The Double Helix of Acute Misfortune

May 19, 2019
Thomas M. Wright about his challenging directorial debut, Acute Misfortune.

Thomas M. Wright is an acclaimed actor, playwright and stage director. Acute Misfortune is his film directorial debut.

Acute Misfortune is based on Erik Jensen’s award-winning biography Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen. The film explores the claustrophobic, tumultuous, and often violent relationship between infamous Archibald Prize-winning artist Adam Cullen (played by Daniel Henshall, Snowtown) and his 19-year-old biographer, Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace, Romper Stomper). The film depicts the four-year period that led to Cullen’s death, at the age of 46.

Acute Misfortune was written by Thomas M. Wright and Erik Jensen. Wright initiated the project after reading an excerpt from Jensen’s book in the Good Weekend. “I thought it would make an important film,” Wright remarks. “I looked into Adam’s work, and became really interested with the notion of… here’s this guy with Swastika tattoos on his arms, but whose paintings were purchased by Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull.”

Wright approached Jensen having never made a film. “Unbeknownst to me, I found myself in a competition with many of the larger producers in Australia. But through the discussions that Erik and I had, he decided that we would co-write the film.”

Wright and Jensen spent approximately three and a half years researching and writing the film. “We had to work extraordinarily closely,” Wright remarks. “Not just in interrogating Erik’s journalism that was in the book, but also in taking Erik back into that time – taking him back into the trauma of their relationship, and scrutinising the motivations that were behind it. I think Erik processed a lot of the trauma that he went through in those last few years of Adam’s life by writing that book”.

The filmmaker didn’t want Acute Misfortune to recap the conclusions that are drawn in Jensen’s biography (“because there’d be no reason to make that film”). Instead, he wanted the film to detail a different perspective.

“It had to be about the relationship between Adam and Erik, because that’s what makes the film accessible. We all know what it is to be in an imbalanced relationship, because all relationships are inherently imbalanced, at times. Adam and Erik were just so different – in age, in personality, in profession, in standards of behaviour, in where they were at in their lives.”

Wright refers to the structure of the film as a double helix. “On one side, you’ve got the downward spiral of Adam, as he sinks further and further into the alcoholism, drug use and self-destruction that eventually kills him. On the other side, you have Erik’s upward, coming-of-age spiral”.

The director was also interested in the dichotomy between the worlds of art and journalism. “In the world of journalism, things are literal and combative. Whoever wins the argument goes to print. You’re attaching literal meanings to things and finding conclusions. In the art world, it’s all about removing meaning or applying other possible meanings. It’s about abstraction. But when you make all things abstract, how do you find meaning? And I think it was this absolute abstraction of meaning, coupled with Adam’s history and childhood, that conspired to undo him.”

He wanted this film to dive deeply into Cullen’s controversial ideas, subjects and interests. “We had to figure out what he was trying to say with his art, and then find a way to represent that in film language. After all, film is an attempt to make something complete within an incredibly compressed timeline. Something that stands on its own, where its form reflects its content and the content echoes the form.”

Wright felt that Cullen’s art was the key to understanding him. “The film works like a literary detective story – we put the audience on the trail of what might be behind all of Adam’s personas, what might be behind all this language and these ideas and these artworks. Adam was a very difficult person. It’s impossible to ignore that. Part of the fabric of the film is questioning why he became this way.”

He did not want the film to be a mimicry of Cullen’s life. “We didn’t want to damn Adam,” Wright says, “but we also didn’t want to apologise for him, or make excuses for his behaviour. At times, Adam’s attitudes and behaviour were completely abhorrent. We wanted the film to be as honest as possible. I mean, when you’re reconstructing someone’s life and compressing four years into 90 minutes, you’re a liar, which is why I think it’s essential that biographical cinema has humility. If it doesn’t, it’s possibly the lowest art form there is. We didn’t want to resort to impressions or impersonations. We wanted to channel the ideas that were behind Adam, and the reality of what his life was, but from Dan’s perspective.”

Wallace, Henshall, Jensen and Wright at the film’s premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Daniel Henshall was part of the research of this film for approximately two years. To gain as much understanding about Cullen as possible, Wright, Jensen and Henshall spent countless hours with Cullen’s doctors, lawyers, contemporaries, mentors, ex-partners and drug dealers. Thanks to the incredible support of Cullen’s family, the filmmakers even gained access to Cullen’s possessions. “In the film,” Wright states, “Dan is wearing Adam’s actual clothes. He’s using his actual paints and brushes, working where Adam worked in the Blue Mountains and interacting with real people from Adam’s life [in the film, Cullen’s second cousin Max plays his father, and Cullen’s studio assistant Henry Beckett plays his art dealer]. Thankfully, all of these people from Adam’s life were really convinced by the film. I think the film was quite cathartic for a lot of them, actually. And so much of that is thanks to Dan’s incredible performance.”

Henshall gave this project his all, mentally and physically. “He gained about 16 kilos, and then lost about 23 kilos during the seven weeks of filming. And on top of that, he was dealing with this intensely emotional psychological terrain. Dan has this huge emotional intelligence and ability to empathise with and understand his characters. I think he should be really proud of what he was able to achieve in this film.”

Wright details an incredible moment when Cullen’s family actually mistook Henshall for Cullen. “When I was shooting Sweet Country with Warwick Thornton [Wright plays the key character of Mick Kennedy in that film], Dan came out with a visual artist called Warwick Baker, and we shot some ‘proof of concept’ footage. When we showed it to Adam’s family, they asked where I’d found the archival footage. They actually thought that Dan was Adam.”

Wright is also full of praise for Toby Wallace, who plays Jensen. “Toby took such care with this role. He was so emotionally committed to what we were exploring – especially the central question of why a person remains in an unhealthy, abusive relationship – and this was profoundly moving for Erik. Toby is profoundly gifted – he’s the kind of actor that makes me want to quit [laughs].”

Wright found a deep connection to filmmaking through the creation of this film, and admits that it was one of the most challenging experiences of his life. “Directing this film was the biggest, most painful, most rewarding learning curve that I’ve ever been on, aside from having a child. It was completely immersive, exposing and revealing. You’re working at the limits of your capacity as a person, as an artist, as a negotiator, as a business person. It calls on so many difficult, far-ranging and often contradictory abilities. As my really close friend Garth Davis [Lion] says, ‘directing is not for the faint-hearted’.”

When we speak to Wright, he’s taking a break from a full day of working on his new project, which is a larger-budget crime film that he plans to write and direct. “When I’m writing,” he says, “I write for about 10 hours a day. That includes research, investigation, talking to people, and then sitting down and applying that information to my work. Personally, I don’t think that writing is about inspiration – I think it’s about hard work. You need to lock yourself away, remove yourself from distractions and focus.”

When it comes to his work, Wright is endlessly inspired by Australian cinema – as was Cullen. “Adam was obsessed with the anti-heroes of Australian cinema. He loved Chopper, he was obsessed with David Wenham’s character in The Boys, and he actually loved Snowtown too.

“The byline of Chopper is ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn,’ and I think that is the attitude that Adam adopted. In the end, though, truth definitely got in the way.”

Acute Misfortune is in cinemas now.

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