We first spoke with Jesse O’Brien on the Coober Pedy set of his debut feature film Arrowhead more than two years ago. “If you had asked me during that conversation, how long it would take to come out, I would never have said two years. I wouldn’t have had the stamina to keep going if I knew that, but now that it is coming out it’s a good feeling,” he tells us from his home in Melbourne on the eve of the film’s home entertainment release.
The ambitious science fiction film follows Kye (Dan Mor), a prisoner of war in an unspecified future who is tasked with a rescue mission, but is ultimately stranded on a desert moon.
Arrowhead was produced by TV1, which also ran the SF Channel on Foxtel. Soon after signing on to finance the picture, Foxtel dropped TV1 as a content provider. “I read about that in a press release and I freaked out thinking, ‘oh the the dream is over, we’re not going to make the movie’,” says Jesse O’Brien today. “But they committed to give us the funds and the only thing that we lost was that we didn’t have a platform anymore, so we went from being a TV movie to essentially being an independent movie, which I wanted us to do anyway.”
Finally released in Australia and New Zealand this week by StudioCanal, courtesy of their output deal through Universal Sony, Arrowhead has already been released in Japan, Germany and the UK, and is about to come out in Canada, France, Korea and China. Not bad for a genre film that cost $187,000 to make. “When people realise that we made it for that, it changes their whole perception of the movie,” comments O’Brien. “You get some people online who have seen it overseas and compare it to The Martian and Interstellar and they don’t really know where it came from. I’m trying to tell the story of what it is. From that perspective I also want it to be inspiring to people, that they can go out and make a feature film. It’s not easy, and I don’t want people to think that it’s easy but it is achievable. I saw Monsters, Gareth Edwards’ film, and I had already written this script, but when I saw it, it just gave me the faith that you could go out and shoot something and do the effects and it’ll find an audience.”
With a background in effects work, Jesse O’Brien wrote a script for his feature debut that incorporated impressive CGI that he knew how to achieve himself, plus he had made a 10-minute proof of concept short film, Arrowhead: Signal which illustrated that the ambitious filmmaker had an achievable vision.
“I just wanted to make a movie that I wanted to watch,” he says. “I wanted to watch an Australian movie like this, and they just simply don’t exist. There are a lot of genre movies here, but a lot of them don’t fully embrace their genre. Mine is not a sci-fi film hidden within a drama, it’s just a sci-fi film boldly and proudly. I genuinely wanted to make a sci-fi film in Australia and the desert landscape here really sparked the seed of the story.”
And along the way, Jesse O’Brien learnt various lessons that will stand him in good stead for his next film. “You can’t make it exactly how you want to make it, but it’s also refreshing to realise that a movie is its own beast, and you just have to try to steer it,” he tells us. “We shot this over 22 days and we really needed 30 days. The story had to change because we had to cut a lot of scenes and reshape it in the edit [notably, Arrowhead recently won the Australian Writers Guild’s John Hinde Award for Science Fiction, though that was judged on the screenplay, not the final film]. And one thing that I learned and something that I will bring with me next time is that I will leave some room at the back-end for reshoots and adding little things that I need. We didn’t have any room to move, we only had what we shot in the editing room.
“When we were in post-production we literally had $1000 to pull off all the visual effects, and there wasn’t even a couple of hundred bucks to fly Dan Mor down from Sydney to film a reaction close-up. I was eating two minute noodles for five months to get it finished,” he laughs now.
“But I’m ready to go, for sure,” he finishes when asked about his next project. “I have two scripts written, which are both in the hands of different producers, and I hope to be shooting one at the end of the year. Not exactly this type of sci-fi but one is a sci-fi and the other a creature feature. I want to keep pushing the boundaries for what we do here in Australia and just keep doing bold genre work because I think people want to see it.”
Arrowhead is available now.