The FIVE Provocations, Gay Essential Talks To Angie Black

The FIVE Provocations, premiering at the 2018 Melbourne Queer Film Festival, is an Australian drama directed by Angie Black and driven by four intertwining stories of seemingly disparate people: Marlena (Sapidah Kian), secretly dealing with the loss of her married lover, Rosie; Rosie’s husband, Paul (Tony Moclair), going through his own grief and unaware that other people may be hurting as much as he is; Marlena’s timid new housemate, Bridget (Rebecca Bower), struggling to survive in the new and scary world she’s stepped into alone; and handyman Clinton (Blake Osborne), grappling with parenting a teenage daughter and developing his own gender identity. Each character is presented in a realist way, and their flaws are never concealed from the audience: “I think as writers, we always try to make people more likable than they are. That’s something I came up against while writing the screenplay,” says Black. “We all have great traits and flaws. We all have those grey moral areas where we don’t always make the right choice. That is a side we don’t often see in cinema, but that we all have. Life is a little more complicated and messy than we sometimes think.”

The Five Provocations

The characters resulted from the director’s interesting approach, partly influenced by that of British director Mike Leigh, who often works with actors first to develop characters. “I liked the idea of not imposing a story, or a genre, or anything on the process, and to start with character first.” Black worked with all four lead actors for two years, building a complete alter ego whom she would send out on little trips into the real world to see how they would operate. As she talked with actors, she started thinking about how their characters might interact and near the end of the two years, she began to organize in-character improvisation workshops. By the time she sat down to write it, the script had been forming in her head for two years. “I knew how the characters could know each other and how they’d possibly come together. Those workshops helped me understand their relationships.”

Character development and narrative kept evolving as filming began. The FIVE Provocations is split into four parts, each seen through the perspective of one of the lead characters, and a final part in which they all meet. The actors only knew what their characters knew; cast and crew were keen on keeping things secret from one another: “They knew it was really important not to share information with the actors, and the actors knew that they really didn’t want to know.”

As mentioned, each part is seen from the point of view of a different character. “We are all performing all the time. We perform who we are as people,” says Black. “We do slightly modify our behaviour for whoever we are around. And that was another thing I was trying to capture with the film.” For example, “if we see Paul through Marlene’s eyes, he’s not a very nice guy. But then, we see Paul in his world and we see that he’s got so many things that he’s trying to hang onto, and that he’s sort of falling apart, and we start to have some empathy for him.”

The FIVE Provocations moves and was shot in chronological order to allow character development to continue throughout filming. Changes in their narrative were prompted by performances of some of Australia’s top stars of the cabaret scene, embodying the title provocations. These can be described as surreal experiences for the characters that allow them to see their choices differently and provide them with an opportunity to take a different path. “I knew the provocations were going to be so shocking to the actors and that their characters might move from where they thought they were going. And in every case, they did.” In fact, none of the actors knew anything about their encounters with the provocations; as a result, their shocked reactions to them are genuine.

Black explains the way in which these scenes were shot in more detail. They were filmed “second-last in each actor’s block so that we could allow the characters to move. The whole time we were filming, I would allow myself a day off, so I could do some re-writes and move the character’s story. We didn’t tell anyone; the only people who knew were the first A.D., the D.O.P., and the co-producer. We would close down the set – the first A.D. would call for a cup-of-tea-break. While everyone, including the actor, was off the set, we’d bring in the provocateurs, who knew the characters they would play because they had been doing it for years on the live performance scene – and we would walk it out to see if we could predict what might happen. I would ask them to try to contain the characters in the shooting space because we didn’t know how they were going to react … They picked up on the vibes from the actors and understood when to tone it down, soften their performance so that they knew they were not so terrifying.”

The scenes of the provocations replicated the atmosphere of live performances. “At live performances, things are very unpredictable. You sort of sit in fear, not knowing what is going to happen. And I wanted to try to capture that unease you feel when you are watching; that exciting sensation that you get in those moments of those performances where you actually don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In her feature directorial debut, Black appears to break the conventions of filmmaking. “Sometimes film feels a little too formulaic, and we are so savvy as audience members now,” she says. “Great films always take you places you’re not expecting, but often you sit there and feel like you know where the film is going to go. And you may still feel like it was a good movie and it was done well, but you’re not afraid enough for the characters, and you’re not invested in them, because you kind of know it’s going to be okay.” However, she insists that “conventions are really important to know and learn. As [Jean-Luc] Godard once said, it’s only once you know the conventions that you can break them. For [The Five Provocations], I was just really excited to do something different.”

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Angie Black

Matt Micucci

Matt Micucci

Matt is a cinephile with a keen interest in the proliferation of film culture. He is a writer, programmer, filmmaker, and long-time contributor to FRED Film Radio and JAZZIZ Magazine. Has interviewed hundreds of people at international film festivals. Collaborated with Mark Cousins on a short inspired by Pasolini. Holds a BA in filmmaking and is currently pursuing an MA in Film Theory and Practice in Galway, Ireland, where he lives.
Matt Micucci