Little Tornadoes is a decade long labour of love for director and co-writer Aaron Wilson (Canopy). Shot in fourteen days with the Red One camera on a miniscule budget around the border towns of NSW and Victoria on the Murray in 2009 while bushfires ravaged the region, Wilson and a dedicated team of collaborators have, over the last ten years, created a unique experience.
Small, and quiet Little Tornadoes is a deeply personal film with a strong emotional pull. Featuring a beautiful narration from Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas, fine acting and stellar cinematography by Stefan Duscio, Little Tornadoes has a tremendous power that creeps up on the viewer.
The story is all about loss. They say misery loves company, but Little Tornadoes is about the kind of pain few feel free to communicate.
The time is 1971, and the place is a town small enough so that everyone knows everyone for better or worse. Leo (Mark Leonard Winter) can’t cope. His wife has left him with their two kids, and no excuse in her wake. His Dad (Robert Menzies), a lonely farmer traumatised by war, isn’t much help to himself or anyone. Maria (Silvia Colloca), a newly arrived Italian émigré baffled by this place of grim beauty and its culture of sullen men, lends a healing spirit to Leo’s world…
We spoke with Aaron Wilson on the eve of Little Tornadoes premiering at Melbourne International Film Festival last year.
Little Tornadoes has a great sense of place.
“It was shot in my old hometown, Tocumwal, in New South Wales on the border of Victoria.”
That’s a tiny town, a population of under 1500, three hours from Melbourne but it feels like it’s a place lost in time…was it hard to re-create 1971?
“We did a little bit of dressing for the town. We did a lot of work creating the look for the town. We did little embellishments using special visual (digital) effects. We added star-fields. We removed aerials. We replaced modern street lighting with period lighting.”
The production design by Tim Burgin feels period perfect. But it’s not in your face, like so many films. It has an almost Kubrick-like appreciation of space; everything seems real and not real at the same time. In other words, you are more conscious of how the character feels – isolation, sadness, whatever, than say the correctness of a lace curtain!
“Exactly! In the scenes set in the home of Leo (Mark Leonard Winter) and his Dad (Robert Menzies), it was about creating spaces in the home that are about their own little world. They are removed from the outside world.”
The film is austere, stripped back.
“I’m responding to a world I grew up in. There is a quiet and stillness in that world. You see a lot of Australian films where there is a big open landscape, big skies, and I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to look down and look in at the darkness and the murkiness and the shadows and the details in those shadows.
“I wasn’t born in 1971 (laughs) but I wanted to establish an intimacy for the story. Little Tornadoes is the second part of a trilogy of films that deal with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. It was shot back-to-back with Canopy (2013). It’s taken ten years to finish. Each of them deal with the impact of PTSD on a family. Canopy was 1941, this is 1971 and the last part is set today…”
Leo seems estranged from his father, but his father is a WWII veteran. Leo can’t talk about his loss. His wife has left him. Maria (Silvia Colloca), an Italian émigré comes into his life as ‘housekeeper’ and there’s a renewed hope, though the plot is quite unpredictable.
“Well, all of that, [the story and social elements] in some way comes from my upbringing and the town. When I was establishing a setting, 1971 seemed right. There was a lot of change happening. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch had just come out; there were protests against the Vietnam war. In rural areas, those changes were more confronting because the population is smaller; the changes are more pronounced.
“Growing up in the ‘80s, I heard stories about clashes between the locals and the Italian community who were new to the region; they brought a new energy, colour and vibrancy to the area. In my town, and all along the Murray, there are a lot of Italians who came out here in the ‘60s.”
The plot elements come from your background too?
“Growing up, you would hear stories about, say Old Bill, you would have to wake him with a stick because after he came back from the war, he was never the same. You would hear about old farmers who live out by themselves but don’t talk to anyone or if they do, they are bubbly and social, but they don’t really connect with the world. I was intrigued by these stories and characters. You start to think, where do they come from and why are they like that? Be it Vietnam, be it WWII. I wanted to explore how we are connected and how important it is to have that connection.”
The film isn’t melodramatic, but it is gripping.
“It’s almost like you are watching and experiencing the sort of elements you might find in a thriller. I was looking at thrillers as to how to evoke an emotional response.”
The very intense scenes are underplayed, and the quiet moments seem like a setup for a jump scare that never comes.
“That was true for the sound design too. I wanted to use it to create another character. In synopsis, it seems be this nice pastoral Australian drama – but to me, it’s about heightening the character of the world for everyone who lives in that space.”
It’s a movie where looks, the way people move, behave, are far more important than words.
“I grew up in a world where people didn’t talk much. People didn’t need to. But when they did and [the words landed] they were really felt. There was an effort at all times to keep things efficient.”
A highlight of the film is the voice-over narration. Tell us about how that evolved?
“I wanted to have these two voices; a man who couldn’t speak and a woman new to the world who spoke effortlessly and poetically about this place… I knew I didn’t want to write it. I wasn’t having any success with it. I wanted to connect with someone who understood vulnerability and that was Christos Tsiolkas. We made an approach and we showed him the film…This is what we did during lockdown [last year]. We spent weeks just walking around parks discussing films that used narration – the ones that worked for us, the ones that didn’t. We liked Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick) We fixed on a direction and spent four months on several drafts back and forth. We wrote a lot knowing we wouldn’t use it all; but I wanted to give the editor options. Christos was involved in sculpting scenes because the narration impacted the story.”
The film was shot in 2009. You must feel a terrific sense of satisfaction now it’s all over.
“We should be pushing ourselves to do something to challenge ourselves out of our comfort zone. As a boy from country Australia, the way I was brought up, once you start something, you finish it and get it done. When people ask ‘why did it take so long?’, an obvious answer would be it has taken as long as it needed to have taken to make the film that was made. [Laughs].”