A father has less than one day to pay back a debt to a violent loan shark, while looking after his young son. We speak to cinematographer Thom Neal about lensing the moving new Australian drama West of Sunshine.
By Vanessa Abbott.
From the outset, all that’s known about Jim (Damian Hill) is that he drives an immaculately maintained 1970s car and works for a courier company. He’s also fifteen-thousand dollars in the hole to Banos (Tony Nikolakopoulos), a menacing loan shark who wants his cash by the end of the day.
Jason Raftopoulos, the Director behind West of Sunshine, was eager to put a feature film together based on a short of his called Father’s Day (2011). Raftopoulos approached cinematographer Thom Neal about shooting the film. “We hit it off straight away and to be truthful,” says Neal, “I don’t think there are many people who don’t hit it off with Jason Raftopoulos. He has an infectious positivity and innocence that makes you curious about how he sees the world.“
Neal had met producer Alexandros Ouzas briefly through a friend while the cinematographer was still in film school. Ouzas had come on the board the project early on. The team were very motivated from the first conversations that Neal had with them, and committed to produce West of Sunshine no matter the scale.
When Neal was asked relatively early to join the creative team behind the film, the script was about eighteen pages long. “Camera and lensing conversations came naturally as we did location scouts and blocked scenes to get a sense of how the narrative would develop visually,” he explains. “As the film is set over the course of a single day, we wanted to develop a distinct energy for each scene.”
“I wanted to find beauty in the ugly, mundane nature of Jim’s world.”
Budget wise, the filmmakers were limited. They ended up choosing a simple yet stylistic camera and lens package. “Something that was reliable and helped set a fairly natural look,” says Neal. Knowing they wanted older glass, too, the cinematographer chose to film West of Sunshine on the Alexa SXT with Zeiss Super Speeds.
Overall, the crew was relatively small. But Neal assembled an outstanding camera department full of great, young talent. “Felicia Smith pulling focus, James Bentley clapping and Bonita Carzino on split… everyone was outstanding!,” he exclaims. “I’d worked with them on short films and music videos before, so it was cool to tackle a feature film together. All being fairly young and eager to throw ourselves at the challenge. Having such a nimble crew also meant that we could be really responsive to the weather and our locations.”
Location scouting took almost five weeks, and the cinematographer was an integral part of that process. “There are more than thirty locations in the script,” says Neal. Production Designer Anna Russell, Raftopoulos and Neal would visit locations and see how they fit from a blocking and palette point-of-view. “As our narrative was created from real locations with real people, our look developed quite naturally,” he explains. “We knew right away when a location didn’t fit within our world.”
The filmmakers took a lot of reference from ‘neorealism cinema’, with the film paying small homage to classics such as The Bicycle Thief (1948, cinematography by Carlo Montuori). “I thoroughly enjoyed watching Vittorio De Sica’s films. I’m really attracted to photographers like Boogie, Alex Webb and William Eggleston. They have always been a visual reference for me.
Neal says West of Sunshine is an ode to the streets of Melbourne, “We wanted to feel the heat that comes from a quintessential summer’s day. Harsh, unforgiving and similar to the frenetic day that the film is set across.”
Time of day became very important to Neal’s photography and each location needed to be specifically scheduled. “Our lead Damian Hill played the character of ‘Jim’. Hill’s own son, Tyler Perham, ended up playing the role of ‘Alex’, his son in the film, which was beautiful to watch,” says Neal. “Hill and Perham were incredibly accommodating.”
West of Sunshine was shot in February, meaning the sun was high key. “That isn’t normally particularly flattering, but in this instance we wanted to place the Jim character in more of those situations,” says Neal. “Make harshness his reality. I wanted to find beauty in the ugly, mundane nature of Jim’s world.”
Fortunately, the filmmakers were lucky with weather throughout the shoot. Constantly shifting locations, while going from interiors to exteriors, gave the crew flexibility for performance but made lighting difficult. Especially with such a limited size crew. “Whatever went up had to be very quick,” Neal explains. “Most of the way I shaped light came from scheduling, or negative fill.”
“Most of the way I shaped light came from scheduling, or negative fill.”
Much of West of Sunshine is set in a 1976 Ford Fairlane. “In a subtler way,” says Neal, “this represented an integral character in the film.” The team chose to be inside the car for a lot of the screen time, mostly due to budget restrictions. “We embraced the confined and heated energy. There were some hot days spent driving around the streets of Melbourne in that car.”
“I like the use of a smaller range of focal lengths,” says Neal. “I feel it helps with cutting, so I shot close to eighty-five percent of the film on a 35mm length. That gave us the foundation to move in and out, and play with the intimacy of our character’s moments.”
Using ‘older glass’, coupled with knowing that West of Sunshine would receive a theatrical release, meant Neal stayed away from shooting wide open. He also made a rule of always being between T2 and a third and T2.8. “This allowed me to give Smith (Focus Puller) half a chance on the wheel as a lot of the time we were rolling up on moments on the fly, moving around quite a lot and responding to what was happening in front of me,” says Neal.
“I always tried to have the camera ‘participating’ in a scene and made sure a point of view was established. Raftopoulos and myself worked very intuitively.” Neal says Raftopoulos works hard for his performances, and that his relationship with the cast was very tight. “I would try to offer something that always honoured this,” says Neal.
The final scenes from West of Sunshine are some of Neal’s favourites, and represented an intense period for the filmmakers during production. “Those scenes were also where the Director and I had decided to inject some nuanced images into the film, and to use setups that could potentially linger for a long time,” he says. “We wanted to let the audience finally breathe and take in the final moments from the end of Jim’s and Alex’s day, while keeping intact the representation of a ‘flawed beauty’.”
Neal was involved in the post-production process extensively on West of Sunshine, probably more than any other project he’d been involved with. The film was being roughly assembled by Editor Paul Rowe during principal photography. This meant the crew was getting feedback in real time. “Rowe is a strong story teller,” says Neal. “He was never afraid to let us know if we might have left something out that he thought would add to the narrative.”
Melbourne-based Colourist Nicholas Hower worked on the film with Neal. Hower had helped out Neal on smaller projects prior to collaborating on West of Sunshine, so the pair had a working relationship and understood the style and tone they were after.
“I don’t think we really knew what we were getting ourselves into.”
“We had done some location camera tests, then created two LUTs. One for interiors and one for exteriors,” explains Neal. “This was very helpful with getting back our dailies each night and watching back the rushes to see how it was all sitting. It also made the actual grading process much more efficient. We were essentially just balancing out and fixing up uncontrollable elements.”
Neal says there were a lot of moments that were happening on screen which closely reflected what were going on behind the camera. “This really was just a giant problem-solving-on-the-go type of experience from my perspective,” he explains. “I don’t think we really knew what we were getting ourselves into.”
“I have heard other cinematographers saying that after shooting for about two weeks, everything just starts to feel repetitive,” Neal says. “You feel like you have to change it up a little.” Neal believes that in a film like West of Sunshine, which relies on its social realism, continuity becomes a necessity. “The audience are only there for ninety minutes, not for three or four weeks shooting with you.”
Looking back at his work on West of Sunshine, Neal doesn’t think he would have done anything differently. “We were so limited with our resources that our parameters were really set in for us,” he explains, “which I think worked to our advantage in the end.” He says the crew were ‘super fortunate’ that they became a tight knit family, that would turn up each day and enjoy the moment of what they we’re doing. “The heart that was put into the film is extremely evident… although I am biased!”
He continues, “It was my first feature film and I think it was the perfect project to jump on. I loved being a part of this film. Although the days were long, and hot, it was really special to get to photograph a father and son going through a ‘day in the life’, alongside the rest of the crew.”
Neal now has a couple of feature film scripts that he is in discussions about, and will hopefully get to interview for if the timing is right. He’s just wrapped as Second Unit DOP for Andrew Commis ACS (Girl Asleep, The Daughter) on the film Angel of Mine. “Shooting for Andrew Commis was a treat,” he says, “a legend to work with!”
And while there are some short films that may happen for Neal before the end of the year, we are sure it won’t be too long before the cinematographer will find himself behind the camera on his next feature film. We can’t wait.
Vanessa Abbot is a writer based in Melbourne.