Canopy is the first feature from 38 year-old Australian writer/director Aaron Wilson. The plot – at least in cold synopsis - sounds like a rather conventional war pic. It is Singapore, 1942. Japanese forces dominate the region. A young Australian airman Jim (Khan Chittenden) is shot down and lands in a jungle swamped with the enemy. He finds a cautious, fearful ally in Seng (Mo Tzu-Yi) a Chinese/Singapore resistance fighter. With language a barrier they attempt to elude capture and head for safety. Still, it’s a long way from Saving Private Ryan.
Made on a tiny budget Canopy is quiet, rich in detail, austere and expertly controlled. It’s a minimalist piece – a cast of two, and a jungle, - with a weird, dream-like atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. The production design by Tim Burgin and sound work by Nic Buchanan and Rodney Lowe, Cindy Clarkson’s editing and the luscious threat of cinematographer Stefan Duccio’s photography combine to create a mood of mounting paranoia that takes hold like a choke to the throat.
Shot mostly on location in Singapore in 2010 Canopy is an independent Australian-Singapore co-production financed in part through crowd-funding. When it bowed at Toronto last year to appreciative reviews one writer dubbed it ‘Gravity in the jungle’ while others noted its extraordinary sense of emotional claustrophobia where the characters are ‘trapped’ in an enormous landscape.
Wilson grew up in a village of 1,200 people called Tocumwal New South Wales, three hours from Melbourne. That’s where he first got into photography. Monash University followed. Then there were theatre projects, and short films like Wind (2007). He spoke to SBS via phone from his home in Collingwood, Melbourne, about the making of Canopy, and its as yet untitled companion piece.
The premise of Canopy is very similar to say Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953). It’s even closer to John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968). Then there’s James Dickey’s novel To the White Sea (once slated as a Coen brothers project). They’re all survivalist tales. Desperation drives the characters and leads them into dark places… Were you familiar with these pieces?
In Toronto people mentioned Hell in the Pacific. But I don’t know any of those stories and films. But the comparison has come about because Canopy has a simplicity to it. The story came out of me talking to veterans who told me that the scariest moments came between combat. In battle there is adrenaline and you can’t even remember what happened. Growing up in a small town you grow up in a landscape that is overwhelming – you are constantly aware of its presence. Those things combined made for a really good story.
It wasn’t about the Australian soldier. It’s a universal story of people sent away to a foreign land…one that comments on the environment as a character and how we connect to it.
War set survival stories often revolve around violence: to prevail the heroes must kill. This is not true of your film. Was that a conscious choice?
Yes. We take the audience away from the warfare – it becomes a story of an individual and his humanity and his psychology. I think anyone can identify with that - rather than blowing peoples heads off. I liked the idea of narrowing down [the stakes] and focusing on something simple, something we can connect with, something beautiful rather than showing the events of war.
Canopy is almost a silent film in that there is almost no dialogue – it plays no role as a dramatic device. It adds to its mythic ‘soldiers against the elements’ aspect.
Yes. But I think it was practical more than mythic. In a world surrounded by an enemy they would refrain from talk in fear of alerting the enemy to their presence.
I was struck by how you didn’t emphasise those things that almost always emphasised in war pictures – strategy, nationality, and moral superiority…
Yes! In stripping away language, background, and gender you are left with two characters who are human beings who must connect. The story reduces things to a connection that will forever more stay with these two characters for the rest of their lives…we call it mateship. These people (who I spoke to in researching this) tell these stories but they never really properly convey this connection to their children or their wives…it stays in their memories. In a way Jim is not necessarily Australian – you could look at him as if he were Russian, or Canadian or Japanese – and see a bit of your story or family’s story in him.
The performances are most unusual. There’s a most unexpected innocence.
Yeah they’re great. Mo Tzu-Yi is a bit of heart-throb in Taiwan and he’s a very experienced actor. Both he and Khan [could open up there characters] …It’s the idea of the individual being reborn and having to find their bearings and having to navigate life anew.
They have to redefine themselves to the other as in ‘I am not quite who you think I am?’
Exactly. There’s something a bit more existential there. I brought in time. I brought in the idea that perhaps what we are looking at a memory…
The audience in Toronto found it more like sophisticated sci-fi than a pic in part to its odd atmosphere and contemplative sensibility?
Yes. But I was really working intuitively rather than actively pursuing a idea of sci-fi.
Can you talk a little about some of the practical production challenges?
We shot on the Red One camera. We wanted a look that was some thing closer to what the eye sees – but we also wanted to nudge it a bit. I grew up on a farm and on a moonlit night you can see in the dark. Singapore is very manicured. But it is still 50 percent natural so we could find large pockets of land in the far north-west where there were mangroves and forest and we shot it there. For two or three major locations we were right on the edge of a freeway!The reason why I chose Singapore over say Malaysia was that I had a strong connection to Singapore and crew there – I’d worked there - but the actual locations feature a lot of Chinese graves and they were like characters in the story and it works for the psychology. Jim is moving through this world and he slowly becomes aware that there’s more at play – he’s in a grave-yard.There are only eighty-six special visual effects shots in the movie including the 1942 city skyline, the planes, some smoke and we also used fx to shift perspectives in the jungle.
Can you explain the role of crowd-funding in your production?
We were constantly running out of money. We had enough money to shoot it. So the crowd funding was there to help us in post-production.
Is there a sequel?
Not really. The story was always going to be about the experience of a soldier at war and the legacy that that has on his family when he returns. So Canopy was the first film in a two-part story, so to call it a sequel isn’t quite right. We’ve now shot part II, which explores the home front. It will be ready by the end of this year and come out early next year. We are waiting to shoot a modern day coda in Singapore.
How is the film performing in the marketplace – which is crowded with ‘small’ films?
Very well. We will make our money back. Odin’s Eye sales agent is responsible for sales. You only get to make your first film once. I wanted it to be personal. I wanted to make something for a low enough cost so it had a chance to recoup and not just in this territory… but a film that you could sell into lots of different territories and the sum of those smaller parts makes something greater and stronger than your average film. I really wanted it to be universal and to find lots of little markets.
Canopy is now showing in Australian cinemas