Amiel Courtin-Wilson is a filmmaker based in Melbourne with more than a decade of experience making documentaries. His newest film HAIL is a unique blend of reality and fantasy, a softly experimental tale of crime and addiction starring the people who actually lived the events that inspired the film. Below is an interview conducted a few weeks before its theatrical opening in Australia.
Josh: Can you explain the origins of this movie and how you approached filming it?
Amiel: I met Danny Jones as part of a theater company I was documenting in 2005, a theater company called Plan B which is working with ex-prison inmates in Melbourne. I had been filming for a good couple of months and I met this man who was standing outside the rehearsal space decked out in double denim, looking kind of nervous and ill at ease. I approached him and asked if he was OK with me filming the rehearsals and as soon as he turned around and met my gaze I was instantly taken by this sort of reptilian intensity that he possesses. When I watched him begin rehearsals, and I think at that stage he’d only been out of jail like 18 hours or something, he was so clearly an amazing, very mercurial and intense performer. But at that stage I was just envisaging making a documentary about him. I had no idea that it would evolve into a feature and it took about 3 or so years of filming him before I realized that if I charted a love story between Danny and his girlfriend Leanne that it could potentially have the emotional impetus and through-line to carry a feature film.
Josh: You said you were shooting for a few years. Is any of that footage in the film that we see or was it after you realized what you wanted to do that you started shooting specific scenes you would integrate?
Amiel: I was really shooting documentary footage for those years, just interview footage with Danny. None of that footage is in the film HAIL. The methodology involved in Danny playing himself in a form came from a story he told me on camera about a murder he witnessed when he was 5 years old. That interview was about 90 minutes long and I was commissioned to make a short film here in Australia. It was an experiment with transcribing that interview and culling it down into an 8 page monologue that he then learned and we rehearsed as you would any lines of dialogue. That worked so beautifully because by giving him back his own words in a distilled form he was able to be at ease with the turns of phrase and cadences of language. But then you could drill down and modulate the performance to quite a sophisticated degree. That was a short film called CICADA and it worked so well that a feature just made sense. We never had a script but I wrote a 20 page scene breakdown and alongside that I had about 500 pages of transcribed interview material. I also knew Danny pretty well by that point, I’d known him for about 5 years, and it enabled this very interesting way of working where you could just throw out a single word or improvisational trigger to get a response, which was enabled by having this rigorous, long-term documentary background.
Josh: Some of the experiences you’re staging are based on actual events from Dan’s real life. Did you find that there were moments that he was trepidatious to recreate or get back into because they were painful or unpleasant when he went through them initially?
Amiel: Yeah, it’s something we spoke about at length. The second half of the film was very physically and emotionally taxing on Dan. It’s a testament to him as a performer that he kind of internalized a lot of that stuff. His processes were really quite sophisticated in terms of how he prepared for those scenes. Having said that, I remember certain times like the torture scene in the latter half of the film, when I would shout “Cut!” 3 or 4 times before Dan would be shocked out of it. We’d actually have to reach in and pull him off the other actor sometimes. I’ve never seen someone so immersed in a role and I think there were times when he would need a day off because he was drained from shooting. Having said that, I was acutely aware of not wanting to throw him into too much of a tumult, so we rehearsed those scenes for 3 months leading up to the shoot. Interestingly, because all of the performers in the film are non-actors, I couldn’t really cast anyone without Danny in the room. Those rehearsals ended up feeding back into the writing process because I was able to glean details and come up with characters. By the time it came to shooting we were able to work organically but it was sitting on top of this bed of fairly rigorous prep.
Josh: It seems to me that when you’re dealing with somebody who has life experiences written onto their face and you recognize that authenticity that it enables you to do things that are a little bit stranger or more ambitious with the narrative. The audience accepts the truth of the character at the core of the film. What do you think about that?
Amiel: That is something I’ve felt really strongly for a long time. Having come from a documentary background but also being a great lover of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage I was always really taken in my documentary work by the fact that you could push into a purely impressionistic, kind of experimental realm that is just playing with texture and light. But because audiences are entering that space housed within the notion that it’s a true story they’ll run with you into some formally experimental terrain and that really excites me. It was a huge risk for me to work within a dramatic context but it enables a kind of freedom to be more formally audacious. The film polarizes people and a lot of people admittedly hate it, but by the same token audiences do seem to get caught up in the slipstream.
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