The writer/director of 2010's Wasted on the Young returns to Sydney Film Festival with a new film, based on a novel about an advanced virtual reality drug.
Ian Barr

16 Jun 2017 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2017 - 4:13 PM

In 2010, a film called Wasted on the Young caused a stir at that year’s Sydney Film Festival for its disturbing depiction of the intertwined nature of social media and high school bullying, as well as the assurance of its filmmaking. It was the extremely accomplished debut feature of Perth's Ben C. Lucas, who was nothing if not technologically savvy.

“My background is as a games developer, I used to do that in my 20’s,” he tells me. “I had all these ideas and stuff in development for augmented reality games, but the technology just wasn’t there. Then I moved into filmmaking, and I kinda left that behind… but that’s where my thinking started in terms of media and storytelling.”

Seven years later, Lucas’ sophomore feature has arrived in the form of OtherLife, a sci-fi/thriller set once again in his hometown, and featuring the perils of technological progress as its central theme. Freely adapted from Kelley Eskridge’s novel Solitaire, it’s about a brilliant software engineer Ren (Jessica De Gouw), on the run from government goons who want her virtual reality drug OtherLife for their own nefarious purposes.

What took Lucas so long to make another feature? “You mean what the hell do you do for seven year while you’re between films? You have to learn to love development, if your focus as a director is drama,” he explains. “I’ve had a dozen films get to the point of financing or casting, and then fall over for different reasons; it’s just the nature of the beast. I’d say probably 1 in 20 movies that get developed get made, and you’ve got to have many projects on the boil. I’m also a screenwriter, and I’ve done rewriting and ghostwriting, and development of my own stuff… it keeps me busy.”

OtherLife is an unusual adaptation of its source material, in that Lucas was presented with the script before reading the novel. “It started with the producer approaching me with the script he had the rights to, and then I looked into its history and discovered the novel, and so on,” he says. In place of the challenges of adapting a text for screen, were the challenges of adapting a script to a modestly-budgeted local production. “The novel is a far-future, very conceptual, very spiritual journey, and very interior journey… and the first adaptation of that for the bigger studio market was like this huge, action/sci-fi/adventure film. It wasn’t very American, but it had that tone to it, if you know what I mean. When we got our hands on [the script], the question was 'can we do this as a contemporary, low-budget and authentically Australian story?'”

Lucas’ technological savvy has obviously been a boon for his filmmaking career, and his view of the increasingly democratised entertainment industry isn’t the gloomy, elitist one taken by so many more established filmmakers. “We’re in an age where any film can be made for any amount of money, so you can waste tens of millions on a two-hander romantic comedy set inside a room, and you can make a sci-fi epic on your credit card. Anything can be done if you just sort of apply the right people and skills. [For OtherLife] we were punching way above our weight. For the money we had, we were overly ambitious, but I think it’s really important in filmmaking that you respect the fact that audiences don’t care how much a film is made for, and that they just want something that works and is entertaining.”

So, what does Lucas hope audiences take away from OtherLife? “I try not to set that expectation. Obviously I hope it’s a good one, but it’s out of my control. That’s one of the privileges of filmmaking, that as soon as you finish making it, it’s not yours anymore, and the rest of the world gets to decide what it is and how they feel about it.”

Regardless, Lucas certainly hopes that the rest of the world gets to see the film on as big a screen as possible. “I know that it’s purely sentimental, but my heart belongs in the cinema, and when you make a movie you think of it cinematically… increasingly it’s getting harder to get a wide release that way – I have so many contemporaries who when they grade a film, they grade it for iPad. Which is a little heartbreaking, but I know it’s the proper and realistic thing to do. But I still have to think of it as cinema. The biggest audience is going to be online, and that’s fine, but if we’re gonna get a few screenings in cinemas, we should enjoy it.” 

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