On the eve of its world premiere, Jonathan King takes us behind the scenes of his new science-fiction venture.
On his website, it simply states: “Jonathan King makes films and comics.” That short sentence belies the rollercoaster of a career that he’s had in the former, with 2006’s breakout feature debut Black Sheep heralding the music-video veteran as the next big thing. When 2009’s larger-budgeted Under the Mountain failed at the box office, King had to find a different path, which came first through comics, then through the world of self-funded filmmaking: producing, shooting, editing, and directing a film from Chad Taylor’s script, REALITi.
In a banner year for New Zealand genre films, REALITi stands out as a sober, serious minded science-fiction concept served in plain clothes. By downplaying its genre trappings in favor of a more grounded approach, REALITi delivers an emotional sucker-punch while still giving viewers plenty to puzzle over.
In advance of REALITi’s world premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival, I spoke to King via e-mail and in person about making the film. Our conversation quickly slipped the bounds of the film into greater questions about the New Zealand film industry; look forward to those thoughts in a subsequent piece.
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DOUG DILLAMAN: Creatively, where does your involvement with REALITi begin? Did Chad come to you with an idea, or a full script, or did you develop it collaboratively?
JONATHAN KING: It started with Chad writing an original screenplay—that ended up being pretty much what we shot. We’ve known each other for more than 20 years—from when we both worked at Rip It Up. In fact, I was publishing a comic compilation (one issue only, called Scratch) and wanted to find him, because I’d loved a thing he’d done in Chris Knox’s Jesus On a Stick. He did a piece for the comic, and we became friends—working on some very silly things together late at night at Rip It Up.
After Black Sheep was underway we talked about doing something together. We’d always had similar taste in classic pop culture and old movies and when Chad said, “yeah, I have this thing…” I think I was confident I’d like it.
Chad gave me a first draft basically ‘cold’—I didn’t know what was going to be in it … and I liked it a lot. The first 10 minutes were expanded from a 48 hours short Chad had written, but it pushed ahead in new directions. It was the kind of film I knew I’d love to make one day.
Around that time I ended up making Under the Mountain, and at the same time Chad moved to the UK, so Realiti got put to one side. But it was a script I loved. I was hooked in by the images of it, the questions it asked me, the ideas it brought into play—that all seem even more current today.
After some time (when I had written some other things myself that I didn’t get made) REALITi kept coming back to me as a film I still wanted to make. We’d been making a little comic together—and enjoying the process again—and I said “you know, we should make REALITi.”
DD: What are the challenges—or opportunities—of directing someone else’s script that you haven’t been as involved in shaping?
JK: I guess the biggest opportunity was that I was able to approach ‘the text’ as a piece that I knew worked for me, that I wanted to interpret, to be responding to … whereas as a writer-director, right up to green light—and beyond—you’re always trying to ‘solve’ the script, both as something that ‘works’ … and that they’ll just bloody well let you make!
But, really, once we were going, the process didn’t feel a lot different. I still had to take ‘ownership’—by which I mean responsibility, rather than authorship—of the material. My job was to deliver the ‘bits’ needed to tell the story on screen. The director’s job is not really that much different in that respect whether you wrote the script or not.
Chad and I worked closely during production and the edit. There we times we had to respond to production challenges—like getting a location we wanted and an actor who appeared in that location at the same time. In two particular cases we made changes—one in setting the whole scene somewhere else, one putting one character somewhere else (and on the phone!)—that we both feel made the scenes better. It didn’t involve changing the script, but it changed how I, as the director, staged them. In both those cases the solution didn’t come from rewriting or ‘what’s a cool place I can shoot this scene’, but rather digging into the fabric of what was already in the script and finding solutions there. That’s where, on a micro level, every decision about staging, framing, design should ideally come from anyway.
One other luxury we had by shooting in small blocks, rather than one frantic burst, was the ability to do a couple of small rewrites of scenes in response to assemblies of what we had already shot. One was for a reshoot of a scene, one was for a slightly different approach to something we still had to get. That’s not in any way a failing of what the original script might have said, or what I or actors did on the day … rather a real-time response to what we were getting to keep making good into better. Woody Allen and Peter Jackson swear by such a process, but it’s usually an impossible luxury for most filmmakers.
Any cuts or changes we made in the edit—lines or, in one case, a whole scene—we were on the same page. Chad was often saying before I did, “we could lose that” or, “don’t be afraid to cut that line.” Sometimes actors really do say with a look what you have four lines about in the script. But that’s not to say it shouldn’t be in the script originally to give them the material to find that look.
DD: Your previous films worked on multi-million dollar budgets and crews to match. How big was the crew on this film?
JK: The average on REALITi was a sound person, a camera assistant, a lighting person and a makeup person … and me. That’s basically it. There were times that I had an AD too. The biggest the crew would have ever got is seven people. Whereas Under the Mountain had a 70 person crew.
DD: How did you develop the visual approach to the film? There are many ways to approach the ‘drug film’ or the ‘multiple realities’ film, both of which this could be seen as, and both of which tend to involve an extreme stylistic approach, whereas this film is quite restrained in that sense.
JK: My key approach—again, dictated, I think, by the idea in the script—was that no matter what was in a scene, or where that scene sat in the story, I should approach it as ‘reality’—both in unmannered staging and framing and in what I wanted from the actors’ performance. I wanted every moment to be approached truthfully, even if the narrative later suggested that that moment wasn’t entirely ‘real’. I think a through line of emotional truth, particularly for the main character, really holds up because of that approach, and that’s something I’m very pleased with.
DD: In the space between your two films, your output in comics has been one major public creative outlet. I’m a particular fan of Threat Level and Bookish, and I feel a comic-style sensibility of shot composition in your film work. Do you find that the practices inform each other or overlap in a meaningful way?
JK: After Under the Mountain—an expensive and logistically huge film—I was really creatively burned out. I’d lost a lot of confidence that I could create something without it costing a huge amount of money and involving complicated logistics … that I might not get the money for, so why bother … A not-very-productive cycle. So drawing saved my (creative) life. I took life-drawing classes and started drawing comics—something I had always loved but lacked the confidence to do. I guess after a huge movie it seemed more doable! So I actually worked quite hard at it—in terms of practice, study, trying out materials, and pushing a style.
So in terms of being able to have an idea, explore it and publish it however I want, with no consultation or expense was unbelievably liberating and rejuvenating.
So that process not only brought me back to the confidence to make films, as well as an approach—why not just make it and put it out? But it also informed a visual clarity and confidence (hmm, there’s that word again!) that fed into shooting the film myself too. This film uses much longer lenses than I’ve ever used before: the frames are more composed and graphic than earlier films, where I used wider lenses—sometimes for larger than life or ‘comic’ (but not like a comic) effect.
The two media have a similar vocabulary (though some people, of which I’m not one, resist or even resent the colonisation of comics by film grammar). It is a great way of really focusing your mind onto “what is this a picture of?”, “what needs to be in this frame?” I’d always storyboarded my films myself—in quite a comic style—but now I felt even more sure-handed with the images I wanted to tell the story with. Having said that, I did almost no storyboarding on this film at all! Being behind the camera myself, I didn’t have to describe what I wanted so much as just find the shot myself.
But I still find drawing so satisfying—and challenging—that it really feels like a significant creative backstop: any idea I have I know that there’s a route available to me to get it out, which is hugely comforting. And the challenge of drawing is that there’s no room to hide, no one to blame: it’s just between you and your hand. If you don’t get what you wanted, you throw away the piece of paper and start again … The rewards, when you get it right, feel enormous.
DD: I could also ask the same question about your band: playing music is less superficially similar to filmmaking than comics, but also more grounded in collaboration—and therefore similar to filmmaking—than comics.
JK: Well, in a lesser way music, too, was a way of doing something creative in a low pressure environment—particularly in that I wasn’t writing or directing it all, just playing shitty, noisy guitar at one side of a group of people much more musical than me!
DD: I was struck by Victoria Kelly’s score, and the combination of electronic and acoustic elements to create a productive disorientation and build mood. Can you speak to your collaboration with her, and the process that you used to arrive at the final score?
JK: Victoria’s music has been the only creative element consistent across the three films I’ve directed. We have a really great working relationship in terms of discussing tone, mood, meaning … I’m certainly not musical enough to talk in a technical way about what I’m after … but we have a vocabulary for getting to feeling or meaning that seems to work really well. The three films have had very different scores and musicians. Under the Mountain had the NZSO! This one was all her. But in each of the three films, the score has been so important—almost a character, in terms of having a tonal role to play.
The main difference for this film was that she wrote a number of pieces with a particular feeling or theme, and I would play around with where they might sit in the cut. I might do small edits to make them work, then come back to her, asking “like this, but 20 more seconds at the front.” Some pieces are variations or even repeats—but they play differently with different pictures, or even feel different now after what’s occurred since we last heard them.
But, as always, I’m over the moon with the score—particularly on such a modestly budgeted film. I think the feel for this is perfect—particularly with all those elements you’ve identified: mood and emotion, organic playing against electronic—thematically everything that’s at play in the film.