Is This the Real World (australia, 1hr 30min )

Directed by: Martin Mckenna

Written by: Martin Mckenna

Cast: Sean Keenan, Charlotte Best, Susie Porter, Greg Stone, Julia Blake

A high school kid in an Australian coastal town locks into a relentless battle of wills with a controlling teacher, while his family is breaking apart, and love is beating at his door...


Natalie: How was it directing your first feature when also taking on a producing role?

Martin: As one of the producers, having some overall input into the production was mostly a great asset. As director on set, in casting, and in post production I could make decisions knowing the broader impact of using the precious resources we had available to us as a low budget, independent production. Occasionally a few of the tougher 'management' issues would up the stress-levels, but thankfully I had Deb Barlow and Alison Telford to do a huge amount of the heavy-lifting. I am still shocked by how much film making is about contracts. Nobody tells you that in film school.

Natalie: You work a lot in television, how was film different?

Martin: The main difference for me was about controlling the process and not working to a network brief. Having all the restrictions removed is liberating and scary. The most notable difference was in the edit where I was able to spend as much time as required with Ben Joss, the editor, to work and rework scenes. The tight turn-arounds in TV in Australia inevitably mean a director gets one shot at editing before the whole thing becomes the property of the the producers and the network. The most brilliant thing about being an independent film maker is you get final cut. I can see why directors fight for this right as the holy grail of creative control. Whoever gets final cut has ultimate artistic control over the project.

Natalie: What motivated you to take a closer look at relationships within a school environment and how long did it take you to write the script?

Martin: I've always been a big fan of coming-of-age films. There is something about the transition from childhood to adulthood that is so rich and personal. It's a bitter-sweet time. And I'm personally obsessed with the conflict between individualism and community and school seems like a very relatable microcosm of the eternal battle between doing whatever the hell we feel like, and following the rules as decreed by an authority we might, or might not, respect.

Various elements of the script had been floating around as notes for many, many years. I wrote the first draft in a few weeks about three years before we shot the film. Then I spent a very solid couple of years redrafting with the incredible assistance of old friend and colleague, Ben Michael. A lot of work went into the script. It was all we had to really get the project up and running so we threw every bit of energy we had into it.

Natalie: What was school like for you? Why did you pick this particular time in Mark’s life to explore?

Martin: My school life was a topsy-turvy experience. I went to a pretty forgotten-about high school on the city fringes. I was a little smart-arse I suppose and I managed to get expelled half way through. Luckily I was picked up by a regional college run by some charitable religious types and I managed to turn it all around and ended up doing okay in the end.
The reason I chose that 16/17 year old as a hero was because I was trying to tell the story of a guy who was resisting making any compromise, was determined to hang onto childhood as long as possible. It just felt like that age is a natural tipping point between two worlds.

Natalie: The fight scenes at the beach were incredible and very phyiscal - what was that shoot day like?

Martin: Ah... the best of times, the worst of times. The day started with us dropping one of our cameras into the ocean during a big fight moment. I look back on it and laugh now, but at the time it freaked me out a bit. All our planning was built on having two cameras available to us and suddenly we were faced with getting half the coverage and everything taking twice as long. But the actors, Sean and Greg, were so brave and uncomplaining, I still marvel at them. It was freezing cold and they remained wet and sandy for hours. When Sean is shivering and shaking late in the scene... I'm not sure how hard that was for him to act. And we had a lot of beach stuff to cram into two days of shooting. The fight scene was actually shot over two days, one in bright sun, the other heavy cloud and somehow Ellery Ryan (the DP) made it all work. But then he's just a genius.

Natalie: How did you and the actors build relationships between the characters? Did you rehearse at all for any of the particular confrontational scenes between Mark and Mr. Rickard?

Martin: We rehearsed as much as we could, as much as time would allow on our tiny, tiny budget. We had a couple of full script reads and I gave the actors as much biography on the characters as I could muster. We rehearsed and rehearsed the fight scene... but still once the two guys were in the water it kind of took a life of its own. The ocean adds chaos to any plans.

Natalie: The landscape was beautiful in the film and very important when exploring Mark’s character, what made you focus on this?

Martin: I had actually written in quite a bit more of Mark's dreamy wonder at landscape and his environment into the script. We had looked at being almost magic-realism about it with CG. But in the end we stripped it back to more of a heightened naturalism.

Natalie: What’s your favorite scene / moment from the movie?

Martin: It's hard to pick a favourite child... But there are a few sequences that surprised me in the best possible way. The profile shots of the kids running cross country, for some reason... I just find it very emotional every time. Favourite shot might be Mark and Kim floating around in the pool together. Also the sequence where Mark stays home for the day, mooches about in the house, goes riding, then comes home to a furious and worried mother is something I have a special fondness for, at least in part because of the incredible piece of music our composer, Robert Jamieson, wrote for it. He claims to have written it in a sleepless night on strong pain medication for a bad back. He's had a back operation now so I'm hoping it wasn't a necessary part of his creative process.

Natalie: What is the biggest thing you learnt about filmmaking that you would take into your 2nd feature?

Martin: Don't let anyone convince you that four weeks is enough time to shoot a film. Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, small or big, then there is a problem. Problems don't fix themselves.

Natalie: Did Screen Australia help in anyway with getting the feature off the ground?

Martin: Short answer. Nope. But they have been a good resource for the finished film in helping to connect with distributors. I'm hoping we can work with them more on the next one.

Natalie: How did Suzie Porter become involved?

Martin: Susie... we were SO lucky to get her. Not only is she an amazing actor (and a big leading-lady-star who's even been in a Star Wars movie) but she's one of the top five nicest humans you'll meet. Basically I sent her the script which got me a ten minute coffee with her, which turned into a two-hour coffee with her, and by the end of it we were both hugging and excited to be working together. She's an incredible asset to the film on screen and also on set. Her calm, thoughtful, funny, no-bullshit sensitivity was a magic ingredient.

Natalie: Describe filmmaking in 3 words.

Martin: Exhilarating. Exhausting. Fulfilling.

Natalie: POV, your production company produced the feature, what projects are you working on next?

Martin: We have a couple of projects in fairly advanced development. One is a companion piece to Is This The Real World. Only instead of teen-crisis it's mid life crisis. We have this crazy plan to do three films around cornerstone moments in life; adolescence, mid-life and finally end-of-life.

I also have a domestic murder tragedy in the works which is based on a collection of true stories of husbands and wives who have either murdered their partner, or hired somebody else to. It's a very different kind of project to the dreamy world of Mark Blazey. Plus there's a TV series or two we are shopping around.

Natalie: What have been challenges or surprises in distribution or festival submissions?

Martin: Distribution has been the biggest challenge of all. No doubt. We have only just very recently secured local distribution in Aus. The market for independent film is incredibly tight.

It was a bit of a shock to realise that the major festivals are not a meritocracy. I can be so Pollyanna sometimes. But there's no point being bitter about the fact that the big players have established connections with the big festivals and so, of course, have a huge advantage in getting their projects into prime screenings.

I love that the independent festival scene is run (mostly) by true fans of cinema who are free to put a programme together that they believe in. And the audiences reflect that culture. One of our first USA festivals - in Sun Valley, Idaho - gave me the pinch-me moment of having a stranger approach me in the street and say 'I saw your film yesterday and really loved it'. To share the work with an appreciative audience is the dream really. And independent festivals make that dream come true. I heart them.

Natalie: Are you attending the festival?

Martin: How could I miss it?! Can't wait.

Thanks Martin!

***Natalie is the narrative curator of the NYC Indie Film Fest and Martin is the director, writer and producer of IS THIS THE REAL WORLD.