs to be more films made in Brisbane and shooting as Brisbane. A lot of the times people shoot here they’re shooting for something else. If they’re shooting on the Gold Coast, they’re shooting for the studios and they’re trying to be America or some nameless jungle, so it’s very rare that we have a film that’s shot here for here. Our city has a lot of things to offer and it’s ignored. It’s always masquerading as something else. I would love to see it happen – our city on the big screen, but that’s a very rare thing. I did a film almost 10 years ago called “All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane” (2007) and that was a very Brisbane story. We don’t embrace that enough.
TCI: Do you think Brisbane is somehow limited with the amount of work we get?
CS: I think it’s more about the amount of opportunities to be able tell those stories. We’re known in Queensland to have great crew and great actors that live here. But the general consensus is that if you want to be a serious actor you need to move to Sydney or Melbourne, because there’s more work there. Sure, that can be true, but I know a lot of good people who are based here but happy to work interstate all the time.
Now the trend is you can shoot a self-test and it can go to those casting directors here and interstate and you can go and work wherever. I know an actor that worked on the latest Pirates film and with Angelina Jolie but he hangs out on the Gold Coast, and he just goes to LA when he needs to. So there’s more and more of that possibility. In reality Sydney and Melbourne are really close, there shouldn’t be that kind of geographical cringe just because you live somewhere. The problem’s been for many years people thought, “Oh well, you live in Brisbane, you’re not really a serious actor”, which I hope is changing.
TCI: What is a “Brisbane story”?
CS: When you think of Praise, the Andrew McGahan novel, you think “Ok, that was very much a story that should’ve been shot here or based here”. But that didn’t shoot here, it was shot it in New South Wales. It’s a very celebrated and well known Australian book, but also it’s Queensland-centric. I look at the locations in that and I know that place. I know Toowong, I know the Regatta hotel and those places that are very iconic. It makes you think, well, that is a Brisbane story and why shouldn’t that be shot here? So what is a Brisbane story? It’s a piece that uses the iconic landscape we have, showcases what is different from the other cities and also uses history. I can’t believe that they haven’t done an Underbelly here that’s centres on the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era or the Whiskey Au-Go-Go bombers or the Bellino brothers.
There’s so much of that stuff that I know could be done here. And I know that there are people out there who are writing Brisbane stories. But then there are also people who are trying to be smart “So, if I want to get something made here do I have to reduce the ‘Brisbaneness’ of it and make it possible to shoot it somewhere else? If I don’t get funding here, I still want to make my movie, so what is the movie really about about?” So then it’s less about geographical storytelling and more about character storytelling. If the original story in their heart is about something they grew up with and that’s some from here then just write that. Hopefully someone will support that and say “Hey I want to invest in that”. There’s been a couple of initiatives in the last year with the pay on demand stuff like Stan and Presto that are putting money into original content. I think that Matchbox Pictures have set up an office here in Brisbane and are calling for Brisbane content and Brisbane stories. I want to be optimistic because there are a few actors and creators out there writers who are pessimistic about Brisbane. I think there has been a shift in the last 2-3 years, so I guess we’ll see what happens. So long as you keep working.
TCI: What creates the stigma around Brisbane?
CS: Until recently, less investment from those key Queensland government bodies to get those stories made here. I know that formerly Screen Queensland was investing in other international projects to try and attract people to film here. I thought, you know, when I was doing Fear Of Darkness (2014) we were a 1.3 million dollar movie – and why should there be only one of them being made when they could be making 4 or 5? Think about the amount of money that goes into San Andreas (2015) or Fool’s Gold (2008)- why can’t some of that money go back into local content?
One statistic that I love and hope is still true is that 20% of the French box office from international films goes back into French films. I know that this year has been the best year for Australian films at the box office since 2001, which means that people are getting out and seeing the Australian stories. I’d love to see a shift towards us, in Queensland, being able to make our own stories and putting them on a national level. We’ve got amazing scope in terms of what we’re able to do in Brisbane but we haven’t done it yet.
If the original story in their heart is about something they grew up with and that’s some from here then just write that
TCI: How should young people go about getting involved in filmmaking in 2016?
CS: I was at the AACTA awards a couple of nights ago and I think what was really cool about it was knowing all of that these people are within arm’s reach. You only have to work for a short time before you realise how small our industry is. I’ve realised what’s important is if you’re going to enter into the industry you’ve got to be able to do two key things. You’ve got to be able to forge partnerships and create relationships with people in key places and maintain those relationships. Don’t make it just a one-off thing. You want to develop relationships and keep working with people. Now that could be a short film that becomes a feature, or that might be a web series that becomes a TV series.
I am a big advocate of creating relationships with certain people that have got the balls and audacity to create their own projects, and who will see it through. A really good friend of mine who I did The Horseman (2008) with just shot a film in Albania. He doesn’t speak Albanian but he shot it in four weeks with two blackmagic cameras and some lenses and a shoestring budget. Now he’s in post-production for it and he’s received funding from Screen Australia because they’ve seen the strength of his vision. I really admire people like Steve because they can do that. I think people who are that driven are really important. If you’re an actor just leaving drama school, you need to find out who these people are. What do they do and how do you get on their radar? Do you do short films, do you have a reel? Those are the things that are visual currency. You’ve got to have something online because, if you put yourself in their shoes, it’s accessible.
You’ve got to be able to forge partnerships and create relationships.
TCI: Do you have any advice for filmmakers?
CS: There are a lot of talented filmmakers here in Brisbane and in Queensland in general. I think it’s really hard if you’re only relying on certain government initiatives to get your work done because, as we all know, there are very few. But now with multi-platform stuff, you can do a web series. Myself and my business partner, we just bought a Sony A7 MK2 and and we can shoot a feature on that. You got a lens kit, you can shoot a feature on that. You can shoot in 4K resolution and get a really good, really schmick product. It’s so much easier now. And it’s really heartening to know that there was a film in Sundance last year that was shot on an iPhone 6.
Now there are no excuses like “Oh, I can’t get equipment”, because we know now that it’s really about you energy and drive and your ability to collaborate. I think Queensland is known to have many great, hardworking crews because the work here is scarce. The people that are here work very hard because they know that it’s harder to be seen. So I would say a lot of great people that have come out of the filmmaking circles and the people that want to stay here and make films- those people need to come together and collaborate. You learn pretty quickly there are a lot of people who know each other in this industry, so why not rely on them? I do.
TCI: What are your thoughts on the new Thor and King Kong filming here? Are they good for us?
CS: In the 90’s and before my time there were a lot of American movies of the week coming here. There were always productions going through the Gold Coast studios. It takes a lot of money to maintain those studios, something like 25-40 million dollars every year. They’ve got to make that money to maintain the upkeep of the studios, so I think it’s great to have your Thors and your King Kongs because it’s a huge boost for the studios and crew that work here. The whole idea of building a super sound studio here was a great idea because it means some of those productions will be drawn here and not to other places. I know that, from working on things interstate, a lot of the Queensland crews travel interstate to work. If you can keep them here and you can keep them working, they’re more than happy to stay because they choose to live here. So I think it’s good for the industry, it’s great for the crew and it’s brilliant for local actors. We all get a chance to be seen, and if we have more of that happening it’s only going to produce better quality projects. We can do a Thor and still be off doing our own projects and then not feel like there’s only a small pool of people that are working.
TCI: Going back to Bullets For The Dead, how did students get to make a film straight out of uni?
CS: I think it’s never been done before. That was a really big gamble and a big risk on the producer’s behalf to work in collaboration with a university, because most university graduation projects are always short films. They might get to shoot on 16mm and they might get to do a 15 – 20 minute graduation piece, but no one ever gets to work on a feature. Those students were being mentored and that was the idea of the project. You could argue whether it was a successful collaboration or perhaps created headaches because you’re working with people who have less experience. Working as a professional actor I found it refreshing but also challenging at times where I was working with people who didn’t have that experience.
I knew that going into the project, so I wasn’t walking around saying “Where’s my trailer?”. I knew that we were collaborating with people in key roles that were being mentored. It didn’t really make a massive difference. I think those particular people would learn things that they would never get the experience to work on in school. I would love to see more of that. Why not? It’s great that that we can put that kind of content on the screen and say it was locally done. Â So I’d love to see screen organisations get behind those things and say “You know what? We know this is ambitious, we know you’re going to need the support, we’re going to help.”
TCI: So you’d encourage more people to look to universities?
CS:Â Absolutely. To try and produce a feature, absolutely. Isn’t that the benchmark for any filmmaker? They want to go out and they want to make features because there’s a shelf life for short films. Short films are just little trailers and tid bits of your potential. They can be nice little things that you can consume, but ultimately people want to be making longer film content. Maybe not films, maybe TV, maybe a web series but that’s all longer than a short film and still requires a greater arc in terms of storytelling, a greater sense of what platform it’s going to be released on. Short films, after the festival circuit, don’t have a lot of currency unless you get a distribution deal.
Short films are just little trailers and tid bits of your potential.
TCI:Â Why should readers watch Bullets For The Dead?
Because it’s something that’s really fun. It was shot here. It’s a genre that people can get a lot of satisfaction from. I also think a big part of that storyline is it having the elements of a western and a horror film, it’s a mish-mash you never get to see. I had a great time doing it and there’s a lot of people’s hard work up there on screen. And I think for me, what I was going through at the time in my personal life and what I was putting out there on the screen is something that I’d love for people to go and see. I’d love for the people of Brisbane to see that story up on their screens. Rather than see those 100 million dollar blockbusters, I want to go see this small budget thing that was filmed here because it was really entertaining and a lot of fun.
Image Credits:Â Visionquest Entertainment International,Â Premiere Picture, Griffith Film School