Set within the primal underworld of Australia’s outlaw motorcycle gangs, Stephen McCallum’s debut feature 1%, shot by Shelley Farthing-Dawe (Pawno), recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Interview by James Cunningham.
1% is set outside the law, and on the on the conflicted loyalties of biker brothers Paddo (Ryan Corr) and Skink (Josh McConville). While Copperheads Motorcycle Club president Knuck (Matt Nable, who also wrote the screenplay) has been doing a three-year penitentiary stretch. Paddo has been looking after the gang’s interests, bringing in new members and refining its business practices until the group is flush with cash. It’s all jeopardised however, when developmentally disabled Skink gets caught stealing a heroin stash from rival gang members the Devils, prompting their leader Sugar (Aaron Pederson) to put a price on his head by demanding the rights to launder the Copperheads’ ill-gotten earnings.
It should be noted about the film’s title, that some outlaw motorcycle clubs can be distinguished by a ‘1%’ patch worn on their colours. This is said to refer to a comment by the American Motorcyclist Association that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens, implying the last one percent were outlaws. We catch up with the cinematographer behind 1%, Shelley Farthing-Dawe, to talk about his work on the film.
AC – How did get involved with this 1%? Had you worked with any of the producers or creative team previously?
SFD – I hadn’t previously worked with the director or producers of the film but I had come recommended from a few shared contacts from the commercial world. I met a few times for coffee with the Director, Stephen McCallum, and we chatted about the story and particularly the characters of the film.
I was really interested by the female characters within the script and their power within the very masculine world of 1% bikie clubs. It’s always great to get on the same page, story wise, with a director even before you start thinking about look, I find it makes all the decisions down the road much easier because they come from a sound base.
AC – Let’s talk about cameras. What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what cameras to shoot with, both aesthetic and financial?
SFD – We had some early discussions about formats and we decided pretty quickly on shooting on the ARRI Alexa Mini. I have worked extensively with the system and it seemed like the perfect option given we wanted to shoot the film predominantly handheld. Keeping the camera small and nimble was important as we wanted the cast to have a bit of freedom with their movement. We kept the camera completely wireless and often it would just be me and the actors in a room together. We tried to create 360º sets as much as possible which, I think, allowed everyone on set that feeling of being in the world rather than a film set.
Lens wise we spoke about a few anamorphic options but in the end decided on spherical master primes with a series of diffusion filters. A great deal of the film was going to be lit to quite low levels so I wanted glass that wasn’t going to break up too much wide open and using the diffusion filters I could add or decrease softening as desired.
AC – Can you talk about the ‘look’ you set out to achieve on the film?
SFD – Going into the film I really wanted to incorporate a great deal of my lighting into the sets, so I work quite extensively with the production design team to source and create light fixtures for all our locations. The look we wanted to create was one that wasn’t necessarily a true representation of contemporary bikie clubs but more of mix of some of the more nostalgic and iconic looks from throughout the history of bikie culture.
We tried to find as many real life locations that fitted our world and but the main clubhouse we had to create from scratch in a disused industrial warehouse complex.
A great deal of the film was set inside this clubhouse in particular a fifteen-page party sequence at night, that we had to shoot both night-for-night and day-for-night. After quite a few conversations about blocking for the scenes, within the night sequence, I had the art and electrics departments install and pre-rig huge amounts of practicals into the set which really made you feel like you were in the world.
AC – Can you speak briefly about your own crew in the camera department? Had you worked with any of them before, and what was your working relationship with them like?
SFD – I was fortunate to have my go to First Assistant Camera on the film, Matthew Jenkins, who I have worked with for quite a few years now both commercially and on previous films. It was quite a challenging job with lots of long continuous takes that changed constantly with actors going with something in the moment. He was fantastic in adapting to that way of working and was a real asset to the film. Our Second Assistant Camera, Andrew McKenzie, and Digital Intermediate Technician (DIT), Sam Winzar, provided really great support to both myself and Jenkins throughout the film.
AC – Had you worked with at on-set DIT before, and how was that experience?
SFD – Winzar was our DIT on the film. Having someone technically-minded checking and doing dailies on-set was a great advantage, and reassurance when you are working at the pace that we were. I had created a show LUT in pre-production which we were viewing both in camera and Winzar would simply add it to the dailies. So much of the film I was pushing the darkness so it was really great to jump over to the DIT and just have a play around with some levels just to make sure I wasn’t going too far, or knowing that I could push it even more.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in the film? Why?
SFD – My favourite sequence in the film is the initiation scene where the character Noisy (Sam Parsonson) gets beaten by the other members of the club. We wanted this scene to feel tribal, violent and didn’t want to shy away from the hits. We blocked this scene out early on in pre-production and we came up with a plan to shoot continuously for the whole scene. I really felt like this approach heightened everything, we shot a couple of extra angles but the main action all works in the one shot. Credit to Parsonson for taking an absolute belting that night. With my Gaffer, Dan Spriggs, and some practical fire pits we created a look that felt like it was lit just with fire light. This really helped push the archaic and violent nature of these initiations.
AC – How involved were you in the post-production process?
SFD – During the film I was constantly getting raw footage from some of the key sequences and putting it into Resolve. I would do some temporary grades, which I kept for the final grade just as a good starting point. We were incredibly lucky to get Trish Cahill (The Hobbit, Hacksaw Ridge) to colour the film who has a great eye and really understood where we wanted to head with the film. The film was graded over two weeks at Spectrum Films at Fox Studios in Sydney.
AC – As a cinematographer how do you work to achieve an overall vision on a film, while still imparting your own unique perspective?
SFD – As a cinematographer I think you are always serving the vision of the director which is why the initial conversations about the film and the approach are so important. Throughout the process you will alway leave your mark on the project, and I think directors love the input of their cinematographers if it is serving the story. I’m definitely a ‘story first’ cinematographer, which I think really helps in putting your ideas into the film.
AC – Finally, looking back on what you had originally set out to achieve in 1%, do you think you succeeded?
SFD – The process of filmmaking is always one of discovery and I think we were able to create a film that definitely creates the response from audiences that we set out to achieve. Our film is best described by our director as “a cinematic kick in the teeth” and that’s what we are most proud of.
Shelley Farthing-Dawe is a cinematographer from Melbourne who works across both commerical and drama fields.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.