“I wanted to write from my own place of trying to understand why somebody could ever make these choices and what is the fall out and the impact of such crimes to other people.”
In his feature debut, Downriver, Australian filmmaker Grant Scicluna tells the story of James (Reef Ireland), a juvenile inmate, who is granted parole and faces the many challenges that come with seeking re-habilitation into society and trying to claim his life back. When he was a child, he allegedly drowned a little boy whilst playing by the river with his friend Anthony during a summer holiday but the victim’s body had never been found. James suffered one of his epileptic fits on that fateful day, resulting in blurry memories of the events that occurred. That’s why, once back out in the world, he can’t help but wanting to get real closure by figuring out what truly happened and find the missing body.
“I did a lot of reading, especially of UK cases and decided to start my story from the premise of having a body missing and the potency of having a murder trial when someone is responsible for revealing what happened to the body.”
Born in Windsor, northwest of Sydney, the talented filmmaker explored the same world in his short film The Wilding, winner of the prestigious Iris Prize in 2012, although that story was set within the confines of juvenile detention. With Downriver, Scicluna has crafted a haunting crime drama that feels authentically rooted in the specific reality of how the social issues at hand are dealt with in his homeland.
“As I started writing, I wondered where that premise came from and I realised it stemmed from a very specific thing in my childhood. My neighbour’s mother went missing and was never found. A man was charged with her murder but he never said where the body was, so to this day she remains missing although the man was imprisoned for murdering her. I was maybe 14 when that happened and again it’s just one of those things that get deep into your mind and into your heart and as you’re writing, they come out whether you’re conscious of it or not.”
Having gay characters at the center of the story adds an interesting layer to the thematic threads of the film but such element is never sensationalised and is rather organically integrated within the canvas of the plot.
“When I first wrote the story I wasn’t thinking about the LGBT elements, I was just writing out of my experience, from where I was standing in the world and there were gay people around me so it didn’t feel wrong to have a lot of different sexualities in the film.”
Having seen a ton of films falling into the category of queer cinema, the filmmaker acknowledges how they have helped to make things better for gay people around the world, yet he was getting tired of the same storylines and wanted to write a crime/mystery film as that’s one of his favourite genres.
“Having gay characters didn’t seem strange to me. Having to fight for them was what ended up being strange. I had to fight for the characters’ sexualities right through the whole process of writing and financing. There were lots of people who wanted to make some of the boys into straight girls or take the boys’ sexuality out of the film.”
Scicluna was well aware that in a way he was marginalising his film but at the same time, knowing how in Australia most directors get a chance to only make one film, he was not prepared to compromise on this one.
“It had to be the one that I wrote and fought for over the last ten years and in the end it is that film on screen. Whether or not I go on to make another one I can at least look at it and be proud of that fact because it wasn’t an easy journey given how it was a huge homophobic fight right through the whole filmmaking process.”
When looking back at the final product the Aussie filmmaker feels like Downriver is exactly what he set out to make, yet at the same time if he really thinks about it, he can see all the compromises he had to make along the way for financial reasons.
“I was not prepared to have it look or feel like a low budget movie so I had to cut about ten pages from the script because we didn’t have the money and time to shoot them. There were challenges and yet at the same time the compromises were with the right end result mind. If you don’t do that, everything becomes a compromise because you don’t have enough resources. I had to cut a lot from the edit as well because we had to deliver a 100 minutes film and it could be under but not over that running time. I guess the best tip I can give to young filmmakers is that time is the most valuable thing you have. You need to buy yourself as much time in preproduction and rehearsal as you possibly can and then, if you don’t have enough money, you just need to be rigorous about choosing where the budget needs to go.”
After premiering at last year’s Melbourne Film Festival, Downriver has been released in Australian cinemas last month to overall positive reviews and it’s headed to the UK this autumn with a festival run and a VOD and DVD release. But Scicluna is actively at work on a few projects that sound like rather compelling follow ups to his debut.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Grant Scicluna