The Secret History of Blue-Tongue Films
Blue-Tongue Films’ name appears before such films as Animal Kingdom, Hesher, The Square and Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, released this week by eONE Films, but it’s not a production company. Rather, Blue-Tongue Films calls itself a “production collective,” with its members including one American and seven Australian filmmakers. It started in 1996 when a grainy black-and-white five-minute film introduced them to no one in particular, certainly not the world.
Nash Edgerton was working as a stuntman — or at least trying to. The group’s first short film, Loaded, started as a chase sequence meant to be a show reel to attract future work. Back then, alongside Nash was his brother, Joel Edgerton, and Darcy-Smith. Joel and Darcy-Smith had finished acting school two months prior and were eager to earn film roles.
But calling Loaded a film would be generous. It’s an eight-minute video clip featuring a brief dialogue scene that exists solely to set up the car chase that takes up the rest of the film — think Michael Bay minus scantily clad beauties and a $100 million budget. “We had no idea what we were doing,” says Darcy-Smith, 48, who moved to Los Angeles in 2012. And it showed.
Blue-Tongue Films almost ended before it started after a disastrous public screening of Loaded. Looking for a place to show it, Darcy-Smith saw a flyer for something called Performance Space. It requested short films, but also performance art. The two don’t necessarily mix. “They did not like our film. People were booing, hissing at it and yelling at it,” says Nash. Only one other film screened at Performance Space, but a routine featuring a guy dancing naked in high heels drove the crowd wild.
The screening went so badly that Nash thought the group should never make anything again. At that point, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest the world would be missing out if they didn’t. But Darcy-Smith had already entered Loaded into another festival in Bathurst, Australia. There, it wasn’t booed off stage.
Blue-Tongue’s second short taught them even more, especially Nash. The 30-minute Bloodlock took two years to make and ran into significant financial roadblocks nearly every step of the way. During one of those roadblocks, filming had to be stopped. At that time, Nash entered something he made into Australia’s film festival Tropfest, which has gone on to become one of the biggest short-film festivals in the world.
Deadline featured Nash Edgerton running all over Australia, dodging cars and jumping over fallen trees, trying to turn in a project to a festival director before its deadline passed. The only other actor in it, besides Edgerton, read his lines off a grease-stained lunch bag. It won Tropfest. “Deadline went on to Sundance and really changed his life,” Darcy-Smith says. “He became an instant superstar [in Australia] and that helped [us] as well.”
Now, unlike in the early days, it’s rare for everyone to be in the same room together. Instead, Blue-Tongue Films operates like “a quality control system,” Darcy-Smith says. Everyone in Blue-Tongue is friends, and they work on each other’s films in varied roles, but the reality is that some members are now separated by more than 7,000 miles. Others haven’t seen each other in months and mostly communicate by email.
The collective has now screened 13 films at Sundance and one at Cannes. Luke Doolan’s short film Miracle Fish received an Oscar nomination in 2010, as did David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom in 2011. But beyond success, Blue Tongue’s films have made a habit of defying convention and breathing new life into well-worn genres.
In 2008, Michôd and Spencer Susser, joined the group as it was becoming ever more high profile. Michôd’s Animal Kingdom is the rare example of a gangster film that doesn’t feel tired and cliché. He circumvents crime-genre tropes by turning it into a family drama. His “Godfather” isn’t a swollen-cheeked Marlon Brando, it’s a grandmother, who unsettles viewers from the first scene when she kisses her fully-grown sons on the lips for an uncomfortable second too long. Susser’s Hesher turns a Lifetime movie-of-the-week about losing a parent into something scary and exciting, eliciting a bravura performance out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a chain-smoking pyromaniac squatter. These unusual approaches are typical for Blue-Tongue Films, which makes the true nature of the collective come into clearer focus.
They’re filmmakers, and they want to tell their own story — even if the stories they tell differ wildly. Doolan’s Miracle Fish focuses on a school shooting; while Nash Edgerton’s Bear tells the darkly-comedic story of a man who surprises his girlfriend in a bear suit, causing her to fall off the side of a hill. Susser’s I Love Sarah Jane is a coming-of-age love story infested with zombies, and Michôd’s Netherland Dwarf is about nothing more than a kid and his pet bunny. The only common thread between these films is some of the cast and crew — and the fact that they’re universally excellent — marked by Nash’s twisted humor, Susser’s inherent sense of danger and Michôd’s fully-developed characters, even in 10-minute films.
Perhaps only the 2005 short The IF Thing provides insight into what makes something a Blue-Tongue Film. IF Media, an industry magazine that hosts an Australian award show similar to the Golden Globes, approached Nash with $5,000 to produce a short film for the 2005 Lexus Inside Film Awards. He agreed, but told them he wanted the money in cash. In the 10-minute film we see him buy a milkshake ($5), a few DVDs ($149.95), a pair of jeans ($289.95), a PlayStation 2 ($269) and get pestered by a flustered IF Media employee looking for updates on the film. In total, Nash spends $4,996.58 of the money without coming up with a single idea. In actuality, it’s the provocation of the employee that is the film. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Nash and his other Blue-Tongue members execute the idea to perfection. It’s a funny prank, which hints that the collective could be in the middle of an even bigger one.
Angie Fielder, a producer on Wish You Were Here, reveals that a few of those heralded short films that made waves at Sundance were made before Susser and Michôd officially had joined Blue-Tongue. “David [Michôd] was friends with all of them, but he wasn’t officially part of the group,” she says. “We made Crossbow and I Love Sarah Jane together and it was around that time he officially became a part of Blue-Tongue.” Darcy-Smith tells a similar story when asked about how the two joined the collective after Nash, Susser and Michôd all had films playing at Sundance in the same year. “I guess [we used] that opportunity to kind of bring all the attention to them and the rest of Blue-Tongue as a group,” he says. “Then, all of a sudden, we had this very strong body of directors who had achieved a lot.” Crossbow and I Love Sarah Jane were Blue-Tongue Films and the group was dominating Sundance. Or at least that’s what was being reported.
Luke Doolan, the director of Miracle Fish and, at 34 years old, the youngest member of the group, explains that Blue-Tongue Films helps him put a positive spin on his artistic struggles. “I’ve been on six or seven projects that have gotten to certain stages and then just disappeared for whatever reason or the other,” Doolan says. “It’s been frustrating because it makes you look like you’re not working. It’s amazing how much work you do when, on the surface, it looks like you’ve done nothing. [Blue-Tongue] is good for getting films made because collectively we have an impressive volume of work. All the kudos goes into a big, collective pot. I do worry it will dry up, but again, that’s the sort of benefit of Blue-Tongue. It appears like I’m not taking time to write again. It just feels like we’re always doing something — and we are.”
Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, which premiered at Sundance more than a year ago, today gets its theatrical release stateside. But don’t assume it’s been an easy road for the film’s director. “Without wanting to air dirty laundry, I’m not afraid to say I’m $150,000 in credit-card debt,” Darcy-Smith, a husband and father of two, said earlier this year. “I’ll be brutally honest with you, there was a point only six months ago where my wife and kids here in L.A. were right on the cusp of having to go to a [homeless] shelter. There’s been plenty of times like that. It’s been very, very, very, very challenging — very difficult on a financial level.”
When Miracle Fish was nominated for an Oscar, Doolan expected to be inundated with lucrative offers. They never materialized. “All that sort of success, it’s certainly not monetary. So you’re still starving,” says Doolan, who had to remind people in Australia he would still take on shitty, low-paying jobs while he wrote his next film. “It’s funny, people stop calling you because they assume you’re busy when you actually need them to call the most.”
Michôd and Darcy-Smith both spent the better part of 10 years working on their feature-film debuts. Michôd eventually made the Academy-Award nominated Animal Kingdom. Darcy-Smith produced nothing. “I took a long time, like seven years in development on one feature with a really major production company down in Australia,” he says. “At the end of the day, it was too big of a budget film for me to do as a first feature. I knew I needed to find something a lot more achievable.”
When other members of Blue-Tongue began receiving critical acclaim, Darcy-Smith says, “I was kind of like the bridesmaid sitting at the desk and, I’ll have to admit, there were times when I went, ‘Fuck, have I made the right decision here?’” After Wish You Were Here, the debut film that did get made, was accepted by the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and now he can finally stop asking himself that question.
“Films, for all the glamour, or whatever glamour you take from it, are hard,” Darcy-Smith says. “Sometimes for long stretches they don’t feel good making them, it’s just a slog and it’s like you’re in the trenches without a compass in the dark, and you don’t know where you’re going to pop up — if you’ve gone in the right direction or not.”
Blue-Tongue Films, it seems, is actually just a way to maximize value and work. For a collective that, for the most part, isn’t generating a whole lot of revenue, they’ve shown themselves to be astute businessmen. “It’s a very unofficial collaboration in a business sense, but it’s very much an official collaboration in a brand sense,” Fielder says. “They saw very early on the advantages of grouping together as a team so that they could capitalize on each other’s successes.” It started as a few friends trying to help each other figure out how to make a film, and then, when it was done, actually make money. “We literally just knocked up this little script and went out in the street and … just threw it together,” Darcy-Smith says of sharing directorial duties on Loaded with Nash. “When we look back on it, we’ll both admit the coverage we shot and everything was really second rate, but it taught us a lot.”
Nash has evolved into an exciting filmmaker, but beyond his talents behind the camera, his drive to keep collaboration alive is his most significant contribution to the collective. “He’s a bit of a media whore,” Doolan jokes. More seriously, he’s the glue that holds Blue-Tongue together, says Mirrah Foulkes, the group’s only female member. “I’m not sure if the collective would exist in the way it does now if it wasn’t for Nash. He really makes sure that it’s strong. And he does a lot of the administrative stuff no one else wants to do,” Foulkes says, referencing Nash’s press obligations, website duties and other monotonous tasks. “Without that, the whole thing would probably just disintegrate.”
Foulkes starred in Nash’s breakout success, Spider, and has dated Michôd for eight years. Shortly after Foulkes wrote and directed Dumpty Goes to the Big Smoke, which was nominated for two Australian Film Institute awards, Blue-Tongue took her in. “I’ve only been an official member for three weeks,” Foulkes told me in December. “Unofficially, I’ve been working with them for eight years.”
Still, Doolan insists the collective’s only rule is that there are no rules. “There’s no design to it,” he says. “It’s osmosis, I guess. And the great part of Blue-Tongue, being in it, is you do get to sort of soak up bits and pieces of people who have turned out to be world class-filmmakers — we didn’t start out like that.” They started as a film-school reject (Doolan), a musician (Darcy-Smith), an electrical-engineering dropout (Nash) and an editor at a film magazine (Michôd). Now, they’ve graced the pages of GQ and the New York Times and have rubbed elbows with Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
But because of Blue-Tongue’s unofficial and at times uncertain nature, its future isn’t clear. As the group’s films improve, so will their brand and, in turn, so will their job offers. And with nearly everyone working in the feature film world by now, having used their shorts as calling cards for bigger opportunities, better offers could slam a wedge between them. For his part, Nash isn’t worried. “We all want to make bigger films,” he says, before explaining the advantages of a small budget. “The less money you have, the more control you have over it and the more chance you have of showing what you can do – rather than being told how to do it.” That’s why Blue-Tongue Films — the brand and the collective — will endure: because when they’re working with each other, they don’t answer to anyone but themselves.