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In 2012 Legal Aid WA hired a couple of filmmakers from WA to create what became the When Separating series. Shane and myself were producers, scriptwriters and editors, Shane was Director of Photography and I Directed. Following the success and positive feedback from providers and parents facing separation; Legal Aid commissioned another film. This time focusing on a high conflict (not domestic violence) relationship.
Although we were making one fifteen minute film this time round, we only had four months to delve into the subject matter, write, cast, scout, rehearse, shoot and finish it. We made a working schedule for the four months and continuously revisited and revised it every week or two.
The process involved meetings with the team from Legal Aid WA and consultations with an experienced Mediator. As a filmmaker you always want to tell the most exciting story you can, but especially on a project like this you have to ground it in reality. So it’s a balancing act making the behaviour ‘accurate’, fitting the events within a correct legal framework and telling a story with characters that hopefully take us on a journey.
I developed a scene breakdown pretty quickly which remained largely unchanged in terms of the key beats and events, although we were asked to change the order of some of the scenes in the editing process, and get rid of others. But from the beginning I felt that a flashback narrative was the best way to tell this story. A Flashback narrative uses a series of flashbacks to construct a story in the past that runs in tandem with a story in the present. The present tense would be predominantly taking place in the Mediation room, flashing back to past events until we reach the climax and resolution which would take place after Mediation in the present storyline. I wrote the first draft minus the detailed Mediation scenes (a bit out of my professional depth although I knew what would be getting discussed) and then began working closely with Legal Aid team and Shane fine tuning it. I put together a page of fifteen questions to kick start refining the script.
A few below:
1. In a few sentences or a paragraph, what is the goal of this film in particular? What do you want people to feel, think and do with it?
2. What scenes/situations/events should definitely be included???
3. Mediator: How would they respond to either party speaking out of line? When would they ‘let them go’? When wouldn’t they? Would they pull them up? What contact would the mediator have with both parties prior to the session? How much? How might the parties abuse this or use it to try to collude with the mediator? Would we want to show this?
4. The dialogue and scene structure I know is scrappy at the moment, the pace isn’t right and it all (obviously) needs work. What (if anything) is good, or has potential? What is way off the mark? WHAT’S MISSING???
5. Do you get an sense of the characters yet? Is it too ambiguous? Is that ok?
6. Christmas: What do think about making the previous Christmas a bit of a disaster? Issues between Bill with certain member(s) of Karen’s family?
7. Does one character come off so far as too much of a bitch or jerk and the other not? Is any of the manipulation coming through? We gave Legal Aid time with the script to make changes/ additions and we’d then meet up to discuss and make further changes until we’d developed a script we were satisfied with. That development continued for a while after pre-production had started.
Casting, Scouting, Storyboarding and more…
With scriptwriting still continuing we put out a casting call. We found our adult actors fairly quickly, particularly the two leads in Paris Abbott and Cory Jones. Cory was our first lead to audition and we found ourselves comparing everyone else to him. Paris I’d met a few months back on a shoot and asked her to audition from Sydney.
It took a little longer to find the kids and I reached out to a few drama schools around Perth. That’s how I met Georgia who nailed her audition. Before Paris was cast she asked if we’d be interested in auditioning her nephew Ra. We were. We did. And he was the most natural we’d seen and a dead ringer for being Paris’s son.
Ella Hetherington rounded out the cast wonderfully as Karen’s meddling older sister Sarah. We didn’t audition Elizabeth Hynes (Mediator) as she appeared in the original When Separating series and would be reprising her role (which she nailed from a filmmakers and mediators perspective). To prepare for the shoot we did tests in each location with the Red Scarlet and lights (mostly Kino flo’s). I’d already storyboarded the scenes after scouting but testing helped me to make a few changes prior to shooting and make sure what was storyboarded would work on location. Shane, myself and Stephen Burge (sound) stepped through the scenes where the characters would be and generally plotted out character and camera placement. Shane figured out his lighting setups which he’ll talk about in another blog focused on his role as the DP and editor.
On top of that was a lot of time and energy going into scheduling the shoot, making schedules for actors and crew, rehearsal, sorting costumes and props, catering and everything which goes into making a shoot like this happen.
Production & changes in post
We started shooting on Saturday the 27th of April and filmed for three days and took a break (from filming) on Tuesday the 30th. We wrapped production on Wednesday the 1st May. On Saturday we shot all the Mediation scenes as well as a scene between the Mediator and her colleague which was later cut.
There were unfortunately a few really good scenes we couldn’t use, as is always the way. These cuts have probably made the film a better more accurate and less ambiguous tool for encouraging behaviour change, but perhaps haven’t done favors for the pacing of the film at times.
On the Monday we had a huge day at the house filming all the family scenes. My usual approach to a scene would be step it through with the actors (not going all out to conserve energy) but to hit their marks and get the pace feeling right. I’d make sure I was happy before we’d actually roll camera. This enabled both the actors and the camera operator whether it was myself or Shane to be familiar with actor movement and try to fine tune camera movement and angles.
Another nice scene that didn’t make the cut but will live on in these jpegs!
We filmed Karen and Bills opening argument after dinner. Everyone was a bit tired a weary but I think it actually may have helped the actors as it put them closer to where their characters are at. Fed up.
After that scene which was perhaps the most difficult to light, shoot and record sound for we were absolutely shattered. We hurried through the shoot of Bill arriving home which simply became a pretty standard shot of a car pulling in.
I wish I’d been more careful with this part of the shoot as we had this interesting shot from within the car of it pulling in and shot of Cory sitting pensively waiting in the car delaying going into the house and seeing the briefcase put outside by Karen. I felt on paper this was a much MUCH stronger start to the scene than what we ended up with. But late at night after a very long day I felt like I let it down by not being surer of the beats and how the scene would flow. I had trouble communicating what I wanted to Cory and although the shots looked okay on their own they just didn’t gel together as a scene. They should and could have I think (my bad).
After a break from shooting on Monday and gathering our strength we filmed the outdoor pickup/drop off scenes with Paris, Cory, Georgia and Ra on the Tuesday. We finished just in time with Paris literally running to her car to get to the airport in time to fly back to Sydney. After being cooped up inside for most of the shoots so far it was nice finishing the film outside together.
I’m quite happy with this little film we created for Legal Aid. We learnt so much along the way and I know I’m a better filmmaker today for having made it. It’s not perfect, we had plenty of bumps along the way but according to Legal Aid – they’re stoked. That’s the most important thing! This film has a role to play, a message to communicate and I hope it does so as effectively as possible and helps transform behaviours. That was the goal from the beginning.
I’m thankful to the actors for their great attitudes and performances and hugely appreciative to Legal Aid WA who allowed us to tread into risky territory on this project and really push the envelope in terms of honest behaviour and language for this kind of very targeted film. A few thousand DVD copies have now gone out and you can also view ‘Parents that Fight‘ on YouTube.