Alex Proyas: The Heretic

January 17, 2022
A judge at last year’s Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, the Australian filmmaker returns to Bondi’s premiere event to compete with a number of other thematically charged entries for this year’s top gong in the Australian Shorts category with his film Mask of the Evil Apparition.

Produced at his new minted facility, Heretic Foundation, Mask of the Evil Apparition once again sees the iconoclastic director team with Bonnie Ferguson (who headlined Proyas’ 2019 shot Phobos) and his Gods of Egypt actor Goran D. Kleut in a bloody, macabre, and intrinsically absorbing supernatural vision.

Alex Proyas’ approach to filmmaking has always been to invite the audience down the rabbit hole. And for the most part, they’ve enjoyed the trip, regardless of the metaphysics, metaphor and gore that awaits. And with Mask of the Evil Apparition, Proyas is in fine form with a visually styled short that both intrigues as a classic mystery noir, while touching on dark compulsions in its exploration of self.

“I just went through some old short-film scripts that I had. It’s not that I had a lot of them. I’ve probably got a lot more feature film scripts that have never been made than short films,” explains Proyas in a recent zoom call from his atmospherically light office at the Heretic Foundation.

“But I was working on this series of short films way back. I used to do one every few years, whenever I had the resources to do it, usually on the back of some big commercial or something like that, that was paying my crew to hang around for a few more days.

“It was a series called Book of Dreams and it was people ostensibly relating their dreams to camera and then we’d see the dream played out. It was just my excuse to basically muck around.

“So, that was the first place I went and looked. Those existing scripts had pretty much just been discarded because they were too ambitious, but with what we were trying to do now, I just settled on this particular one.

“I did change it a little bit because it used to be that she relates the dream and you see it and it was supposed to be a dream. And I just excised that bit and made it all happen in the moment.”

Although Mask of Evil Apparition is set to make its Australian debut at this year’s Flickerfest Short Film Festival against the backdrop of Sydney’s gorgeous Bondi Beach, the film has enjoyed a few strategic screenings overseas including L.A.’s Screamfest Horror Short Film Festival where it received rave reviews, and more than a few stylistic comparisons to Proyas’ original Neo-noir classic Dark City.

“Well, it is actually related to Dark City,” he explains with a thoughtful hesitation. “But not intentionally so. As I was making it, I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow. That’s a little bit like Dark City, isn’t it?’

“In fact, Dark City, before it went through the script development process with a major Hollywood… several major Hollywood studios actually; before we got to make it, it was a far more dreamlike film. It was far more surreal, far more influenced by filmmakers that I love like Luis Bunuel or Alejandro Jodorowsky. It was surrealism, that’s what I’d really call it.

“And so, Dark City shifted more into science fiction because if I wanted to have a major Hollywood studio finance, it couldn’t be surrealism. But Mask of Evil Apparition is still very strongly aligned with the initial inspirations of Dark City.”

While Proyas has a firm grip of genre and visual style, he is also a director that understands the zeitgeist of his industry – occasionally lamenting its ever-shifting moral ambiguities, wokeness and genre-shifts – and with his latest work, he still manages to maintain his own creative legitimacy.

“Now of course, it’s called horror, I guess,” he elaborates. “I don’t know. Experimental? I guess that’s what it is.

“But I’m obviously aware of narrative conventions and I have had to conform to them for most of my work. But in this case, I was financing the film myself. So, there was literally no brakes on my madness. I could do what I like, and if it doesn’t make coherent sense, I go, ‘Well, tough. I don’t care!’ It makes sense to me. It’s a search for identity, is what it is. If I start to analyse myself, most of my films are about a quest for truth and a search for individual identity. That’s in most of my projects, but it’s very much on the surface in Dark City and very much on the narrative surface of Mask of the Evil Apparition also.”

In fact, as Proyas admits to conforming in order to placate his Hollywood masters, the outspoken director certainly can’t be accused of compromising his creative integrity. With a mere handful of Hollywood films, Proyas has proven an innovative and original director, choosing to either adapt stories that influenced him as a young man, as with Isaac Asimov’s classic novella I, Robot and the DC graphic novel The Crow or to work with original screenplays such as the aforementioned Dark City, the classic Oz Rock saga Garage Days or the metaphysical mystery Knowing. However, it’s the films that Proyas chose not to attach himself to that speaks to the director’s own unique brand of integrity.

“It’s just ludicrous,” reveals Proyas with a wry smile as our chat returns to Hollywood. “They do offer me these films from time to time. I got offered one of the Superman movies, and they offered me a Bond movie a while ago, which was sadly one of the worst of the recent ones. I was busy with other things, so I couldn’t really consider it. But of course, it’s Bond. I love Bond. I’m a Bond freak, and I would definitely have done that. That’s a franchise I would’ve definitely embraced for sure.

“But I don’t like the superhero stuff, the Marvel stuff and even the DC stuff. It’s boring to me. I’m just not interested in it. I don’t like it as a fan. And I’m not going to direct just because the circumstances are what they are.

“My world, that I like, is original. There are so many fantastic science fiction novels that I read when I was a kid, that over the years I’ve tried to make into films. But it’s difficult to get them financed because they go, ‘It’s like Star Wars’. And I go, ‘No, it’s not like Star Wars. Star Wars is like it!’ And now of course, they’re just not interested unless it has a built-in audience.”

As Mask of the Evil Apparition approaches its Australian premiere, Proyas presents as a filmmaker who remains steadfast to his creative process, enjoying the intimacy of working with his own production company, Heretic Foundation, and making original content that is essentially unique in an industry fixated with brand-recognition and star powered marketing budgets.

“It’s really my way of wrestling back control of the machinery of the means of production,” he explains regarding Heretic Foundation, his innovative tech-driven production facility located in Sydney’s inner west. “The means of production has been taken from creative people and the bigger the budgets you work with, the less control of those things that you have. The more people breathe down your neck, mostly executives fearful of losing their jobs, and unless your movie makes gazillion dollars… And then ironically, even when your movie does make a gazillion dollars, it never seems to go into profit.

“My own movie I, Robot, I still get insulting accounting from the studio every quarter that tells me that a movie which made, on its initial release, $450 million – in today’s money and through streaming and blu-rays and blah, blah, blah, it’s probably made close to a billion dollars – I’m still being told that is an unprofitable enterprise.

“So I go, ‘if I, Robot was an unprofitable enterprise, then what is profitable and why does anyone make movies?’ Tied in with that is this issue where the studios don’t want to finance big, original fantasy and science fiction.

“They want to finance sure things, risk free franchises, sequels, remakes, blah, blah, blah, things that have got a built-in audience. The marketing departments that run the studios don’t want to spend any time and money pushing something new because they believe that audiences don’t want something new.

“It was clear to me a few years ago when I reassessed where things were going, that I had to reinvent the wheel. I had to re-build. Craft a new way forward that serviced my filmmaking. Because the indie world and the mainstream have parted, they’re on two different wavelengths. But the indie world is still controlled by the big guys. We need to pull that back. The creators need to pull back control because quite frankly, the level of risk that we put into those films, is not commensurate with the reward. At least on the big movies, my unprofitable, huge, franchise tentpole movies that I made a few of – that were all unprofitable, apparently – at least they paid me a nice living wage that had to last me for several years from movie to movie.

“But while I felt momentarily wealthy each time I got a green light, that doesn’t happen on independent films. With independent films, you’re supposed to now work for nothing, for no blue sky, and no reward at the end of it either. This is patently ludicrous.

“This does not work for anybody except for the people who are buying films at some stage down the track like your Netflixes, et cetera. So, Heretic Foundation is part of my attempt to redesign a way of making films that I think will – well, I know it’s starting to work already – be a revolutionary way to free the artist and win back some measure of control to the original artist, the creator of the work. So that’s my goal. That’s why I built it.”

For more information of Heretic Foundation, its facilities and work you can visit the official website at www.hereticfoundation.com

For session time and ticket sale for Mask of the Evil Apparition and to view the full 2022 Flickerfest Short Film Festival program visit www.flickerfest.com.au

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