“I did have in my mind the story of this young person who was discovering his sexuality and I wanted to explore that character’s texture but I didn’t necessarily want to make a coming out film per se, cause we’ve seen that a lot before.”
Just like it happens with almost every feature film debut, the stars align when you least expect it. Australian filmmaker Craig Boreham knows something about that as his screenplay for Teenage Kicks had been sitting in a drawer for a while.
“I got a call from a program that Outfest was doing with HBO in the States and they were looking for queer short scripts and I didn’t have one ready at the time but I had this feature that had been collecting dust so I looked through it to see if there was anything in it that I could use.”
And of course Boreham found a section of his feature that he was able to adapt into a self-contained short film, Drowning (2009), which then helped to get Teenage Kicks made. The talented filmmaker already had extensive experience making several shorts, with 2005’s Transient screening at the Berlinale and being nominated for the prestigious Teddy Award. Yet Boreham recollects how crafting a feature film posed another set of challenges.
“We definitely went into it with the kind of momentum and enthusiasm of finally making the first feature. I guess the biggest lesson for us all was that a short film is quite contained and the length of a feature requires keeping the consistency of pace and tone for a much longer shoot and edit. So it’s important not to lose sight of where the characters are at any point and where they’ve been and how they’ve gotten there. We did a lot of work with the actors in that respect, especially with Miles Szanto, the lead, who had a strong emotional journey to keep track of and he did a great job with it.”
Teenage Kicks is a dramatic tale about the consequences a tragic accident has on a boy who is on the cusp of young adulthood. Mik (Miles Szanto) lives in Sydney with his family of Hungarian immigrants but he’s never felt accepted by them for many reasons, some of which we’ll omit to avoid spoilers. His old fashioned father never misses a chance to make Mik feel constantly overshadowed by his older brother Tomi and things only get worse when Toni dies in an accident.
Mik in fact is inadvertently involved in the unfortunate event, which leads him to feel directly responsible for Tomi’s death, heightening the devastating grief for his loss. Right before the accident, Mik and his best friend Dan (Daniel Webber) are planning to head North in Dan’s car after school’s over and start anew, leaving Sydney behind and looking for adventure. But Dan meets a Phaedra (Charlotte Best) and that of course winds up spoiling the boys’ plan but most importantly ignites Mik’s questioning the nature of his feelings for his best friend.
“I was thinking about making a more universal coming of age story that explored sexual awakening but ultimately the story for me is a lot about coming to terms with grief and loss. I thought that aspect of losing someone important to you was an element that everyone could relate to one way or another.”
The Aussie filmmaker told us he grew up in a heavily migrant area in Brisbane, which was predominantly filled with Greek, Eastern European and Vietnamese people and his family’s background is a bit from all over the place, (England, Poland, Scotland) and that informed his writing.
“I think the portrayal of Australia on screen a lot of the times is white, blonde and blue-eyed but that’s not the reality. There’s a kind of racism that’s intrinsic in the way our screen stories are told so, to me, it was important to represent something more truthful. I think culturally, showing the experience of someone from a new Australian family exploring their sexuality, led to have higher stakes and the world was more interesting that way and Miles, our lead actor, is also of half Hungarian descent, which helped with crafting his character.”
Boreham reveals it was definitely intentional to show a kind of Sydney and Australia that are different from what we’re used to seeing. He and his team discussed their own experiences as teenagers and the way they saw the world when they lived in a contained part of the city.
“Sydney has a strong gay community but you don’t have to go too far outside the city radius to know that there are a lot of young people who don’t experience that and don’t have that reality around them. We wanted to see that part of Sydney more and we wanted to avoid the typical postcard-y landmarks. We still put a couple in but we shot them from places they are not usually shot from. Even the Opera House makes a sneaky cameo but from its bad side. We really wanted to get that authentic feel of seeing the world through the eyes of teenagers who take shortcuts and roam under bridges rather than what we’re used to seeing.”
Esthetically, Boreham and his director of photography looked at Gus Van Sant’s work, (especially Paranoid Park, Mala Noche, and Elephant) but also lots of photography, like for instance the work of acclaimed photographer Samuel Hodge who actually wound up coming to set and taking several stills that have been collected in a book.
“We were looking for inspiration for the texture more than anything else. The way we shot the film was almost guerilla in a lot of ways. We had a small crew and let the drama and the actors drive the way we filmed a lot of stuff, in a bit of a neo-realistic fashion, shooting in the street and capturing life, also cause with such a small budget we didn’t have a lot of choice. The camera work is mostly handheld and a bit gritty, which seemed to be the right style since we spent so much time in Mik’s world.”
The decision of shooting Teenage Kicks in winter was scheduling-related but Boreham also talked with his cinematographer about how the light at that time of the year is really beautiful because the sun is a lot lower in the sky.
“It’s not as bright as in the summer and it gives a dreamy feel to the look of the film. Of course it was a bit harsh on the actors as we shot a lot of scenes at various beaches and they didn’t have a lot of clothes on but they were rather dedicated to the cause and soldiered on.”
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Craig Boreham