Bugs: Australia’s Independent Spirit

September 4, 2018
Writer/Director Jack Moxey and Producer/Actor Elizabeta Moretti jumped into the deep end with their debut feature film.

Bugs is a unique beast – like something from another era married with today’s sensibilities. Reminiscent in its depiction of floundering youth to Tim Hunter’s classic River’s Edge (1986) and Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), it is also informed by the digital age in its visual language and the behaviour of its characters. In fact, there’s a key early scene in the film where a motley crew discover a VHS soft porn tape, which directly comments on all of the above. And a plot point revolving around a rumoured dead body, which is reminiscent of so many films of the past about youthful rebels without a cause.

Access to filmmaking technology has allowed first time filmmakers Jack Moxey and Elizabeta Moretti to tell their story of a misspent youth in the outer suburbs, compromised only by a limited budget and inexperience, and their film has been rewarded with slots in exciting Australian film festivals Sydney Underground and Revelation in Perth. Although the filmmakers claim they were not influenced by similarly themed films in creating Bugs, it’s telling that their mastery of cinematic language has seeped in through the natural influence of 20th century’s leading artform. What will end up being the 21st century’s leading artform is too early to tell, of course, but speaking with Moxey and Moretti may give us a clue.

Are you able to disclose the final budget on the film? And was it sufficient?

JM: We made the film for very cheap and all of it went to cast, crew and equipment. It wasn’t enough, but we completed the film, and 95% of the original script is there. At the end of the day compromises were made which you just kind of have to live with. It’s a tough thing to make such an independent film in this country. We had a lot of good luck with local councils letting us use of locations for free – which doesn’t really happen. Bugs was our first film and we wanted everything to be as legitimate as possible, which costs a lot of money. My next film will likely be a little more clandestine.

Did you ever try to go down the traditional funding route in making the film, or even finance plans to look at potential tax breaks, or did you just jump in. And why?

JM: Usually, you can’t really get funding unless you have prior distribution.

EM: Or a reputation, or decent network of influential people to help you out.

JM: And you can’t get prior distribution unless you have funding or a big name star, so it’s difficult to go the traditional route on a first film. We don’t really have any friends (with spare money) so crowd funding wasn’t really an option for us. The film was too cheap to worry about things like tax breaks.

The trope of the dead girl reminds me of films of my youth – Stand by Me, River’s Edge – were these inspirations at all?

JM: Actually, these films have come up a little bit since showing Bugs at festivals. They weren’t inspirations at all really. It’s easy to compare films about teenagers to other films about teenagers (particularly when there’s a dead girl involved), but kids are fundamentally kind of the same everywhere – they all want to be noticed, get drunk or fuck stuff and be adults. I was inspired to write about a certain bunch of kids from the area where I grew up – kind of this semi-rural, suburban town that was like an hour away from anything moderately exciting.

What was the thinking behind making the film in black & white?

JM: This was a purely monetary decision. We couldn’t afford a grader in post production and it seemed that black and white was better than a poorly graded colour film. Actually, right now we’re getting it graded for a colour release having recently saved up a bit of money.

EM: We kind of shot ourselves in the foot with that, a definite learning curve. As a producer, I hadn’t had much exposure to the process of selling a film before Bugs. Turns out that distribution doors close on black & white films unless you’re Noah Baumbach or something.

Was the film fully scripted or did you invite collaboration with your cast?

JM: I had written a 90 page script which we stuck to for the most part. If an actor had a better idea or we came up with something on the day then I would change it on the spot and go with it. Some locations changed the morning of a shoot, so I just wrote new stuff each day and some scenes we just completely improvised if the dialogue wasn’t working. I don’t really have any qualms about changing up the writing. Most of the actors were first timers and did better if you just let them come up with stuff, even if you know it’s never going to be in the film. It’s good for their comfort and confidence and actors are everything. I would get a couple of takes of scripted dialogue then just let the actors go for a take or two if we had time. We were all working together.

EM: In my role as Rikki, I definitely dropped in a few ad-libbed lines reminiscent of things I’d said and people I hung out with around that age. The (incredible) cast relaxed hard in to these roles, and there absolutely ended up being a blurred line of chit-chat between takes and semi-improvised conversations. It felt like a time-warp some days, like we’d been teleported back to year 12 and all the laughter and drama and anxiety that came with it.

What sort of lessons did you learn during the making of the film?

JM: Quite a lot. As a first time director you have this naivety which is sort of a blessing and a curse. You think stuff like “sure I can set a couch on fire at a skate park”, but realise pretty quick that you can’t just do whatever you want. On the flip side you’re acting on your instincts which is great. Having never went to film school I found it very freeing to do things my own way and direct the film without any pre-existing ideas about how to make a film. In hindsight I probably would have made a film of less scope if I could do my first film again. We spent the whole time trying to get around big problems like shooting at a high school or shooting a party scene over two nights. Both of which comprised a majority of the story and were incredibly difficult to organise with little money.

EM: Oh wow, I could write an essay on this topic. A key lesson: Don’t invite really young actors to cast read-throughs without making sure their parents have read the whole script first. Also, the black & white thing, ha.

In terms of the film’s audience, who do you think that is, and how do you hope to reach them? I ask that because I imagine that younger people will get a lot out of the film but they’re a tough audience to crack.

JM: I think the film is for people who want to see something a little bit different – particularly within the Australian market. We have a selection of mostly government funded films in this country and I think there’s something quite nauseating about that thought. Underground film is kind of dead now though. People have access to so much great content, literally at their fingertips and a film like ours might not be how some people want to spend an hour and a bit of their free time… Some people really like this film and some people find it rather annoying and probably a bit tedious. We just have to get it out there on some of the platforms and anyone who wants to watch it will be able to.

EM: Slightly off topic, but it’s true what Jack says about the massive influence Screen Australia and state funding bodies have in deciding what mainstream, and even independent (non-underground) audiences see. The notion of government mandated art gives me the chills. Anyway, in terms of audiences who might be seeking this film out, we always knew this would appeal to younger people with independent taste.

What’s next?

JM: I was thinking about getting braces, but I might be a little bit old for that now.

EM: Currently, we’re working on a documentary series about subcultures around Australia. To date, we’ve spoken with a ghost-hunter, a sisterhood of exotic dancers and an elderly artist trying to break his way into acting in films. The series might not go anywhere, but we’re having fun meeting unique people and exploring this incredible format for storytelling. In terms of feature films, Jack is now polishing off a new script and we’re due for production next winter, if all goes to plan.

Bugs is screening at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, which is on September 13 – 16, 2018.

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