MAK­ING UP FOR LOST TIME

The dream launch of Cris Jones’s de­but fea­ture, The Death and Life of Otto Bloom, con­trasts with the fate of his pre­vi­ous pro­ject, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Cris Jones is launch­ing his de­but fea­ture, The Death and Life of Otto Bloom, in the best of cir­cum­stances; it has the open­ing-night spot at the Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val this month. But the story of his first fea­ture is closely bound up with the one that got away.

A cou­ple of years ago, he came tan­ta­lis­ingly close. Mid­night in Byzan­tium, a fea­ture script he had writ­ten, was ready to go into pro­duc­tion. He’d had de­vel­op­ment sup­port and a travel grant, and he had a cast that in­cluded Xavier Sa­muel, Mi­randa Otto and Sam Neill. He was pre­par­ing to shoot. Then fund­ing fell through at the last minute, and the pro­ject with it.

“It was the worst. It re­ally felt like a cross­roads for me,” Jones says. “I de­cided I would ei­ther write some­thing new as quickly as I could and try to get it up, or I would re­ally need to find some­thing else to do.

“I was 34, it felt as if I was bang­ing my head against a wall, try­ing to do this thing and get­ting nowhere. Or get­ting very close, which is as good as nowhere.”

The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is the film that emerged from this mo­ment of cri­sis. It’s a story of time, love and physics, about a man who ex­pe­ri­ences life back­wards — more eco­nom­i­cal, but no less imag­i­na­tively am­bi­tious than Mid­night in Byzan­tium.

He is anx­ious to dif­fer­en­ti­ate his premise from that of an­other tale of re­ver­sal, The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton, the F. Scott Fitzger­ald short story adapted for the screen in 2008, in which Brad Pitt plays a man who ages in re­verse.

Otto ages nor­mally but he ex­pe­ri­ences life back­wards, re­mem­ber­ing the fu­ture rather than the past. The con­se­quences of liv­ing this way are far-reach­ing and mys­ti­fy­ing — for Otto and for those around him.

For MIFF artis­tic di­rec­tor Michelle Carey, Otto Bloom is the per­fect film for open­ing night. “I re­ally like the com­bi­na­tion of the pro­found theme, the ques­tions about hu­man­ity and re­la­tion­ships and how we live our lives, told in this very breezy, al­most new wave style,” she says.

Otto’s story plays out in a quasi-doc­u­men­tary fash­ion, re­lated through the rec­ol­lec­tions of oth­ers. The film be­gins with a mon­tage of news­pa­per clip­pings, head­lines, grainy pho­tos and front-page news sto­ries. We learn, among other things, that the nar­ra­tive be­gins in the 1980s, and that its cen­tral char­ac­ter is var­i­ously seen as a genius, a vi­sion­ary, a mad­man, a freak and a fake. As the film un­folds, we are taken through stages of his life: Otto as sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity, artist, celebrity, in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure, pariah — and above all, enigma. We’re also told, by a woman who turns out to have been closer to him than any­one else, “I don’t think any­one can hon­estly say that they truly knew Otto.”

This is Ada Fitzger­ald, a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, who in­ves­ti­gates the phe­nom­e­non of Otto and falls in love with him at the same time. Ada is played by two dif­fer­ent ac­tresses: Rachel Ward and her daugh­ter Matilda Brown. Ward, now prin­ci­pally a di­rec­tor, takes her first film role for many years.

Jones came to film­mak­ing some­what in­di­rectly. He hadn’t thought about it as a ca­reer, he says, although it had al­ways been im­por­tant to him; when he was nine, he and his older brother and two cousins would make lit­tle movies to­gether, us­ing a Su­per 8 camera. At school in Syd­ney, he and his friends would of­ten make films rather than write es­says — the school en­cour­aged them, he says, be­cause they put a lot of ef­fort into it. He wasn’t a reader un­til he left school, when it was no longer com­pul­sory, and books sud­denly be­came in­ter­est­ing. “I started an arts de­gree, but I was a ter­ri­ble tru­ant,” he

ad­mits. He had a se­ries of jobs, work­ing as a pro­jec­tion­ist at three dif­fer­ent cin­e­mas.

“You see a lot of films that way. And I thought, maybe film school would be pos­si­ble, at least I’d be study­ing.”

In 2003, he went to Mel­bourne, to the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts, where he came to the at­ten­tion of pro­ducer Melanie Coombs, whose films in­clude Adam El­liot’s Os­car-win­ning an­i­ma­tion Harvie Krum­pet.

Coombs spot­ted Jones early. She was act­ing as an ex­ter­nal as­ses­sor for first-year stu­dents, she says, and she re­mem­bers how his film stood out from the rest. “There was the ar­guably nec­es­sary purg­ing of angst. Or gang­sters. And then there was Cris’s seven-minute short about Heisen­berg’s un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple.”

She gave him an A, and at the end-of-year screen­ing she went up to him and in­tro­duced her­self. “I of­fered to be his men­tor for the next two years and said, ‘then I’d prob­a­bly want to be your pro­ducer’. He stood there blink­ing — but that’s what hap­pened.”

She helped him ne­go­ti­ate “the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of film school”. His grad­u­a­tion film, Ex

cur­sion — a dense, sur­real vi­sion of life’s ab­sur­dity — screened at fes­ti­vals world­wide, in­clud­ing MIFF, and won sev­eral awards.

Coombs com­pares Jones with El­liot, both writer-di­rec­tors whom she re­gards as “the real deal”. “Cris is the best-read per­son I’ve ever met, but that’s be­cause he’s try­ing to un­der­stand the world and how it works.” His films, she sug­gests, might be con­structed around com­plex ideas, but they are “de­signed to pro­voke thought without mak­ing any­one feel dumb. He makes you in­ter­ested and in­trigued, and there’s emo­tional im­pact at the end.”

For Jones, “in­flu­ences are of­ten un­con­scious, and you no­tice them af­ter the fact”. Some are lit­er­ary, some are drawn from sci­ence. “I like the philo­soph­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions that come with our phys­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse.” Mak­ing a film about Heisen­berg’s prin­ci­ple — one of the most fa­mous ideas in physics — can in­volve think­ing about how we feel in try­ing to come to terms with its im­pli­ca­tions. “You know how they say that we live in un­cer­tain times. But if every sin­gle sub­atomic par­ti­cle is un­cer­tain, then no won­der that it’s all a bit con­fus­ing and over­whelm­ing.”

Otto Bloom might be trig­gered by a sci­en­tific the­ory, but it’s also a film about emo­tions and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. Some of the sto­ry­telling de­ci­sions are un­doubt­edly per­sonal or nos­tal­gic, he says. “It’s not a con­scious thing,” he says, “but I was born in 1980, my first mem­o­ries are from ’83, and that’s when the film starts.” His ex­pe­ri­ences with re­la­tion­ships have found their way in some fash­ion into the film.

Yet for the sci­en­tific logic un­der­pin­ning it, he says, “It was still im­por­tant to have an­swers, par­tic­u­larly for the ac­tors. They’d play a game. First Xavier and Matilda, then Rachel, they’d say, ‘uh-huh, I think I’ve got you, how does that make sense?’ And I’m happy to say that they never got me, I al­ways had the an­swer.”

Sa­muel had more spe­cific ques­tions about how to de­pict his char­ac­ter. In the pe­riod be­fore shoot­ing started, Jones says, “Xavier and I had a fair bit of time sit­ting down and talk­ing and hav­ing cof­fee. He asks re­ally in­ter­est­ing ques­tions and brings a lot of ideas and uses a lot of vis­ual ref­er­ences.” He wanted to know, for ex­am­ple, small but sur­pris­ingly res­o­nant de­tails: does Otto smoke, does he wear a watch? “Things I hadn’t thought about be­fore. Of­ten I tried not to go with my ini­tial re­sponse, but you have to ex­plore these things.”

Some­times there were more gen­eral ref­er­ence points. One of the in­ter­view sub­jects in the film, a po­lice of­fi­cer, says of Otto, “it’s as if he’d just dropped down from outer space”. Jones says he and Sa­muel dis­cussed the fig­ure of David Bowie. “And I think I asked him to watch

The Man Who Fell to Earth” — in which Bowie plays a vis­i­tor from a dy­ing planet — “be­cause I think there’s a lit­tle bit of that, he’s a bit like an alien” but not labour­ing the point, “do­ing it just as a shade”.

Sa­muel was also con­tin­u­ally chal­lenged by an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of Otto’s iden­tity. “One of the keys for an actor in a scene,” Jones says, “is the idea of ‘ where have I just come from?’ and ‘where am I go­ing?’, and of course all of that is re­versed for Otto.”

It was Jones’s idea to cast Ward and Brown, mother and daugh­ter, as the same char­ac­ter, Ada, at dif­fer­ent times. He’d imag­ined Ward as the older Ada, “but I thought she wouldn’t want to, she’s a di­rec­tor now”. Then he re­mem­bered, out of the blue, see­ing a short film she had made with her daugh­ter in 2003, so he “went home and checked and thought, ‘oh my gosh, this could re­ally work’ ”.

He called Coombs and a meet­ing with Ward was ar­ranged. They spent an hour talk­ing about other things be­fore she told him that she had al­ready de­cided to take the role.

There were chal­lenges, he says a lit­tle rue­fully, in por­tray­ing the time in which the film is set. When he was com­ing up with a new, low-bud­get pro­ject in the af­ter­math of Mid­night in Byzan­tium, he hadn’t given this any thought. “I said to my­self, ‘we’re do­ing it as if it’s a doc­u­men­tary, a large part of it is in­ter­views, we can make it very cheaply’ — not even think­ing, ‘hang on, it’s a pe­riod film’.”

Aes­thet­i­cally, he says, “we de­cided to go for 80s lite. The 80s can be very over­done in films.” When peo­ple search for clues to the style of the pe­riod, he says, “I still think there’s a ten­dency to look at fea­tures from the time, when I think peo­ple should look at doc­u­men­taries.”

There were strokes of good for­tune: they got word that a TV movie set in the 80s was dump­ing cos­tumes, and man­aged to ac­quire them, mostly for ex­tras and sec­ondary roles. And there were non-ne­go­tiable mo­ments of au­then­tic­ity, such as the Su­per 8 images that are part of the nar­ra­tive: Jones was en­cour­aged to cre­ate the ef­fect with a fil­ter, but he wanted the real thing. “It’s not just a vis­ual con­cern,” he says, “it af­fects the per­for­mances. Xavier and Matilda were so spon­ta­neous” and us­ing the Su­per 8 camera “was like play­ing with a lit­tle toy”.

Doc­u­men­tary maker Er­rol Mor­ris was a stylis­tic in­spi­ra­tion, Jones says, men­tion­ing films such as The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid. His way of film­ing in­ter­views was also in­flu­en­tial: Mor­ris has de­vel­oped a method by which the in­ter­view sub­ject looks straight into the camera, yet at the same time is able to make eye con­tact with the in­ter­viewer.

At this point dur­ing the shoot, Jones says, he re­alised he would have to add to the script. He couldn’t ask the ac­tors to per­form iso­lated bits of di­a­logue without a con­text. He had to give them things to re­spond to. It was a re­verse-en­gi­neer­ing ex­er­cise that fit­ted quite neatly into the whole premise of the film. “I had to come up with ques­tions that would elicit these an­swers. And it’s re­ally tricky, writ­ing back­wards.”

Af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion of Mid­night in Byzan­tium, he says he couldn’t have been hap­pier with the ex­pe­ri­ence of Otto Bloom. “This film feels like the phoenix that rose out of the ashes.”

The Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val runs from July 28 to Au­gust 14.

CRIS IS THE BEST-READ PER­SON I’VE EVER MET MELANIE COOMBS

Cris Jones’s The Death and Life of Otto Bloom emerged from a mo­ment of cri­sis

Xavier Sa­muel and Matilda Brown in The Death and Life of Otto Bloom and, left, an im­age from the film

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