Hit by the mystery train

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Last fall, around the time I mentioned Look Both Ways in a Toronto International Film Festival report for this paper — noting the film’s witty drama and savvy animation — I seized the opportunity to interview the director, Sarah Watt. Earlier this year, Watt’s debut feature swept the Australian Film Institute’s awards. In addition to winning prizes for Best Film, Best Direction (by Watt), Best Original Screenplay (Watt again), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hayes), it also collected more nominations than any other film at the ceremony, which could be considered Australia’s version of the Academy Awards.

SFBG You had been working for years as an animator. You won an award at Venice for one of your shorts. Apart from Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam, though, few animators ever make the transition to live action. Why did you switch?

SARAH WATT Bridget Iken [who produced Crush, Tracker, and An Angel at My Table] commissioned me to do two short animations for a series, and she liked the work. But the strength of my animated films was always in the narrative, not the animating expertise. Bridget asked if I had any features I wanted to move on. I had lost my father to lung cancer, and she had gone through cancer treatment with some friends, so she liked my idea of dealing with that and had me do a first draft. So it was really Bridget’s idea.

SFBG Had you been planning to do a feature?

SW Not at all. I’d been writing because I enjoy that, but I’d never thought about directing. I’m not particularly rapacious in my ambitions. I didn’t have to do a feature! I really like hanging out at home, painting, and writing.

SFBG Your film encompasses a lot of characters who are going through profound changes in their lives and relationships love and death and other life passages, all wonderfully understated and funny. I’m especially interested in the characters of Nick, the asshole photojournalist, and Merrill, the underemployed artist.

SW Maybe Nick is just on the cusp of realizing that he’s disconnected himself too much. As his medical diagnosis hits him full force, he realizes he’s been spending too much time in hotel rooms and is soon going to be middle-aged and less attractive. I like the idea that people don’t realize where they are in life until they’ve slipped into the next phase of it. As for Merrill, I came up through art school myself and spent 10 years trying to be an artist. I didn’t make it, but there’s probably no job that I didn’t attempt in those 10 years.

SFBG You cast your husband, William McInnes, as Nick. How was it to work together?

SW Well, we had planned to shoot at home in Melbourne. But the Adelaide Film Festival gave us production money, provided we shot there. We had to send our two kids to stay with their cousins, and they did a whole term at a little country school while we shot the film.

SFBG The sheer energy and exuberance of your film is wonderful and unusual. Women filmmakers can be too well behaved. Where do you get your nerve?

SW Well, perhaps the lack of ambition can work in one’s favor sometimes because you don’t have a lot to lose. Also, I do know from bits of travel and from my friends who are very blunt and down-to-earth that we Australians are more likely to say what we think than a lot of other cultures. I remember telling my husband early on: "I don’t mind if I only make this one feature; I’m just going to make the film I’d make if I only ever get to make one." I put everything in it. And I thought, "I’ll just wrap this up, and then I can go back to doing something else." Perhaps because women have to struggle a little harder, they’re forced to be more polite, more constrained.

SFBG Will you do it again now?

SW Well, animation is more peaceful. And being diagnosed with cancer during postproduction has made me wonder if the stress contributed to that. But I do want to write another one, and I’ll work with Bridget on the script, and then we’ll see whether I should direct or not. SFBG

LOOK BOTH WAYS

(Sarah Watt, Australia, 2005)

 

April 27, 7 p.m., Kabuki

April 30, 1 p.m., Kabuki