Pamela Cohn talks to filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson and actor Daniel P. Jones about the process behind their intensely personal film Hail. Per Jones: “If your life is like a sponge, it’s quite easy to reach in and squeeze a bit of it out.”
“I was young. I was about five. Me mum had a hotel. It was one of Melbourne’s more notorious hotels. I used to run around the bar where my mum worked and these men would sit me up on the bar and sing “Danny Boy” to me and give me raspberry lemonade and sarsparilla, and sometimes they’d even give me shandies. I’d run around and when they were playing darts, I’d run up to the board and climb up on a stool and I’d pull the darts. And I’m running back to the guy and handing him the darts. And through the door of the bar comes this bloke and he’s pulling a sawed-off shotgun. He put it up to the guy’s head and fucking let him have it with both barrels. I was just handing him the darts, you know? It just exploded like . . . My heart nearly jumped out of me mouth; my adrenaline gland had just exploded and the smell of gunpowder . . .”
This was the world’s introduction to consummate storyteller, Daniel P. Jones. Cicada, a nine-minute tour-de-force directed by Australian filmmaker, Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Chasing Buddha, Bastardy), screened as part of the prestigious Directors Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. While documenting a production staged by a theatre company comprised of recently released prisoners, Courtin-Wilson, a documentary director, was struck by the presence and natural story telling ability of Jones, whom he met on the day Jones was released from prison.
Hail, their most recent collaboration, is the staggering culmination of Courtin-Wilson and Jones’ intensely creative relationship. The 110-minute feature is a melding of Jones’ real life experiences with fictional elements that take the viewer on a hellish journey through a deluge of sound and fury. Hail also includes a deeply moving and luminous performance by Jones’ real-life partner, Leanne Letch, accompanied by a cast of non-actors, all of whom re-enact aspects from Jones’ brutal past and the transcendent love he shares with Letch.
Shortly after the film’s Australian débuts in Adelaide and Sydney, I had an opportunity to speak with both Courtin-Wilson and Jones via Skype from what appeared to be an underground bunker. Sipping coffee and chain-smoking, the two men eloquently described their unique working relationship, their deep abiding friendship, and the intense and surreal journey they embarked upon to realize Courtin-Wilson’s distinct and powerful vision.
Pamela Cohn How did your Australian premieres go?
Amiel Courtin-Wilson We just had screenings in Sydney last week. Well, there were the requisite ten walkouts at a certain portion of the film. I think the Australian distributors were not really sure how to handle the film, but we got a really great response from audiences. Actually, it was great to see, wasn’t it, Dan, that the humor in the film in the first hour played really well? The distributors are re-thinking their, otherwise, pretty modest release of the film.
PC Well, I can say your film grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and threw me across the room, which is always a harrowing and interesting movie-watching experience. It’s rare to see such a heavily atmospheric film where the metaphysical elements surrounding the protagonists are so present and visceral and, Dan, your performance is really incredible. Amiel, I’m familiar with your documentary work, and this way in which fiction and non-fiction can collide in film is something that captivates me. I’m very interested in hearing you both talk about this long-term collaboration, and, specifically, Amiel, what is so inspiring for you about Dan, this man that relives his own stories for your camera?
ACW I met Danny about six years ago now in a theater company made up of ex-prison inmates. I was making a documentary called Plan B about this group in Melbourne and we’d been filming for about six months. I turned up to one of the rehearsals one day and saw a guy who was standing outside the rehearsal space and I walked up to introduce myself. He turned around and I don’t think I’d ever met someone with that intense a gaze as Danny had the moment I met him. You’d been out of jail for how long?
Daniel P. Jones For about twelve hours, or something like that.
ACW Dan became part of the theater company. His intensity as a performer was indicative of this feeling I had when I met him. There’s something in Danny that I encountered with some of the guys in the group, but he was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of his performance. There is this hyper-vigilant, perceptive quality to Dan as a human being when you engage with him, and an honesty that comes through. He kind of eschews all the ideas about what you might think of a person in terms of what he does for a job or what class he’s from. He engages with a person in the moment and so there’s an amazing immediacy in his performances. You inevitably travel in his slipstream because he’s such a presence.
The collaboration we’ve built has been a slow process. I knew I wanted to make a film with Danny and for about four years, it was going to be a documentary. As we became closer, we gathered dozens and dozens of hours of material, a lot of anecdotes and personal stories, one of which became Cicada, which was the first time we experimented with Dan telling his own stories in a stylized way.
PC And this way in which you collaborated on Hail, in particular, and the decision to move from documentary formalism to a fictionalized version of events in his past—was it a fairly organic process? I would imagine it would be considering you met in a theatrical context. Stylistically, you’ve made some really bold and daring choices as if you had visions of placing Dan in this cinematic, dramatic atmosphere to realize this story. With the pulse-pounding sound design work [by Robert Mackenzie], the intensely intimate camera work [by Germain McMicking], and all the other elements, it feels fairly cataclysmic creatively, although it must have been a long road.
ACW In terms of my own documentary work, I’ve always been fascinated in the ways in which you can take an audience on a journey. I come from an experimental film background and so I come to the documentary form with that in mind. This film enabled me to flush out those tendencies and pay attention to those influences from Brakhage and others, and really go to town. This story, until a certain point, was going to be a crime film, but the thing that made me realize that there was the emotional muscle there to sustain a feature film was this love between Danny and Leanne. There’s something that is so beautifully epic about Danny and Leanne’s relationship. As well, Dan’s internal world contains the full spectrum of heaven and hell and I wanted to try and enter that and place an audience inside Danny, sometimes literally in the more metaphysical flights of fancy throughout.
DPJ Well, to start, I try to be as affable as possible by nature because if you put that out, you might get it back. As a child, I was fortunate—and unfortunate—enough to have landed in a place where you see the wanted and the unwanted. I grew up around drugs and prostitution and all that. Amiel is an unassuming character and I picked that up. It allowed me to become more open to him. The collaboration was born out of us becoming friends and me realizing that he’s not a bad sort of guy (laughter). I was able to open up enough to drop the façades that we all carry, the stuff we all carry from prison. There’s a certain look you can give people, and as Amiel mentioned, I live in this hyper-vigilant state. When I look at people, just their body language and what they do alert me to what they’re up to. I come from a background where you always have to be aware. Well, we live in the bush down here and you always have to look out for snakes. And Amiel’s not a snake so I could be a friend to him and not have to be on guard. I could feel comfortable. I didn’t mind letting him into my world and telling him about stuff, I suppose in the way Americans are so good at, sitting and talking to somebody about things that have happened. I used him a bit like a psychologist sometimes and told him about stuff that had molded me. He found it interesting enough to make a film about it.
PC I’m curious to know at what point in your life you took solace in storytelling? That is, expressing stories from your own life that might, somehow, help you cope with things. Perhaps the reason why performing and acting is so natural for you is that you don’t merely drop your façade, as you put it. In Hail, you open up to a degree that we don’t often see, no matter what the film genre.
DPJ Yes, it’s more than a feeling that I get to. When you turn yourself inside out, you’ve just got to shake the fluff out. As far as acting goes, if you have to swallow the part and you have to take it in, then when it comes time to play the part, and you hear the word action, you have to bring whatever’s in there out at whatever speed it needs to come out. If you’ve grasped what you have to portray, there’s a certain speed at which you let it go. It’s like a car: you go around a corner in second gear; if you go around the corner in fourth gear, you’re going to spin out. It’s all in the feel of it, I suppose. At times, it was really difficult; I was surrounded by all these people I like, and love. I was doing a project that I wanted to see done well, not for my own self-gratification but for Amiel. I wanted to see his first feature succeed and whatever I could do to make that happen, I would do. I was both aware of what I had to give and what he wanted me to give and I had to deliver it. I had to deliver love; I had to deliver hate; I had to deliver anger. Before the camera’s rolling, oftentimes, you’re sitting there laughing with your friends. So, at times, I had to put my shutters up and think a lot about things, which is something I always do. I think a lot all the time.
ACW Dan’s being pretty humble about the preparation he did and his process. I mean, there is material in the film that deals with characters that are close to Dan like the painter, Gerard, which could almost play out like straight observational doco. We would visit Gerard with Dan and the cinematographer and shoot for half a day and gather anecdotes. We could shoot this way with these two old friends hanging out, for instance, and it’s a lovely, elliptical, poetic language that acts as a short hand for something these two friends share. We had about four months of very exhaustive rehearsals and discussions about certain scenes. Both Danny and Leanne were amazing in terms of being part of that process since we were casting all non-actors. When we had a loose short list of performers, Dan and Leanne would participate as part of the audition; that would bleed into a rehearsal and more writing, as the scenes took form. Danny has a very internal, private process that he undergoes, but he also really loves schematics, speaking about scenes in terms of triangles and numbers from one to ten. There were a myriad of ways he would find his way into a scene.
In terms of how our relationship informed all that, I had about 80 pages of floating anecdotes or experiences Danny had had that I would bring to the scene. In the birthday party scene with Dan and Leanne, for instance [Dan and Leanne share the same birthday], we worked off of scene breakdowns, which were very thin in terms of coverage. At one point in the improvisation, I would yell out to Dan something as seemingly absurd as “plastic bag factory.” This refers to a few years ago when Dan came to me in a real state about his place in the world after losing his job, not wanting to end up working in a plastic bag factory. So I could throw these kinds of things at him mid-performance and it would hurl him into an entirely new direction emotionally. It was a really exciting, organic way that called on all these lived experiences.
PC This interior process sounds like a fine balance between intuition mixed with a tremendous amount of discipline. You want to get close to the material as much as possible without being consumed by it, which is tricky, especially if you’re reenacting, in some sense, parts of your life.
There is this switch that is quite profound, both stylistically and substantively, that takes place about halfway through the film, a massive shift after a certain event happens in the story. It almost, in essence, becomes a different film. We slide into this parallel universe that we’ve caught glimpses of at certain moments when the film is more observational, more “documentary style,” if you will. Then there is this full-court visceral ride. We know that there is going to be some kind of violent explosion. We’re waiting for it from the very beginning. Can you talk a bit about the choices you made in order to be able to stage those particular scenes since they depart so suddenly from reality and move into Dan’s interior emotional landscape, which is filled with grieving and fury? Did those audience walkouts happen during these scenes?
ACW I know audiences come to the film knowing the previous work I’ve done and they’ve heard that this piece is some kind of hybrid of documentary and drama, whatever that balance might be. I think people maybe feel a bit robbed—some people anyway—who are counting on that documentary tone to maintain itself. People make it through the tearing white light sequence, but when we get to the torture scene in the bunker, that’s pretty much when people run (laughter). It was my goal to shift gears as much as possible dramatically, but a lot of that did evolve mostly in the edit. I’ve always been inspired by how the Dardenne brothers shoot about eighty percent of their films and then cut a rough cut. They will go back and re-shoot some things based on that rough cut.
The second half of Hail, in particular, we shot a good fifth of only once we had a rough cut. I suppose it was really about stripping away all language. Once the music choices started to fall into place and the sound design was taking form, it just became really clear that language, for the most part, had to go. The day we shot the murder of Anthony, there was some scripted dialogue. During the course of the shoot, it felt instinctively right to put all that away while shooting so that Dan became more animal. He’s kind of emptied out as he’s reaching that state of what may, or may not, be pure nightmare, I suppose. I was very conscious of stripping away language. Aside from the people he encounters, he’s basically alone. The end of the film was dramatically different and the edit altered that and it became a lot simpler, really. It was about trying to create one massive surge towards this final act of murder and the emptying out of all the fury until he’s a husk.
DPJ It left my bones bleached in the sun.
PC It does go beyond most “emptying out” experiences I can recall in cinema. Some brave choices were made on both your parts when there could have been tamer ones to make, the kind an audience could sit through fairly comfortably and not go bolting from their seats. Amiel, you accomplish this not only through nurturing the performances of your actors, but cinematically, there are choices that are very powerful, which rely on an onslaught of vision and sound. It’s quite operatic—that’s the word I would use for it. It’s something that goes beyond Dan’s particular experience and transcends the raw material of the story.
ACW It’s lovely that you used the word operatic. Earlier on, when I was writing the film, I came across that painting that opens the story, The Wild Hunt (Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872). I didn’t really know how it referenced the myths that inspired it but I knew instantly that I wanted that to be the opening image of the film. It was that and hearing “Rhapsody in Blue” (George Gershwin, 1924) of all things. I was interested in epic scale and juxtaposing something that was quite mythical and yes, operatic, with what would otherwise be some kind of earnest, tawdry kitchen-sink drama. This came directly, as I said before, from this river that travels between Danny and Leanne as lovers. I like the idea of taking the simplest of love stories and hurling it out into space. I wanted to attain a canvas as epic as Danny and Leanne’s internal bond. As pretentious as it probably sounds, I remember an early discussion with Germain, the cinematographer. I’m a huge fan of French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux. La vie nouvelle (2002) is incredible. There’s something really beautiful in terms of what he strives for and attains with those pure blocks of emotion. My attempt was to chart something that begins that intimately, hence all the macro shots throughout, the use of extreme close-up, trying to turn Danny and Leanne’s bodies, literally, into universes unto themselves. Another idea that was hugely influential is the old Gnostic idea of the world having been created by an idiot. It’s an incomplete world; there are cracks and openings in that world. I wanted to take that and travel down into hell with Danny. I remember discussing with Germain how to try and literally have God reveal itself in every image (laughter). God in all things, the concept of immanence. There’s a malevolent nature that surrounds Dan and it begins to reflect his internal state post-Leanne’s death.
PC Was this sort of an internal directive, an intentional crossing over into some divide that seems to exist, at least ideologically, between documentary and narrative storytelling? There are still these boundaries, albeit, permeable ones. To discard form as much as possible is a matter of degree, I think, and has a lot to do with what the story you’re telling will bear. The irony here, of course, is that your main protagonist is also the author of the material, adapted for the screen by you. What were the stickiest battles in accomplishing this, in trying to find the voice of the film?
ACW James Hewson, the ex-director of the Melbourne Film Festival, is a close friend and confidant and was there for the entire process. He was watching a rough cut at a certain point and he said something which both troubled me and also became part of the impetus to get the film to where it stands now. He talked about fidelity to character and we had long discussions about me needing to drop the last vestiges of my documentarian background, and not only embrace a different kind of form, but also admit to myself how personal this film was, as well. There’s a lot of extraordinarily personal stuff from my own experiences and that’s an undercurrent throughout. That was the biggest thing I wrestled with, that and the nature of portraiture. Things felt increasingly reductive in terms of trying to find the edges of Danny both as a character, and as a person I know well.There was a very clear point in which I was meant to leave Danny, my friend, and enter an entirely different space, which is the Daniel that inhabits the character. Once I admitted that to myself and had long discussions with Pete Sclberras, the editor, I was able to cut away some of the more autobiographical details from his life that we wanted to try to keep in. It was liberating to concentrate on the purely metaphysical and dreamlike feel of the second half of the movie.
PC Dan, it would be great to hear your thoughts as the person on the other side of the camera, the performative side where you are the lightening rod for everything that’s happening around you and inside you. What did you struggle with on this particular journey? How did enacting the first part of the film, versus the second, impact you? Or did you use the process you described previously no matter what the material presented?
DPJ Firstly, I will let it be known that everybody on the planet has a touch of the frustrated thespian in them, even though they might be hugely successful—or whether they wish they were hugely successful. When I was young, I myself dreamed that maybe one day I could be on screen. I didn’t put it out of my box of wishes. But it also wasn’t a burning desire. Joining the theater company enabled me to do something different. I appreciate the arts in its different forms and I believe it’s an integral part of life. Everybody should appreciate it in some way and I believe they do, whether they admit it or not. Having that appreciation and that desire, when you encompass the things in your life like portraying a love for somebody and then they’re gone, you feel grief. You go from one side of the spectrum to the other. So I felt this love that’s beautiful and warm and then I felt the grief of when that person is gone; there’s the hot and there’s the cold and the things in between. That’s inside all of us, whether or not people can put it out there. There was always the moment when I doubted whether I could do it. And, on the other side of the coin, I did think I could absolutely do it. I would turn the doubt over and think, “Right, I can do this.” Having a trust in Amiel, I would ask him what he wanted, and I took that away, thought about it and then portrayed it.
Leanne, my partner, has got this Mother Teresa-type heart that people don’t see. She’s had a lot of tragedy in her life and rather than dwell in it, she burst out of it. She gave birth to three children and the father of those children died when they weren’t very old at all. Instead of Leanne saying, “Poor me, I have to bring up these three children,” she found other children who had been thrown out of their homes and were living on the street; instead of bringing up three, she brought up six. Then when they were teenagers, another couple came along and she gave them a home, as well. She had eight boys living in a three-bedroom house. She fed and clothed them. The disabled guy in the movie is Leanne’s brother. He had a severe accident when he was twenty-one when a car came off its jack and landed on his head. Her parents looked after him and Leanne would always give them a break and also looked after him and still does to this very day, making sure that things work as good as possible for him. Knowing that about Leanne, and knowing that she’s got this warmth, it made it really easy for me to think, Oh, fuck! If Leanne died, the grief for me . . . . I mean if somebody loves their dog and you ring them up and tell that person that a semi-trailer just parked on the dog’s head, what kind of wail would that person let out? This is the kind of thing we actors live. If your life is like a sponge, it’s quite easy to reach in and squeeze a bit of it out. I don’t think it’s that difficult to portray those kinds of things in a film. Even though it is hard to do when someone says “action,” and there are cameras and people around.
ACW Because we shot pretty much chronologically, I can say that, probably, just the sheer exhaustion of putting in ten and twelve hour days week after week had an impact since Dan had a lot of physical exhaustion. There were definitely some hard times.
DPJ Oh yeah.
ACW Danny and I had some huge fights, massive ones (laughter), which were just borne out of lack of sleep; he was hospitalized with a broken rib after one of the fight scenes and, unknown to us at the time, almost died since his lungs were filling with blood. He threw himself in to such a huge degree on a sheer physical level, let alone an emotional one. That was probably the thing that was hardest.
DPJ I just wanted to make it work. You don’t win a 100-metre sprint by jogging. You’ve got to sprint. You don’t pass an exam by doodling on the paper; you have to reach deep and give it. And I did that. I’d do it for other people because I like it and would do whatever they would ask in terms of playing some part in another film. I’d approach it the same way. I did this part primarily for the friendship that I have with Amiel, not for any sort of accolade. If somebody asks me how I think I went, I would firmly say that I believe self-proclamation is no acclamation. What I do say is what I just said to you: I reached as deep as I could, and tried to deliver at the speed that was right.
ACW When we shot that torture scene all in one day, there were times when I would call “cut,” and have to call it four times and he still hadn’t heard me. I’d have to, literally, reach in and grab him by the jacket and pull him off the guy he was working with. At certain times, he went so deep that the line between the film and reality blurred. This happened with Leanne at times, too. What was being experienced blurred and eroded those lines at times.
DPJ It’s really hard to be angry when right before “action” is yelled, you’re having a giggle. That’s where the acting part comes in, I suppose. To get angry enough for that torture scene, I went around the corner and I put my hand on top of a pallet and I grabbed a piece of wood about a foot and a half long and I whacked myself on the fingernail and ended up with a blood blister. Ten seconds later, I walk in the room and when action is called, I’ve now got this pain. Not paying attention to my fingernail but paying attention to the pain in my body, it looks as though I’m in pain because I need to extract this information from the guy. When I saw it, I thought, Oh yeah, that looks real.
Sometimes, it was Leanne’s reaction, like in the birthday party scene. She looked so hurt and turned her head away and those moments, to me, were so fantastic. I don’t care what actress tried to do that part, she could not do any better than Leanne. I am really, really proud of her. The more I think about it, the more proud I feel. She made it easy for me to reach deep when I saw how giving she was. Also, I could draw from some of the people that I worked with. I would lead them by the nose, take it a level up or a level down, change the wind’s direction, whatever I had to do to make it work. I could tell I was making it work by Amiel’s reaction.
ACW Because of a lot of the people we were working with [non-professionals]—the cast—would fall through, literally, ten minutes before we were scheduled to shoot something. An example would be the scene when Danny approaches those three young drug dealers on the street. We found them maybe five minutes before we shot (laughter).
PC The beauty of that—which one can immediately intuit when watching that scene—is the authentic bewilderment and disorientation on their faces when Dan comes up on them in his fury. It makes it one of the strongest scenes in the film, in my opinion, just because of that tangible authenticity.
ACW It really did work in that regard since we really did tell those people as little as possible; we just would launch into the scene and that’s a testament to Danny since we could just let them travel in his slipstream when he turns on. We also worked extraordinarily quickly with very little lighting, shooting ten-minute takes, reset and go again. I’m glad that shines through. I love those kids; they were awesome. They did it for twenty dollars and lunch. They were on their way to a methadone clinic. Similar to when we shot Cicada, the finished product was, comparatively, an afterthought to the process of creating and shooting the material and the personal bonds that were formed. In this case, for most of us working on this piece, it was our first feature so there was a very close-knit dynamic. We’ve seen it with an audience four times now and it was only in the last screening that we could talk about actually being able to enjoy it or see it as a movie.
DPJ That’s right. When I look at it, I know what happened before and after, how many takes we did and whatever went on. It’s hard to block that out in your mind. I’d very much like to travel with this film to see how audiences react. Maybe you can grab a can of spray paint and go up to some wall in Berlin and write, “We Want Hail!,” or something like that (laughter). Someone would have to pay for my ticket, being a broke thespian and all. A little bit of hunger in anybody is a good thing. Maybe some of the fat cats in the world could go hungry for a couple of days.
ACW During pre-production, we had just assembled a crew, most of whom were volunteers. No one was really paid on the film. We were traveling out to the country on a location scout and we found ourselves in a butcher’s at about midnight filling a sack full of steak and chicken and realized halfway through that the guy didn’t actually work in the butcher’s (laughter). Where necessity calls, you know? You use certain means to certain ends.
DPJ You don’t have to go in great leaps and bounds in life; you just change a degree. If you travel far enough, you will find yourself a long distance from where you’ve been. The way that this movie plays out, you can see what life might be like for some people, how hard it is for some people. The “poor me” thing is not there. It’s the challenges of what people face, not just me. It’s what a lot of people go through.
PC But for you, personally, there must have been a good amount of personal catharsis through all this, or is that a presumptuous reach?
DPJ Maybe in my life, before I made this movie, I had these intense times of self-reflection, moments of clarity where I’d been able to cleanse myself of demons and I could recall those moments going through it. But I can also say that it compounded a lot of things. Afterwards, I realized that there were a lot of things that I had purged myself of, so it was like pulling lots of different books off the shelf and reading stories I’d already lived. I had to remind myself of certain emotions that I’d felt I’d overcome. Mastered isn’t the word I want to use; maybe I could say I had put a bridle on them, not running wild anymore as they had once upon a time.
ACW And your relationship with Leanne.
DPJ My relationship with Leanne has grown, yes; we’re a lot closer because of this film and the experience we had making it. Like I said before, I am so proud of her. She’s quite shy, actually. I didn’t know if she’d be able to do this. She did it for me. She did it for Amiel. But, primarily, she did it for me, not for herself. I’ve told her, repeatedly, that she surprised me so much; she’s so good in this. I wanted her to be able to step back and take a look at what she’d achieved. It’s something a lot of people might dream about doing and even those that have the chance to attempt to do it, that dream might turn into a nightmare. Therefore, what she achieved is great, in my opinion.
People that think, the thinkers that watch this movie, turn around and say, “That’s a good movie.” People that are locked into that one thought after the other sort of life and don’t know how to twinkle-toe or sidestep, who walk a straight line, you know those kind of people? They’ll say [mimicking]: “But where’s the car smashes and all that?” You know, that sort of stuff. My life is about experience. I don’t see my life as being mapped out; it never has been. I was born out of a reconciliation of a marriage that lasted about three minutes after I arrived on the planet. I didn’t have the guidance that was needed. I didn’t get a chance to grow up. I had to do all those sorts of things on my own. I don’t feel guilty for making mistakes because of that.
Now I’m old enough to know that I made those mistakes to guide myself and now I try to be as kind as possible. And rather than being surrounded by hounds, I now get nice people asking me to do silly stuff in front of cameras.
For more on Hail, check out the film’s website.
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based media producer, freelance arts journalist and film programmer. She writes a blog on nonfiction and experimental cinema called Still in Motion.