Michael Bodey gets the lowdown on The Infinite Man
A new Australian film brings together time travel and romance with agreeable results, writes Michael Bodey
THE international reception for the
new Australian film The Infinite Man was unexpected. The time-travel comedy didn’t quite come from nowhere; it was developed though the South Australian Film Corporation’s low-budget FilmLab program. Nevertheless, when Hugh Sullivan’s film generated raves at its international premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in Texas earlier this year, some back home had to look it up.
Even Sullivan and his producers, Hedone Productions’ Kate Croser and Sandy Cameron, weren’t sure how the off-kilter film would be received. They appreciated it was fresh but couldn’t have anticipated website Moviefone dubbing it the “most imaginatively inventive movie at the festival” or another critic raving it mixed “the metaphysics of Groundhog Day with the emotionality of Eternal Sunshine of the Spot
less Mind and a splash of the tech-y nerdiness of Primer”.
“We hoped that it would connect,” Sullivan says, but admits he was nervous before the premiere in Texas. “It was truly nerve-racking but from the very beginning the audience was on board and really enthusiastic. I’d say it’s exceeded our expectations.”
Not that The Infinite Man will storm the Australian box office. It is a low-budget film with a relatively unknown cast. Rather, it is likely to be a film that audiences stumble across and enjoy over time, while kickstarting the careers of Sullivan and his wonderful lead, Josh McConville. Not just yet, though.
McConville, previously seen in The Turning and Redfern Now, laughs quietly, saying he hasn’t been able to exploit the film’s success. “I’m doing theatre until the end of next year so I don’t really have any time for that stuff,” he says. McConville is starring in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime before joining the Sydney Theatre Company for Cyrano de Bergerac and then Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner in the new year before playing Hamlet for the Bell Shakespeare Company.
“I’m happy doing theatre and not earning much money,” he notes wryly. Cinema can wait, and theatre audiences will benefit. That may give him cause for some relief after such a demanding role as the titular Infinite Man.
McConville plays Dean, an obsessive-compulsive-ish garage scientist in Sullivan’s debut feature as a writer-director.
After an anniversary holiday with his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) goes wrong, Dean experiments with time travel in order to win her back from the clutches of her persistent ex, a former athlete, Terry (played with comic elan by Alex Dimitriades).
Obviously, the film is inventive; time travel films have to be by necessity, as they are always one step from absurdity. Sullivan says, however, that the film didn’t finish as it began.
It wasn’t always a comedy, he says. “I would say the initial idea was a less comic idea because it was certainly more serious, a little darker.
“But once the characters came to life, it’s hard to have a character like Terry in the film and it not be a comedy.”
When Sullivan found the voice for his three characters, it lightened the tone significantly and opened up its comic potential.
The Infinite Man has a hint of screwball comedy and farce about it, particularly in its revolving-doors plot set in an abandoned motel.
Sullivan doesn’t think of it as such, although he admits the influence of the genre affected his cinematic sensibility.
“But because the film was low-budget and had quite limited means, I just didn’t really have too many points of reference,” he says.
Another point of non-reference is the film’s location, the abandoned motel in the middle of nowhere (actually an unnamed Woomera).
The setting is not quite dystopia, although the desolate, sandy and very distinct locale is more likely to be seen in a drama or action film than in a comedy.
Sullivan agrees it is “an odd place to set a comedy romance”, but he liked the idea that “unexpected ingredients would create a more complete whole”.
His male lead admits the unexpected ingredients didn’t jump off the page when he first read the screenplay.
“I was pretty confused just reading it to myself in the room,” he says.
WHEN WE FOUND THE LOCATION, THINGS REALLY STARTED TO JELL
“I understood the characters’ emotional journey and the relationships they had. It was pretty clear to me how they were feeling but I got very confused with the time travelling.”
Rehearsals cleared up some of the confusion, as did Sullivan’s diagrams explaining the logic of the time travel and the same characters appearing in the same scenes from different time periods.
“The diagram was just a lot of circles and a lot of arrows,” McConville says with a laugh.
The screenplay was a movable feast, however, with time travel and a relationship always part of the core.
The FilmLab development process also assuaged any fears, Sullivan adds — it helped to know that the program had fully financed a number of low-budget films.
“Basically it was funded off a one-page idea so you could develop a project feeling comfortable there would be money at the end of the road,” he says.
“It was a great relief knowing there was something at the end of that development process.”
South Australia’s “low budget, high impact” FilmLab program has given eight feature films budgets of $350,000 each. The results are already striking: a number of inventive films including the transgender coming-of-age tale 52
Tuesdays and the raucous documentary feature Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure.
Through that process, Sullivan concedes his film’s story had “a certain vagueness or fuzziness” until he found his location — at the end of a statewide search of South Australia — and his actors.
The idea of a romantic time travel tale changed significantly during the project, he adds. How?
“It just got better,” he says. “More unique and more personal and more emotionally resonant.
“When we found the location, things really started to jell.”
Even so, the screenplay then required a significant rewrite because the tale became as much about the unusual locale as it was about time travel.
“The script became a lot better after that, having something concrete in my mind to work with,” he says. “It’s just a great cinematic space, quite a striking location.”
He was looking for something desolate, perhaps an old caravan park but couldn’t find one (“They’re all quite nice and green”). So he decided to make do with an abandoned defence housing project in Woomera.
“That’s a practical thing, and then finding the cast was important,” Sullivan adds. “We auditioned everyone and seeing those audition tapes and seeing it all come to life was a great relief to me.
“Seeing the voices I’d created were coming to life and the script was in just such good hands was a very comforting thought going into what was still, for me, the unknown.”
Sullivan had the scenario and timing mapped in his head; McConville and Marshall had to find it as actors performing against different versions of themselves.
McConville admits it was a “difficult challenge”, even though he comes from theatre, where actors rehearse and repeat until it works and becomes natural.
And he knew this comedy should be played straight, no matter how curly the screenplay. “I was trying to think of it as a drama with a bit of quirk,” he says. “It’s a rom-com time travel film.”
And a film that works. The Infinite Man will roll along, remembered as a movie that kickstarted a few careers and allowed a director’s ambition to grow.
The Infinite Man opens nationally on Thursday.
Josh McConville in The Infinite
Man, left; McConville with Hannah Marshall in the film, below