Wish You Were Here, the feature directorial debut of Kieran Darcy-Smith, has a punchy suspense set-up: married couple Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price) and Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) and boyfriend Jeremy (Anthony Starr) troop off to Cambodia for a holiday. It's a chance for all to unwind. For the married pair, it's a brief respite from demanding kids and deadlines. For Steph, it's an opportunity to get to know her handsome but rather mysterious new boyfriend. All four have a great time. They indulge in tourist pastimes, party hard and lose themselves a bit. But the trip ends grimly when Jeremy disappears without trace. Back in Sydney, the surviving trio are rattled, panicky, even guilty. As the authorities search for answers, relationships start to implode.
Written by Darcy-Smith and Price, Wish You Were Here is tight, tough and immediate and, say its key creators, ambitious too, since it aims to not only deliver mystery and suspense but also explore the kinds of pressures that threaten any relationship.
SBS interviewed Darcy-Smith and Price, who are married with two young children, the night after the film's Sydney premiere. They showed no signs of party fatigue. Upbeat and talkative, the pair finished each other's sentences, and effortlessly expounded on the film's origins and complex subtleties while still buzzing from the film's excellent reception the night before.
The filmmakers still seem dazzled by its performance at Sundance earlier this year and things are moving fast; Price says that Darcy-Smith is already preparing a new film.
Told in an intricate time structure, which accentuates the mystery/thriller elements of the plot, by moving back and forth through time, Price explained that the project began almost exactly five years ago.
“I wanted to write a low budget film – something that was achievable in a couple of years. I didn't want to wait 10 years,” she says laughing.
Darcy-Smith, a founder member of the Blue Tongue collective (The Square, Animal Kingdom), and having made a series of shorts, was used to working fast and cheap; Price says that at first they were going to do it as micro-budget piece. But producer Angie Fielder convinced the pair otherwise. The script went through the Aurora script workshop, and was ready to go after three years, which these days is considered a 'fast' development process.
“I was interested in writing about the highs and lows of a long term relationship,” says Price. “[I wanted to explore] how you have to struggle through things together and the value for fighting for someone you love and your family.” But, she says, that alone wasn't enough to make an “interesting film”.
The missing person plot – with its cruel questions about motive and criminal culpability directed at the surviving characters of the Cambodian trip – became the thing that would drive the film. “I put that together with exploring our own demographic which I called 'gen-x grown-up',” says Price. “Having very young children and experiencing responsibility for the first times in their lives and having a slight longing to be back in their twenties and free to do whatever they wanted.”
Darcy-Smith admits to a very “short attention span” and says he wasn't so much interested in what he describes as an introspective, navel gazing character study. “But it was critical to me that I care deeply for the characters involved… and so the idea was to kick the ball in the air right at the beginning and keep the audience suspended.”
The film's performances, particularly Price, Palmer and Edgerton's, have a feverish quality, an intensity that came out of couple's fondness for recent Danish cinema. “We felt that we hadn't seen an Australian film that really allows the characters getting down and dirty,” says Price. “In Danish pictures,” says Price, “the filmmakers create very high stakes for their characters and then throw them into [situations] and really go for it.”
Price says that the keynotes for the film's style, in terms of mood and performance, were “realism and empathy”. Shot by cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin in 26 days on location in Cambodia and Sydney and captured digitally, the film has a look and feel that might best be described as 'poetic realism', a style that's shadowy, harsh and beautiful in equal measure. It's also, say the filmmakers, a visual analogue for the tortured psyche of their 'everyman' characters, especially Edgerton's Dave, who grows increasingly paranoid as the film unwinds.
Darcy-Smith says that creating a sense of unease and sympathy around Dave was a lengthy exploration. Suspicious, inconsistent, perhaps even lethal, Dave is set up as a character to be wary of, says the director. “But he's certainly out of his depth in this situation and we needed to create suspense out of this thing that is torturing him.” Adds Price: “All credit to Joel for finding a balance in the character; he's a great Dad [in the story] and he's a guy, who, in just one night loses [momentarily] his sense of responsibility.”
Wish You Were Here cunningly exploits some of the best conventions of the thriller: chance, sex, fear of the unknown and even cultural misunderstanding. “I think South East Asia is very exotic to Australians, and I think when you go into a place like that something inside you shifts,” Price says.
The filmmakers wanted to give the film a sense of compassion and generosity; even the authority figures here are not the menacing caricatures of conventional cop movies, but public servants, as frustrated by the sluggish progress of the investigation as the victims. “No matter how good so many actors are,” says Darcy-Smith, “they come in to audition for a role and will play that stroke – that archetype of the cop, whatever. But the actors we ended up casting like Nic Cassim, who plays the main investigator, Jon, were the ones who would try things, play the nuances, and they were always the ones we went for.”
For Price and Darcy-Smith, the key thing that drove the project was its everyday nightmare quality, its sense that this story wasn't out of the reach of the viewer's actual experience. It's this feeling they say, that gives the story its resonance.
“We felt the film had to have this quality, where someone could watch it and say, 'this could happen to me, it is me.'”
Wish You Were Here is released in cinemas April 25.