Davis Jensen: Taking Tunnel Ball to Slamdance and Round the Twist

January 11, 2019
An Australian short film has been selected to play at the Slamdance Film Festival, an event that is 'a showcase for raw and innovative filmmaking self governed by filmmakers for filmmakers'. We spoke with said filmmaker to find out where he's come from, where he's going and what makes him tick.

What study have you undertaken?

I studied the BA Screen at AFTRS from 2015-17. The degree was set up to give us all an eclectic understanding of filmmaking – from film theory and academia to gaffing. And it did, I walked away with a broad skill set and knowledge of areas of film I never thought I’d work in. At the same time, I was able to focus on my preferred disciplines like writing and directing. This foundation into filmmaking really gave me the confidence to explore opportunities for my own work a lot more than I would have without the degree. I know that I have the skills and resources, as well as a network of talented students/alumni around me to create almost anything I/we can think of.

You describe the film as ‘an absurd Australian comedy that critiques the toxic and elitist culture found in many male institutions across the country’. Any particular institutions that you’re critiquing with your film?

It’s pretty targeted at private boy schools and the cultures that come out of them. I was always public schooled, but played a lot of “private school sports” like rugby union and water polo – two sports where it felt like being masculine, homophobic and misogynistic was a prerequisite. Tunnel Ball reflects on my experiences within these communities – the feeling of isolation when an entire world wants you to conform and abide by problematic customs and traditions.

In saying that, I’m very aware that the toxic culture that Tunnel Ball touches on stretches out to every community in the world – got to love the long arm of the patriarchy. I nailed it down to private boys’ schools because I think it’s where these themes are at their most raw and where they are championed and passed down proudly in perpetuity.

Is Slamdance the first festival to screen the film?

Yeah, Slamdance is the first festival Tunnel Ball has been selected into and the festival I had in mind during the shoot. I think it’s a bit of a divisive film for programmers – Slamdance is definitely a festival that fits Tunnel Ball well and is an honour to get into!

I think on face value Tunnel Ball is a bit contentious – it’s a sports comedy with an all-white all-male cast. So perhaps that might be a source of rejection? Mainly though I think it’s quite a bold and forward film, making it a little difficult for certain festivals to program and market to their audience, and fair enough!

There’s a real no frills aspect to the film mixed with the effects. Was this a deliberate choice/part of your style??

I think “no frills” filmmaking is intrinsic to the Australian voice, especially in the films and TV shows I grew up watching like Death in Brunswick, Muriel’s Wedding and Round the Twist. I was really trying to replicate that direct and uninhibited style of storytelling in Tunnel Ball.

On top of this, our budget from AFTRS was $250, which drummed up to be 4 days of catering with a little left over for design – a big help in ensuring no frills were added!

Knowing I had limited resources for the VFX (a small portable green screen and adobe after effects) I really leaned into the simple style of shooting. Our cloning had to be pretty basic, we used as many in-camera tricks as possible to avoid bringing out the green screen because, to be completely honest, we weren’t certain it was going to work. When we did bring it out, we tried to make sure it effects were visible and made an impact in the final product. This forced me to be very selective with shots, most scenes only use 3 shots to cut between, and they’re usually wide frames with no camera movement.

Locking off the camera allowed us to really stretch what we could do with the VFX without exceeding our skill level, it also made it a very easy environment for the actors, Reuben Ward and Wilson Moore, to improvise, have fun with their lines and just be the funny people that they are. I think the low budget/no frills style really complimented the story and I couldn’t picture making Tunnel Ball any other way.  What we lacked in camera movement, we made up for in zingers.

Behind the scenes on Tunnel Ball

What sorts of influences have you had to get to this point, and also, specifically with regards to Tunnel Ball?

I’ve been really influenced by the comedies I watched growing up as well as Australian films like He Died With a Felafel in his Hand, Love Serenade, Death in Brunswick, Muriel’s Wedding, etc.

As far as screenwriting, I’m a big fan of Charlie Kaufman and Gretta Gerwig. Honestly, I think some of the biggest influences for Tunnel Ball are books by Terry Denton like Just Disgusting and Paul Jenning’s Unbelievable.

More specifically for Tunnel Ball, I took pieces from male-institutional films like  If… and Full Metal Jacket as well as coming of age comedies like Freaks and Geeks and of course Round the Twist.

Davis Jensen; self portrait

Is comedy something you like exploring?

Yes, I think it’s a medium that has a lot more to offer than what it tends to be used for. I’m a big fan of comedy anyway, and really love being able to approach a topic without any pretension and pick it apart.

I think it’s an excellent way to open up a topic to an audience that might be too intimidated /ignorant/arrogant to listen otherwise and begin a conversation about themes that may have been to difficult for them to talk about beforehand.

What do you think getting into Slamdance means?

It’s my first ever film festival – I ‘m so excited! It’s a festival I’ve always loved and really respected, and it was definitely in my mind while I was making the film, and it’s really a dream come true to get in!

Other than validation, I don’t really know what it means for me, I hope it can get me in contact with people who have similar approaches to filmmaking. I’m a big fan of a few of the previous winners/ selections, mainly M.P. Cunningham’s film Fort Clitoris. The harshly independent ‘spirit’ of the festival really aligns with what I think the film industry should try to be.

Are you hoping to leverage the selection with meetings… etc in US?

Yeah, I’d love to be able to make the most of my time there and meet with some larger companies in, but I’m also just excited to go, have a good time and meet new people!

What else are you up to?

I’m trying to make more! I’m working on a new script that’s a dark comedy/murder mystery set in a Primary School during book week. Keep your eyes peeled!

The production company I founded with two other AFTRS alumni, Fat Salmon, has just moved into a new office space in Marrickville and we’ve got a heap of new projects lined up. Looking forward to being busy!

Slamdance is on January 26 – 31 in Park City, Utah USA

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