Amiel Courtin-Wilson is a rising star from Australia. His first documentary, Chasing Buddha, premiered at Sundance in 2000 and has won many awards internationally. His other films include the multi-award winning feature documentary Bastardy 2008. Cicada, a short documentary was selected as part of Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2009, while his first feature film, Hail, premiered at Venice International Film Festival in 2011.
How did you get started as a director?
Both my parents are artists and I was raised with a lot of family discussion about creativity. My mother had a particularly strong work ethic in her painting, so for me there was nothing really exotic about it; it was just what my parents did all day so it made sense for me to do something creative as well.
I made my first film when I was 10. It was about criminals smuggling cocaine inside glass eyes and it was promptly banned by my Grade 4 teacher for its violence and drug references.
Is being a Film Director what you always imagined you would do?
When I was about 7 years old I was convinced I wanted to be a writer. It was only when my Father started showing me Bunuel, Antonioni, Scorsese and Altman that I knew I wanted to make films. I saw Taxi Driver when I was 9 and it tore my head off.
Where and what did you study?
I studied film and photography in high school, then dropped out of university after a few weeks to make my first documentary, Chasing Buddha, which premiered at Sundance in 2000 when I was 20 years old.
Who gave you your first break?
When I was 17, I made a documentary for national television in Australia about my final year in high school. It was a video diary piece and they supplied me with a video camera for the year so it was an amazing opportunity to make all kinds of music-clip and experimental work at the same time.
Which aspect of your work do you most enjoy?
I absolutely love shooting. Being on location and working with actors or a documentary subject in the field is really unparalleled. It’s a very particular kind of creative delirium that is unbelievably satisfying. It allows for the most organic kind of collective creativity and lets you aspire to what Godard called “the definitive by chance”.
What is your main inspiration that drives you?
I make films to be humbled by the immensity of others; to explore what it is to be alive; to chart the chasms between people as well as the things that bind and ignite us.
If an idea continues to gnaw at my innards for longer than a few months I know it is worth persevering with and that it has a basis for further exploration. Having said that, it’s also important to make work that is purely reliant on instinct and momentum, so whether that means drawing and making music in between film projects to keep a fertile sense of possibility then I try to work with whatever is available to me at the time.
What inspired you to make Hail?
I met the lead actor Danny about seven years ago in a theater company made up of ex-prison inmates. I was making a documentary about this group in Melbourne and we’d been filming for about six months. I turned up to one of the rehearsals one day and saw a guy who was standing outside the rehearsal space and I walked up to introduce myself. He turned around and I don’t think I’d ever met someone with as intense a gaze as Danny had the moment I met him. He’d been out of jail for about 18 hours at that point.
Dan became part of the theatre company and he was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of his performance. There is this hyper-vigilant, perceptive quality to Dan as a human being when you engage with him so there’s an amazing immediacy in his performances. You inevitably travel in his slipstream because he’s such a presence.
I knew I wanted to make a film about Danny as soon as I met him but it was only after becoming extremely close with Danny and his girlfriend Leanne over a period of years and hearing endless amazing stories from both of them about their criminal exploits that I decided to make a feature film rather than a documentary. I wrote a treatment based on the last five years of their life together and cast them both as the leads in a dramatic feature film in which they actually play themselves in the context of a dramatic narrative. I was deeply inspired by the love they have for one another and I wanted to juxtapose what could have just been a kitchen sink drama about the details of their daily lives post release from prison with something almost operatic in tone, something mythical, romantic and highly impressionistic. Stylistically Hail is forged from a triumvirate of influences: documentary, experimental film by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, and the revenge crime film genre – especially works such as Thief by Michael Mann.
What was the most difficult thing about getting Hail off the ground?
By far the most difficult part of the process was convincing a group of government funding bodies that a twenty page treatment and a cast of non-actors was a sensible equation. It’s a testament to Screen Australia, Film Victoria and Adelaide Film Festival who ended up coming on board but it certainly took a series of lengthy and probably ultimately necessary discussions about why Hail had to be made in this way. Michael Cody, the film’s producer, was also absolutely instrumental in protecting this film’s unusual methodology and with such a comparatively low budget it was brilliant we were able to shoot with so much freedom.
Which production have you most enjoyed working on and why?
I can’t really single out a production in my career so far because I’ve made films about family and friends and the people I’ve met through my films have either become family or friends so I’m drawn to the relationships in filmmaking over and above the films themselves.
What is your proudest professional moment?
Standing with the majority of the Hail crew as well as the two lead actors Daniel Jones and Leanne Letch at the Venice Film Festival last year during a ten minute standing ovation was quite ecstatic and a beautiful experience. This film in particular was founded on a lot of long-term relationships and love for one another so to be able to share that with a group of other great filmmakers is really an indelible experience.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am developing four feature film projects in both Australia and the United States. I am currently in the United States looking for writers and meeting various production companies. The sense of community in the film scene in NY is not dissimilar to that in Australia, actually, so it feels like home. There is a great sense of collectivity and sharing of production knowledge.
What have you just finished working on?
I just finished the initial shoot of a feature film set in Cambodia with Michael Cody, who produced Hail. We spent two months in Phnom Penh working with an amazing executive producer who financed the shoot for us. I’m really looking forward to moving into the edit as it is a very impressionistic, beguiling love story shot with a group of amazing non-actors we found on the streets of Phnom Penh.
What are you looking to do in the future?
As well as my film work I have also exhibited drawings and video installations internationally so I am really open to working in other mediums in between working on more long-term film projects. I find it is a necessity to keep moving between disciplines to keep the sense of momentum in your work on a daily basis.
I am part of a production collective called Flood Projects which includes ten Australian filmmakers across a range of disciplines and we are having our official launch this year.
I’m also co-editing a book about Jack Charles – a man I documented in a feature documentary called Bastardy. Jack is an amazing 68 year old Aboriginal actor and reformed heroin addict and cat burglar.
I just co-wrote and produced a feature film in Cambodia which Flood Projects is currently editing and I am writing two feature projects set in the United States.
Later this year I am also directing a film with a theatre company called Black Lung to accompany an upcoming show about death cults in East Timor.