Director Armağan Ballantyne and actor Meg Sydenham join us on Close-up Culture for an insightful chat about their short film Hush.
Q: ‘Hush’ is the story of a young woman returning to her small town with a secret. Can you give us any more insight into the story, what it explores and your inspiration behind it?
Armağan: I was commissioned to make the film by Toi Whakaari the Acting school here in New Zealand. The process was unusual, I was given a bunch of actors a small budget and creative freedom to create a short film. Normally you would write the film then cast it. But we had the actors before we had the story. Because I knew I needed to work with these actors, the first thing I did was get to know them and workshop with them doing this really informed the story.
I wrote the film with Maria Ines Manchego who was also the Director of Photography. We were both interested in exploring an idea around having a secret and how some subjects that are unnecessarily taboo in society, which makes it difficult for young people to open up and talk about them – even with friends and family. After we spent time workshopping with the actors, their own stories and what they brought as actors inspired the characters.
Q: Why did you think Meg was right for the lead role of Ava?
Armağan: I was immediately struck by Meg’s openness and her courage to take risks as an actor. She was able to be very vulnerable and strong always searching for truth within the scene. I felt confident that she would bring Ava to life and built the role for her.
Q: Meg, you come from an extensive theatre background, but I believe this is your first short film. How did you find the transition into this film and diving into the character of Ava?
Meg: We made Hush when I was at the beginning of my third year of actor training at Toi Whakaari, and it was my first piece of screen work. So yeah, it was big for me! The move to film was aided by the fact that I had the absolute privilege to be acting alongside my classmates. We all know each other really well (both as people and as actors) so we were able to discuss what we were learning, what we were succeeding in and where we could improve. A hive mind of actors if you like!
Ava was a character I found an immediate connection with. More than anything, I felt a very strong sense of her pull towards home. “Home” has the ability to mean so many different things depending on who you are and what your experience of life has been, but “going home” or “coming home” is a feeling I think everyone has experienced on some level, or will at some point in their lives. I took great care piecing together Ava’s experience of home – the gross, uncomfortable, confronting parts as well as the lovely, soft, intimate parts too.
Q: How did you approach your collaboration together? And, what was your dynamic like together?
Meg: Seeing as Hush was my first experience of working in film, I had never worked with a director in this capacity before. I guess I was afraid that a director was just going to come in and tell me what to do and how to act… But that didn’t happen. From the get-go, Armağan was curious about each of us: our own stories and lives, and how they could weave in to the script and the characters. Seeing the gentle folding in of everyone’s creative ideas and personal narratives in the final draft was empowering – I was (and still am) in awe of the generosity she put in to our collaboration. And now, we now live around the corner from each other!
Armağan: Because of the sensitive nature of the material it was really important that Meg and I had a deep trust we spent quiet a bit of time together before we actually started filming, I really wanted her to feel like I was there for her every step of the way. We have become good friends and will hopefully work together again!
Q: What are your favourite memories of the shoot?
Meg: We had several spontaneous dogs appear on location, many of whom actually ended up in the final cut!
I also think very fondly of the last day of our shoot when we captured the final scene of the film between Ava and Jake. In the story, it is such a beautiful moment of friendship, ease, and not needing to say much at all. For the actor playing Jake (Conan Hayes) and myself, it felt like our lives paralleled the character’s at this point: a beautiful moment of friendship, ease and not needing to say much at all. The crickets were chirping away and the sun was about to set. It was a beautiful ending to the shoot.
Armağan: I had a great time throughout the shoot even though we were stretched for time. The biggest highlight was watching all the young actors throw themselves into their characters and out of their comfort zone.
Q: Similar to your 2009 feature ‘Strength of Water’, this film takes place in an isolated setting. How does this run down, small town location impact the story?
Armağan: I like spending time in small towns, they can be inspiring visually and you meet some great characters. Also, they are often more open to a film crew as it is more of a novelty and people seem to be in less of a rush. We filmed Hush in Helensvile (about 45mins from Auckland) the community there were really generous lending us buses and letting us film in their factories. This kind of welcoming vibe helps create a good filming environment.
Q: From the trailer, it looks like there is an intimate visual style with the use of handheld cameras. Can you tell us about working with cinematographer Maria Ines Manchego and the visual mood you wanted to create?
Armağan: Maria Ines is super talented, she has a great instinct for drama and what to focus on within the shot. This meant I was able to allow the actors to be quiet free and do quiet a bit of improvisation, which worked well for the naturalistic tone Maria Ines captured beautifully. We were often coming up with shots as we went – the process was very organic.
Q: ‘Hush’ screened at Berlinale earlier this year, and is now heading to the Sydney Film Festival. How exciting is it to see international audiences engage with the film?
Meg: Honestly, it’s pretty unbelievable (and of course very exciting). There is so much awesome work coming out of New Zealand at the moment and I’m stoked to be a part of sharing our voice with the world.
Armağan: It’s great to watch the film with an international audience. When you see that the film has a genuine connection with someone it inspires you to keep telling stories.
Q: What is next for you both? Any ambitions or hopes to share with us?
Meg: I have just come off another short film, titled Hot Chocolate, written and directed by David Hay. Hopefully we will be doing a festival circuit with that next year! Otherwise, I have a couple of independent creative projects in varying (early) stages of development: a solo theatre show about a ghost who kills cats, and a short film about a woman who prioritises her love for growing succulents above everything else.
Armağan: I have a couple of feature ideas that I’m working on at the moment, both set in New Zealand. Hopefully I’ll get to make one of them soon!