At the New Zealand International Film Festival, Wellington musician Theo Taylor discusses the making of his debut feature, Scenes in My Head—a belated return to the ethos first cultivated by the Aro Valley film movement.
Rooted to the fundamentals of low-budget cinema, Theo Taylor’s Scenes in My Head is a refreshing sidestep from current trends in digital filmmaking. With simply a camera, three actors, and a location, Taylor has translated a personal experience of unexpected paranoia into a sharply focused portrait of unspoken tension. Two friends, one recently broken up (Simon Haren), the other (Joseph Baxter) with girlfriend in tow (Isobel Mackinnon), spend a weekend together up North; a night of drugs and alcohol the very least of their worries.
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TIM WONG: Shooting a film can be such a cluttered and unwieldy experience, and yet Scenes in My Head seems to have been made with minimal fuss and very few ‘overheads’—the credits were surprisingly spare. Tell me about the origin of the film and the process of making it.
THEO TAYLOR: It’s based on a real experience that I had about three years ago. Pretty much everything that happens in the film happened to me, but not in the way that I portrayed it. I thought that it was an interesting situation, one with dramatic and filmic potential, and started thinking about it in terms of making a film. Eventually, I just decided to lock in some dates with some friends to go up [to Lake Tarawera] and shoot it. We spent two weeks filming, and then three weeks editing. We tried to do it as fast and unfiltered and uncensored as possible.
TW: When did it occur to you to take this real life experience and reimagine it as a narrative film?
TT: I’ve always loved narrative films, but I’ve always only made documentaries. I love documentary filmmaking; trying to transcribe a realist situation to film. I never had an idea for a fictional film for this reason, and also because I didn’t have faith in myself to write a script. Then this situation happened, and I thought it was a story and an experience that I could take as a documentary filmmaker and retell, but in a vérité style, with an emphasis on making things look as realistic as possible.
TW: Are you familiar with the Aro Valley film movement and its methodology, which is similar to yours?
TT: Very much so.
TW: The movement essentially ended with Kissy Kissy in 2007. Appropriately, it was a kind of satire of the films associated with the Aro Valley. Do you see your film as connected in any way? A revival, even?
TT: Definitely. When I moved to Wellington and found out about the movement, I was so enthralled. One of my favourite New Zealand films is Kissy Kissy. In fact, one of the strains in that film, and the thing I found most interesting, was the subplot of these two guys. One has just broken up with his girlfriend and goes to a bach to deal with it, and the other one tags along. That pretty much mirrors my experience. Only, I wanted to see a whole film about it.
TW: This is not meant in the pejorative sense, but were you surprised your film was accepted into the film festival? It seems that since the Aro Valley film movement petered out, digital filmmaking has shifted dramatically towards the aesthetic side. There’s an expectation now that even low budget films are cinematic. Would it be fair to say that your film deliberately eschews the current ‘look’ of digital cinema with its flat, no-frills appearance?
TT: I was surprised to get into the festival, because I was wracked with doubt after I had completed it. My friend convinced me to enter it, because I wasn’t doing anything else with it, so I sent in a loose disc in a envelope with a couple of bits of paper scrawled with “here’s my film.” I didn’t think anything would come of it. But I really trust Bill Gosden’s taste. I saw a film at last year’s film festival called We Feel Fine, and that was another low budget effort, but shot on a DSLR. So that was very encouraging. I thought if they could get in a film into the festival like that, then they would probably still be open to the kind of film I wanted to make as well.
In terms of the new direction of digital filmmaking, there are so many movies coming out these days shot on DSLR cameras. I think people are getting a bit too caught up with the image. You can make great images these days for so little money, but in doing so, you can forget about the story. So I really wanted to make a point—not that I don’t care about the mise en scène, or anything—of really paying attention to the performance and the story.
TW: The language in your film is so self-consciously colloquial—every second word is “yeah bro” or “yeah man”—that nothing is really said, and yet this has the effect of drawing out the inner, unspoken tension between the two parties. This was your intention?
TT: Totally. I’m glad it reads that way. It’s kind of a film where people just don’t talk about the things they want to do. I’m a big fan of Andrew Bujalski. He’s a master of that. Reducing the drama down so much that it’s just bubbling under the surface and you’re aware of people’s conflictions and complications, even though no one really talks about it. Just like real life.
TW: The scene in the hot spring—a homage to Old Joy?
TT: Yes, you picked it! Cassavetes was my main influence in terms of philosophy. Stylistically, it was Kissy Kissy and Old Joy. I wanted to merge them, if not throw in some homage.
TW: Is there anything else in the film that’s an overt reference?
TT: Some silly things that probably no one else will notice. There’s one shot where you can see me filming in one of the windows, and there’s also a shot in Faces where you can see Cassavetes in the window. I thought about getting rid of it, but…
TW: Now that you’ve completed your first feature film, are you comfortable with calling yourself a filmmaker? What’s your relationship to film at this point in time?
TT: I would never consider myself a filmmaker, really, but that’s because I don’t consider myself as ‘things’. I like to do a lot of different stuff—make music, take photos, and dance as well. But it is encouraging to have this massive validation by people who you admire. And I’m in the process of starting another film, and I don’t think I would be if I hadn’t had such a good response from people.
TW: How much—or indeed, how little—did it cost you to make?
TT: I think I probably could have made it with no money. But I wanted to give the actors something, I wanted to pay for the petrol, and some of the food, and most of the booze we had up there. So I think, over two weeks, I spent something like $600.
TW: So apart from that, everyone just donated their time and effort?
TT: Yes. But they got to hang out in a really beautiful place!
TW: What is the background of the actors you cast in your film?
TT: They’re all Victoria University graduates. Simon (who plays Hadley), and Isobel to a certain extent, are connected to the theatre company Binge Collective.
TW: Do you aspire to make films in not a commercial, but a designed sense? In other words, the opposite of the film you’ve just made? Or is there an underlying ethos behind your film that you’re loyal to, and if so, does it translate fluidly to your other creative pursuits?
TT: I’m interested in so many kinds of films. I particularly like really crazy, psychedelic, surreal films. The reason for making this film in the way I have is to try to be as honest as possible, and hopefully that honesty will show through. I was trying to make a film that I would like to watch, and something that I could say something with. I think you’ve just got to create from your own life. I’d love to make a really crazy film as well, but I don’t feel like I’m the right person for it.
The other thing I’m quite behind is the idea that you don’t need money to make a film. We live in such a privileged age at the moment where anyone can make a film with no money, and more people should be doing that. It’s great to have my film in the festival so more people will be encouraged by it. Seeing that someone else can make a film with pretty much no money, and that story is the important thing, means a lot.
TW: Would it have mattered to you if it didn’t get in?
TT: No. I still would’ve made the film and been happy with it.
TW: So I take it you don’t mind if it doesn’t go anywhere else, and that this enough?
TT: This is totally enough. I didn’t even expect this. I was just going to put it on Vimeo. And then it got accepted, so I had to prolong that. I think I’ll still put it up on Vimeo after this, unless someone wants to distribute it.
TW: Any films you’ve recently watched that you’ve taken something from?
TT: I think you take something from every film. One was Weekend—that was great.
TW: The interesting thing about Weekend is that even though the acting is naturalistic and seemingly improvised, it is in actuality a tightly scripted film. How locked down were the incidents and exchanges we see in your film?
TT: It was mostly improvisational. I had a script, but it was just a skeleton script with actions. I knew what I wanted to actors to do, but didn’t know how they were going to do it or what they were going to say, except for a couple of moments where I instructed them exactly. But it was mostly improvised. I thought that was important because I didn’t want them to be recreating my memory of the event. I wanted them to retell the story themselves, as if they were in that situation. So their characters would be stronger for it, and they’re not trying to be these other people. And they all knew the people that were involved as well.
TW: In Old Joy, two friends who are estranged spend a weekend together so they can become closer. Your film almost goes in the opposite direction.
TT: I don’t know if I really communicated it with the last scene, but I wanted to leave the audience with an impression at the end that they [Chris and his girlfriend Lucy] might even stay behind [with Hadley]. There’s a message I was trying to get across with the wakeboarding. Chris is so consumed with paranoia and confusion for the entirety of the film, but at the end the wakeboarding kind of cleanses him. He starts to have fun. It’s a magical thing for him to be able to finally stand up on the wakeboard, and his friends are in the boat. There’s something symbolic of them all being on this thing together, pulling each other. In the end, it kind of doesn’t matter—it was just all in his head.
TW: The film “privileges Chris’s point of view,” the programme notes state. How considered was your approach to shooting the film in terms of subjective point of view?
TT: I thought it was really important that it was all from his point of view. Otherwise, it would seem that nothing was going on, probably because nothing was going on. I was interested in how that paranoia would come about, and how it came about for me in that situation. I left that weekend thinking about the one moment when I was creeping around downstairs trying to listen out for my girlfriend and my friend having sex. I though it was so weird. I wondered what brought me to that point. In terms of the film, it was a good place to start, to follow this guy as he freaks out. I also didn’t want to vilify him. I didn’t want anyone to be a ‘baddie’ in the film. I wanted it so you could see all perspectives. But you are also in Chris’s perspective. The only kind of ‘magic of film’ stuff was with the superimposed shots where he’s lying down and you then get these little flashes of what he’s imagining. That was to further drive home that we are in his head, and seeing the things that he’s freaking out on. I nearly cut them out, though. It was almost too much.
TW: It’s subtle, though. There’s a point in the film where we think it’s going to cross over into surreal ‘lost weekend’ territory. It was nice to glimpse that, and then watch it quickly recede.
TT: I never thought I was like that either. And that’s one of the things I thought maybe failed in the film. A lot of people tell me that they thought Chris was really creepy after watching it. What I wanted to show was that, for him, it was the one time that he behaved in this way, and that he hadn’t acted like this before. It was just this one peculiar situation that provoked him.
TW: I didn’t find him creepy at all. It’s isolated to that one moment, where he steps outside of himself, and ends up giving himself the perspective to grasp that it is, in fact, all in his head.