Filmed over thirty days and across roughly sixty locations around New South Wales, cinematographer Dimitri Zaunders talks to us about his work on the film Friends and Strangers.
Interview by Vanessa Abbott.
AC – How did you first get involved on this project?
DZ – I knew director James Vaughan’s work, we had known each other briefly before he moved to Melbourne to work with the filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson, whose work I loved and who gave his support to the film. Along with the great producer Lucy Rennick it was great to be a part of that team and to be able to read the script for ‘Friends and Strangers’. I hadn’t read anything like it before. It was a wild and ambitious film about Australia in three very different parts – a failed romantic getaway at an outback campsite, an absurd comedy in a harbourside mansion and a surreal odyssey through the Australian bush.
AC – Can you describe the original pitch for us?
DZ – The pitch document was full of wonderful images, particularly from street photographers that I love very much, so it was already a great basis. But of course that was just a starting point and we added to that over the course of a long time sharing other images that we were both drawn to.
We had the opportunity before embarking on the film together, even before any real preproduction, to shoot a series of art films and short documentaries, which we did over many months leading up to starting on the film. It was a beautiful collaboration. By the time we started our first day of shooting I think we didn’t even need to say a word to each other to know what we wanted to do.
AC – Did you have any references for what you wanted to achieve?
DZ – It was fortunate that we had the time to screen many films together and talk about the things that we liked. We watched Chantal Akerman’s From The East (1993, cinematography by Bernard Delville and Rémon Fromont SBC), set in post-Soviet Eastern Europe where the camera tracks slowly through city streets and we were both inspired by those compositions and arrangements of people spatially.
And we were both inspired a lot by the films of Hong Sang Soo, Albert Serra and the sprawling ensembles of Robert Altman. I looked a lot at the work of Australian painter Arthur Boyd, looking at how his landscapes responded and reacted subjectively to the country. I wanted to use that idea of showing the land and topography of a place, not what’s beyond the horizon, compositionally almost to avoid seeing horizons but to be looking down, and inwards. I was greatly inspired by street photographers who take a documentary approach to exploring the absurdity of society, especially Robert Frank in his landmark photo series The Americans, and Martin Parr who rendered those invisible tensions and inanities in British society into visual form.
AC – What was your collaboration like with the production design team on this film?
DZ – Friends and Strangers is hugely ambitious in scale and there was a lot to do. We started with about 130 pages of script and we needed to find something like 40 different locations; city streets, a campground on a lake, the tops of waterfalls, harbour beaches, bushtracks and cliff precipices. We were fortunate to have the great Milena Stojanovska as our production designer, who has a background in the visual arts and outside film works with contemporary painters. It was a great collaboration, talking about the sets, choosing different curtains to filter the light and discussing what colours we’d paint the walls. Vaughan, Stojanovska and I travelled all over New South Wales looking at possible locations and talking about what we wanted to do with the film.
Because so much of the film took place outside, it meant that we were often working in large exterior scenes where we were modulating the light through large bounce and negative sources, and scheduling things quite precisely. That meant a huge amount of collaboration with our incredible first assistant director Stuart Beedie to plan the times of day for each scene. There was a very particular quality of light that I wanted for the film, a hard light normally in three quarter back light, and to always feel the warm sun.
We were incredibly lucky, I think there was only one day when there were a few clouds in the sky, although later we shot some pickups during the worst of Sydney’s bushfire smoke and there were a few weeks when we couldn’t shoot because we couldn’t see the sun. In some cases that softness in exteriors would be a huge gift, although it sadly didn’t fit what we were trying to match to and had already established.
AC – What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what cameras and lenses to shoot the film?
DZ – I was interested in exploring a different tonal range for the film. I’ve always loved exploring that kind of densitometry with film, experimenting with exposures and putting the film into the toe of the exposure curve. During preproduction we shot some images of the bush at 1600 ASA to test what that image would look like tonally and in terms of grain, and it had an incredible texture and character that drew us in.
In pre-production, the director and I found that we loved films that sustain themselves in unbroken scenes and landscapes, and I think the quality of the light and the texture of the image becomes even more intrinsically important, putting life into the image. In the end we didn’t go with 16mm but instead the Alexa with Cooke Speed Panchros – they had a character and unpredictability to their out of focus areas that was appealing.
It was incredible to have the support of Lemac on the film, providing gear that was shipped from other parts of Australia and always ensuring we had what we needed. We tested a lot of filters and thanks to Lemac chose Classic Softs in various strengths. Sharpness and clarity were something I wanted to pull out of the film, to pair that harder light and depth in the image with an image that was slightly distant and encouraged the viewer to work harder to peer in.
AC – How did you approach coverage?
DZ – In our approach to the film’s scenes we wanted to create a sense of imbalance within each scenario, for that to feel incomplete and to embrace the off screen space. To have an awareness of perspective, whose point-of-view we’re seeing and whose we’re not, and the restraint of leaving the camera there. Often people would block each other, they might drift out of the frame, and action would take place off-screen. That was something we responded to a lot in the films of Angela Schanelec, her very precise treatment of space. It was important in our film to feel that the country extended beyond the edges of the frame, to have an awareness of the borders or limits of the picture and to always feel that this was a limited perspective that was frustrated or impeded in some way.
I think I’d describe it almost as an incidental kind of filmmaking. We spoke a lot about wanting the film to feel like events and characters were almost captured accidentally, as though things were taking place in the foreground while what was happening in the mid-ground and far background were almost equally weighted. I think from experience the irony is that it always takes an incredible amount of planning and preparation to make things feel unplanned or accidental!
I think there’s a great balance to be found between doing that work in preproduction and preparing a lot, and then embracing the unforeseen accidents that occur. It was interesting to work in that way.
AC – Can you speak about your own crew in the camera department? Did you operate the camera yourself?
DZ – We were so fortunate to have about 30 actual shoot days with the full crew, besides the extra days that we had by ourselves. It was important to me to have a diverse and experienced camera and lighting crew, and we were honoured to have the experienced people that we had; Matt Scott Chow, Tim Fay, Michael Fairbairn and Rose Newland were my great focus pullers, Trudi Gultom our wonderful loader, Rollie Serrano, Jamie Gray and Blake Sharp Wiggins in lighting and Georgia Plantzos supported us as data wrangler. My gaffer was Charles Gray, who I’ve worked with over many years and was an invaluable asset to the film.
It was an incredible core crew who would travel with us for various phases of filming – on a lake at Burrinjuck Dam, near Yass, we all stayed in cabins, and in Fitzroy Falls just out of Kangaroo Valley we all stayed in rooms on a large property and ate together every night in a big mess hall – there was a great camaraderie, it felt a bit like we were all away together on a summer camp.
AC – Were you involved with the post-production, and what was your intention going into the grade? Who was your colourist?
DZ – We’d put a lot of consideration into the colour and textures of the film, I was always looking at tests and even during shooting we’d be looking at the dailies, so that the director and I are always reviewing and thinking about the direction we’re going. We don’t have that much choice these days over different film stocks and colour processes, and I think it’s good to be making those decisions as part of the making of the film. Tonally I didn’t want the film to have too much shadow detail, especially in large exteriors, but it had to have beautiful highlights. We were so fortunate to be able to work with the colourist Yanni Kronenberg, who’s been a long term collaborator for both of us. He gave so much of himself to the film.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or scene in Friends and Strangers? Why?
DZ – We had scenes involving large set pieces, like a car breaking down in the middle of Oxford Street, a man suspended from a towering tree after his parachute becomes ensnared in the upper branches, and underwater scenes of swimming in the middle of Sydney harbour. It was fun orchestrating long, complicated shots with huge amount of extras, such as in the driving scenes. But most of all I loved the images we were able to capture unexpectedly, often it would be something happening off in a different part of the street away from where we’d be filming, or something that would wander unprompted through frame. We were very lucky that we’d often be able to return to locations at different times with just the camera or a smaller crew. For me the beauty of the film is in the moments that couldn’t have been replicated, the odd arrangements and blocking of people in landscapes and their unusual activities on the edges of the frame that occupy an ambiguous position between documentary and fiction.
AC – With the benefit of hindsight, what might you go back and do differently or what would you change?
DZ – I knew going in that a feature film can take over your whole life, especially once my wife Rebecca Lamond became involved in the film before shooting, first as a line producer and eventually as a producer. I think in hindsight I’d try to keep some sanity in our personal life by giving ourselves some space away from the film!
I couldn’t be happier with the film, even if it did take over my life for a while. It was the first Australian film ever selected for Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition, received a selection for MoMa’s ‘New Directors/New Films’ at Film at Lincoln Centre in New York, and won the special jury prize at the incredible Jeonju International Film Festival in Korea. It was amazing to receive that prize from Albert Serra, who had been a huge inspiration on the film all the way back at the beginning. To see the response to the film overseas has been incredible. It will have its premiere in Australia at some great festivals very soon!
Dimitri Zaunders is an up-and-coming cinematographer and photographer, working between documentary and fiction.
Vanessa Abbott is a writer based in Melbourne.