Paris Pompor

When ‘80s Stateside flick Beat Street premiered in Australian cinemas over thirty years ago, it was revelatory to many locals to have their beloved hip hop culture represented and acknowledged on the big screen. Native hip hop has come a long way in the ensuing years, so an Australian feature film that truly reflects our own diverse beats and streets was overdue. Enter independently produced film Survival Tactics starring the Deadly Award-winning Wire MC as Jet, and Soraya Touma as his determined dancer girlfriend, Rosa. Their relationship is rocky, interrupted by prison time and the escapades of Jet’s ice-addicted, yet lovable brother Fury, played by community and theatre worker, Morganics, formerly of pioneering hip hop group Metabass ’n’ Breath.

Morganics – who is also the director, co-writer/producer and editor of Survival Tactics –  talks about process and impulse, the journey from script to screen, how the idea was born and how the Bourne franchise figures in an Aussie b-boy’s gritty first feature film.

Survival Tactics was originally a theatre show in the mid 2000s – where did the original concept come from and what was the process for developing the script/film treatment? “I had done two other hip hop theatre shows, a solo one Crouching Bboy Hidden Dreadlocks then Stereotype with Wire MC, and after one of those shows at The Sydney Opera House, Maya Jupiter said to me: ‘I’m busy, but if you ever wanted to do another show I’d make it happen’. So I thought to myself, ‘wow, I could get my dream team’, and I did. We had an amazing cast for the original hip hop theatre show. When it came to rehearsal time, a friend of ours had passed due to some stupid street dramas and I wanted to do a show which tried to look at questions of why this wave of violence was hitting Sydney. It was a hot summer when ice first raised its ugly head and I wanted to respond to that.

“We did one week of creative development of the theatre show and I asked each cast member to bring in a story of when they had faced some street violence. We workshopped these stories, mixing dance, DJing, rapping, Bboying and more. Then, when we went into the four weeks’ rehearsal we developed a lot more from these ideas. I had a dramaturg working with me, helping me keep an outside eye, since I was a performer and the director. Then when it came to writing the film script I went to my local library three days a week for three months to knock out the first draft – it was a huge learning curve. I watched Youtube tutorials, read film scripts and watched a lot of films. I picked four films which created the stylistic fence posts for my project: Crash by Paul Haggis, West Side Story because our original show was a musical, La Haine the French film by Mathieu Kassovitz and The Bourne Supremacy for the gritty cinematography for the free running and Bboy sequences. That really helped give me a boundary of sorts to create what was a pretty ambitious project.”

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Wire MC (left) and Morganics (right)

You’ve produced quite a few albums in your day but this is your first film. How does songwriting compare with filmmaking? “Well for me, as an MC, a producer, this was sort of like doing twenty albums, it was pretty intense! But, strangely enough, a lot of the same principles still apply. Not every track makes the album final cut, the original cut of the film was four hours – and we got it down to ‘90 minutes. There was a lot of editing in the eight drafts of the original script. Then after we shot, we edited for about five months, then I took the script to version 14, then we did pickups and edited for a few more months. It teaches you to be ruthless, you’ve gotta learn to love slaughtering your babies as they say, especially when it comes to a multi-plot narrative!

“Postproduction was the toughest. We were blessed with a killer crew and a smooth shoot – inner city Sydney late nights and around Bowraville and Coffs Harbour for one week – but the post was tough! We shot with three Canon 7Ds, so there was so much data, so many edit choices, I probably wouldn’t do that again. I didn’t have anyone like a post-production supervisor either. That would have been great… Budget, whoa! That meant I taught myself to edit, to colour grade and to do the sound mix, which added months and months onto it, but I sure learnt a lot, and I’m really bloody happy with it, which is a bonus!”

What idea did you most want audiences to walk away with after seeing the film and were there any stereotypes you wanted to challenge? “For me, hip hop is a form which has changed my life and I’ve seen it bring so many diverse people together and get them through tough times. I guess I just wanted to show that. The mix of people in my world are hardly ever represented cinematically in Australia, and Hip Hop culture is forever misunderstood, so that, along with some representation of a Koori character who lives in the city alongside a mix of people – as opposed to Aboriginal cinema characters who live in the desert and/or the past – were the main communities I wanted to represent. In terms of stereotypes, I think the film speaks best about them by not even touching on them, except for the crazy drug hallucination late night TV ad where DJ Rich is teaching people how to lose weight through DJing. That was fun to do, to make some really bad commercial “hip hop” music (where) I channeled a particularly bad song by Will I. AM and Justin Bieber.”

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How would you describe your style of directing? “I’ve directed theatre shows and done a lot of community work, including shooting video clips with street kids in Tanzania or train cyphers in New York, so a lot of that experience came into play. I try to be upbeat, try not to let the cast and crew see me sweat – no matter how stressed I may be, try to clearly communicate my vision while letting them add new ideas and approaches to the table. Technically, I’m not afraid to ask dumb questions, and I aim for a ‘more than the sum of its parts’ approach to filmmaking. You’ve got to have faith in your cast and crew and let them do what they do best.”

Playing ice-addict Fury looks like a work-out – there’s so much coiled energy in his character. Did you find it challenging, especially slipping in and out of it to also put on your director hat? “Yes, when we did the final scene with me as Fury, I breathed a sigh of relief that’s for sure. I lost 7 kilos for the part, so it was tricky with the demands of directing, acting, Bboying, free running and never having dinner! I modelled him on many different young fellas I’ve worked with over the years in juvenile jails, homeless centres and so on, so the main thing was to make him believable, even though he’s sort of larger than life. The great – and maybe sad – thing is that I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘He’s just like a mate of mine, or my brother, or a guy I know’. He’s a bit of an archetype, I still see him around wherever I go, he’s a sad clown.”

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It’s a great closing scene watching the wall paint-up from start to finish. Where is that shot and who are the visual artists? “The closing graffiti piece is by Snarl, we shot it in a back lane in Coffs Harbour. Snarl’s awesome, artists like him, Mistery and Andy Uprock were integral to the visual style of the film, we were lucky to have them involved.”

Also towards the end, musician L Fresh The Lion’s song “Faithful” appears magically. It’s a great example of a perfectly placed piece of popular music in a soundtrack. It really gives emotional lift to the film. Tell us why you used it. “I’ve known L-Fresh for a long time. Like a lot of people in the film, I met him through workshops I was running. He’s in the first train cypher scene, so it’s nice to finish off with his track – the mood of the beat and the lyrics for it are just perfect, they sort of sum it up, and since we started making the film he’s worked hard and gotten more and more famous, so that’s a bonus too!”

Lastly, you’ve decided to make the film freely available on-line. What’s the thinking there? “Years back there was a possibility of touring the original.. theatre show to the UK, and at that stage I looked at the budget for that and chatted with my DOP, Ming D’Arcy. Canon DSLRs were just becoming a real possibility for making a feature, I did the maths and said to myself, ‘for the price of touring it to Europe and about 1000 people getting to see the show, we could make a feature and a lot more people could see it’. It’s taken a long time, but it’s still the plan.

“We’ve screened it about 20 times around Australia in nightclubs, at-risk high schools, homeless drop in centres, indigenous communities, dance schools, and the most important thing to me is that the people, the communities that we represent – hip hop, indigenous, homeless, at-risk – they have said to me: ‘Yep, that’s what it’s like, that’s how we talk, that’s what our life is like, thanks for doing it right.’

Watch Survival Tactics online for free at: www.survivaltacticsmovie.com

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