An interview with Grant Scicluna, writer-director of Downriver—a powerful new Australian film in the tradition of The Boys.
“I’ve always had a fascination with unsolved crimes and the way that pain continues to ripple,” explains Australian writer-director Grant Scicluna. His debut feature, Downriver, which premieres at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2015 this week, is correspondingly dark. It tells the story of James Levy (Reed Ireland), a fragile young man who drowned a child as a teenager. Set years later, the film pivots around the murderer’s release from juvenile detention and subsequent quest for redemption as he searches for his victim’s body. Along the way he becomes entangled in a homoerotic love triangle and uncovers a crime even more sinister than his own. Gritty, violent, yet undeniably tender, Downriver probes the indelible impact of tragedy and guilt.
Scicluna’s interest in the emotional aftermath of crime stems from a childhood event. “A neighbour of mine was abducted and her body was never found, even though the killer was charged,” he recounts. “I was maybe 11 or 12 when that happened, and [her] kids were my friends… As the years went by I still thought, ‘those poor kids still don’t know where their mum is’.”
He sees solace in the exploration of sombre themes, though. “You can’t have darkness unless you have light and you can’t have tenderness unless you have brutality… My mission is to go to extremes so that moments of tenderness and friendship and love are all the more potent because they exist within a world which is really dark and challenging.”
The story unfolds in backwater Australia, but the small-town setting breaks convention through the sexuality of its inhabitants; the central cast is largely populated by sexually assertive queer men. Scicluna says the demographic mirrors his own provincial upbringing in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. “Despite [living rurally] I had a number of gay friends… there were people of different sexualities all around me.”
While overtly homoerotic, Downriver’s characters never discuss their orientations or identities—a conscious decision on Scicluna’s part. “The film is not about coming out, it’s not about being gay, but at the same time the different sexualities of the characters affect their behaviours and their reactions… I didn’t need, dramatically, to ever have any of the characters talk about what it was like to be gay or to be different.”
“The character Damien [James’ love interest, portrayed by Charles Grounds], I see him as the most rounded young man who’s probably 16 or 17, knows his sexuality, knows himself, and that changes how he behaves as a character. As opposed to the other boy, Anthony [Downriver’s antagonist, played by Tom Green], who is possibly gay, maybe bi, may not be identifying with either of those sexualities, but he’s certainly engaging in male-to-male sex, and yet he’s not comfortable with it. So all of that is absolutely conscious when I’m designing the characters, but I try to do it in such a way so the audience draws their own inferences.”
“The ‘coming out’ film has been done absolutely to death,” he says, lamenting that queer directors have been cornered into a constricting genre with limiting conventions and tropes. “I just would like to see queer filmmakers be a little bit more radical and go outside what’s expected of a queer film now, and just start pushing it back to the edges and make it more fucked up and interesting. I think it’s been kind of treading water a little bit.”
“Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin,” he lists, discussing his influences. “The original impulses of those early queer filmmakers were not to set out and make a particular genre known as a ‘queer film’. They just were different because the characters have different sexualities, but often because the structures were different. They were just not normal. They were just sitting on the edge, and that’s what queer film grew out of, and that’s where I’d like to see queer film be able to go back to.”
His aim with Downriver was to weave queer characters into a non-queer narrative. “Using queer characters in unexpected ways refreshes every genre and refreshes stories… there shouldn’t be rules. Everyone should feel free to go as far as they want to go with representing sexualities and genders. That’s what I want to see.”