3 Jun 2009 - 4:08 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

So, it's impossible to get a film off the ground on your own? Not if you ask actor, writer, producer, directors OLIVER TORR and MATTHEW ZEREMES, who mined no-budget gold with the local comedy/drama BURKE & WILLS. BY JIM MITCHELL, FILMINK Magazine.

Sitting on a rooftop in 2003, two budding actors decided to take the plunge and add “filmmaker” to their repertoire. Six weeks later, Oliver Torr and Matthew Zeremes, who met at the Queensland University of Technology acting school, donned multiple production hats on Burke & Wills. Far from the historic drama one might imagine, the film is a blistering, humorous and heavily improvised look at two twenty-something housemates – Burke and Wills – who are lost souls (like their historic counterparts) traversing the complexities of love, grief and other existential hand grenades that life throws their way.

Over nine days, the steadfastly independent pair used their own abodes and $26,000 of their own money to collaborate with cinematographer Callan Green and a small cast and crew (all of whom participated for no fee) to shoot a starkly different film that eschewed convention, and one that would ultimately take its creators to New York to meet their idol Robert De Niro at his Tribeca Film Festival. On the eve of the film's local theatrical release, the trio reunited at another of their shooting locations, Piccolo Padri Cafe in Sydney's inner west, to recount the making of the film.

The film has several themes that resonate, such as feeling lost in life, finding the right partner, grief. Was the story based on your own experiences?

Matthew: “A lot of it was inspired from life. Ollie's character in the film is mildly schizophrenic; he's mentally unstable. We've both had experiences of that in our life within our family so we thought that would be interesting for the film. I think we just tried to pick the things that were interesting and relevant. Some of them are dramatised and not directly from our lives…”

Oliver: “There's drama in everything but there's humour in everything as well. There are all the funny little things, like feeling uncomfortable when you're sitting next to someone and you're not talking. We didn't want to say 'We're making a hardcore drama like Mike Leigh where everyone just hates themselves and dies'. We wanted to explore the light and the shade.”

What was it like being invited to screen Burke & Wills at The Tribeca Film Festival?

Matthew: “It was bigger than we could have imagined because it's always been such a dream. One of our biggest heroes is Robert De Niro. I was talking to these other directors and about a metre away was Robert De Niro. I think my heart skipped a beat. I pretended to listen to the conversation but I was just perving at him! I said [to Ollie] 'De Niro was just standing next to me; we've got to say hello to him'. It was a bit disappointing in a way. Because he's my personal hero, I've always imagined meeting him and him embracing me and saying, 'Oh, it's so good to see you, finally! How are you? Come sit down and have a cup of coffee!' I think I said, 'Oh, it's a real pleasure to meet you, you're our hero. Thanks for having us in your festival.' And he simply said 'It's our pleasure'. He touched Ollie on the arm!”

Oliver: “I got touched twice! I'm having that part of my arm removed and stored away…”

Was it daunting embarking on your first feature? What did you learn?

Oliver: “It was quite daunting, but once we got going it was fine. Most lessons were learnt afterwards when we saw all the rushes. Before then, we had to have confidence in everyone else and our own ability and we were right in that belief. At Tribeca, we were asked if we would do anything differently with more money. I can honestly say we wouldn't.”

Matthew: “The film was about giving people an opportunity. It was the first feature that Ollie and I had lead roles in. We really threw ourselves into the deep end and didn't give ourselves much time to think. I still think that's the best way to get things done.”

Oliver: “This experience has been a real confidence booster. Now we're quite possibly going to embark on another low budget film and it's not daunting at all. We know where we can improve but we know now that two actors on screen speaking to each other can actually be interesting if it's captured well.”

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Matthew: “It accurately depicts life. It's just a truthful, honest and funny story.”

Burke & Wills is released in Dendy Canberra on June 21, in Brisbane in early July and Melbourne in early August.