Neil Triffett’s new musical takes aim at emo subculture
Tasmanian filmmaker Neil Triffett lampoons the black eyeliner and melancholy music of emo subculture in his new satirical musical
If you’re like most people, you have probably never said to yourself, “I really wish there was a musical about emos”. But Neil Triffett made one anyway, and its Tasmanian premiere screening is this week. The Tasmanian filmmaker, 29, admits the concept for his feature film debut is a little out-there but says his twisted high-school musical has a lot to say about acceptance, both of yourself and others.
“The film has eight characters who all have varying experiences of realising they are not the same as the other people around them,” Triffett says. “Obviously young people deal with that in school all the time, but even as adults we do that daily. We realise we can’t live up to the ideals of what people want us to be, and that’s fine.”
Emo is short for “emotional hardcore”, the genre of music that formed the basis for the subculture back in the 1980s, and which was at its mainstream peak during the first decade of this century. The classic image of the emo is the teenager with dyed dark hair covering half their face, eyes rimmed with black eyeliner, listening to angry, angsty emocore music and wearing depression like a fashion item.
While the reality might not have been quite as grim or cliched, it was this popular image that led to much negative press for emo subculture a decade ago, with parents worried about the so-called suicide culture of the emo scene.
EMO: The Musical, an independent production shot on a modest budget, was adapted from a 16-minute short film of the same name that Triffett wrote and directed in 2013. It is based on a teenage emo who falls in love with a straitlaced Christian girl at school and accidentally starts a war of subcultures on campus.
This stylised Romeo and Juliet story has been expanded to create the feature-length film, which has been touring Australia and will screen in Hobart this week.
The story centres on emo Ethan (Benson Jack Anthony), who has just been expelled from a private school after attempting suicide in the courtyard. On his first day at his new school – the dilapidated Seymour High – he meets Trinity (Jordan Hare), a naive but cute Christian girl who is desperate to convert him to Jesus. But rather than joining the Christian evangelists’ Hope Group, Ethan wants to join the school alternative rock band, Worst Day Ever, and be part of the emo clique led by the enigmatic and dangerous Bradley (Rahart Adams). After a successful audition Ethan is welcomed into the emo world and embraces his image – complete with black eyeliner and a possessive new girlfriend, Roz. But Ethan can’t stop thinking
THEY KIND OF PIONEERED THIS IDEA THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO BE HAPPY ALL THE TIME
about Trinity, who is stuck in a restrictive world of dogma and denial, and they secretly fall in love.
While Triffett says the film is “absolutely not autobiographical”, the themes of alienation and searching for acceptance at school are certainly drawn from his own experience. After growing up at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula, Triffett had to leave his small rural school and enrol at the much bigger Rosny College to continue his education. He says there was a definite culture shock that came with the move. However, while his first year of college in 2005 came at the height of emo culture, he says he was never an emo.
“Nah, I was never a member of that group, but there were lots of them at Rosny, and I was kind of drawn to them,” he says. “I was jealous of them in a way, even though we used to kind of make fun of them for trying to be nonconformist while all dressing exactly the same. I saw them as really ballsy, willing to dress up in all black and say ‘screw you’ to society, and they kind of pioneered this idea that you didn’t have to be happy all the time.
“I think that is a message that society is only just beginning to understand, but at the time they made people very uncomfortable. There were always stories in the news about the dangers of emo culture – they were the rock stars of the period.”
Triffett studied music and drama at Rosny College but says he never really excelled at either. “I didn’t finish music at college,” he laughs. “I learnt to play piano since the age of six, but I wasn’t technically trained. The teacher at Rosny was shocked by my inability to play. My sightreading was perfect, but my technical skills were terrible. I was just a terrible fit for the department. In my second year I just let it go.
“I also wanted to be an actor and wanted to learn to do that, but that didn’t work out too well, either. I thought I was quite good. I was in a school production of Romeo and Juliet – I played Romeo and Bonnie Sveen was Juliet. She went on to NIDA and won a Logie and, well, I applied for NIDA and didn’t get in.”
Triffett shifted his focus to film, applying to arts colleges around the country. He was accepted into the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts. “I doubt I’d have applied for VCA if I’d known how prestigious it was,” he says. “But I did an interview and they accepted me. I was really blase at the interview and that’s probably why they liked me, because I appeared to be coolly taking it all in my stride.”
He studied the VCA’s film and television undergraduate course, with a focus on writing and directing as well as producing.
EMO: The Musical was the first short film Triffett made after graduating. It did well on the film festival circuit, being awarded a special mention at the 2014 Berlinale (the Berlin International Film Festival), as well as Best Comedy, Best Score and the Craft Award at The St Kilda Film Festival.
Triffett knew EMO was ripe for a feature-length treatment, partly because the subculture itself has largely faded. “One day it occurred to me that now everyone who was an emo in high school has had to grow up to work in an office or some other respectable job,” he says. “I’d see them walking through the Hobart bus mall every so often, the hair gradually becoming less dyed over the years, clothes becoming more mainstream, and eventually they were all wearing suits. I thought, ‘Man, they must be dying inside’.”
Triffett was also determined to keep the film as a musical, building on the short songs and making everything sound more emo, with songs such as Rain on Me, Stupid Band and We’re All Gonna Die.
Inspiration for the songs stemmed from Triffett’s own musical dabbling as a teenager. “I started writing angry songs about how I couldn’t play music very well. They slowly morphed into funnier songs and I realised that one way I could actually perform was to do it in a funny way,” he says. “And then a few years later Tim Minchin became really famous and popular, and that style became a cool, accepted thing and I knew there was something in it.”
The film has been touring Australian theatres since the beginning of May and is earning praise everywhere it screens.
While the emos of the story are pitted against the stereotypically dogmatic Christian students, Triffett says he consciously avoided making simple targets of the religious kids
“People do change in this film but not to the point of giving up their own values. “I’m not trying to make fun of Christians with this. It would miss the point of what I’m trying to say. If this movie had been made in America, it would be set in a Christian school, but in Australia these kids know they’re a minority, not the moral majority, so there’s a different dynamic,” he says.
Having done some live theatre, a few TV commercials, and an internship in the US working with the producers of The Lego
Movie, Triffett is now based in Melbourne and is making a living from writing and producing his own films. It is a luxury few filmmakers get to enjoy and he is well aware of how lucky he is.
“I made sure I got a salary from producing EMO. It wasn’t much, but it’s enough for me to live on while I spend my days screenwriting and developing new projects,” he says.
Triffett is currently developing two horror films – one for kids and one for adults. “They’re a bit unusual, they’re all to do with the relationship between kids and adults and how we use monsters in stories to hurt and control each other, how monsters are created in the media for political ends and so forth,” he says. “I’d like to do another musical, too. Maybe Hipster: The
Musical, but maybe that would be too difficult. The soundtrack would have to be folk music or something.” ●
EMO: The Musical is screening at the State Cinema on Thursday, featuring a Q&A with Neil Triffett, and again on Sunday, July 2. For more information or to watch the trailer, visit emothemusical. com or search for EMO: The Musical on Facebook
Clockwise from opposite page, Tasmanian filmmaker Neil Triffett studied at the Victorian College of the Arts before creating his first feature, EMO: The Musical, which has its Tasmanian premiere this week; lead actor Benson Jack Anthony (right) pictured with co-stars from the film; Anthony plays Ethan.