When Jonathan Teplitzky's complex, manic and fine new film Burning Man debuted at Toronto this year, a lot of critics came away staggered. A story of loss and grief, set in contemporary Sydney, Burning Man is, in part, about the corrosive effects of a fatal disease on family and friends, a plot outline that even the most indulgent viewer could never claim as fresh, especially after countless features and TV movies have tapped into this sort of subject, often in the most sentimental and crude fashion. But it wasn't just the profoundly frank, unpredictable way the writer/director handled the so-called 'routine material' that impressed Toronto and (others since). It was also the stylistic audacity in Teplitzky's decision to use the very texture and flow of the film, its structure as an index for the tortured psyche of his anti-hero, a foul-mouthed chef called Tom (English actor Matthew Goode).
Burning Man then, is a film of story 'fragments' – the viewer is hurtled back and forth in time across about six years in the life of Tom, his wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) and their son, Oscar (Jack Heanly). What triggers these time shifts, explains Teplitzky, are images, sounds, colours…
“It's a movie where I've used sense memory [as a way to tell the story],” Teplitzky says. The film's seemingly 'chaotic' narrative – where multiple planes of time and action intersect often very quickly – is a metaphor, says Teplitzky, for what Tom is enduring. “It had to be sensuous and mysterious and it had to be a visceral and emotional experience, rather than a plot-driven one, which is why I used a fragmented structure. It reflects Tom's emotional state.” Teplitzky says that Tom is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but admits from the start he never really wanted to delve into a clinical or even a psychological exploration of this kind of affliction, which is why psychiatry figures only incidentally in the story. “Most people would expect a shrink to be in a film like this… I don't care what anyone says but I think there's just as much evidence to suggest you can f**k your way out of trouble as you can analyse your way out of trouble.”
Indeed that is what Tom does after he suffers a personal loss; he beds a string of women played by a fine ensemble cast including Rachel Griffiths (Tom's shrink who exchanges sex for therapy-chat –an ironic gag that the director clearly relishes), Kate Beahan (a call-girl who takes a kind of shine to him) and Marta Dusseldorp (a family friend).
Still, Tom's ideal is his wife, a tough and sweet character who won't stand for any of his crap. The role made great demands on Bojana Novakovic, who not only had to play a mother and “older” but it also called for her to do many lengthy scenes naked. Novakovic says the nudity didn't worry her. “Sarah's breasts are important to the story, so I was never embarrassed [about doing it].”
Interviewed on the eve of Burning Man's release, Novakovic says she spent a lot of time researching breast cancer, its possible therapies, and the kind of routine that sufferers and their families must endure. What intrigued her most, she says, was the contentious issue over method of treatment: “I thought how dare anyone dictate one's choices!”
Like Teplitzky, Novakovic speaks in a style that's direct, analytical, frank and unpretentious. She admits that the research had a boundary; in the end it was her craft that was the key to the role, and that was a way to respect both real-life and the story: “Otherwise I'm demeaning and belittling anyone's experience because if I'm trying to pretend that this is happening to me – I'm being offensive. Really what I have to do is trust my imagination and stop acting.”
Novakovic says that Teplitzky did not provide a chronological version of the script that neatly and clearly laid out the story to help orient cast and crew: “I did that myself, since I have this very rational brain,” she says laughing. Still, she says she was overwhelmed with the director's pitch. “He said, 'we're making a film that's not about observing someone in the stages of grieving. Instead we're making a movie that says 'live with me through my trauma.'”
For Teplitzky, the film's style was more about expressing an intuition rather than some grand formal, theoretical strategy. “It had to be put into a chronological order for costume and make up. Just about everyone else [on the crew] had their reasons for working it out.” He worked closely with veteran editor Martin Connor on the cut, which took 20 weeks, an unusually lengthy schedule that was anticipated at the writing stage. “Marty [laid it out in chronological order] but it was in terms of emotional layers and story layers and timeline layers and how they all intersect.”
Early in the interview, Teplitzky calmly advises that Burning Man is based on his own experience. Ten years ago he lost his partner to breast cancer, and he was left to deal with his grief and that of his young son. “There are three or four scenes in the movie from my life,” he says. “It is a hot button topic – many people are touched by it. The only thing I can do is be truthful to my experience without going this is 'the experience'”, he explains, adding: “What interested me was not the disease itself – it's a trigger.”
Tom is in “danger”, he says, a danger that's a kind of life force. “He needs to put in peril himself, his son, his life, his restaurant – and that needs to be pushed to a destructive, self-involved place.” Teplitzky is full of praise for his leading man; he believes Goode's charm will pull in the audience but admits that the film will be confronting for some, especially its anger, its craziness. “But you can't pull that punch because it dilutes and undermines the energy of the film… you can't make half a bold film.”
Thursday 30 January, 9:30PM on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
UK, Australia, 2011
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Matthew Goode, Rachel Griffiths, Essie Davis, Anthony Hayes
What's it about?
The reckless, sexy, funny, moving and ultimately life-affirming story of Tom (Goode), a British chef in a Sydney restaurant, who seems to have decided there are no longer any rules he needs to obey. Whatever Tom is up to, his actions seem to be tolerated by those around him. As Tom descends into darkness, fragments of a different story begin to emerge. All the women in his world are trying in their own, very different ways to help put him back together.