WEST – DAN KRIGE, MATT REEDER, ANNE ROBINSON, KHAN CHITTENDEN, GILLIAN ALEXY
With vivid authenticity, the Australian film WEST throws an aspect of rarely seen Sydney life up on the screen. Writer-director DAN KRIGE, producers MATT REEDER and ANNE ROBINSON, and stars KHAN CHITTENDEN and GILLIAN ALEXY give us the guided tour. BY FILMINK'S JIM MITCHELL
“It was the baby; it was the thing that wouldn't go away.” It's been a long road for screenwriter and debut feature director Daniel Krige since penning his first screenplay as a 16-year-old in 1986. Krige adopted the adage “write about what you know”, basing his story on his experiences growing up in the knockabout world of Sydney's western suburbs.
West is a hard hitting depiction of four western Sydney youths: cousins Pete (Khan Chittenden) and Jerry (Nathan Phillips), their friend Mick (Michael Dorman), and sassy new girl Cheryl (Gillian Alexy), whose sex-charged charisma attracts both Jerry and Pete. Life is stagnant for these early twenty-somethings, and is defined by primal sex, drinking, doping and dead end jobs. Violence and machismo are rife and opportunities for change are scarce.
Krige – an AFTRS graduate who has directed extensively for TV, and also helmed the award winning short films Fuckwit and The Door – used actual events and people as inspiration for West's storyline and characters. “I didn't know about anything else,” he says. “I couldn't write about what it's like to be a middle aged woman, but I could write about what it was like to be a teenager in the western suburbs. Growing up out there, you just become more stoic; you have a different attitude on life. That sounds like a cliché, but it's a bit of a fight.”
Krige, however, sees the story as one of hope, while also acknowledging West's dark subject matter, which includes suicide and retributive murder. “As I get older, I can see that it's dark,” he says. “It seems bleak when you look back and see young people going through that shit, but when they're going through it, they don't think it's dark – it's just life. When I wrote it, I saw it as a story of hope. I still see it as a story of hope.”
Puncturing the story are what Krige has referred to as “moments of decision” and the often dire resulting consequences. “I\'m really interested in the seemingly simple decisions that can have a massive ripple effect in our lives,” he says. “The moment when you decide to jump into a car with a drunk mate, the moment when you lash out in rage, the moment when you say something insensitive and do damage to another person's soul.”
In order for the young cast to be immersed in the reality of their characters' lives, Krige filled an intensive two week rehearsal period with sessions led by dramaturg and fellow cast member David Field, who gave the actors music representing their characters and employed very practical research techniques. The director told his core cast to meet him at a shopping mall in Sydney's Parramatta, assigning each a task: to score marijuana, to gain a girl's phone number, to feign shop lifting, to buy a pair of crotchless knickers, and so on. The exercise proved too real when one cast member was almost arrested. “I won't say who it was because he'd kill me!” laughs Krige breathlessly. “One of the actors had a little bit of pot on him. There were a lot of cops down at one end of the mall and all these sniffer dogs just went for the poor bastard! I didn't know what he had on him so I was thinking, 'Fuck, one of my main cast is getting arrested and we start shooting in a week'.”
We actually dropped by the West set – a rebranded fast food store in Revesby – at the culmination of a five week shoot in Sydney's western and southern suburbs, including the very canals that Krige would frequent as a teenager. In a break from filming, a seemingly downbeat Khan Chittenden, dragging on a cigarette, compares West's plot to “being on a freight train and not being able to get off. Finally things just collapse, explode or implode. The environment is like a catalyst for the situation that the characters are in. The hardship and the horrors that these people have to face when they don't have role models or people that they can look up to who will show them a clear path is extreme.”
Chittenden says that his character Pete is fixed on “the chase to become part of a street culture, and to earn respect in terms of his status as a criminal, and as a tough, hard, don't-give-a shit, rage-against-the-machine character. He's a street rat trying to do the best that he can in a situation that doesn't have a lot of answers. He's not a bad person; he's a good soul who ends up in situations that he's just not equipped to deal with. He uses drugs and alcohol to get through the horrible trauma in his life and it just keeps escalating.”
Co-producer Anne Robinson says that escaping the environment depicted in West is just out of the characters' reach. “The city is in the background and you want to get there – you've got dreams and aspirations but you've just got to work out how to actually get the motivation to get out of your environment. These kids won't necessarily make the right choices to get there. They want to but they don't quite know how to leave their security. Adds fellow producer Matt Reeder: “That transition from being a child to an adult is a very fragile time. The things that you do at that time can really determine what kind of person you are for the rest of your life.”
Exciting young actress Gillian Alexy joins the conversation. “I love it! The trashy nails, my boobs out, my butt out…it's great!” laughs the salt-of-the-earth actress of her character Cheryl's sultry appearance. “She's trying to survive in the environment that she's in; it's a very blokey environment. She's cool, she's fiery, she's strong, she's sexy and she's the best looking chick in the pub. She uses that and she knows it. At the end of the day, we're all trying to get by. I can relate to females using everything they can to survive. We've all done it!”
Krige himself came face to face with one of his script's major plot points when his brother, who had suffered a long battle with depression, sadly committed suicide. Understandably, the director doubted if he could bring West to fruition. “Tragically, it was life imitating art in a sense. He took his life in the same way it happens in the film,” says an affected Krige. “I just thought, 'I can't make it now; I can't do it'.” One of Krige's mentors, screenwriter Sue Smith (Brides Of Christ, Bastard Boys), offered sage advice. “Sue just said to me, 'If you can find a way, make it for him'. The film is dedicated to him.”
Ultimately, in writing West, Krige says that his aim was to tell “an honest story about people who are not often represented on screen” without taking a moral position on the actions of his characters. He admits that it's an uncomfortable ride. “I wanted to take the audience out of its comfort zone,” says Krige. “I wanted to confront them, but it was never my intention to 'shock' them. I just wanted to confront their pre-conceptions and moral positions. I was hoping to tell a story that has, at least in part, some of the complexities and contradictions of everyday life.”