Rhys Graham’s debut follows an illicit teenage triangle led by Puberty Blues star Ashleigh Cummings. The director talks to us about growing up in the capital and using the 2003 bushfires as a plot point.
By
18 Jun 2014 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:28 AM

Born in Penang, Malaysia, in 1974, Rhys Graham grew up in Canberra’s suburban Tuggeranong. He’d initially moved to Sydney to study filmmaking at the University of Technology where aspiring filmmakers are encouraged to be resourceful. He then relocated to Melbourne and is currently part of a community of filmmakers who occupy a studio in Brunswick called Bird and support each other while making low budget projects. Over the past year, Ruin was edited there and the initial development for Fell happened in that space, Graham notes.
 
By the time he came to direct his debut feature, Galore, Graham knew how to make a little money go a long way. Even if he says the film was made for somewhere between $2-2.5 million, it’s still low budget.
 
“We absolutely needed a distributor, we got Hopscotch and eOne, an amazing sales agent for overseas,” he explains. “It took a long time to arrive at that, but the good thing about it is that you work with them and they do a lot of script revisions and you wrangle with them to make the script work to everyone's satisfaction.”
 
Graham returned to outer suburban Tuggeranong to set his coming-of-age story amidst the explosive social and physical environments he knew well. The action takes place during the sweltering summer leading up to the disastrous 2003 Canberra bushfires, as two 17-year-old best girlfriends, the wild child Billie (Ashleigh Cummings) and the more pensive Laura (Lily Sullivan), party hard and come to grief. Billie is a little distracted because she knows she is betraying Laura by falling in love with Laura’s boyfriend, Danny (Toby Wallace), though she is determined to pursue the romance. The girls are also fascinated by Isaac (Aliki Matangi), a troubled teenager trying to set his life straight, who moves into the caravan in Billie’s backyard.


 
Was it a challenge creating a party atmosphere on screen?
 
It’s very easy for on-screen parties to look like bad television; you really have to recreate it. It’s about getting all your actors and extras to feel comfortable and allowing them to have the total lack of inhibition that people normally get by being loaded. But then they’re doing it under duress and they’re doing it over and over again. My cinematographer Stefan Duscio was able to move quickly and responsively and nail all those shots while you’ve got all that mayhem going on all around you.
 
How did the bushfires fit into the story?
 
It’s a vivid reminder of the way we live in those outer suburbs, that strange floating world where a lot of kids grow up that’s between the ordered structure of the outer suburbs and the bushland. When I was a kid we were always going backwards and forwards between the two in the same ways as the characters in the film.
 
I'd written the story quite early on and had fallen in love with this [Billie] character, who's got a big heart but just makes very bad decisions. After the bushfires of 2003, I went back to Canberra, where lots of my family and friends were affected and I made a short 16mm documentary about a group of kids who were playing music in the punk scene who had all lost their houses. The thing that was really stark was that when you are that age, friendship and love are so important and suddenly the kids were evaluating things in different terms. It wasn't just about losing houses. It was amazing how insightful those 16 and 17 year-olds were.
 
So I went back to the script and thought the backdrop is important and that the story should take place around a real event. We tried to be very careful about how we used the bushfires in the drama. Billie experiences heartbreak and love and loss and the fires help take her out of her own little world.
 
How personal is the film for you?
 
It’s funny, I've written lots of scripts that are not set in Canberra, but while this one is not autobiographical, the locations are all the places that I knew when I was growing up. So there is an autobiographical element to it in terms of where and how the characters live and what they do.
 
Was it difficult to film in Canberra?
 
I think there hadn’t been a feature film made [entirely] in Canberra so there were all sorts of obstacles, and Canberra unfortunately is not a very welcoming place in terms of filmmaking. There’s a lot of red tape, the costs are prohibitive and that put us under a lot of budget pressure. But at the same time what you get is this great experience.
 
We went down many weeks beforehand with the actors and hung around in the actual places and everyone was so lovely and welcoming. We were able to forge a very strong little family around the experience, which is perfect for an intimate film like this. You have to feel that world is real and alive and the kids were able to tear around on their bikes and get as familiar with the locations as the locals were.
 
Can you talk about the casting. Ashleigh Cummings from Puberty Blues is a strong talent.
 
I knew some of her work and she is very different from Billie. She is almost a polar opposite but she is a staggeringly good actor, and in a film like this about complex experiences, she was very effective. I think all the actors were able to lift each other to much higher levels.
 
Were some of the cast untrained?
 
They come from very different experiences. Three of the four leads had done films before, but Aliki had never done anything. He is intuitively incredibly gifted and has since appeared with Chris Lilley on Jonah from Tonga. Working with the four of them through the rehearsal period, we kind of found a shared dialogue that they could use as an ensemble and which I could use individually with them.

I think I was very lucky in casting kids with the personalities they had. They are all old souls, very intelligent despite their age. The way they were able to protect each other made my work a lot easier.

How did you get into filmmaking?
 
My parents are teachers and I didn't come from an artistic background, though I'd always made short films. I was a late bloomer in the sense that I would always have a camera and would go out and film skating or make stupid music videos but I don't think I tweaked onto actual film and cinema ‘til my late teens. From that point I just completely immersed myself in movies. I only discovered the Electric Shadows cinema just as I was leaving Canberra to travel overseas. Part of the reason I left was because of the heavy drug scene. Heroin was massive; it was devastating in the group I was at in school.
 
Living in the suburbs, I was quite isolated and I never worked out there were other things to do within the city. I think it’s like a lot of suburban areas where there’s a really heavy car culture, heavy drug culture, it’s pretty stupid, dumb violence and all that stuff. At the same time, it’s easy to reduce the life there to thinking it’s really boring, because people still have rich lives.  

Galore is released in cinemas on 19 June. Watch the trailer below.