[Published in The Big Issue, Issue #405, April 24 2012]
PART OF A GROUP OF AUSTRALIAN FILMMAKERS MAKING INTERNATIONAL WAVES, KIERAN DARCY-SMITH HAS TOILED FOR YEARS TO PRODUCE HIS DEBUT FEATURE, WISH YOU WERE HERE. NOW THE ACCOLADES ARE ROLLING IN.
Four Australian friends jet off to Sihanoukville in Southern Cambodia for a relaxing beachside sojourn. Only three return. The premise of Wish You Were Here is simple enough, but in the hands of director Kieran Darcy-Smith it becomes a nerve-fraying experience. It’s also a worthy addition to the growing stable of films generated by the Blue-Tongue Films collective (Animal Kingdom, Miracle Fish, The Square) – a group of independent filmmakers that includes David Michôd, Joel and Nash Edgerton and Darcy-Smith himself.
Wish You Were Here takes the Southeast Asian holiday, a rite of passage for many Australians, and renders it the stuff of nightmares. Told in a non-chronological narrative, the film juxtaposes the carefree beginnings of the holiday with the increasingly dramatic fallout back home.
Darcy-Smith explains that he has always had an interest in the “human condition” and was motivated by his own struggles with anxiety to look more deeply into the psychological aftermath of a traumatic event.
“I can deal with [the anxiety] now, but it really had a grip on me for a very long time,” he says. “It’s something I always wanted to…explore in a story and through a character.”
In person, Darcy-Smith bustles with nervous energy. As he talks, the 49-year-old director tears a business card into smaller and smaller pieces; by the end of the interview the dictaphone is covered in a fine layer of cardboard dust.
The script of Wish You Were Here was co-written by Darcy-Smith and his wife, actor Felicity Price, who came up with the initial concept. While the couple were developing the script, they were also starting a family. The work soon took on a very personal dimension. “We were living it day in, day out,” recalls Darcy-Smith. “We were changing nappies and talking about it. We’d be driving somewhere and talking about it… The film became like our third child.”
As well as co-writing, Price also stars in Wish You Were Here. And just as this is her husband’s debut in the director’s chair, this is Price’s first major film role. She plays Alice opposite Darcy-Smith’s best mate, Joel Edgerton, who plays Alice’s husband, Dave. It is the honesty of Alice and Dave’s relationship that holds the story together – exceptional performances that Darcy-Smith attributes to the unwavering trust that existed between him and his actors. This may be Darcy-Smith’s first time directing a feature film, but he has had a long apprenticeship in the industry.
In 1995, not long after he and Joel Edgerton graduated from drama school at the University of Western Sydney, Darcy-Smith established Blue-Tongue Films with the Edgerton brothers and Tony Lynch (stunt coordinator on films including Dark City and Moulin Rouge).
While the work of Blue-Tongue’s members share similar aesthetics and moods, Darcy-Smith insists the collective was not started with any overarching philosophy in mind.
“We all got together at the coffee shop one day and said, ‘Let’s just knock up a story, and borrow a camera and go out and shoot it.’ But we had no idea what we were doing. None of us had ever been to film school. None of us had ever shot anything before.”
Long-time friends Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and Spencer Susser (Hesher) joined the team later. “We share a very unpretentious and almost classicist approach to filmmaking,” says Darcy-Smith. “There’s no tricks, no bells and whistles. It’s just very clean, clear, dramatic-based character storytelling… We want to make good movies, not just good Australian films.”
The versatility of Blue Tongue’s members, who swap roles as directors, writers and actors across various projects, seems to be part of the key to their success; they have an innate understanding of how these cinematic elements fit together. But Darcy-Smith maintains that making his own feature was always the ultimate goal.
“Very early on I recognised that a screenplay was the greatest commodity that you can have in this industry,” he explains. “I spent months at one point going down to Glebe Books and, because I had no money, just sitting on the floor and reading all their screenwriting books cover to cover.
“I was jobbing as an actor and keeping myself alive doing that, but when I wasn’t working… I was writing.”
Judging from audience reactions to date, Darcy-Smith’s years of practice have paid off. Wish You Were Here premiered at Sundance in January, and generated much buzz throughout the festival. American audiences are even talking about an Australian New Wave, largely the result of Blue-Tongue Films’ recent efforts.
Darcy-Smith is now in talks for his next film Memorial Day, which won the Inside Film Award for Best Unproduced Screenplay, and is due to start filming in December. The film is set in 1981 in Northern Florida, but will employ a largely Australian cast and crew.
If Hollywood comes knocking, Darcy-Smith isn’t planning on jumping ship any time soon. “I just want to keep telling stories, but I do want to keep doing work here,” he says earnestly. “It’s a gift here. I feel so lucky and privileged.”
Wish You Were Here is out 25 April.