28th July 2019

From Northern Victoria to Cannes; Australian filmmaker Charles Williams is Making Waves

Local Melbournian, Charles Williams, took out the Palme D’Or for Best Short Film at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and since then has had a majorly successful run of the global festival circuit, with further accolades from the likes of Torronto International Film Festival; Hong Kong; Rotterdam; Melbourne and more.

All these Creatures, both written and directed by Williams, follows an adolescent boy in his attempts to “understand the dark presence growing inside his father and untangle memories of the events that led to his father’s unravelling,” Williams explains. “I think we all reassess the memories we have of our parents as we get older. This is especially true if we have a parent that was volatile or destructive- our memories of these giants can take on an almost mythic quality.”

This interview took place in the wake of Charles’ reception of his triumphant Palm D’or last year; the festival had only just finished and he had barely yet digested his triumphant feat…

 “All These Creatures” was one of eight films selected from 3,943 entries for the Cannes short film competition, and took the top prize at the award ceremony. A big well done! You are the third Australian to have ever received a Palme D’Or- how has that news been sitting with you?

Pretty well. Actually I’ve kind of just been working throughout the festival, doing meetings and writing the next film, so I haven’t really processed it completely. It’s slowly becoming more of a reality. The legitimacy it brings is really welcome, and just personally connecting with the judges and selectors and seeing how much they cared for the film was very moving. For me, it’s definitely something to live up to.

You have referred to Cannes as the ‘Mecca for great cinema’. In the age of online streaming and free media, is entering films into international festivals the most promising strategy of breaking into the global film market?

It depends on what you’re making. It is for me, for this film and for the films I want to make, but of course there are many other kinds of film and media that work with different access. I think of the great series, Horace and Pete, which Louie CK made independently and just allowed people to download, without rights or usage restrictions, from his website for $5. I think that’s pretty innovative and perfect for that show. And there’s still a sense of value to it that sometimes feels lost on the streaming platforms where everything often feels devalued. Where you rent the platform and the ‘content’ just comes and goes.

On receiving the Palm D’Or you have said: “For me personally, it’s an even bigger deal, because I care a lot about the festival. I care a lot about the history of the filmmakers they supported.” Can you tell us about the directors and films affiliated with Cannes that you appreciate and admire?

I mean it goes back a long way. You’ve got these great artists, everyone from like Robert Rossellini and De Sica to like Billy Wilder be part of the festival and win awards there. Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Pulp Fiction – these great American films that have won the Palme D’Or and more recently Blue is the Warmest Colour, which is just astonishing to me, or last year Good Time being in competition, which really goes back to those great American films. But it’s not just the filmmakers and the films – the festival itself has always been and continues to be a place to remind everyone of what cinema is. That it’s not ‘content’, and there’s a certain level of attention and weight and focus, which isn’t pretence, that movies need to be given if they’re going to offer something of value.

There are filmmakers that disappear after receiving a Cannes award. What are the actions or attitudes adopted by awarded filmmakers that you think facilitate post-Cannes success? 

I don’t know. I may know better in a few years one way or the other. I just want to use whatever attention this has lent me to go toward the next film and the next. There are a lot of meetings and noise, but ultimately all that matters is the hard work of realising something again, and at a certain point, you’re on your own with that. Though seeing this film, which is only a short, connect so well, gives me hope.

"There are a lot of meetings and noise, but ultimately all that matters is the hard work of realising something again, and at a certain point, you’re on your own with that."

You evidently took great care in the casting process of your film, sifting through over 400 kids to find your lead. You have said: “My only requirement was to find the right soul.” Do you perceive there to be issues prevalent within the casting process in our contemporary film industry; such as a lack of risk-taking, a prioritization of appearances, or a lack of diversity?

I don’t think it’s just contemporary filmmaking. Casting has historically been more concerned with superficial or even marketable and measurable elements, which is understandable. But for a film like this, you need to not shy away from the fact that it’s essentially a mysterious process. I can rewrite a script to a certain extent, and if it hinges so importantly on casting as this one did, you really need to get that right first and adapt around it. I’ve mentioned before that race and gender didn’t even matter that much for this, and I think there are films where people can be more open minded about that, it can really open you up to much more interesting possibilities.

What discoveries did you make consulting advisors from the local Ethiopian Community?

The biggest discovery was that they largely thought the film was already written specifically about their culture. One of them didn’t believe me when I told him it wasn’t; he insisted it was so Ethiopian- not like the Egyptians or Sudanese- only Ethiopians hide these issues and behave like this. It showed me that what I’d written very personally had the potential to carry over; that there was a universality there. They did then add, more literally, all of the detail I needed – the food, the clothing, the behaviour, the backstory – and the cast were really helpful in this too. And just a great sense of respect and support, just lovely people to connect with.

"You have to know a lot to be flexible; to know when casting is more important than the specifics of a script, for example, or how you can re-imagine a scene when reality intervenes."

I’ve watched your wonderfully comedic short “I Can’t Get Started“ (2002). Looking back on the trop-fest awarded film you made as a teenager; how have you changed as a filmmaker since?

Quite a lot I think. I was really deep into the camera, the lenses and all of the cinematic technique side of things. Pretty much because it felt somewhat controllable. If I plan way ahead, and I know the lens and the format and all these things and everything is storyboarded… but now I’m okay with letting go a bit more. You have to know a lot to be flexible; to know when casting is more important than the specifics of a script, for example, or how you can re-imagine a scene when reality intervenes.

Not just to get around the realities of filmmaking, but also to kind of work with them. I’m also less interested in comedy than I was, I’m not quite as shy at just saying what I mean. It took a long time to get rid of that cringe.. which is still a process.

You grew up in a rural community in Northern Victoria that you describe as “far from anything connected to filmmaking”. What was your first exposure to film and what made you fall in love with filmmaking?

It was all VHS really. My mother was kind of film obsessed, mostly with MGM type fairs and mainly musicals. That’s all we were allowed to watch as kids- so: many, many musicals. It sounds funny, but they were pretty great. I still love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and particularly a lot of those supposed ‘B’ musicals. Anyway, I kind of got it from her. Then when our lives got a little rougher and she wasn’t able to police our viewing so much, or didn’t care to- suddenly I was able to see much more interesting films when I was barely a teenager and they just really broke my mind open. I think not just in terms of taking me away from my reality, but also, eventually, in helping me process it. And you kind of just fall in love with the medium, just the fun of the music and the actors and the camera. I mean, what else are you doing?

Do you feel that Australian film has a distinct style- if so, how would you describe it? Has Australian film informed your body of work?

I don’t know that Australian film has informed me so much. I used to be a bit cringey about Australian film. There are obviously some incredible Australian films, but the ones I gravitate to are more American or European in style. Though you don’t get much more Australian than Muriel’s Wedding and that film is killer.

Did you study at film school within Australia? What is your opinion on studying at a film school versus self -taught, on-set learning?

I didn’t study at film school but I always really wanted to. I was just so desperate to start making my own films and had read so many books and studied so many films by the time I was 18, and most film schools wouldn’t take you until you were in your 20s.. Also we just couldn’t afford it. I’d saved up money from working all kinds of jobs in my teens so I could go, but it was way more than I thought. So I blew all that money on that Tropfest short you mentioned and just kept going from there. The one thing you really lose out on not going to film school though is the relationships. Most people I know still work with the people they went to film school with, and you never really have that kind of tribe without it. But you don’t necessarily need it, especially if you don’t have the dollars.

There is often a pressure to network at film festivals; having attended local, national and international festivals, what would be your advice to emerging filmmakers when it comes to ‘networking’?

"I think if you can just focus on the films and making them really good, the people will find you."

I’m the worst person to ask. Mostly I’ve avoided it, and probably to my detriment. I was just never great at that. Now I suppose I do something like that but it’s different and more upfront. I don’t really go to many ‘networking events’ or things like that, but I like any quick meeting with somebody who I think I might be able to work with or who’s serious about making something. I think if you can just focus on the films and making them really good, the people will find you – again I could be completely wrong.

I don’t think so. It sounds simple, and- probably for that reason- true. Thank you so much for your time Charles! Good luck with the residual astonishment from your wonderful achievement…

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