CHARLES Williams’ beautiful short film All These Creatures looks at mental health through youthful eyes and poetic images. With a captivating lead performance from newcomer Yared Scott, the film is winning plaudits at festivals across the world and was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge had the opportunity to speak with Charles ahead of All These Creatures’ screening at the Raindance Film Festival (29 September & 6 October).
Q: How proud are you of this project and the success it is having with international audiences?
A: IT is tough to overstate how grateful I am to see the film have this response, not just in terms of the awards and attention (which is great), but also in terms of the depth of the audience reaction. I worked so hard on this film in excavating some of my own deepest thoughts and feelings and to see that come across is incredibly rewarding and encouraging.
Q: Why did you want to explore mental health through a young person’s perspective?
A: I think when you’re on the cusp of adolescence there is a less judgemental view of the world, more of a curiosity, and I thought that kind of openness would be the right prism to explore this issue. It is also an age where your own mind is still developing and there is this sense of ‘who am I going to become’ and for the lead character in the film also ‘how much control do I have over that’.
Q: The bugs in the backyard become an almost poetic way of thinking about mental health. Please tell us more about this imagery?
A: THAT is really it, I was always looking for cinematic ways to immerse an audience into these themes, so it wasn’t just an intellectual experience. Using this kind of infestation of cicadas and their sound seemed to be a good way of doing that. It’s also a kind of a mysterious physiological happening that isn’t easy to understand or ascribe cause or blame for and I wanted to draw that parallel.
Q: The backyard looks almost like an alien landscape. What was the visual style you wanted to create for this project with cinematographer Adric Watson?
A: YEAH. Myself, Adric and Production Designer Eleanora Steiner had these discussions about how to elevate this personal story into something that also felt cosmic, almost sci-fi in that Tarkovsky way. These are memories and with my memories at this age there is always a feeling of them taking on something a bit larger than life, like the memories themselves are coloured by the ideas and feelings I had at the time.
Q: Yared Scott’s performance is something special. Where did you find Yared and how could you tell he was ready for a role like this?
A: THIS role was incredibly pivotal, especially from a casting perspective because the qualities are so innate, it’s not something you can just direct. The character is essentially passive, so you need this presence that is inherently fascinating – someone whose thoughts read on camera and who has this right mix of innocence and maturity. It was always going to be hard to find this in someone so young which is why I opened the casting of the film up completely without bias to race or gender.
I knew if I found the right soul I could re-write the story around it. So after looking at hundreds of kids from very diverse backgrounds I found Yared, who had done some acting at school but not on camera. Yared just has a nature that he can tap into something very deep. Off camera he is just like any other 12 year old, but when he focuses there is this incredible depth to him that comes across visually which was essential for this film.
Q: How did casting of Yared change the shape of – and your approach to – this story?
A: AFTER I cast Yared I brought on four Ethiopian Australian advisors from the local community to make sure the script was accurate and sensitive to their culture. What was especially interesting was that a number of them insisted this had already been written specifically about Ethiopian Australians; even that this was not about Egyptian or Sudanese Australians.
It made me think I must have hit on something privately universal, as the film is so personal to my experience but I think it’s something a lot of people understand. My parents were migrants and like a lot of migrants we grew up very poor, but it was a very different experience from theirs, however hopefully this story is something a lot of people think is uniquely theirs.
Q: Can you talk more about your collaboration with Yared during filming and recording the voiceover?
A: DURING filming Mandela Mathia (who plays the father Mal) and I would just help Yared understand how to not be distracted by the set, how to make your own space and prepare. It was also honestly about keeping him away from all the sugar on set. For the voice over I actually cast another boy, Melchi Nkailu.
Yared and I worked on the voice together but it became apparent that while Yared had the right presence visually for the role, it just wasn’t there in his voice. Yared in his heart is just too bright and bubbly and the voice gave this away.
After another search through friends and professionals and the community, I found Melchi Nkailu who had never done anything like this before but was just perfect. We worked a lot of hours together, trying different things to keep the reading raw and uninflected and with this sense unacknowledged sadness to it, just this feeling of spiritual curiosity.
Q: You mention Mandela Mathia, who plays the father. What qualities did Mandela bring to the project?
A: MANDELA was a refugee to Australia only six years ago and was coming into the last year of his training at NIDA (one of Australia’s most respected acting schools). The role of the father in the film is almost the opposite to Yared’s, there is this real range of emotion and elasticity to it and I needed someone with the skills to be able to stretch between the extremes of the character. Mandela worked incredibly hard at reaching into the dark and light of the character, doing a lot of research and rehearsals with me.
We would often perform very emotionally big ‘scenes’ to get him into the right space. These ‘made up’ scenes would happen just before the scripted scene and would often involve large emotional outbursts. Once these were over the real scene would begin and we would roll film and just catch the residue of emotion the was left behind. Mandela really dedicated himself and took no shortcuts with his portrayal.
Q: I saw a while back you praised the Safdie brothers’ film Good Time. What type of cinema gets in your bones and inspires you?
A: THERE is a lot of very different movies that I respond to from so many countries and eras. The only thing most of these movies have in common is just a total commitment from the filmmakers portray something, some struggle or obsession you know comes from the deepest part of them, even if it’s portrayed comically or whatever.
Good Time was just one of those movies I came out of like ‘What the fuck was that’. It just had so much heart and was so humanistic and brash and cinematic. It’s my kind of movie.
Q: I believe you are working on two feature films. What can you reveal to us about them?
A: SURE one is called The Buzzard and is kind of a single character focused gangster movie, it’s based on true stories and set in the Australian meat industries in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The other is called Inside and is very much in the same vein thematically and tonally as this short film, but set in a prison. This is what I’m focusing most on at the moment.
Q: All These Creatures will have its UK premiere at Raindance Film Festival in London. Do you have a message for UK audiences?
A: YEAH, come and watch it! I’ll be there too. I don’t want to prescribe too much, I just like people to go in and open themselves up. We’ll be screening alongside some other great international shorts so should be fun.