Amiel Courtin-Wilson, an interview and an open casting call for 'Hail'

· Wednesday July 14, 2010

I enter the headquarters of Hail, Amiel Courtin-Wilson's new feature film-in-the-making, to discover something resembling a hurriedly shucked warehouse, all cleaned out bar a few residual strings and stains that speak of art students and general urban drifters. Which, as it turns out, isn't too far from the truth.

“We literally moved in two days ago,” Courtin-Wilson explains. There's a lopsided caravan in one corner, and a desk and chair on a bit of carpet beside it. There are portions of graffiti clambering around the inner circumference of the room and a lone barbecue near the door. We, along with Hail's producer Michael Cody, huddle around a portable heater. Things may not be set up around here quite yet, but the more I learn about the film, the more it seems a fitting setting for an interview. From the way it's described, Hail seems to possess an unusually elastic scope, allowing ample space not only for characters and their stories, but also for the production process itself.

Hail is produced through Flood Projects, a director-driven collective of filmmakers, cinematographers and screenwriters including Courtin-Wilson, Cody, and Joel Anderson (director of Lake Mungo), among others. “The idea is we help with each other's projects and swap roles as well, so if you're a writer and director you might produce something, or if you're a cinematographer you might direct,” Cody tells me.

“There are a lot of production companies that are run by producers, but this has a much looser and less hierarchical structure,” remarks Courtin-Wilson.

Courtin-Wilson, who also directed the critically acclaimed documentary Bastardy, seems generally comfortable taking the back seat; perhaps a necessary approach to those hard-to-define films of his that straddle the grey area between fact and fiction. He speaks of learning, love and humility a lot, concepts that - it's fair to say - aren't often associated with directors. He sums up his new film thus: “Hail is a combination of five years of friendship and research and interviews with Daniel Jones - the subject of Cicada, a short film I directed a couple of years ago. It's not connected in any other way, except it's got the same subject. The film Cicada charts is Danny's first memory of a murder, when he was five. Hail is very much a current-day story, a love story between he and his partner Leanne.”

If I may quickly clarify: Jones is a real man. Leanne is his real partner. Courtin-Wilson plans to use their real lives and their real relationship as his medium for this film. But it's not a documentary. “Amiel's put so much of his time into his relationship with Danny that he just has so much stuff to draw on,” Cody explains, “He's able to bring a narrative arc and then just embellish it at certain points.”

Courtin-Wilson elaborates: “Ninety per cent or so of the film is basically re-creations of events that either Danny's told me about or I've witnessed, or lines that I've heard him say, or anecdotes about friends of his. There's really only about ten percent of the film that is just construct, but it just so happens that that ten percent is the key scenes to give you the shape of the story.”

It's hard to imagine trying to make a feature film out of someone's actual life, in all its uniqueness and depth. If that Greek myth about Prometheus were told backwards it could serve as an analogy: instead of creating people out of clay and giving them fire stolen from the heavens, people are cracked open and their inner fire - something akin to what Courtin-Wilson attributes to Herzog's “ecstatic truth” - is sought so it may be revealed on screen. In effect, for some audience members such a project could come across as exploitative, even somewhat sacrilegious.

“Oh, look, it's at times frightening and for the most part so ridiculously exciting to me. I just feel so fucking privileged to be able to make this film,” Courtin-Wilson professes vehemently, “A friend of mine is an opera director in the States, and he's hugely influenced by sacred art and the idea that Buddhist sculptors have a thousand prayers between each chink in the rock. I absolutely believe, and I hope, that these films are a manifestation of my love for these subjects.”

Courtin-Wilson is open about his personal friendship with Jones, reiterating the love he has for the man. The two got acquainted through a now-defunct theatre group called Plan B, a company for ex-prison inmates.

“About six weeks into rehearsal this quite wiry, quite imposing character was standing outside the rehearsal space in double denim,” Courtin-Wilson tells me.

Is he big?

“He's bigger than he looks,” Cody puts it simply.

“I didn't know at the time, but Danny'd only been out of jail maybe 12 hours or something,” Courtin-Wilson continues, “I'd literally never been struck by someone's intense potential for violence. When he looked at you, he just fucking drilled into you. It was so palpable, and I remember, it was kind of that thing, you know. Wanting to lower yourself in the presence of other animals that are a threat.”

This primal hierarchy, coupled with Jones' intimate involvement in the film, makes me ask if he has much say in the way the film turns out. This makes both men chuckle a little. I'm not sure why.

“No, that's interesting, I mean, just the strength of his character I think inherently influences the film,” Courtin-Wilson says, adding: “If he doesn't want to do something, he won't do it.”

“Danny's pretty open. He's pretty intellectually up there. He's a mass of interesting contradictions. Part of the excitement of the process is that there's an element of unpredictability, not only with Danny, but some of the other people who have come to this,” says Cody, “I mean these are people that you could never cast. And it's through Danny that we have access to these people.”

Hail purports to not only revolve around two real people playing themselves, but also include an entire cast of non-actors. Courtin-Wilson explains: “I just like the sheer luxury of working with people who have - for their respective character - lived experience in that realm. So when we are rehearsing, we're instantly pulling upon past occurrences. For me, there's humility in that because I learn stuff that I wouldn't otherwise conceive of.”

Guerilla-style casting has been occurring for the past few weeks, where those involved in pre-production have been out and about approaching potential characters off the streets, but this Saturday is when Courtin-Wilson opens his warehouse to conduct an open casting call. People of all looks and ages are invited, heassures me, “Everything. From a six year old boy who's the son of one of the characters to a sixty-six plus male who knows how to do magic.”

I venture that such an open approach to casting could potentially influence the film. Anybody could turn up.

Courtin-Wilson is candid, “Totally. I mean if someone is written as a 25-year old male and we find a 56-year old woman who works, then that's cool.”