9 Dec 2008
This meant their choice of actors for this ensemble piece would have to be chosen very carefully if their ideas were to bear fruition.
The film had to be filmed in chronological order to maintain the sense of realism that was crucial to the success of the film and it was during the filming of one of these scenes that Simpson and Joy realized what a considerable movie their concept had become and how well they had chosen their cast. At one stage shooting had to stop completely as one of the actors so fully immersed in character had to take a few hours to get things back together again after a startling revelation about one of the characters was revealed.
With Men’s Group, Simpson and Joy were attempting to bring something new and fresh to the table. Six months before filming started the pair began building a story around a group of strangers that get together once a week at a strangers house to talk about their issues.
“We were fascinated by Australian male culture and we wanted to make a film that was sometimes touching, sometimes devastating, sometimes uncomfortable, but always grounded in the truth,” said Simpson.
Selecting actors with extensive television and stage experience, the pair then sent those coming aboard out in public in character with a specific scenario in mind to interact with the general public. After almost two months of preparation, and a week before filming began the actors were all assembled together on a set constructed at Fox Studios in Sydney’s Moore Park Complex. As previously instructed, none of the actors were allowed to give away anything about their characters.
Inspired by cinéma-vérité, the duo attempted to make up their own rules while work shopping their actors both individually and collectively and feel that audiences have responded well to the film although some have come out of the cinema a little confused due to the strength of the performances and the realism created on the screen.
Simpson says this preparation was necessary to allow the characters to react more naturally as bit by bit each scenario was revealed throughout filming and also meant the film would be made up primarily of first takes bringing more realism to the performances.
Around the same time ‘Men’s Group’ was being created Simpson launched his feature film distribution company TITAN VIEW with the aim of bringing Australian Films to Australian and International audiences. The first film for distribution was ‘The Jammed’, which went on to become the highest grossing independent feature on Australian cinema screen average EVER in it’s opening two weeks.
While initially struggling to find distribution due to its sensitive subject matter (the main commercial ventures saw the film as being too much of a risk for Australian audiences), Simpson saw the need to get such an important film onto Australian screens and took a risk pushing for the film to reach widespread distribution.
His instincts were spot on as ‘The Jammed” went on to win Best Film, Best Score and curiously Best Script at the Inside Film Awards in 2007 as well as winning the inaugural SPAARTAN and 2007 DigiSPAA award before being invited to attend the Rotterdam Film Festival, Warsaw and Copenhagen Festivals and the Melbourne and Sydney International Film Festivals in 2008. The United Nations were so impressed by the film that they selected it to be screened at a conference on human trafficking in Vienna in 2008.
After studying producing at AFTRS, Simpson did his apprenticeship on the feature film “Thunderstruck’ working with executive producer Al Clark. His films have screened at Montreal, Palm Springs, and TROPFEST 04 just to name a few and have all been well received by audiences throughout the world.
After screening at the recent film festivals in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Australian feature drama Men’s Group will premiere at the prestigious Sydney Theatre on September 18 to launch its theatrical season.
THE film Men's Group doesn't pull any punches, but the stars, including A Country Practice's Grant Dodwell, had to fly by the seat of their pants.
The new Australian film Men's Group isn't about sensitive new-age blokes gazing at their navels.
Writer-director Michael Joy had the idea for the film two years ago.
"In my own life I needed to speak to someone outside my family and friends and found myself at a men's group," he says.
"I was fascinated by these men. The next morning I woke up thinking it could be such an incredible story and one that hadn't been told -- being honest about what's going on for men."
Shot on digital video in 14 days, Men's Group was made on the smell of an oily rag.
Much of what is seen on screen was improvised. None of the actors knew what the other characters would say or do in the group sessions.
The film's star, Grant Dodwell, best known for A Country Practice, says they were flying by the seats of their pants.
"I had no idea why the others were there or what they'd say," he says. "When the cameras roll, that's the first we hear of it. That was very exciting and a real leap of faith."
Dodwell has been working in community and fringe theatre for several years and Men's Group has allowed him to return to the mainstream. He absolutely inhabits the role of the coarse, hard-drinking Alex.
"He's an amalgamation of many good if fearful men I've met," he says.
A key element to all the characters is their relationship to their fathers. Dodwell says he drew on his own relationship with his dad.
"We had a tenuous relationship during my teens and early 20s when I was starting as an actor. A remarkable man but it was difficult for him to say 'I love you'."
Dodwell says acting jobs are sometimes just acting jobs, but this movie feels special.
"I'm very proud of it," he says. "This is a realistic film about men that pulls no punches."
The quietly powerful low budget new Australian drama Men's Group, is a project built on taking chances, doing something that matters, and creating an atmosphere of trust.
"People would only do the project if they loved it." Speaking of his latest and most personal film, Men's Group, producer/co-writer John L. Simpson's voice is loaded with quiet conviction. "No one was going to sign up to spend all this time on a project that they weren't being paid up-front for unless they thought there was something in it. The level of trust was extraordinary."
There's the crux. There's one word which encapsulates this project in every sense - trust.
Simpson's last experience in cinema was when he was blown away by the independent Australian film The Jammed, and upon discovering that it was not going to be playing at cinemas, going straight to DVD, he set out get the film to the masses. To say that he succeeded would be an understatement, with the film winning numerous awards, receiving 5 out 5 critical reviews and collecting a respectable box office total.
On his latest, which he was involved with almost from the beginning, Simpson had to trust in the strength of writer/director Michael Joy's idea of a drama set around a suburban support group for men. The ensemble of largely unheralded but highly accomplished theatre and television actors had to have complete trust in the creators that the unique process (pretty much entirely improvised) would be worthwhile. Everyone needed to trust in each other that their creative forces combined could deliver The Holy Grail - a successful feature film.
More than anyone else involved in Men's Group, it was the actors who needed to invest their faith in the film. Soon after shooting began, however, Joy and Simpson's skill at creating honest characters and scenarios swept any reservations aside.
“No one was going to sign up to spend all this time on a project that they weren’t being paid up-front for unless they thought there was something in it. The level of trust was extraordinary.” – Producer/co-writer John L. Simpson.
Grant Dodwell, a veteran theatre and television actor and three-time Silver Logie winner from his time on A Country Practice, plays Alex, a hardened and cynical larrikin in the midst of ugly marriage problems. "There was a momentum created through the uniqueness of it, and Michael and John nurtured that," enthuses Dodwell.
"In a very non-grandstanding way, they allowed all of us to trust them, as well as trusting each other and, more importantly, to trust ourselves. After certain scenes, you could sense the atmosphere on set, and that something special had happened... We knew that there was something unique about it. Whether it was going to work or not...well, that was in the lap of the Gods. But we know in our hearts that there were moments that were truly beyond what we had experienced before."
Nonetheless, there were times when the cast and crew would remember how bold and unusual it was as a project and a sense of doubt would creep in. Grant Dodwell describes the nervous anticipation of screenings when he would forget about the trust that he had during filming, and would succumb to wondering if the film would have the magnetism to keep people in their seats. Then he would see the response of those festival audiences and his fears would be laid to rest, validating the intuition that saw him take time off from his successful corporate video business to work on this little Aussie film.
The film is also taking on a life of its own as a social tool. Men's support groups and men's health organisations are already contacting Simpson to organise screenings as a primer for weekend workshops or a point of reference for staff. It offers a way in to fraught issues like how men need to express emotion and identify themselves.
"You can be masculine and have emotion," says Joy. "Men are extremely intuitive...it's just that we've had so many things that tell us that we're not, and it just gets pushed to the background," says Joy. Simpson adds: "When people are seeing the film, they're finding whole new ways of seeing men, which is really quite extraordinary."
Simpson and Joy are clearly proud of how the film has the potential to offer hope and healing for men everywhere. This life of Men's Group as a social tool is something that the filmmakers hoped for as the project came together, but they didn't anticipate the extent to which it has done so far. They can only imagine the response once the film begins its commercial run. The faith of the filmmakers and the cast has paid off, with four Inside Film Award nominations recently announced, and Simpson managing to secure a theatrical release for the film: Melbourne and Perth from November 6, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart from November 13 and Brisbane to be confirmed soon.
Kylie Boltin gets the inside story on the making of Men's Group, in an interview with the film's producer and co-writer, John L. Simpson.
The independently produced Men's Group is a tough film — a painfully real insight into six men’s lives; strangers who meet once a week to simply, talk. The independently produced Men's Group is a tough film — a painfully real insight into six men’s lives; strangers who meet once a week to simply, talk.
With moving performances by an ensemble cast, including Grant Dodwell, Don Reid, Paul Gleeson and Steve Rodgers, Men’s Group has been nominated for Best Film, Best Script, Best Music, and Best Actor (Grant Dodwell) at the 2008 Inside Film (IF) Awards – the people’s choice awards for Australian films - and writer, producer and distributor, John L. Simpson has been awarded the AFI Fellowship 2008.
KB: It’s been a busy time for you since your success with the distribution of The Jammed. You co-wrote and produced Men’s Group — the debut feature film, from director, Michael Joy. The use of metaphor and traditional scripting techniques are ongoing throughout the film’s arc as well as a clear sense of research into the area of group psychology. Tell me about the process of co-writing.
JLS: It was a very intuitive and collaborative process. Michael and I gathered stories and did research together with Men's group facilitators, psychologists and councilors.Michael worked with each of the actors, work-shopping in isolation over two months; developing their characters from birth till the day they join the Men's Group. He would then record this and make notes and the two of us would draw out key character points and events that we would hone into scenes.We then crafted a comprehensive script that was only given to the heads of departments. The actors were not allowed to see the script, as we wanted to capture their first responses to their lives as they unfolded in real time as the cameras were rolling.
KB: How did you and Michael Joy work with the actors to approach the material to achieve both the understated and emotive individual performances on the shoot?
JLS: Michael is a very intuitive director; he has the ability to elicit trust from actors. He would spend up to 45 minutes briefing each actor in private prior to shooting, whispering in their ear what they could reveal in each session. As the actors knew nothing of the other characters, every utterance was a fresh revelation.
KB: The film was made with an incredibly small budget, in fact you are calling it a ‘no budget film’. What did you accentuate and what did you lose to make the film in this way?
JLS: The film was created on a reverse finance model, with each key crew member and actor taking an equity position in the film. Put simply, if the film does well, everyone benefits; if it does not, they have had a unique experience and they have invested their time. As far as what we lost, nothing in fact, we wanted to make the film this way and we ended up with everything you would normally have on a low budget film of approximately $1 million dollars (catering included).What we gained was great freedom as we were able to make the film our way without investors and funding bodies dictating their tastes, agendas, politics etc. The support we received from the industry and community was nothing short of overwhelming!
LB: Men’s Group is essentially about a bunch of blokes talking, and the title of the film exemplifies the simplistic premise on which it is based. Where did the idea come from to make Men’s Group and how did the project originate?
MJ: John and I were working on another project and we were really looking at the men in that story. We found that much of the ‘trouble’ stemmed from their difficulties in communicating in a healthy way. At the same time, I was feeling pretty depressed and went along to a men’s group one night on the advice of a telephone counsellor and found the entire evening fascinating. Here was a bunch of about five blokes sitting around a cramped lounge room and each one was grappling with a completely different situation. Some of these guys had been going to this group for several years and were still looking at their lives from the outside. I was struck by the immense pain and conflict that was alive in the room, in the thick air of that room, as well as the sense of caring and safety in which that could be expressed. The experience sort of shook me, and it inspired me. The following morning John and I were talking and we realized that here was a story that not only we felt we needed to tell, but that it was also feasible for us to do so with very little money. We began making the film pretty much that day.
JS: Michael and I were working on our feature 11 Months, which raised a lot of men’s issues, and as part of our exploration we discussed men’s groups. We wanted to work together on a smaller scale film, and Michael suggested that a men’s group would make a great subject for a film. I agreed.
LB: The structure of the film places a lot of emphasis on dialogue. Crucially, the conversations feel totally genuine. Did either of you observe or sit in with a real group of this kind for preparation, and if not, what did you do to research /prepare for writing the film.
MJ: After that first startling session that I mentioned before, we did was quite a bit research into groups. We had many conversations with some key academics in the area, and dedicated others who run these groups or are working with men in some way, including Grant Dodwell, who plays Alex. There was also a lot of conversation with blokes we knew or had just met, each one with their own concerns, and much of this raw material from life made it in some form or other into the final film. Alongside this quite careful research, I was conducting one-on-one sessions with each actor, once or sometimes twice a week. The sessions started out with a list of words; from this, we formed sentences which eventually became insights – symbols from the subconscious, if you like - into the backgrounds of the not-yet-formed characters. It was, in a loose, lateral, creative way, a sort of ‘session’, in that we were seeking to find what was already there, already known in some way, and to look at it from various perspectives and build upon that. After each session John and I talked through the things that had come up for each actor, and began to filter our list of stories and scene or character ideas into each of the developing characters. Within about six weeks, each actor knew the name of their character, where and when they were born, who their parents were and where they met, etc. I then started observed improvisation sessions with each actor, and they would run for up to a couple of hours. Writing notes and videotaping the sessions, these observations would form the basis of scenes - many of which are in the film - and at the same time they were informing the actors of the deeper workings of their characters.
By the time the actors were placed in the Men’s Group scenes with each other, for real, there was a structured script with loose and essential dialogue that was either crucial for the scene or the character. The actors did not see this script, though, at any stage of filming. We did not want them to speak the lines of dialogue, verbatim from the script. The objective was different. They were so well-seated in their characters that they could work emotionally and intuitively and truthfully from the core with all the unexpected twists and turns and nuances, and this is where something new could be born – not necessarily in the form of dialogue, but also in tone, tension, relief, expression, silence. This magic known/unknown is what we were courting.
Before each scene, I spent anything from five to forty five minutes talking to the actors quietly and individually about what was going on in their lives at that time ,and priming them for any specific things I needed them to talk about. If, during a scene, there was something that needed to be mentioned and the actor was not getting to it, I could call ‘time out.’ They would sort of tread water, staying in character in that atmosphere and moment, while I whispered to the actor concerned and then the scene continued. In this way the dramatic tension wound up or down depending on what was required.
Each of these scenes could run for anything up to an hour, hence the decision to shoot on the JVC proHDV format. From there, with editor Stuart Morley, we engaged in kind of reverse script editing process, crafting the scene to bring every moment to the finer point that the story required. Stuart brought an incredible sensibility and great sensitivity to the process, shaping and reshaping and tightening volumes of material to best realize the ‘truth’ of a scene and of the film. It is no coincidence that he is also a sculptor.
LB: The actors give really heartrending performances. Men’s Group is one of those rare movies during which I could barely imagine any other actors playing these characters. How did you go about selecting your cast? What was the audition process like?
MJ: There was no audition process. John and I called the actors we wanted to work with and met with them. We talked about the story and then the process. I think for all of us it very quickly became something we had to do.
JS: There was no audition. We discussed who we wanted and invited them into the project, and luckily they said yes!
LB: John, your last film was The Jammed, which features a bunch of awesome female performances. Men’s Group film features a bunch of awesome male performances. Was this gender-hopping purely coincidental? Could you imagine what sort of dynamic you’d get if you combined the cast of The Jammed with the cast of Men’s Group?
JS: Hmm, I don’t really believe in coincidence. Both films address different aspects of male behaviour from very different perspectives. And yes - the combined performances would be mind blowing!
LB: Michael, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz describe the camera work in Men’s Group as ‘irritating’ but I think it adds an important element. Certainly it was unconventionally shot, but the handheld elements help viewers seep into the fabric of the film, and helps build a kind of fly-on-the-wall appeal. Was this the intention?
MJ: As a cinematographer myself, I’ve shot a lot ‘pretty’. There are supposedly many rules about how things ought to be composed for the screen. But we live in an age in which audiences are far more screen and convention literate than they are given credit for, and, in a way, anything goes. Have a look at YouTube and see how many ways in which people are experimenting with form and composition and format.
This film is raw in every sense. The intention was to allow an audience to look in on real people. At several early screenings we had some members of the audience berate us for getting involved in these men’s lives and not following through, when clearly they needed our help. We had to point out that this was drama and not documentary, that all of the men are in fact actors. So this particular kind of realism is a combination of the character development process and the way the approach to filming was operating outside of the usual filmmaking conventions.
We filmed in a real house, which allowed the men to arrive on a street at a real gate and enter through the front door and walk into the lounge room for real. The lounge room itself was about 4.5 metres by 3 metres so with six actors, three camera operators, two boom swingers and furniture, it was pretty close in there. DOP Geoffrey Wharton and I wanted to be able to let the actors work freely so we ran three cameras with no rehearsals, the idea being that we – the camera operators – like the actors and characters, would get to know the space and each other and settle down as the sessions progressed. Which is exactly what happened. The entire film, except a few smaller scenes, was shot in sequence, which is crucial when working in this way, so we could never go back and redo a scene. We could not recreate a moment several times just to find another angle. We did not know what to expect, and this goes for the cameras as well. What makes the film so engaging is that every moment is truthful to that point in time, and the truth, with all its grit, is not sacrificed in the name of traditional technical perfection and control. That said, I have been approached by directors and directors of photography at AFI screenings who have said how beautiful the film looks, and how well the visual style suits the story and performances.
For me, the film’s integrity is due to the sum of all its parts.
LB: How long did it take to shoot Men’s Group? How intricate were the rehearsals?
JS: Pre-workshop was two months, the shoot was fourteen days and post production was eleven months.
MJ: The entire shoot was fourteen days and these were pretty relaxed 10 hour days; sometimes longer but only a couple of times. I did not use continuity as I felt it would have slowed us down and required more coverage than was absolutely necessary. There was a five-day rehearsal in a room the same size as the actual one where the actors all got to feel what the room would be like and just to have a little taste of the sessions. There were rules around this, the main one being that they were not allowed to reveal very much about their character so it became this dance around the room where each actor was trying things but not letting anyone else into their character or his issues. I guess you also have to consider that the eight or more weeks of character work was a form of rehearsal.
The day before filming we brought the actors and crew together to the dressed, lit location. We did a small run though, although not in character, so both crew and actors could how the space was going to work. It was a surprise for the actors, who suddenly realized that the cameras were going to be right in their faces - literally centimeters away in some cases.
LB: The Australian film industry is in a state in which even exceptionally well made films rarely draw any sort of significant audience to the cinema. How discouraging is this, and which is more difficult: making a good film or getting people to see it?
MJ: Both are very hard to do.
JS: The most significant challenge facing Australian filmmakers is reaching an audience. Making a great film is very difficult, but if you do the audience will come if you maintain faith. One of the problems is some filmmakers give up just when they should be out there banging the drum. As a parent I could never give away my babies, and films are the same. I’ve spent the best part of 2008 working twelve hour days getting Men’s Group positioned so that it didn’t fall between the cracks. It’s not magic – it’s just persistence, faith and hard work!
LB: Critics may like to think they are hardened and intellectual viewers, but every once in a while everybody can get powerfully affected by a film. There are scenes in Men’s Group that really got to me emotionally; a couple of the scenes I felt uncomfortable watching as I could feel them relating to me in personal ways – like my family and my relationship with my father. Was any of the dialogue inspired by personal issues in your lives? How have people reacted to the film?
MJ: There are many personal moments in the film drawn directly or indirectly from some of the filmmakers involved, including observations from conversation with wives and partners and children and parents and friends and family. Alex’s axolotyl issue, for instance, is a mistake that I myself made a number of years ago. We have put ourselves into the film in all sorts of ways, but, I guess, in ways that were intended to service the film, ultimately. We worked in the end with what seemed to touch on commonalities across all that was shared with us during the process and what we knew of ourselves and others at the time. We worked with our feelings about our fathers, and with their feelings about their fathers, and so on. We were struck by the return to certain key themes, actually. We learned a lot making this film.
One of the biggest responses to the film is people saying that they see themselves in each of the characters in one way or another. I remember when we screened the film in a rough stage at the Dungog film festival in 2007. Sitting in front of me were these two 40-ish year old blokes. On several occasions during the screening, one of them would stand up and go to leave, and then take a step and sit back down again. At the end of the screening we were out on the street and I saw the two blokes. I went up to them and asked them how they found the film. One of the blokes put his arm around the other and said, ‘this guy here saved my life… if it wasn’t for him… I love him and that’s what this film reminds me of.’
JS: People are very touched by the film, and I receive emails everyday from both men and women. It really affects them emotionally. The best response we get is when someone says ”I rang my dad the next morning…” Wow, that’s powerful stuff, and if a film can make people have more empathy, the hard work and blind faith has all been worth it.LB: The stereotypical Aussie male is gruff and reticent. How important do you think it is for men to talk about their problems?
JS: Sadly, not talking hasn’t worked for too many of our brothers. It is so crucial that the government has put it on the national agenda. It’s now a matter of survival.
October 31, 2008 11:00pm
WHEN filmmakers think of a good idea for a story, the usual path is to sit down and write the script. However, creative partners John L. Simpson and Michael Joy took a different approach.WHEN filmmakers think of a good idea for a story, the usual path is to sit down and write the script. However, creative partners John L. Simpson and Michael Joy took a different approach.
"We decided that we really wanted to make a film about a men's group, but it was very important to us that we were incredibly authentic," Simpson, a Sydney-based producer, says."Michael said to me 'I really don't want to sit down and write the script. I think it would be more authentic if we worked in an improvisational way'.
Simpson and Joy didn't audition actors for the role, but targeted men they had worked with previously.Grant Dodwell, Paul Gleeson, Steve Le Marquand, Don Reid, Steve Rodgers, Paul Tassone and William Zappa play seven men who get together each week to share their thoughts in a self-help group."We brought the actors on board who were simultaneously terrified and exhilarated by the idea," Simpson says of Men's Group.
Simpson has already found success in following the different path. He took on the 2007 film The Jammed after it failed to find a theatrical release and managed to snare it a limited but popular theatrical season.
In seeking authenticity, Simpson and Joy followed in the footsteps of celebrated British filmmaker Mike Leigh, who works with actors in extensive rehearsals to develop the characters.
"The difference is (Leigh) then goes and writes a script," Simpson says.
"This is slightly different because (the Men's Group actors) never got to see the script."Joy would begin each day's shooting "whispering in the actor's ear" for up to 45 minutes, reminding each of them of their characters' motives.
The director had an idea what direction the scene might take, but he was the only one. "The poor sound guys and the cameramen never knew who was going to talk next," Simpson says.
"Every scene that you see in the film was a surprise to the actors."
"The actors, every day when they came into work, had no idea what was going to happen to them. They had no lines to remember or to forget. All they had to do was respond to the other characters, so that each character was set up with an agenda but not actual dialogue."
"When the phone rings, and they pick it up, they have no idea who is calling and they've got to deal with it. If someone flies off the handle, they've got to deal with it. If a character's wife throws them out of the house, they've got to deal with it."
"You've got actors being spontaneous who are totally in the moment because they don't have any other choice. They can't be wooden because they have to use their own words."
Having decided to take such a radical approach, Simpson says that meant other traditional methods also were ruled out, such as funding their film.
"We were untried and untested, so we didn't waste our time," he says. "We launched into production without any capital at all. Not one cent."Instead, he came up with a plan using an equity system of points. The way he explains it, the system sounds like something of a cross between the guidelines you might use to set up a commune and the rules for a board game.
"It would have been a $1 million film so we created one million points, and we traded those points with everyone we wanted to be in the film," he says.
Everyone who provided something for the film, from the actors to the company which leased them office space, was paid in equity points.
"When people ask me the budget, there's two answers. It's $1 million and $0," Simpson says.
Even the premiere of the film, held at the Sydney Theatre Company, was held in an unusual way. Needing to cover the staff costs of a few thousand dollars for the night, Simpson announced the screening would be "pay as you feel". At the end of the night, they sent around the buckets and the screening more than paid for itself.
"If you've got the theory you need $1 million or $2 million to make a film, then in the normal world you've got to spend a couple of years raising that money before you can start work," he says.
Simpson admits the system of relying on the goodwill and optimism of everyone involved would not work for many projects, but it worked for this one. Or at least it has worked so far.The film has been made, but it's still uncertain whether the 1 million points will amount to anything that a bank would accept as currency.
"If it takes off, then they'll get more than they would have got on a wage," Simpson says of those who have equity in the film.
"And if it doesn't, then they had a go."And their efforts have already shown signs of being appreciated.
Men's Group has been nominated for four IF Awards, including best feature film and best script.Simpson also has been awarded the AFI Fellowship for $25,000 to develop a plan for touring films in regional areas without cinemas.
The film will have an exclusive Brisbane season at the Blue Room Cinebar from November 6.
So we were, one, looking for a voice for us that we could really work with, and this story was something that came through issues that were going on in my life at the time, and I found myself going along to a men’s group and it was an extraordinary evening of five blokes sitting around talking and just listening to these men talk about what was going on in their lives, or what wasn’t going on, and the frustrations that they were going through.
MARGARET: Did you sit down and write the screenplay?
MICHAEL JOY: We started with a list - we just started with lists of stories and thoughts. Now, at that stage we didn’t know how many characters. We had a loose idea.
And we didn’t know exactly who the characters would be, so we drew up these lists of points that we wanted to make and critical turning points in people’s lives that we knew, or stories we knew. So we knew the journey.
So we could clearly communicate that to all the actors when we were having conversations with them, because there wasn’t a casting in that respect. We just called people we wanted to work with and we started a conversation.
From then, from there we worked with the idea of different stages of emotional distress that we all go through in various different crises within our lives so we worked with those themes and we then just started - I started session with the actors.
MARGARET: Tell me how you shot this, because I must say that if there’s one criticism it would be - and certainly I found it interesting that some of the early camera work is unsettling and it seems to stabilise through the film.
MICHAEL JOY: Oh, yeah. No, it does. Look, it does. It was - that was a really interesting thing. I didn’t want to go into a rehearsal process where any of the actors would reveal anything about their character to each other.
We had a rehearsal where they all had the bit in their mouth and weren’t actually allowed to reveal, but just get a feel for it. We then did a half a day in the room with all of the cameras and everything where we all, you know, they realised that suddenly we were not going to be, you know, over there, we were going to be right here. It was all going to be right in their face, and they had to get very used to that and, you know, not seeing that.
So it was when we first started shooting, there was the cinematographer, Geoff Wharton, one other camera operator and myself all operating, and it was hard. We shot sequentially, so we were going through the same process that the characters were going through, which was: Where are we? How do we make this work? How is this all going to go? And it was: we’re not going backwards. We always move forward.
So even if we were unhappy with certain things as far as, you know - or wasn’t brilliantly happy with some of the way the camera moved, I really came to this feeling that this was how the characters were feeling. They didn’t know where they were. They were unsettled. The cameras didn’t know where they were and they were unsettled. So the reason it settles is because we got used to the space. We got used to how to work in that space.
Simpson's new film: Men's Group screened to broad acclaim at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival, and is currently screening exclusively at Cinema Nova.
Audiences attending last night's Q&A (following a screening of Men's Group), were able to hear Simpson speak first-hand of his experiences making this film.
The AFI website states that Simpson "... plans to use the fellowship to research and develop a national regional screenings map, creating a blueprint for future filmmakers to follow; a way to screen their films and actively attract audiences â€“ whether that be in cinemas, community halls, outdoor areas, oil-rigs or prisons".
This certainly seems to be an area in which distribution in Australia is currently lagging.
In a recent interview for Screenthemes, Grant Dodwell, who stars in Men's Group, also spoke of the importance of broadening audience access to Australian cinema.
If Simpson's use of the AFI Fellowship has as much impact on Australian film distribution as Men's Group has had on those who have seen it, Australian cinema-goers will be doubly rewarded.
In spite of the actors in Men's Group never having laid eyes on a script, the movie is nominated for Best Screenplay in the 2008 IF Awards. "People thought that was hilarious," says the film's producer, John L Simpson. "But why does a script have to be in 12 point Courier with double spacing?"
Why indeed? This documentary-style fiction about seven damaged males and the secrets they (don't) share at group therapy sessions was workshopped with the cast. "More than 90 per cent of that dialogue is organic," says Simpson, who devised the film with director Michael Joy. "They were all briefed prior to each men's group session what they would reveal, but they weren't ever told how they should express it."
The result is a movie rich in character and dialogue - not traditionally among our industry's strong points. It has been quietly gaining momentum at festivals, garnering such a positive response that it's up for four IF Awards, including Best Film, Best Actor (Grant Dodwell) and Best Music (the IF Awards are voted on by members of the general public). That's not bad for a no-budget film that was made on a points system, with cast and crew trading their labour for equity in the project.
"It's made exhibitors take us seriously," says Simpson. "We've grown from being on one screen to 12." To get some good word of mouth going Simpson even masterminded a one-week preview season at the Chauvel in September, planning all along to release the film properly this month.
The film was in response to suicides of male friends of Simpson and Joy. "We wanted to say something about men struggling to communicate emotionally. Men, when their relationships fall over, don't know who to talk to or how to handle it. In those terms they're thousands of years behind women."
Auds are invited to sit in with a collection of soul-searching males in the gritty Australian indie "Men's Group." Stimulating yarn about diverse blokes coming to terms with their issues at a self-help gathering can occasionally seem futile, but as with therapy itself, perseverance is rewarding. Solid thesps support each other and an intermittently awkward though always engaging script. Subject has lost fashionable '90s cachet, but if distrib repeats its savvy handling of 2007 low-budgeter "The Jammed," pic should garner respectable niche biz Down Under. Elsewhere, fests will provide satisfying encounters, with durable ancillary.
Pic begins with chronic gambler and ineffectual parent Alex (Grant Dodwell) arriving at his first session with a weekly male encounter group in a Sydney suburb. Along with Alex, aud is introduced to brutish, bearded Moses (Paul Tassone); homophobic salesman Lucas (Steve Le Marquand); compulsive funster Freddy (Steve Rodgers); and refined widower Cecil (Don Reid). Group is lead by ever-calm facilitator Paul (Paul Gleeson) who carries a slightly superior air as he suggests points for group discussion. Narrative follows the men's emotional progress over a number of weeks.
Given the artificiality of such assemblies in real life, it's not surprising that pic initially feels forced. However, narrative gathers momentum as it unfurls, depicting outside dilemmas each man brings to (and sometimes conceals from) the group.
Story hits its stride when newcomer Anthony (William Zappa) briefly joins the group and drops emotional bombshells. Impact on the narrative and protags' lives is palpable, as their responses to Anthony's disclosures brings them fully to life and offer a bonding experience to strip away the group's cool veneer of bravado. A dramatic postscript is both satisfying and conclusive, while simultaneously suggesting the group and its issues are far from over.
Ensemble is strong throughout, and each thesp manages to breathe life into a potential stereotype. Not surprisingly, while women remain a central issue for the men, the few female characters that do fleetingly appear are merely background material. Helmer used a three-camera setup to shoot the encounter meetings and only used single takes. While an outline (developed in collaboration with producer and co-scribe John L. Simpson) existed, thesps were not shown a script except on a day-to-day, page-by-page basis, and were encouraged to improvise dialogue.
One stylistic gamble -- a twitchy camera designed to create a docu feel and emphasize the nervousness of the participants -- does pic a serious disservice and is a major irritant; only upon reaching Zappa's big scene does Joy seem to trust his material enough to relax his directing gimmickry. Visuals are much more settled from this point onward, but camera's every subsequent faux-docu move brings an uncomfortable recollection of earlier visual hyperactivity. At fest screening caught, digital lensing appeared to lack sharpness, though as per requirements of such a dialogue-intensive pic, sound was impeccably precise.
The group is led by Paul (Paul Gleeson) who has the group to his home, once a week. All use his home as their meeting place, but they are strangers to each other in the world outside. The encounter sessions are interspersed by vignettes of the men in the external world they have helped to create for themselves. Their problems are major, but they are all part of the human condition which reflects the stresses of life, and the problems are variable. Alex (Grant Dodwell) has a gambling problem that has made him a failure as a father to his son. Cecil (Don Reid) is struggling with depression and loneliness that stem from personal awareness of his past failures as a husband and a father. Freddy (Steve Rodgers) is separated from his family, and desperately wants contact with his child and wife. Moses (Paul Tassone) has problems controlling his rage, and Lucas (Steve Le Marquand) hates gays and acts out pathologically against them. Into their midst, steps Anthony (William Zappa) who brings a problem that forces all the other men to confront their own feelings and to re-assess their assumptions about the life they led before coming together as a group.
Not surprisingly, a movie about an all-men encounter group is rough on language and the issues being raised are personal and potentially distressing to those exposed to six vulnerable people unravelling themselves. Support is forthcoming to the men who stay in the group, and the support they give each other is mingled with resentment, anger and ambivalence as the therapy progresses. But as they air their problems among themselves, the men come to bond to each other, and also to understand that some private fears can be faced and met. Towards the end of the therapeutic process, a tragedy overtakes the group - the suicide of one of the members - which deeply affects all those within it. This then becomes the catalyst for the men facing up to life’s responsibilities, and it becomes in turn an agent of profound therapeutic change.
The acting is excellent from each of the men, especially Alex and Freddy. The men brilliantly capture loneliness, resentment, anger and frustration; and Paul, as the leader of the group runs a fine line between letting issues get away from him, becoming involved himself, and keeping our focus on them. The direction is tight and the film is most unusual overall. It is easy to approach this movie by asking oneself, “what do we really learn about the human condition from a group of men simulating their emotions in an all-male encounter world?” But what we are asked to embark upon is a very emotional journey built upon the personal constructions of male stress by a group of six very talented actors. This film is about males who have male issues, but its impact is far wider than that. Each actor was working according to a scenario, which invited creative improvisation, and it is very revealing to see how they ran with what they were given.
Undoubtedly, the insights created do expand our understanding of the human condition, but it is particularly absorbing to see how these men chose to act out their projected experiences, and the solutions shown to turn their stress around. In the pursuit of complete authenticity, one might have looked for events as they unfolded naturally, not scripted in part for a group of actors. Despite this, however, there is enormous face validity to this movie. It has been created to show male versions of male distress, and where fatherhood ultimately comes into the sharpest focus, the film represents a most impressive achievement for all concerned.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the National Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
To call a film honest, heart-warming, funny, devastating and gripping might well sound like a host of clichés, but here they are not spoken lightly. Men’s Group is one of those stories that seeps in; I find myself reflecting frequently on the lives of Alex, Cecil, Moses, Freddy and Lucas, the men who have been called or pushed to attend a weekly men’s group in the home of their facilitator, Paul. From the opening scene of the film, you can tell it’s going to be a good one. There’s that ‘no-frills’ feel, with a shaky camera and raw lighting, that can only be described as quintessentially Australian. This is a courageous film, an inspiring film, a deeply necessary film. Men’s Group is the film Australia had to have.
From early on, I could guess how the narrative would play out. You know how it goes, put six Aussie blokes together in a group and expect them to ‘connect’? There’ll be inevitable resistance that is slowly worn down. One by one, the men will expose something vulnerable or secret about themselves; by the end, after the climax of some kind of tragedy, they’ll have grown into better human beings. But for all the accuracy of this hypothesis, there was no sense of boredom or predictability. The sheer quality of the performances and scriptwriting encouraged a sense of anticipation at what would be revealed, when and by whom. Watching the narrative unfold was both frustrating and captivating, asking the audience to leap into understanding on the one hand and elongate the pleasure of viewing on the other.
The six men are so different in energy and character, yet somehow so incredibly male in their constraint and, beneath that, in their secret palpable desire to be seen, to be heard, to be met. I would defy anyone to watch Men’s Group and not find something of the men in their own life revealed. Career, money and prestige feature little in what they share. The stories of love, relationships, children and families—typically seen as female territory—draw the men together. “If there’s an area where all of us seem to have a commonality, it’s to do with fatherhood, either being a father or having had a father. This is where most of the shit is for blokes,” Cecil (Don Reid) observes.
Paul’s (Paul Gleeson) lounge-room is the film’s primary setting, but between each 'meeting', a short montage captures the movements of each character as they go about the intervening days. The myriad landscapes of Sydney—the natural, the urban, the gritty, unsightly and beautiful—are as varied and richly depicted as the men themselves. These interludes subtly draw the viewer in, and the smallest gesture, the way one man pours a glass of orange juice or another fries an egg, evokes so much. The friends and family of the men are always experienced on the periphery, on the other end of a phone, through a glass door, in profile. This really is the men’s story, a journey into their private shared world, where other people impact but never take centre stage.
Men’s Group spoon-feeds nothing to the viewer. Much is left unsaid, a lot left unseen, but alluded to only by a word, a gesture, an unanswered question. And there is a relief to be found in this, a conclusion in which a journey surely has taken place and progress made, but the final package is not neatly wrapped and tied with a pretty ribbon. The viewer can sense there is still unpacking that needs to be done, that will be done.
I must confess I didn’t pay much attention to the soundtrack, the cinematography and other technical aspects of the film. I was too gripped by the story to bother noticing. But I take this as proof of their quality, that the practitioners of each aspect were doing their job unobtrusively and allowing the actors the stage. There are no unnecessary artistic flairs here, just the solid filmmaking of the most profoundly simple and REAL movie I have seen in a long time.
Remember those news stories about men’s camps years ago when the whole ‘political correctness gone mad’ movement was at full steam – places guys could go and cry because their dads never said they loved them, they were circumcised at birth or any number of seemingly ‘ridiculous’ male problems?
It’s easy to make a joke about it, but as Perth-born director Michael Joy understands, a lot of men teeter on a precipice in an globalised and female-focused society that treats them as forgettable at best and dangerous at worst. Among a gender where talking about feelings is a lot like admitting you like to wear dresses, it’s twice as hard.
Which is why when seven men come together in a suburban house to talk about their problems in an organised weekly meeting, the atmosphere is thick enough to cut like a knife, all stilted blokey swagger, anger and machismo.
They’re all there for different reasons, and at first glance a small, quiet film about a group of characters would seem to have little to do with classic horror movies, but it’s all about who’s left standing, who comes through and who folds up. Just as each of these men have very different stories, each one has a different endpoint. Some find the peace they’ve come for, some simply get the weight they’ve been carrying around off their chests, some won’t get what they need and at least one won’t make it through.
Men’s Group is a lot like a play, the meetings in a single lounge room location, the few scenes in between that track each bloke’s progress through life like chapter breaks between the story of the group.It’s an environment in which the script and actors have to perform with no artificial supports – every gesture, angry swear word or eyebrow flicker the movie in it’s entirety.
There’s a tense atmosphere almost throughout, even when the men start to open up to each other. The filmmakers have assembled a cross section of maledom who are as different from each other as they are from the women, children and workplaces giving them the stress in their lives, and while there are no car chases, explosions or robots, you’ll still be gripped.
Pull up a chair. Relax. Sit down. Take a deep breath. There is no agenda, no plan, no curriculum, no rules. There are no guarantees, no promise of a better tomorrow. But we’ll talk. This is what the troubled characters in writer/director Michael Joy’s exemplary drama Men’s Group are presented with: hope through conversation.
The premise is as basic as they come: a group of six men with ambiguous emotional issues meet once a week. From this simplistic setup Joy triggers a series of deep encounters, using lounge chair conversation to springboard discussions ultimately aimed at exploring what it takes to be a man, in the context of lives spent struggling, failing, searching, overcoming and trying again. The group’s mediator is Paul (Paul Gleeson) and the meetings take place in his lounge room. During their first encounter the six men are complete strangers. There is Freddy (Steve Roders), a shonky stand-up comedian ravaged by a bitter divorce; the lonely and quick-tempered Moses (Paul Tassone); Cecil (Don Reid), an quaint elderly widower; Alex (Grant Dodwell), a volatile chatterbox struggling to connect with his family; and Lucas (Steve Le Marquand), who is stubbornly withdrawn and secretive. The warm and tolerant Paul announces at their first session that “there are no immediate solutions to anyone’s problems…all we are doing here is just talking.”
Between slabs of conversation we follow short snippets of the characters lives, which gradually fill in the gaps and form a rounded but nonetheless incomplete picture. Joy’s screenplay, co-written by producer John L. Simpson, skilfully peels away layers of the characters’ padded inner selves, steering well clear of clichés and rarely taking the easy way out. Nobody switches from an introvert to extrovert at the convenience of the plot, and the unravelling of the group’s personalities doesn’t follow the rhythms of conventional narrative, so there are plenty of ambiguities by the time the final credits roll. A great deal of interest is summoned not from what is said but what has been left unarticulated.
The characters feel real and genuine in the best theatrical sense: they’re interesting people, believable people, people with challenging secrets. We’re compelled to watch them and figure out their stories. Joy succeeds marvellously in capturing the group’s dynamic – sometimes harmonious, often volatile, and always seeming like it could go either way. Only once does the film dip into obvious imagery, during a scene in which the characters wear face paint masks that represent facets of their psyches (the widower, for example, has a big red heart painted on him).The simple craft of conversation is paramount to Men’s Group. Crucially, Joy’s dialogue is fluid, naturalistic and engaging, and, interspersed with heartfelt monologues, words really carry the film. The structure is a lot like a play, so those who are wary of films with verbose scripts should probably steer clear. Everybody else should pull up a chair.
Producer John L. Simpson’s previous feature was The Jammed (2007), a gut-blasting film about sex slaves in Melbourne. It features a formidable ensemble of high-voltage performances from young women. This time around it’s the boys club – there are precious few glimpses of women in Men’s Group, let alone any female characters - and again Simpson’s cast is top-notch; the actors take their poignantly rendered characters to at times emotionally explosive depths. Forget lush settings or moody lighting – all this happens amid the humble surrounds of a lounge room, the physical anchor for the film’s unerring sense of humility and openness.
Cinematographer Geoffrey Wharton’s unconventionally framed handheld cameras add a bleary sense of realism. In one tremendous scene, which depicts the long-time-coming breakdown of a hard-headed and contumacious character, the camera hovers around another member of the group, observing his staid reaction, and seemingly reluctant - or afraid - to confront the tumultuous performance unfolding inches away. You wouldn’t blame the person filming if he or she simply couldn’t bear to turn around and face the music; the performances in Men’s Group feel that genuine. Combined with the film’s quasi fly-on-the-wall production values, it feels at times like you’re in Paul’s lounge room with them, fidgeting on the couch, nervously anticipating a turn to speak.
Michael Joy and his heartrending cast have made a profound film without a trace of pretension. Devastatingly emotional but warm and compassionate, with soft rays of optimism lighting dark and gloomy places, providing a neat balancing act between torment and optimism, Men’s Group achieves a great deal without straying far from simple things: coasters, armchairs, coffee tables. It is in the same family as talky films like The Breakfast Club, which rely on words and conversation to lend commonplace settings far-reaching significance. The elements come together commendably in this modest but exquisitely moving film.
Directed by Michael Joy, and co-written by Joy and Simpson, Men’s Group is a low-budget improvised drama about a group of strangers who meet once a week to talk about their lives. The film has wowed festival audiences and critics, and among other accolades, it has received the 2007 DIGI SPAA Award, and this year’s Inside Film Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Script and Best Actor (Grant Dodwell).
Simpson speaks a mile a minute and it’s clear he’s full of excitement about receiving the AFI Fellowship, and the prospect of taking his film out of the inner-city art-houses. With a background in theatre and film (he was a producer of 2007’s Razzle Dazzle), Simpson’s first foray into distribution came with Dee McLachlan’s low-budget thriller The Jammed. His newly formed distribution company, Titan View, picked up that film and saved it from a straight-to-DVD fate. Right now, Simpson is keen to get to work on his regional screenings map for Men’s Group.
Here he talks to the AFI’s editor Rochelle Siemienowicz about his plans to empower other filmmakers to adapt to the new terrain of independent film distribution in Australia.
Rochelle Siemienowicz: Congratulations on winning the AFI Fellowship!
John L Simpson: Thank you, it’s a wonderful surprise. I know there were a lot of people very interested in it, so I didn’t know what my chances were. But while I was putting my application together and imagining how this idea might work, I was getting all these phone-calls and emails from around the country, asking “How can I see your film?” And I’d ask, “where are you?” And there would be all this dialogue about which town they were in, and how far away they were from here or there, in a little hamlet somewhere, and I realised that perhaps there was potential here, to take films to areas that are not serviced by big cinemas, or even independent cinemas.
RS: How were these people hearing about Men’s Group in the first place?
JLS: Some of them had heard about it through the AFI Awards Screenings, which was just great, because it caused a kind of viral effect with people talking about the film. And also there’s been a lot of chatter about the film in the area of health. We did an advance screening in October last year where we showed the film to the Men and Family Relationships Conference in Adelaide. And people were there from all other states, and they started talking about it on the internet. So I’ve been building up all those contacts, including people from Canada and the UK. So who knows, I may do something like what I’m doing here with the AFI Fellowship, in taking the film over to those countries. It’s about taking the film directly to the people, attaching it to communities or special interest groups who actually want to see the film for reasons that are maybe slightly different to pure entertainment.
RS: It’s about finding the film’s niche…
JLS: Yes, with this particular film it is, but I also think that the same people in small towns might love to have something that was purely for entertainment, and there’s a case for taking films to them that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see, things they might be starved of. I’m making the presumption – and through the work of the Fellowship I’ll discover whether I’m right or not – that they might like to have access to other films. In Britain, there’s quite a big circuit of digital projectors in small towns. The Lottery system has installed over 200 digital projectors with the agenda from the British Film Council that they want to have not only the big films from the studios, but also independent films in those towns, because they want the UK public to have a varied diet of film culture.
RS: There’s no extensive network like that here in Australia is there?
JLS: There’s the Regional Digital Satellite Network – of which there are only six, but we’re a very big and very broad country. Another thing that I’ve discovered is that even in the metropolitan areas, there are places like Paramatta, which is the geographic centre of the Sydney area and there are just no independent cinemas in the west of Sydney. There’s a thriving live music scene, a thriving restaurant scene and fantastic live theatre, but the nearest independent cinema is in Paddington, an hour’s drive away! I believe there is a need there in the west of Sydney to have screening opportunities.
RS: In the past you’ve been quite outspoken about problems with distribution and exhibition in this country, particularly in an upcoming documentary on the subject, Into the Shadows.
JLS: I know, I was on a bit of a high after distributing The Jammed when I spoke to the guys making that film, and now I’m a bit nervous about what I said! I don’t want to get myself into trouble, and I never ever want to present myself as someone who has all the answers. I’m just giving it a go. But my idea is basically that maybe some of these bigger companies aren’t really suited or set up to take on smaller-scale films. Maybe it needs a smaller operator who can put more personalised time into it rather than it being this big machine that gets disappointing results and then is less inclined to take on films, which creates a spiral of depression. That’s where we are at the moment and if you look at box office figures for Australian films they’re going down in a wedge. $6 million used to be good, and then $3 million became the new 6, and now $1.5 is the new 3, and it’s tapering off. As a businessman – and even though most of us filmmakers are in it for all sorts of reasons to get our stories out there – but unless we address the business aspect of it, we won’t be able to keep working as artists. So I’m being pragmatic about it and saying, “well, if it’s not working that way, we have to shift the paradigms and we’re in a whole new world and a whole new set of rules and opportunities apply”.
RS: After The Jammed you must have had lots of filmmakers come to you wanting you to do the same thing for their films?
JLS: After The Jammed I kind of became …I don’t know, like this patron saint of independent distribution [laughs]. I had about 75 projects pitched to me – some from first-time filmmakers and some from very experienced practitioners. And of course I can only take on a few things, those ones that I really really love, because it’s a very personal thing for me. But what I say to them, when I get on the phone and say that there film isn’t right for me, is, “listen, why don’t you distribute it yourself? Why don’t you start with your own cast and crew screening in your town? Would it be so hard to get a digital projector? And why not sell the DVD on the night, and sell them on your website?” So it’s about being proactive rather than passive, because often as filmmakers we’ve had this line in the sand between the filmmaker and the audience. We’ve always perceived that there will be this middle person who will deliver us. Well, I used to write, direct, produce theatre shows, and in theatre there is no-one in the middle. So when I joined up with film people I never understood how they could just give up their baby…I am aware that not everybody can go out and do what I’m doing with the screening of this film, but it’s a calculation you can make. Say I spent 200 hours trying to get distributors on board, and they just didn’t want my film. Well, how about instead, I put 10 hours, dipping my toes in the water with distributors, but if they don’t want it, I can be honest with myself and say, “now I’ve got 190 hours to be the distributor. I’ll put all my energy into chasing an audience, and reaching out to them and trying to excite them, rather than trying to get someone else to excite the audience.
RS: So where do you start with a plan like the one you have for the AFI Fellowship?
JLS: With lots of research! From the minute Michael [Joy] and I started making Men’s Group, we were very practical and we thought maybe this film isn’t going to be in the multiplexes and on 200 screens. Maybe it’s going to be in men’s sheds and pubs and RSL clubs. We always had an instinct for that. Yes, we’ll have our theatrical life, but I’ve always believed in this other thing. It’s about populating lists. In just the few days of working on it full time with the AFI Fellowship, we’ve been able to get a vague idea of communities and where they are, and just doing some number-crunching and database work so that we know about all these little towns. And we’re approaching them and gathering knowledge and finding out what resources they have. And part of the philosophy is to say, “okay, maybe there are little towns along the way that might be a negative cost, but they’re on the way to a bigger town, and let’s not miss out on them – a bit of a Robin Hood situation.
RS: And how do you think the AFI could be part of this plan in an ongoing way?
JLS: Publicity is really important. I know the power of just doing those AFI Awards Screenings really helped us – we got exhibition in Perth and Hobart just on the back of them because word of mouth was so strong and enough people in those cities asked for the film. So publicity is important. Getting a profile is hard if you’re out there on your lonesome, so being connected to a mother-ship like the AFI gives you a level of legitimacy I suppose. Also, it’s about connecting to networks of people who are interested in film and all of a sudden you have connections to people in every state. That is a very powerful tool for filmmakers. So it’s almost like a call to action: “Hey guys, we’re going to be here in Western Australia, can you help us get the word out? Send some emails, maybe jump in the car and come and support us!”
RS: Well, we’ll be following the journey closely and providing regular updates on the AFI website. Best wishes John!
JLS: Thank you, I’ll keep you posted.
The 2008 AFI Fellowship: John L Simpson’s Plan
Simpson plans to use the $25,000 to research and develop a national regional screenings map, creating a blueprint for future filmmakers to follow; a way to screen films and actively attract audiences – whether that be in cinemas, community halls, outdoor areas, oil-rigs or prisons.
At the completion of his AFI Fellowship, Simpson will conduct workshop seminars to share his journey and his findings with the rest of the filmmaking community.
The AFI Fellowship is made possible by the generous donations made to the AFI Endowment Fund. Thank you to the Besen Foundation, the Pratt Foundation and Portland House for their substantial and generous contributions.
Like the ordinary men who go along to this men's group, we have no idea what to expect. It becomes obvious as we meet the unwilling participants one by one, despite their differences and the diversity of their problems, there are commonalities. It's not really a therapy session, but Paul Gleeson's Paul has opened up his lounge room to a bunch of strangers, offering them a safe environment in which to sit, connect, listen and talk about themselves and their lives. The production values are as raw as the emotions and we become involved in the lives of these men who initially hide their feelings behind a tirade of anger, a wall of silence or a barrage of jokes. It's a powerful film that is often as unexpected as life itself and first time director Michael Joy who co-wrote the script with John L. Simpson, allows a sense of spontaneity to the strong performances and the final outcome.
The mood is awkward as the men meet and talk about nothing in particular. The first topic is the confusion that they are all feeling and Paul as moderator makes no demands on any of them - they are free to contribute or not contribute or to leave the house if they prefer. Between sessions we meet each of the men in their own environments and get an insight into their daily lives and the kind of people they are.
All the performances are heartfelt - especially Steve Rodgers as Freddy, the overweight, divorced father whose string of jokes are nothing but a shield for his heartbreak. Grant Dodwell is also excellent as Alex, the aggressive father who wonders why his teenage son is a problem child. There are no easy solutions and only small victories for this group of men thrown together in a whirlwind of emotional chaos, but the journey is a fine one.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With scant explanations and little more than hints at how and why this group of men have weekly meetings at Paul's (Paul Gleeson) home, Men's Group takes us into the inner torment that I suspect many, many men go through in some form, at some time in their lives. Perhaps all their adult lives, in some cases. The father/child relationship is at the heart of this extended psychotherapy session for an audience that is sucked into the group's brittle dynamic.
Anguish, regret, pain and sheer bafflement are the emotions the men gradually confront, but not before bravado, anger, violence, inner agony and panic burst like puss from a squeezed pimple out of their souls. Gutwrenching performances make riveting viewing as the cast makes themselves individually vulnerable in their roles.
The past informs the present, and we see how damage done is damage repeated; how emotional distance between parent and child can cut an emotional swathe through entire lives. Some men may find the film too confronting or frightening, others will welcome the freedom promised through the pain of bringing to the surface those hidden hand-grenades that will not stop exploding.
The glimpses of the men away from the group are short but telling, and while some may seem predictable (Confucius say, the tightest wound spring unwinds the most dramatically), they all contribute to the holistic vision the filmmakers pursue.There are a few flaws (and some muffled lines of dialogue), but the film hits its targets and provokes a variety of responses, depending on each of us.
November 11, 2008 09:58
Michael Joy's brilliant Australian film Men's Group is full of sharp observations, and (as is often the case with the most keenly observed drama) is also blackly funny, as it follows a disparate group of men all haunted by their own ghosts who converge on a house in the suburbs to fumble their way over the walls that they have built up around themselves. A defining moment comes when Freddy - a gentle clown broken by his wife's rejection and estrangement from his daughter - vacuum shrinks a four foot plush bunny rabbit as an impassioned act of revenge. The tragic futility of this gesture points to the harsh and complex questions at the heart of the film. When is a man allowed to grieve, and when is he expected to move on? How do men cope with loss and frustration in an emasculated world? And most importantly, where can they turn to let it all out?
Director Michael Joy smartly avoids offering definitive answers, but allows the possibility of individual redemption and collective catharsis to ring through the film's open-ended final act. He also avoids alienating the female audience by cleverly subverting the stoic-macho-Aussie-male cliche and colouring his characters with real, universal emotions.
The performances are outstanding across the board, which is extraordinary considering that every single shot is a first take. The shoot took just fourteen days following months of intense character work. When the cameras started rolling, the actors only knew their own purpose within each scene. Their reactions to each other are immediate and authentic. And while this kind of technique isn't new, it is brave nonetheless, and it's hard to imagine it being done in a more meaningful way than here. Men's Group is a film that really deserves to be seen.
The new Australian film MEN'S GROUP was the inaugural winner of the Digi-SPAA competition for independent features shot on digital cameras.As the name suggests it’s about a group of men who come together once a week because each has some sort of issue in their private life.
The meetings take place in the home of the leader Paul, (PAUL GLEESON), and the first one is a trifle strained.There’s the ebullient Alex, (GRANT DODWELL), who can’t seem to deal with his problem son or his gambling, there’s the taciturn Moses, (PAUL TASSONE), the walking time bomb Lucas, (STEVE LE MARQUAND), who has problems with aggression, and Freddy, (STEVE RODGERS), who’s clowning around hides a world of pain. Finally there’s the refined widower Cecil, (DON REID). Together they’re an uncomfortable bunch. Some weeks into the therapy sessions a newcomer arrives. He’s Anthony, (WILLIAM ZAPPA).
It’s been very deftly handled in many ways. I was impressed.
Margaret Pomeranz ‘At the Movies’ 5th November 2008