Down Under writer/director Abe Forsythe reveals the road he took to write and develop a comedy that revolves around a race riot. By Caris Bizzaca.
What do you get when you combine two opposing, emotionally-charged characters within a confined space?
In the darkly comic Down Under, that very conflict plays out as two carloads of testosterone-fuelled men go looking for revenge in the aftermath of the 2005 Cronulla riots. It was a story that came about as a reaction to the news that Forsythe was going to become a father and the concern about what kind of world his son would be growing up in.
What’s ironic is that in a time when diversity on screens (or lack thereof) is a frequent talking point – and particularly in feature film – Down Under is a positive example of how to do it right.
While you expect there to be representation of Anglo Celtic and Middle Eastern heritages in such a story, Down Under also features Pakistani, Indian and Asian characters, as well as characters who are sexually diverse and a principle character with Down’s syndrome (played by Special Olympian Christopher Bunton).
“It’s a sad state of affairs that to end up with such a huge, culturally diverse cast you have to make a film about a race riot and racism,” Forsythe says.
“But I wanted to make what I felt like is actually a reflection of the Australia you see when any of us walk around, no matter which city you’re in.”
When it came to Bunton’s character Evan, Forsythe wanted to ensure it was authentically cast. Bunton, who is a gold-medallist gymnast, makes his feature film debut in Down Under as Evan, the voice of reason who audiences empathise with when he’s dragged into the absurd race wars.
In such a testosterone-charged film, Forsyth was also keen to get the input of a female voice.
It was thanks to development funding from Screen Australia in 2012 that screenwriter Alice Bell was brought on board as a script editor as Forsythe went into writing the fourth draft.
It came at a pivotal time.
“Alice really encouraged me to stay true to my own voice,” he says.
“And I feel like having the opportunity to have that at that stage and to get development money (meant) I could actually sit down and really work on it because I had an obligation to myself, but also to the investment.
“I feel like that was the draft of the script where it really took off and even though the structure of the script stayed the same, I feel like the heart of the script was really discovered in that draft.”
The film would go through another six drafts before it was ready to be filmed. And while the structure still remained the same throughout, each time excess dialogue was shorn away until every single line had a purpose.
It’s one of the reasons Forsythe isn’t a fan of improvising during the shoot.
“You’re making a film, so every shot, every choice that you make and certainly every line that you write has to be there for a reason,” he says, adding the baton is then passed to the actors to make it feel fresh and unique.
“That also applies to filming too, because I’m sick of movies where it feels like there’s been no thought put into the way they’re shooting a scene, where the camera is and what it’s meant to be doing for the audience.
“You should always be thinking about using a camera to either make a comment on a scene or story, or put you into different character’s perspectives. It’s an incredibly powerful tool and I think that’s what cinematic means. But I think people have forgotten that’s what you can do or they just don’t care.”
Down Under was shot over six weeks in January 2015, after obtaining production funding through Screen Australia in 2014.
When they ran into some financing setbacks, as reported by Fairfax Media, the budget was cut, Screen Australia and other investors increased their support and Forsythe, producer Jodi Matterson and exec producer Greg McLean had to give up their fees.
But the film is now complete and releasing in Australia after its premiere at Melbourne International Film Festival.
Forsythe says you can never predict how a provocative comedy such as Down Under will be received.
“Of course there are people who are confronted by it, I think in the wrong way, but the reactions from the Q&A screenings so far have been good,” he says.
“They’re all laughing at the right bits and horrified (at the right bits), which was the intention.”
Down Under releases in select Australian cinemas on August 11. It is distributed by Studiocanal.