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INTERVIEW: HEATH DAVIS, writer/director of BOOK WEEK – November 2018

| 19 November 2018 | Reply

INTERVIEW: HEATH DAVIS, writer/director of BOOK WEEK – November 2018
By Shane Pinnegar

Heath Davis will attend a screening of Book Week tonight, 19 November, 2018, at Luna Leederville in Perth, and take part in a Q+A session about the film.

Read our review of Book Week HERE

Heath Davis wrote the initial script for Book Week when he was teaching high school English whilst trying to break into the movie world, and some of that ‘never give up’ tenacity runs through the film’s lead character, English teacher and wanabee novelist Nick Cutler.

Alan Dukes imbues Cutler with a wonderfully shabby, shambolic jadedness, absolutely nailing the frustration of years of struggle to be taken seriously in a ruthless industry.

When I get Heath Davis on the phone he’s pulled over on an Eastern States freeway heading to another in a series of Q+A screenings of his new film.

100% ROCK: This must be a busy time for you at the moment, hey?

Heath: Yeah. It’s good to be busy. When you’re busy it means people like your film, so that’s always good. When they don’t like it, I stop.

100% ROCK: Well, I’ll tell you what, I loved it. I found it hilarious.

Heath: Thank you very much. Yeah, people seem to really respond to it, and I see that. We do a lot of these Q+A events before a season at the cinemas, and I’m driving up now to the north coast of New South Wales. We had one yesterday, and people really like it. Yeah, something about it resonates with them. They’ve sort of seen the truth in it, and there’s humour which is not your typical meat and three veg sort of Aussie humour, and yeah, they’re responding to it. It’s just getting them aware of it, and then getting out to the cinemas to support an Aussie film, that’s a whole other thing…

100% ROCK: Oh, most definitely – and we’ll talk about that in a bit. First though, you got some superb performances out of your cast. Alan Dukes especially, he provides that real lived in shabbiness to Nick Cutler, and he carries the movie so well. He’s done so much supporting stuff on TV, what made you think he was the guy to be the star in your movie?

Director Heath Davis with Book Week star Alan Dukes

Heath: Oh, look, I’ve seen a lot of his stuff, and I’ve seen him in theatre, and to tell you the truth, on stage he’s probably done his best stuff. A lot of people don’t go to the theatre, generally. I wanted somebody real, and I needed an actor, but I needed somebody who has that comedic timing, but also somebody that could do the pathos and somebody that you might not really like, but you could relate to and identify with. It would have been easy to get a good looking, charming kind of guy, and make a film like that, but that’s not the kind of film I want to make.

That’s A Star is Born, people can go and watch that, that’s out there now, too. When you’re making a small film, you sort of go seek truth, and yeah, he’s a hybrid of a lot of teachers that I’ve worked with. It had to be authentic, so there wasn’t any question with that.

That’s different to a lot of ways people make films and who they cast, and in Australia, it’s the same faces, and the same people, and the same films over and over again, and [it’s only] when you’re making a low budget film, that gives you sort of the opportunity [and freedom] to do what you like.

100% ROCK: Yeah, he just nailed it. I just found Cutler so relatable.

Heath: He’s just an ordinary guy, and I wanted to make a film about an artist in Australia, and it’s an Australian film. I’m sort of unashamed by that, but we often see these stories set in upstate New York, or a Woody Allen Manhattan story about an intellectual, and they come from affluence, and they’re always a little bit arrogant, and a little bit pompous, and pretentious.

I mean, Cutler has some of those traits, but all the artists I know are strugglers, so to be an artist or a novelist and live off art, even a filmmaker, is really tough, and that brings a lot of frustration, mostly because these guys work so solitary, [and have] no-one to really listen. That is the frustration that sort of drives his behaviour to everybody else.

100% ROCK: I believe you wrote the original script some years ago while you were teaching and trying to get a bit of a break. How true to your own experience is the film?

Heath: Very true in terms of the situation of Cutler, but I wanted to make the film a little bit hopeful in a way, even though it’s dark and a kind of tragic comedy. I could have gone out and made a kind of bleak drama, and I did that with Broke, my first film. I didn’t want to do that again, but I sort of thought there was a tragic comedy here that might actually be more engaging that way, and using irony, and that’s the avenue I went down.

As a writer, you sort of put your heart and soul into things, and I write what I know and what I’m feeling at that time, so it was very personal. A lot of the scenes were written in the classrooms of the scenes that were filmed in. I was adamant that we’ve got to use this classroom, we’ve got to use these people… Because I also wanted to showcase, for people who haven’t been in a school in a long time – a lot of adults haven’t been in school since they were kids – the realities of the situation and the lives of teachers in public schools too.

There’s a lot of smart, empathetic teachers at some of these schools that are just sort of disenfranchised because of the system and the way that they’re treated. Being a teacher is almost a butt of jokes. There’s some really good people there, so that’s very frustrating, and I kind of was experiencing that.

I had a movie that was very close to being made in the US for the third time, and fell over the day before shooting. We had movie stars [ready], and yeah… so your dream’s going to come true, and that’s pulled away from you, and three weeks later, you’re teaching public high school kids poetry and poetic devices, and they’re on their iPhones. They don’t really care. That was a really bizarre situation, and I just was writing about it because it was a little bit of therapy at the time. I knew in the back of my mind there was something here that was contemporary in how hard it is for the struggle to keep that alive, and being sort of an artist.

If I’d made this film in the early 2000s or ’90s, it would be everywhere, but the film business has become more of a business than an art form, and this is where we are. We’re trying to make sense of what it’s like to be not just a filmmaker, but an artist in the modern landscape, when digital technology has corrupted a lot of the way we consume it, or the way it’s appreciated.

100% ROCK: Well, one of the things that really got me about it was that even though Cutler is jaded, and he’s cynical, and he’s self-sabotaging, and he’s self-destructive – and let’s face it, who wouldn’t rather go down the pub one afternoon instead of working – but he never completely gives up hope. He keeps fucking up, but he’s still got that glimmer of hope shining through, and it’s just enough to redeem him at the end there. That really touched me, and as I said, very relatable in many ways.

Heath: Thank you, mate. I mean, anyone who’s ever had a dream, and it’s not just filmmaking… [which is] is very hard, especially in this country, but any dream, whether you’re an athlete or [whatever]… Schools are interesting places because a lot of the teachers always have this double life, and PE teachers are former athletes that have retired, or wanted to be this, but never made it. Science teachers are scientists. Some of them have got PhDs. I used to work with an archaeologist, who was just a genius, but she’s teaching year 10’s minerals because it’s hard to make an income and a career in that field.

Life’s about having a dream and having hope, and if that dream’s taken away, it’s a dangerous thing. You lose your meaning, you lose your purpose and your identity, so it was important Cutler didn’t give up completely because if he did give up completely, we would give up on him.

The situation that I was going through, there was always a carrot too, so even if sometimes you wanted to give up, there was always this [hope that] it’s gonna happen. There was always this little carrot, and it was that little light at the end of the tunnel that keeps you going because without that light… it’s probably scarier than having a little bit of light, having no light.

100% ROCK: I read a couple of reviews last night while I was researching a bit of your background and whatnot, and almost all of them are very, very positive and they got the movie… but there was just ONE which really lambasted the film because, I think, the lady who wrote it just didn’t like Cutler’s character.

Heath: Yeah.

100% ROCK: Is it really annoying when someone gives you a bad review because they just didn’t get it?

Heath: Yeah, it does, especially with that specific review because –

100% ROCK: I’m glad you know which one I mean…

Heath: Yeah, I do, yeah. I was expecting that [sort of response] from that demographic a little bit, and in this more sort of modern landscape. That was a publication that gets out to a lot of people, so that kinda hurts. I used to be a film reviewer too, when I was a journalist. That was one of the jobs that I used to do while trying to get a film career. I never put personal opinion in terms of taste. I was always pretty objective when I reviewed something. I’d look at the craft, I’d look at the story, and sometimes I was watching teen chick flicks that weren’t my cup of tea, but I could appreciate a film like Mean Girls that was really well written, and from a point of view.

That’s what a reviewer should do, but unfortunately [some] critics are different. Some just like to be provocative for the sake of it, but yeah, if people personalise this film, and we’re in this #MeToo movement now, and Cutler… he’s a bit of a son of a bitch. Not just to females, but to everybody in this film. But then, well, it’s truthful, and that’s the strength of this movie. It’s quite truthful. When something’s truthful, you identify, and then when you start to connect to it on an emotional level, you personalise things.

I just watched A Star is Born, and Bradley Cooper’s character, that classic character, is a son of a bitch too, but you seem to get away with it on a big Hollywood budget, but when it’s an independent film and it’s quite intimate, it feels authentic, and then it strikes an emotion.

But at the end of the day, it’s a movie, and it’s truthful. A lot of artists are selfish. They really are. He’s a flawed human. So, [that review]… what can you do? You can’t do much about it. You just sort of move on, and yeah, [it’s] disappointing.

100% ROCK: It’s about getting the film, I think, and that review didn’t get what was happening. We went to The Nutcracker movie last night, and we took my 11 year old. I’m reviewing it and my first thought is, “I’m not the demographic for this, so let’s review it from her perspective,” and she absolutely loved the film. You could nitpick this and this, but look at it – the kids are digging this, so you’re obliged to say so.

Heath: Yeah. It was really a pity, but it was also predictable. It is what it is. Audiences really like it, and regular Joes go and they really respond to it.

100% ROCK: That’s far more important anyway. The drunken writer/artist, trope is a very common one throughout literature and movies going back many, many, many years, of course. Is it difficult to write and film something like that without it descending into the cliché?

Heath: Look, every artist I know has some kind of abuse or substance issue. Recently, I’ve just lost a good friend, who was an artist and screenwriter, and had that life, and [they] recently passed away. It IS a cliché. Sometimes a cliché is a cliché because it’s so omnipresent and it’s just apparent. Artists write… well, anyone worth a damn, they write because they have to and it’s from a place of pain and suffering, and any good art comes from that place. That’s just the way of channelling those thoughts and those emotions, and hopefully people can identify with those thoughts and emotions.

Often, they can be quite overwhelming and you’re often looking for avenues to sort of numb that pain because 24/7 it is quite difficult. Alcohol’s the easiest obvious one because it’s a legal drug and it’s around. It’s quite accessible, so it just happens to be part and parcel of the course. I’ve met famous filmmakers and famous writers that are [adamant] a happy artist is not a good artist.

Then again, I’ve also met some others that are sort of reformed and some songwriters that say now they’re sober, they still write about the experiences of their demons.

Unfortunately, I think, it’s just the way it is. Artists are sensitive creatures, and most can be quite overwhelming when you’re dealing with them. You want to suppress them at times, and in the modern world that’s what we do. Most filmmakers and artists that I know are on some form of antidepressant, and actors too, musicians – and that’s probably a conversation for another time.

There’s a parallel there, and there’s got to be underlining for that, but yeah, it’s a sort of tool to often help you function and alleviate some of the pain, and wherever that comes from, who knows? Yeah, it just seems the way that it is.

It’s not pretty. The best writers, and this is based on a lot of writers, filmmakers, artists, they live and breathe it. The best actors don’t just suffer on screen, they suffer in real life. Philip Seymour Hoffman … you know, it didn’t come free what his gift was. He dealt with demons every single day, and in an art form on screen, when you’re playing a character, people stand up and applaud it, but in everyday life, it’s frowned upon and nobody wants to be around it. It just doesn’t flick on and off like that.

100% ROCK: Onto a lighter note [both laugh]… I felt it was a great vehicle to set the movie in National Book Week. Not only was it a really nice climax, but it was also a really great excuse to get people wearing funny costumes. I mean, Tiriel Mora in that Gandalf outfit was amazing, wonderfully striking. Did you assign all those characters before casting, or did you sort of pick each one out and went, ‘what we can do with you is-‘

Heath: No, I wrote them down because I sort of thought about the DNA of each of these characters, I thought who would be their alter ego if they were going to be some kind of superhero and they had to dress up in Book Week? Obviously, you have the pop culture references, but a lot of their personalities they show through their choices.

My life photo album, I call it, is my film collection, my book collection, and my CD collection. You get an understanding of who someone is through their tastes in art. So yeah, you’ve got the Rose Riley character who is Jane Eyre at the end, and then you have Tiriel who is obviously Gandalf, and all these different characters are sort of mirroring a little bit of who they are.

Tiriel Mora and Alan Dukes in Book Week

100% ROCK: That was great fun. The actors pretty much all nail their roles, as I said earlier. I mean, was it a fun shoot? I kind of got the feeling halfway through that it might be a lot of fun watching the outtakes and the gag reel.

Heath: Yeah… well, you know what… was it a fun shoot? For everybody else, it probably was. On a low budget you’re doing so much, so you’re always sort of paranoid because you’re shooting so many minutes a day. We had 21 days to make this film, and everyone’s going hard.

You know as a writer, well, you know as a director that you’re getting good stuff. You just know, but then it’s not a short film. It’s a marathon, so you’re like, well okay, this seems great, this seems great, but we’ve got 20 more days, and one bad scene can throw everything out of whack, and you never really get to enjoy those moments. There’ll be a moment where I’ll just let the actor know that was amazing. Everybody, let’s move onto the next setup because we’ve got three hours left and we have to get this scene.

If I ever get a decent budget, I’ll have the time to actually appreciate a day, and that’s what they do on the bigger films. I mean, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, they do eight hour days like an office job, and they shoot their scenes, and then they actually celebrate those small victories along the way, which is really important for everybody because it’s intense. We don’t get that luxury, so it’s almost like far out.

When you start a movie, you just hope for the ending to come, and then you miss it and it’s like, shit, it’s over now, but there’s just so much going on at once and you’re not sleeping. Unless you’re in it, you don’t really understand the stress and the pressure, and then at the end, I think, not even now, it’s probably years before you sit back and look at it, and go, okay, that actually is good.

That’s one of the commentaries in this film was we don’t judge art in terms of longevity anymore. We judge art in terms of what’s just gone viral and how many likes you get within that hour, and then people move on. We have no patience, or concentration, or a sense of history, or appreciation. It’s just disposable, and yeah, I look back at films, and I go, oh, that actually stands up in 10 years.

So, yeah, maybe in the future I’ll be able to answer that question!

100% ROCK: As we said earlier, it’s difficult marketing films to Australian audiences. I think Book Week is a far better film than a handful of Australian movies that have come out in the last couple of years, which we won’t bother naming.

Heath: We both know what they are.

100% ROCK: Yeah, they were absolutely shit, but they got really wide releases. I’ll tell you a little story here. Once, a few years back, I went to a DVD store and chose a couple of indie Australian movies to rent out, and was told at the counter that I’d probably want to put them back because they’re Australian and select something from overseas! Now, what the fuck can we do to get people to respect some of the great Australian movies out there?

Heath: Well, let me just say this. I’m 40 now, so my contemporaries in the artistic circles that I run in, and I have been doing this for almost 20 years. Most artists are selfish, and they don’t support each other’s stuff. They just don’t. So even with this film, and I’ll try and support everybody else because in any business, we could have a street of restaurants. Now, if you’ve got eight restaurants on one street, and only one is doing well, that means they’re all going to go down. If all eight are succeeding, that means you’ve got a great street and an industry, and it’s harvesting itself.

We don’t have anyone… nobody supports, in the artistic circles, each other’s stuff, so in film terms, very rarely does another filmmaker, or producer, or actor go and watch everyone else’s stuff. That’s one problem. Even if we don’t like it, if we just support it and go, that will start to encourage other people to go. I have seen people like films, but publicly acknowledge that they didn’t because they didn’t want to say it was good because it wasn’t theirs.

The other thing is we make a lot of bad films. The US makes a lot of bad films, but they’re bigger and there’s a spectacle. Unfortunately, [the Australian film industry] is suffering from a stigma. This film is suffering from that right now because we just got released and there was a handful of films that came out that weren’t very good, and most people give one Aussie film a go a year maybe, and if they don’t respond to that film, they will tarnish every other title with that same brush. We had a real terrible few years prior to this, of films, and I think we’re seeing that now. That’s punishing the good ones.

It’s gotta start with the industry and we’ve just gotta get out and go, and have a sense of pride in it. The Kiwis do it. Australians are just, ‘it’s gonna be crap, I don’t want to see it.’ Maybe the price at the cinema is too expensive, also advertising. People don’t know Book Week is out there. A small percentage, but we don’t have the [money for a] Bohemian Rhapsody trailer, or the advertising budget for TV and billboard, so maybe discounted ads for Australian films [would help]? Maybe the ticket prices on certain days are cheaper? But everybody has got to work together, and unfortunately, everybody doesn’t work together for an industry. They work together for themselves, and that’s why it’s very fractured.

Good content should change that, but it’s got to be consistently good, and yeah, that’s another conversation.

100% ROCK: That is another conversation, but I think you nailed it there. You say ‘go see this, it’s an Aussie film’ and people are just, nahhhhh. Tom Cruise isn’t in it, Bradley Cooper isn’t in it, they don’t care. It’s so frustrating.

Heath: The celebrity obsessed culture too, doesn’t help… but you know, a film like ours has a small budget, so it doesn’t take a lot to recoup it. When you make something good and you feel as though, geez, if we had this [budget], everybody would be aware of it. But how to change that, I don’t know. It does need a real shake. I’m trying to do it on my little platforms… I teach films to younger people, and I get a lot of people coming up to me, and I try and give them the time of day and just encourage them to support everybody and change the mold of how we consume things because indie films as a whole are dying.

I mean, Ethan Hawke has a film out called First Reformed, and he’s probably going to get an Oscar nomination. It’s directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver. Brilliant filmmaker and writer, and it’s [only on at] one screen in Sydney, twice a day. That’s got stars in it and it’s got Oscar winners.

It’s not just Australian films, it’s indie films as a whole, and the digital platform. I mean, films are made for the big screen, and to connect people, and get them out in the cinema. That’s what I grew up on. On digital, people don’t even know your title is on there because it’s harder to find a title on digital than it is at the video store, where you can wander around and see it.

Yeah, it’s a tough one, but something’s got to change and it needs savvy, fresh eyes, and somebody maybe not from the film business to come in and just see what’s been happening. We could talk on, and on, and on, and I could tell you about distribution, and getting a film up, and what it takes, and all the boxes, and how broken that system is. There’s a reason why it’s failing, but I love Australian films and I love Australians. Hopefully, we can make that change.

There are enough people out there. Yeah, it’s the way things are consumed now. We have to come up with a new platform for that to keep the good films alive. Hopefully, it’s just a cyclical thing, but yeah, who knows?

Category: Interviews

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