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39 Shooting Days and One Year of Editing: James Vaughan on Friends and Strangers

Fergus Wilson and Greg Zimbulis in Friends and StrangersFergus Wilson and Greg Zimbulis in Friends an Strangers

Acquaintances Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) bump into each other in Brisbane, discover they’re both about to drive back to Sydney and decide to stop along the way for a night of camping—one of the first of many unexpected detours in Friends and Strangers, a fresh, funny and unorthodox rarity of an arthouse comedy. The title of this 2021 Rotterdam premiere gives some indication of how writer-director-editor James Vaughan’s feature debut unfolds: it takes some time to discern that Ray is the film’s main subject, as he keeps encountering new people and the film seems like it could go in any direction in pursuit of new characters at any point. At the campsite, Ray and Alice spend some time talking to an artist who reminisces about Sydney’s golden ’60s of artistic ferment. The trip goes badly, and Alice exits the film shortly after they arrive back in Sydney.

In the extended wake of a breakup, Ray is more of a mess than he realizes, but his disappointments aren’t just romantic–hints that he’s a failed filmmaker emerge when he attempts to land a wedding videographer gig. An initial meeting at the lavish house of David (Greg Zimbulis) goes increasingly badly; half-drunk when he arrives, Ray is increasingly discombobulated by the sound of a wildly chromatic Giovanni Scelsi string quartet blasted from the mansion next door. Underneath this not-quite-coming-of-age story lurks a subtext about Australia’s original colonial sins, which Vaughan discusses extensively in this interview by James Wham—one of the many seemingly heterogeneous elements the film uncannily unites. The result is a thoroughly cinephilic work (Vaughan has acted as a repertory programmer) that takes the lessons of (among other filmmakers Vaughan has regularly cited as influences) Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo in entirely new and unexpected directions. A friend asked if the film was merely theoretically funny or actually funny—the answer’s the latter. Friends and Strangers is out today from Grasshopper Film, and anyone who plans to watch it should first watch Vaughan’s short film You Like It, I Love It, streaming for one week on Le Cinéma Club.

Filmmaker: When I first saw the film, I thought about a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago where he asked me, “Whatever happened to comedies in American independent film? There used to be a lot of them in the ’90s.” I guess art film isn’t really rooted in a comic tradition, but for a long time American independent comedies were not rare. So, I’m curious where the impulse to start from comedy comes from.

Vaughan: I guess at film school I didn’t have confidence in anything else—not that I necessarily thought I could do great comedies either, but it was a path I could explore. Then, as I watched more films in my 20s, I did notice there weren’t many comedies around and found that odd. At uni, I never studied classic cinema that much. It was only later on that I got into stuff from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and there, obviously, comedy is massive—even so-called serious films often had comedic elements. That just made a lot more sense. I watched Amateur a few months ago, and that really resonated with me in a number of ways and confirmed what I already felt inside, that there didn’t need to be this artificial separation between comedy and a serious approach to different issues, or a serious approach to form and aesthetic.

Filmmaker: Not to make you a spokesperson for Australian film, but what was the context of your education in relation to whatever it was perceived that your relationship to the national film industry might be? Over here—we’re roughly the same age—all we basically got when I was growing up was, you know, Lantana, and a reissue of The Interview after The Matrix blew up and Hugo Weaving became a thing. All I really read about Australian film then was that it was a fearsome process involving a real lack of financing and that people went years and years not being able to make things. I feel like I’ve heard more about Australian film in the last three years than I have for the decade preceding.

Vaughan: I’d love to say, “Oh no, there’s this whole world of Australian cinema you’ve missed out on”—but I think in the last 20, 30 years, it just wouldn’t be true. It was this really dark period where there was a change in philosophy at the national funding agency, and it became much more corporate and focused on audience metrics—trying to do a public, subsidized version of what Hollywood does for profit. Competing with Hollywood in that way was the thing that burnt us in the beginning when we had a really thriving silent film industry, and it was blown out of the park by Hollywood in the late-’20s, early-’30s — local industries couldn’t compete. So, it was a really strange, strange move by the funding agencies to push in a more commercial direction, and sadly I think it’s led to a few decades of mediocrities—not in terms of the filmmakers, but mediocre films, because a lot of the talented filmmakers have had to give up, do something else, or go overseas and try and do a slightly bigger budget version in America of what they were doing in Australia. 

As an Australian, it’s really sad that we’ve had this kind of lost generation. It’s only in the last five years or so, maybe slightly longer than that, for it to have filtered through to the point where you’re writing a script, projecting ahead a few years and knowing it’s going to be possible to make a film on no budget, or a budget that at least is possible for you to save yourself. A major factor is that there are no programs here to encourage or incentivize any kind of personal approach to filmmaking, which is coming to a head now. The funding agencies have backed a different approach for so long which by all accounts is failing, even by their own measures: they don’t get the audience numbers that they want or that would justify their approach. They did briefly for a period in COVID when there were no other films, and they made a big deal out of that, but it’s getting to the point now where there’s much more interest in a different kind of filmmaking.

Filmmaker: What would you attribute to that surge of interest to? Is it smaller and more accessible cameras finally percolating down to the market? Decentralization of viewing habits?

Vaughan: I can only speak for myself, but coming through uni in a time [with] the internet meant that we could follow filmmakers and trends and our own interests down rabbit holes, through legal or illegal means, and start looking beyond what was on television or in the library. I think that’s meant that some of the Australian films coming out do seem slightly less parochial, in some kind of dialogue with things outside of Australia, and that’s probably had something to do with some Australian films being enjoyed by people outside of Australia more, or at least being programmed at festivals where they can fit in with other things happening more broadly in those landscapes. Michelle Carey has been a programmer at Rotterdam for the last few years and is at Director’s Fortnight now as well. She’s a really uncompromising, brilliant nurturer of people that she thinks have potential, and I think her leaving Melbourne International Film Festival [in 2018] and taking that approach overseas has had a huge role too—to have someone on programming side advocating for films that at first glance might not overcome some of those prejudices about Australian films.

We shot Friends and Strangers on an ARRI Alexa, but like a 2010 [camera]—one of the very first versions released, which still has the same sensor, the same image basically as what the Alexa Minis, or whatever the latest ones are, use. But it’s bigger, it chews through a lot more power, it’s noisier, it’s extremely heavy, so cinematographers and directors working commercially are happy to pay $100,000 [for a newer camera] instead of $10,000, which is what we paid for it—or less even. So, just in ten years, being able to get the same quality image that’s still the standard for most cinematographers for a tenth of the price—little things like that made a huge difference. 

Filmmaker: You self-financed and it was a long path to the film. It takes place at a campsite and two different cities. I presume the 39 shooting days were spread out accordingly to deal with all that. Was it shot in geographical order?

Vaughan: Yeah, geographical order, and the 39 days is not wrong, but a big part of that was a section of the film we ended up completely removing. It was a third of the film at script stage, all shot out in the bush—two-plus weeks of shooting that was a lot harder than anything else. It was a quite difficult decision, taking it out, but it was weighing the rest of the film down. Basically, this was a tongue-in-cheek dream sequence that kicked off from where the film as it is now ends, involving all these minor characters who didn’t actually have any contact with each other in the film suddenly having crisscrossing relationships in a more outwardly surreal setup out in the bush. I loved it in theory. In practice, after a film that does have a lot of non sequiturs and things that don’t quite add up, it was pushing that out to a ridiculous degree that even myself watching it was like, “This is just insane, it doesn’t make sense.” It was really hard to come to the point of taking that out, because it had been part of the script from the beginning. I wasn’t even considering it as an option. But once I’d done that, the whole film seemed to work a lot better and feel lighter, and didn’t really lose anything in terms of what it was saying either. 

We had two producers, one slightly more experienced in terms of working with budgets. She had been production coordinator at ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, working on a science program and managing budgets week to week, and she was not thrilled with what we went into the production with. For both producers it was important that we were paying people, even if it wasn’t the equity minimums. It was not far off, but not quite what people would expect if they had turned up to work on any other thing. But it was important to everyone that people were paid, and it meant meant waiting longer to save more. So, it wasn’t a shoestring, no-budget thing where everyone was working for free, although some of the people closest to the project—like the producers, like Dimitri [Zaunders] the cinematographer—[worked for free, and] I guess that is an indication of their commitment to the project. But all of the technicians that came on were paid and we never really thought about anything further ahead than the stage we were up to. The money side became too depressing if we did, so it was kind of like, “We’ll just blow everything we have for this first round of shooting and then if we need to do pick-ups”—which we did in the end—”we’ll be doing that later, so I’ll be able to get some money together somehow to do that.” Post-production ended up being not too expensive; the colorist worked much, much cheaper than he normally would, and same for the sound designer. [Working] as the editor, that’s partly a strategic decision too—even though it was totally a creative decision and I love editing and always planned to do that, but in the calculations, that makes it a lot easier. Including unplanned COVID bonus time in the edit, it was over a year editing, and if we’re paying an editor even a small amount, that’s something that can really blow up. So, [self-]editing saved a bit of money. 

In terms of the locations, we did shoot geographically. The stuff at the campsite was a week. The second week was mostly the stuff in the house at the end, and the third week was the stuff down at the beach and a lot of the in-between driving sequences in the city. The pick-ups we did six months later just with Dimitri and I, those inserts that are laden through the film. That was always part of the plan—we knew we could do that ourselves in a slightly more improvised way, and the decision was made to wait on that until there was a rough cut to see exactly what would be needed before we went out and shot it.

Filmmaker: I would like to ask about the driving scene, which is a big element in your short as well. Can you talk about why that’s attractive to you?

Vaughan: I mean, my answer is probably the same as every filmmaker who shoots in cars and likes it. You’re getting this free dynamism coming in through the windows against the static position of the characters. When you’re interested, as a filmmaker, in a certain friction between what’s organic in the documentary vérité aspects of what you’re shooting—I suppose I’m always looking for those kinds of opportunities, whether in a car or not. We’re getting quite a bit of that down at the beach too. [We were] picking locations where you know you’re going to get that kind of thing, even at the caravan park. Unfortunately, when we were shooting was not the peak summer period where people are often there. If we could have afforded to book an accommodation down there [at that time] we would have done that. People going about their business always adds so much to films, particularly when the subject matter of the film is trying to have some relationship with the way people actually live. Cars add a great sense of people being real people and being in the world in a way. For people walking past a big camera set up on the side of the street, you’re going to get more people looking at you, and I think you’re a bit more clandestine when you’re in a car. People aren’t often looking in the back seats of cars as they’re walking around, so you can get away with blending into the environment a little more.

Looking at the characters: it’s men opening up and talking to each other, [which wouldn’t happen] if they’re sitting opposite each other at a table unless they’re really, really close friends, I don’t know if this is an Australian thing—I know Australian men do have difficulty with their emotions, but I also know that’s a thing for men everywhere. Something about sitting side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and not having to actually look at each other and being able to look at something else, does allow men to open up a little more, and for this scene, where one character is trying to pry open the other, it made sense for that to be happening in a car. 

I am really proud of that scene, because we were able to have this geographical integrity of those particular streets. A lot of people from Sydney, who know Oxford Street and that area really well, come up and say,“It really felt like a document. It lines up perfectly with the actual space.” That was important—wanting the film to be very much planted in Sydney and true to Sydney in as many ways as it could be, and part of that is geographical integrity.

Filmmaker: I want to ask about a few of the performers, or non-performers as they may be, who seem to have particularly atmospheric histories attached to them. One is the artist that they meet at the campsite who reminisces about the golden days, and the other one is the gentlemen in the house at the end in front of whom our hero disgraces himself. It seems like you’re building upon their inherent presences in some ways.

Vaughan: The first guy you mentioned is Ion Pearce. He was someone I worked with at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and always had an interesting presence. He was one of the main people in that third section of the film that got cut. There was an interesting kind of melancholy about him, because he’d had really interesting background in terms of his own art practice, and been a choreographer and a musician as well, and [done] spoken word, [during] that really optimistic period of artmaking where [there was] a real sense of energetic experimentation that maybe isn’t there so much in the art world now. He encapsulated some of those disappointments that followed that period, particularly in Australia, where there was a real conservative turn in the ’90s. We have never really come back from that, so he captured something that felt right for that part of the film as an encounter between these lost younger characters looking to get in touch with something a little more grounded and meaningful when they go out to this place and finding someone who is almost there, but also lost and disappointed in their own way. It created a kind of reverberation about Sydney’s own history, too, that I thought was good as well. He’s never done anything like this before and was quite nervous. His first takes were very theatrical. Maybe it was my fault, not communicating well enough that I was looking for him to bring himself, that I wasn’t looking for him to perform in this over the top way, which I guess was a bit closer to how he was used to performing when he did spoken word stuff. So, that took a bit of time on the day, to figure that stuff out, but yeah, you’re right—that character is not far from who he is in real life, and a lot of his dialogue was taken from things he had said to me about himself.

The other character at the end of the film, that guy’s not this filthy rich mansion dweller, but that energy he has, that confidence and that funny swagger is very much a part of his personality. He was a neighbor… well, I guess really the reason how I knew him was that my younger brother—his best friend when he was in primary school, Greg Zimbulis was that friend’s dad. I had heard from mom when I was at uni that this family friend had always wanted to act, and when I was going to do my short film, he wanted at least an audition, and I was kind of cringing because it had danger written all over it. But he was incredible, and I ended up working with him in my short film. When I was writing this, I didn’t quite realize how much I was writing it for him. I did a general casting thing, and only during that that I realized no one else would be able to do this like him. It was a really easy choice to get him.

Filmmaker: And can you tell me a little bit about the house itself?

Vaughan: It’s owned by an art consultant. When I was working at the Museum of the Contemporary Art, a friend of a friend was invited to some soiree there, and somehow I got an invite that was kind of inappropriate. When I got there, it was a bit awkward, but that house made a huge impression on me, as a place like that would. Not coming from that part of the city and not going down the route of stockbroker or whatever, this was a world I’d never really seen before. Again, I didn’t realize how much I was writing specifically for that house when I was writing the script. I thought, “Oh, we can find something similar to that,” and very quickly realized how hard it is to find not only a place that would work in the film, but then to get someone to actually agree to it. It was getting a bit late in the game and I reached out to the owner, who had been really nice that time when I first was there. I thought she wouldn’t remember me, but she did and straightaway said yes. It was amazing to have that house to work with, because we hardly had to do anything. It looks like we spent half the budget of the film on the production design—didn’t have to do a single thing. All of that artwork was already up there, and as an art consultant, she’s constantly moving artwork, so her own house is like a storage facility for these works that she’s about to move on to someone else—which did cause problems in the pick-ups six months later. We were reshooting a scene in that main living space where the paintings are plastered all over the wall, and one of them was gone—the one with the Queen—and that was a real problem, because it looms so much in that scene. Then the owner of the house said, “I do have another work by the same artist, and it’s also of the Queen, but she’s wearing a different colored outfit.” At first, we were thinking maybe in the color grade we can change the color or something, then the idea came up to work it into the script, and it ended up working so well for that part of the film. When they go outside, then come back in and the color is changed [on the painting], it adds to the mounting sense of paranoia and confusion.

Filmmaker: My favorite joke is the deployment of the Scelsi string quartet, because it raises the question for the viewer of, is it diegetic or non-diegetic? The answer turns out to be, it is diegetic and nobody’s very happy about it, but it also gives you an excuse to deploy this music. I’m very curious about where the impulse for that particular joke came from. I was describing the film to people as “comedy-ish,” and I think one of the reasons for that modifier is the fact that none of the music you use sounds like what we expect music in a comedy to sound like.

Vaughan: I kind of hate music in film most of the time, and wanted this film to have no music in it except for the diegetic music. In the end, there’s a lot more music than I planned; it ended up working more than I thought it would. But I hate music not just in comedy, but in any kind of film where you’re being told how to feel by the music. When it comes to comedy, that kind of stupid, boppy music—not all comedy has to have that kind of music, but it’s so common that you’re being told, “Oh, this is light, this is fun.” The music is a constant reminder of how you’re meant to being interpreting everything, so I knew off the bat that I didn’t like that and didn’t want anything to be like that. Contrast and incongruity with sound design can add to the comedy; it doesn’t necessarily have to be something in conflict with the comedy. 

It was an idea at the script stage to have this music blasting. This is a horror film in a lot of ways. As an Australian, there’s a real horror element to our history, and a horror element to the way we look away from those parts of that history, too, which is explored in this film. For me, the music was an excuse to bring that horror mood in without the film having to take a tedious and heavy-handed turn towards facing some of those things directly in the dialogue or some kind of dramatic explosion, which wouldn’t be appropriate for the film. So, it was using some of the music people associate with horror while keeping the film in a comedy-ish space. In the script, the music was meant to stop when they come back inside [the house], but the tension just dropped and it was a real anticlimax. So, [the music] ended up staying for that whole section, which is like 17 minutes longer than we ever thought it would be used. From very early in the first rough cuts it was there and never left.

Filmmaker: You discussed chopping a big part of your film, but in that year of editing, what else did you learn?

Vaughan: I’m trying to remember, because it was a dark time [chuckles] in COVID lockdown and I think I’ve unconsciously wiped a big chunk of the actual experience of that period. I thought the film was gonna be ready for the start of festivals in 2020 and had actually planned to move overseas. So, it was this unplanned extra six months of editing that I didn’t think was needed and, in retrospect, was so critically necessary. But a lot of it… [sighs] We didn’t actually have that much to work with. Even in the script stage, just for budget reasons, a lot was cut. Honestly, a lot of it was just laboring on this third section, because it had its own internal problems and gaps. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to resuscitate that part of the film before the idea of just removing it altogether had ever come, to not just me but anyone involved. It just hadn’t occurred to anyone, because it had been so hard to do. As soon as that was gone, the rest of the film worked better. It was time that was needed, and I can thank COVID for that, because having worked on the film for so long and saved up for so long, it was years and years and I was getting impatient. And being the editor, too, I think, is a bit of a trap—just being over it myself, and thinking, “Let’s just get this out the door now.” So, it was a blessing having that forced extra contemplation time, and the film benefitted from it.

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