Reptile is the latest in a long line of Australian short films that suggest great promise for the local industry.
Winner of the Best Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival last month for writer-director Jordan Giusti, Reptile packs a tough, strange, even surreal experience into its taut six minutes.
A 2016 Swinburne graduate, Giusti self-funded the three-day shoot, which was captured on film (using stock left over from the feature Hail and donated to the production by that film’s director Amiel Courtin-Wilson, who has been, says Reptile co-producer Chris Luscri, ‘a real mentor to myself and Jordan’.
Shot in a single location with an all-male ensemble made up of essentially ‘non-performers’, Reptile’s premise considers what happens when a simple, seemingly innocuous game gets out of control in a school classroom.
The MIFF Jury said: Reptile is a darkly funny and terrifying interrogation of male aggression and toxicity… The tension and the chaos continue to ratchet up until the characters eventually realise that, even though they are the architects of their downfall, they can’t escape.
Giusti and Luscri (and co-producer Hayley Surgenor) have collaborated on an earlier production, Grevillea (2020) which was part of the Official Selection in Berlin, and are currently developing further projects.
Here, Giusti and Luscri discuss the opportunities available to emerging filmmakers in a fast-shifting climate of innovation and disruption.
The story reminded us of the old saying, ‘it’s all fun and games till someone loses an eye’…
JORDAN GIUSTI “Yeah! I did have that in mind. It was an idea I’d had for a while.”
It’s a weird game the high-schoolers play – sort of like playing ‘chicken’ – bashing each other’s knuckles over a school desk, what’s it called?
JG “When I was at high school, we played a game we called ‘bloody knuckles.’ That’s the game they play in the film. Other people call it ‘knuckles.’”
The film starts off ‘real’ but in no time it becomes strange: the framing is weird, the sound seems like its drifting in from another place, it’s all very nightmarish by the end…how long did it take to evolve that style?
JG “I cut my own films. It took a year.”
The theme of the film has a real urgency about it at the moment.
CHRIS LUSCRI “It’s a cautionary tale. Told from the inside. [The characters] are caught in the action of this thing that they can’t escape from. Initially it was comedic.”
JG “I wanted it to be a fun film. But the terror found its way in.”
CL “There is a scene in the Marx Bros. film A Night at the Opera (1935) we talked about…”
You mean the compartment scene on the train, where they make a food order, and end up with like two dozen people crammed into this tiny space and everyone just carries on…it has its own superb, bizarre, self-obsessed logic?
CL “Right! [The question we asked ourselves] was how do we escalate this in a way that feels funny, but sinister? We talked a lot about Alan Clarke too (Scum). The film is exploring serious ideas such as the way young men are indoctrinated into a culture of permissive toxic behaviour.”
Tell us how you found the actors. They were very real. We imagine that trying to explain this story to anyone would seem a challenge, since on paper it seems very abstract…
JG “The actors were ‘street cast’ for another film. They weren’t trained actors. They were all friends in real life. They were nineteen-year-old skater kids.
“I knew that getting into the cerebral nature of the story wasn’t going to benefit them in grasping an understanding of the film. With the crew, who were friends I had worked with before, I could get into [the fact] that the film was about pack male behaviour and what it was trying to unearth about that.”
Jordan, in a fairly short window you’ve done Tape (Best Youth Short Film at the St. Kilda FF in 2019, and Grevillea…a lot of emerging filmmakers are heading to longform (web series) instead of shorts. What do you think?
JG “There’s not a lot of funding opportunities for shorts in Australia at the moment. Especially, for something as bizarre as this. The prize from MIFF was $8,000 so I almost got the budget back. [Laughs].”
CL “[When it comes to making shorts] the ecology and economy has changed. The short form has been co-opted by online content.”
JG “I think if you are going to be making shorts from a career angle you are probably going to be disappointed. It’s not a career progression thing as it once was.”
CL “There is a very important part of the process, no matter what you are making, that involves you not thinking about [sales, career, market]. The best films are always the ones where you feel the filmmaker is enraptured… [with the material].”
JG “If you are approaching shorts to test out your voice and ideas, it’s incredibly beneficial. I personally enjoy making shorts.”
JG “The best thing I ever heard about short filmmaking is that you don’t have the time to change a character [in their journey] but you do have time to change how an audience feels about a character. It’s the journey you can take an audience through as opposed to taking a character on a journey.”
CL “Jordan is a really curious person. When he sinks his teeth into a certain subject matter, there’s a desire to play with that idea. It’s about being rigorous. What I appreciate about all of his films is that they feel hand crafted, personal without being overly solicitous of the audience sympathies about the work being personal.”
ON SELLING SHORTS
CL “Outside of the festival circuit itself, which is still the major platform to launch shorts, there is a range of different pathways, depending on what your film is. There are definitely broadcasters in Europe looking to purchase stand-alone short films. There are distributors in Europe who package short films. Airlines are still a good opportunity.”