Go and see Aaron Wilson’s new film Canopy

aaron wilson

ReelGood was recently lucky enough to see Aaron Wilson’s brand new film Canopy, which was released nationally last Thursday. You can check out our review here. We sat down with Aaron to talk about his experiences working on the film and his thoughts about independent filmmaking in Australia.

RG: What first got you into cinema and when did you decide to pursue a career in film?

AW: It sort of happened by accident, because I was doing theatre at Monash Uni. I was doing engineering at the time. Nothing against it but it just wasn’t me, and so I stumbled into theatre and that took over. I started acting and then I started directing and then theatre led to films. I worked on VCA films and other student films. I started making my own with crews I met working on those films. One film led to the next and I started travelling to festivals and starting thinking to myself ‘If I can survive this then I’ll quit all other forms of work’, which is what I did.

RG: Canopy is your first feature film. Do you think success in short film translates or leads to success in features?

AW: I think it’s all a personal journey. You can say shorts as a product in themselves are a great way of honing your craft and figuring out your voice. Or you can use them to show to people and say ‘you can invest in me, I’ve made work before’, but for me they were an outlet for telling a story and a way for me to meet international audiences by travelling to festivals which have since stayed with me the whole way, inviting my films back again and again. So it’s a way of building a reputation, and a body of work.

RG: Did you use your old work to show investors when putting the money together for Canopy?

AW: Definitely. People wanted to know, especially if they were mum and dad investors or people in construction who just had money, they wanted to know if I’d done anything before and what it looked like and what sort of work it was.

RG: What are the bigger hurdles you’ve had to overcome in you career in film?

AW: I think money is always the biggest thing. I think, yes you can find it and it’s a slog, but if you’re stubborn you’ll get there. It’s just always a hurdle, especially in Australia where we don’t really have a culture of philanthropy. I guess the closest thing we’ve got is crowdfunding. We got a bit of our film, not a lot, but a bit through Pozible. And that was great to find people who were interested in supporting this sort of project.

Creatively, for me, especially when I was making lots of shorts, I had time to just write and think. Time to myself, which is important. You can’t just be rushing doing 9 – 5 in some other job and then having just the weekends to write. I couldn’t do that and so I need time to write, and the films just came that way.

RG: How many people who worked on Canopy were people you collaborated with on your short films?

There have been some people who have been there since the beginning. I mean, film is all about collaboration, and the stronger your team and the more you’ve worked together the easier things are and the more you’re able to to play and expand upon what you’ve done before. I think my shorts definitely tried some things that are in the feature. My films have gotten quieter and quieter. I’ve played with soundscape as character, so a lot of that we’d practiced and honed during the making of the shorts and I knew I wanted to extend that into the feature.

Some people have said to me ‘Your feature feels like a stressed out short’. Well if you’d seen my shorts, Canopy is a lot slower than my shorts. It’s deliberately trying to keep it simple, it isn’t a sympton of ‘oh, how do we make this the cheapest we can’. It’s wanting to explore something at a rate that is different to Hollywood. For me, I’m more interested in exploring space when you immerse someone in that space and you focus on a shot or a scenario long enough that something else emerges, rather than just a person getting from A to B to tell a plot point. There’s something more to explore than just the plot.

aaron wilson

RG: What element of the filmmaking process do you enjoy the most?

AW: I love filming and I love editing. I don’t particularly love pre-production so much. Once I’ve got the location sorted, and I’ve done my boards and spoken to my people, that’s fun, but it always feels frustrating because I want to get into filming. Once we’re filming, it’s crazy and it’s manic, but I kind of love that energy. And then with editing there’s a nostalgia for what you’ve shot but it’s also exciting because you get to kind of make the film again. My films are very much about sculpting in post and my editor Cindy has been integral to that because she’s such a creative force in her own right. Collaborating with her has allowed us to create something that is still the same vision but stronger because we’ve worked on it so closely together. We discussed the film beforehand, and she really got where I was wanting to go with it and during the shoot she was talking to us. She was in Australia and I was in Singapore, but she was watching stuff that we were sending through. So she was still communicating with us during the shoot. Afterwards we discussed how we were going to shape it and how we were going to keep consistent to what we set out to do from our initial discussions.

RG: We can imagine it must be difficult to keep such a minimalistic film compelling. How much of the pace did you pre-envision and how much was determined during the editing process?

AW: I think the pace was always there. What we sculpted in post was how we played with the sense of hypnotic fragmentation. Cindy wanted to play with what was more suspenseful. We built suspense, but we wanted it to also die off. We wanted light and shade so really post was about sculpting that and taking footage that could really linger in the space. We’d play with contracting and expanding shots – do we want it to feel tense here or not?

I really like the idea of simplifying. Like I said, with my shorts I’d been simplifying and simplifying, and that’s just what I’m interested in. It’s not for everybody, but I like to focus on the smaller details, that are the mundane things. I think because I’m so hyperactive as a person it’s almost like meditation for me. But very much I wanted to expand upon something simple in a cinematic space, something that you can lock people in and I guess as far as character goes it’s about exploring vulnerability as an individual and exploring vulnerability in humanity. What can happen when a kid is sent to war. He’s not a big soldier who knows what to do, he’s just a kid. I wanted people to realise from his face and his actions that he doesn’t really know what the hell he’s doing. He’s incredibly fearful. He’s just a human being stuck in this environment. When you simplify it so much that it’s just existence there’s something quite primeval and visceral so it’s not about actions it’s about being.

RG: Despite it’s slick visual aesthetic, Canopy was made on a reasonably small budget. Where there any significant compromises that you had to make as a result of the budget?

AW: Not really, we knew what locations we were going to film in beforehand. I’d researched them over and over. We found locations that we wanted that were different from each other. It isn’t like we missed out on any locations. When it comes to the visual effects and the sound, we spent a lot of time with both. We were lucky enough to be sponsored by both a visual effects company and a sound company. So we got to really play with that. I think with our mix, we were really squashed in terms of time. I think we would have liked an extra week, but then we got the opportunity to do Dolby atmos mix a month ago, so that allowed us to open it up again and play with it more and refine it a bit more. But you always want more time in a mix. But in terms of locations and the storytelling we were really from the beginning wanting to make it a story about an individual who couldn’t see beyond the forrest. He couldn’t see the war. When we do see a craft it’s the beginning. It’s setting the tone. Once he’s down, you’re with him. So it was a very conscious decision to keep that separate from the audience, whether you want to see it or not, we’re not going to show it to you. Same with the dialogue, we’re not going to make you understand what the Chinese character is saying because he (Jim – Khan Chittenden) doesn’t understand that. And then not being able to see, only hear, planes with that sort of sense of fear, the heightened tension – they’e all conscious choices as opposed to ‘well, we don’t have much money’.

I guess I could say more days, but then again, we were so pushed to get the film done, and we worked such long days that it meant the actors were so relentlessly honest in these roles. There was no escape. It played into the performance, I guess. It was all hot and sticky and unrelenting, so maybe in hindsight time wouldn’t have been better for us, maybe it was best we just did it in the time frame we had. With more money and time comes more problems. It’s hard to say whether that would have helped us or not.

aaron wilson

RG: Australia has a great legacy of war films, such as Breaker Morant, Gallipoli or Kokoda, but Canopy seems much more introspective. How important do you think the war setting was?

AW: I think it can be applied to whatever an individual watching it interprets it to be. Its a heightened situation and there’s a connection that forms in a very unusual circumstance and I think that sort of thing can be applied to anywhere. It’s that feeling of connecting with someone and connection can be many things. I kind of like the idea that there’s a connection formed in a heightened world that they can never experience again and that they can’t explain to anyone. And that can happen to anyone, we all have those encounters in life.

But also the idea that war is such a formative background that it’s universal. It isn’t really something that is specific to that war. Any family can relate, because any family in the world has some family member or some connection to war of some kind, so they can understand the significant impact it has on people. The idea that these sort of experiences won’t just be with them when they’re at war, but that it will come back with them when they return. For me, it’s stripping it right down to the vulnerability of this individual, something very human and very basic. Focusing on emotions. An emotional journey, rather than war. It just happens to be set in the context of war.

RG: What are some influences? What do you think makes a great film?

AW: There was one student in a class that I spoke to recently that asked ‘How do you make a perfect film?’ I said ‘There’s no such thing as a perfect film.’ Some of my favourite films are flawed films, but they’re films that have such expression and voice and stay with me because…maybe because they’re flawed. Because they’ve tried things, and some things work and some things don’t. That resonates with you and sort of breaks from convention. Not for the sake of it, but because they’ve got something to say and that’s the way they choose to say it.

That said, Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. It happens to be another films set during war but thats another incredibly resonate film for me. Even The Mirror and the way it plays with time and space and I guess there’s a sense of poetry in that film. That’s a thing that I really respond to. Even when I was a kid I used to watch Douglas Sirk melodramas on TV and again they’re quite poetic because they’re trying to comment on what’s happening to society but in a melodramatic way. Again in Asian cinema, Wong Kar Wai or particularly Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese director. They’re speaking about everyday moments, but in very poetic ways.

RG: What’s on the horizon?

AW: I’ve got lots of ideas for other films, but I really would like to take a film that’s sort of not mine. One that I can just jump on and bring something to. The writing process is great but it takes a lot out of you. So maybe a script that a friend is developing that I can contribute to. I like the idea that I don’t have to make stories that are my own scripts but as long as I connect with them thematically or with the story or there’s something in there that I feel like I can bring something to, I just want to keep making stuff. I just want to keep productive and keep working.

RG: Do you have any advice for new filmmakers?

AW: Just keep going, no matter what people say to you. You keep going, as long as you believe in what it is you’re telling, and the way you want to tell it then you keep going. And you always make mistakes, but that’s life. As long as you’re prepared to not give up then you’ll get stuff made. That’s the most important thing.

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