Self-funded, made entirely during a pandemic and shot in the sleepy coastal town of Albany, Western Australia, independent feature Edward and Isabella is slowly making waves around the world. We talk with writer, director and cinematographer Adam Morris about his impressive film debut and how it all came about.
By Dash Wilson.
AC – Edward and Isabella has been a major success on the festival circuit so far, recently winning the Best Film at the Prague International Film Festival and Best Director at the Tokyo Film Awards. Can you tell us how this project come about?
AM – I started writing the script in January of 2020 on a train from Berlin heading to Auschwitz. It was the first leg of a suffering pilgrimage of sorts that ended in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a month later. It sparked an idea that I should write a film about a relationship that’s coming apart at the seams. I kept writing in Hobart and finished the script back home in Albany a few months later not really knowing what I was going to do with it.
Then the pandemic hit and all my work was cancelled along with the book tour we had scheduled for my novel Bird. I thought we may as well try and make a film as we didn’t know how long the shutdown was going to last. As the saying goes, ‘When life gives you lemons, go make a low-budget independent feature film’.
I met Lachlan Gillet and Kim Lofts in Albany who agreed to come on board for sound and lighting and Gillet also agreed to keep an eye on me as I was cinematographer and it was my first time shooting anything. I put out a casting call on a few acting sites and in no time at all, Chloe Hurst was sending me audition tapes and things got serious, very quickly.
AC – What was the collaboration like with your production design team? Can you talk about the look and feel you were working toward and what you set out to achieve? What references or inspirations were you working from?
AM – We were going for something along the lines of 1970s classic cinema, something that Woody Allen might have made in one of those beach houses in the Hamptons, or Sophia Coppola might have made if Bill Murray was doing whiskey commercials in rural Western Australia instead of Tokyo.
The film was always going to look more European than Australian, but that comes out of the type of film it is. If you’re shooting a film with only two actors and it’s about their relationship, you’re either going to get that Ingmar Bergman meets Mike Leigh vibe or it’s going to look like a bad episode of Neighbours. I think we’ve well and truly landed more on the Tender Mercies (1983) side of things, rather than Ramsay Street.
Due to limited budget and the constraints of an eighteen-day shoot, we really didn’t have the resources to manipulate things too much. We had to accept the weather and lighting of the day as we mostly used natural light, especially if we did anything outdoors but there’s a great level of freedom in having that approach too.
The film’s philosophy was like the Taoist story of the farmer’s son who returns with a wild horse. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character tells it in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). We shot everyday, did the very best we could and took the approach of ‘we’ll see’.
AC – As the director, how did you go about achieving and maintaining your ‘directorial vision’ while working with your creative team’s and actor’s perspectives? What were your biggest challenges?
AM – I don’t really know how it happened. Everyone gave me their complete trust and seemed to wholeheartedly believe in what we were doing. I hadn’t shot anything before Edward and Isabella. No short films or television, no theatre experience of any kind, but everyone turned up like we were all involved in a professional shoot led by an experienced director who knew exactly what he was doing. There were quite a few times when I’d look around the set and think ‘What are all these people doing here?’.
Actors Daniel Barwick, Chloe Hurst and Renato Fabretti were so prepared for their roles we were able to do multiple takes of every scene even on our tight schedule. They knew the script word perfect and could recite it backwards if we needed them to. They were absolutely incredible and it shows on screen. Fabretti, who plays a Doctor and who doesn’t appear on camera, steals nearly the whole film with just his voice. He and Chloe did some marvellous improvising too which made its way into a beautiful part of the film. The cliche of casting being 90 percent of the directing is absolutely true. We went through nearly two-hundred audition tapes and showreels to find our cast.
After we wrapped filming we took a month off and I spent about six months editing the film with my girlfriend. It took slightly longer than expected as we were learning as we went but we both have very similar sensibilities. Our choices were often identical. The editing was probably the most challenging aspect of the production but also strangely the most fun, as you can feel the film kind of emerging underneath you. We shot a lot of the film using medium and master shots so we would have less editing work to do on the back end. That approach also gives us that style that people like Mike Leigh, or Woody Allen, or Robert Altman are famous for, where the emphasis of the film is placed on character and tone as well as the different themes that run through the picture.
AC – There are many memorable scenes in this film, do you have a favourite shot or sequence? Why?
AM – We shot a sequence on Bluff Knoll where Edward (Barwick) and Isabella (Hurst) go hiking for the day. For anyone unfamiliar with Bluff Knoll, it’s the highest peak in Western Australia and is set amongst the surreal landscape of the Porongorups. The climb up can only be described as categorically and unforgivingly brutal. It’s basically like walking up a steep flight of stairs for two and a half hours with almost no flat ground for the entire ascent.
Add some heat, swarms of flies and carrying sound and camera gear, it made for a gruelling day but the result in the finished film is literally worth the price of admission. It’s the first time Bluff Knoll has ever been featured in a film so we gave it its own credit at the end of the movie. A piece of opera by Guiseppe Verdi, which we managed to score for a bargain from the Philharmonic Orchestra of Rome, suited the montage perfectly. Even for someone who’s watched it a thousand times in the editing room, I still love it.
AC – Making films and getting people to watch is getting harder and harder as television and streaming has become such a juggernaut. How have you been promoting the film and what have been some obstacles of this?
AM – We’ve teamed up with Halo Films in Perth which is the brainchild of Ian Hale who has decades in the film industry working for the major players in distribution, development and production. He started Halo a couple of years ago to distribute independent films made in Western Australia. Hale is also one of the most energetic and passionate people I’ve ever met. I asked him where his passion for film came from and he said it was Bill Collins and Cary Grant’s doing when he was a young boy. We’re in good hands.
The film festival world seems to be very much alive and thriving and streaming seems to be taking its place alongside traditional cinema rather than taking it over but this is all new to me so other more experienced people might completely disagree. People like the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese are releasing their films on streaming platforms so it’s hard to see video-on-demand or streaming as obstacles, rather than just more opportunities to show your film.
AC – How did you finance the film?
AM – This film was made for $15,000 cash and about $300,000 of what’s called in-kind contributions, which is a more professional way of saying almost everybody worked for free.
AC – You are a proud Western Australian local. The state is really starting to become known for its film scene. Did you shoot the film entirely in WA and has Covid been a hindrance to the filmmaking process?
AC – I heard Western Australia being described as a ‘hermit state’ over the last two years and I think that’s pretty accurate. Life has gone on pretty much as normal here barring a couple of three-day lockdowns here and there. It was perhaps the one time when our isolation has worked wonders for us. We’ve really been spared from the worst of the pandemic. It also meant actors like Chloe Hurst were home from Los Angeles to be with their families and were available. Hurst was shooting a third season of a Disney series in the United States before coming home. If not for the pandemic, I would have had to play the part of Edward with my sister playing Isabella and trust me, no one wants to see that movie.
AC – Looking back on what you had originally set out to achieve and envision, do you think you succeeded? In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
AM – The original mantra I had playing in my head every day during shooting and every day after in post-production was ‘just make a film’. That was the goal. To produce something that vaguely resembled a feature film.
I knew we had a good script, the crew were solid and the actors were fantastic and all I wanted to do was bring it all the way home and have a small feature film that looked like a feature film, smelled like a feature film and if you licked it, tasted like a feature film and more importantly when other people looked at it, they would agree it was indeed a feature film.
At best, I thought if it played at 2.00am on an obscure Romanian television station, then that would be a great victory. The fact that we’re now winning international awards, have a distributor who’s backing us all the way and the film is resonating with people literally all around the world is quite frankly insane.
AC – And finally, what are you working on next?
AM – I’m actively seeking a producer to take on my novel Bird. It was nominated for a Miles Franklin Award last year and would make a terrific big-budget feature film or a television series. The novel is being translated into German this year and I’d love for it to come to life onscreen with a powerful Aboriginal actor in the lead role.
Adam Morris is a director and cinematographer based in Western Australia.
Dash Wilson is a writer, reviewer and lover of film based in Brisbane.