On the side of a lonely country road a shirtless and tattooed young man (Toby Wallace, recently seen in Stan’s Romper Stomper) numbly recites the old children’s standard “Old MacDonald”. As the camera slowly pulls back and begins to pan, we start to piece together this little mystery as more of the tableau.
Written by Will Goodfellow, directed by Tom Noakes, and produced by Lucy Gaffy, Nursery Rhymes is a simple but clever one shot, five minute short that packs a lot of craft and heart into its tight running time. We spoke with Gaffy about the film.
What was the genesis of Nursery Rhymes?
I’m part of a director’s collective called Goono with Will Goodfellow and Tom Noakes and myself, and we are always writing content and creating little stories and working towards doing long form work together. Nursery Rhymes is one of five short screenplays that Will had written. We were going in for a round of funding with the Australian Director’s Guild. It was quite limited funding, quite small, and so we were trying to find a story that we could produce for a reasonably small amount of money and would enable Tom to start transitioning across from commercials, where he’s had quite a lot of success, into drama filmmaking where he hasn’t had much success yet.
We picked Nursery Rhymes because from the page it was intended as a one shot piece in one location and we knew we would be able to pull resources and make the film really rich and really alive. Also on the page it was a really riveting read and so the three of us agreed that it would make a great short. It fit within an aesthetic that the boys are moving towards with some of their other work – a TV series that they’re writing and a feature film that Will has written. We were also conscious of it needing to act as a proof of concept piece in the future.
What was the biggest logistical challenge you faced in production?
There were so many. I think it was probably closing the road. We spent a long time looking for the right location and Tom had a particular sense of what he wanted to have in the frame. We found it in a road in rural Oberon, which was about four hours west of Sydney, so it was quite far away from where the majority of the crew lived. Once we fell in love with that road we were able to talk with and work with all of the surrounding farmers, who were incredibly generous – they donated all of the cows and the tractors and the dogs and all of the vehicles you see.
The road was actually an arterial road to a local timber mill, which was one of the main industries in that region, so sweet-talking them into letting us close that for 12 hours was probably the most difficult thing for us to do, but the local council was incredibly generous with us and I couldn’t believe the support that we got from the town itself – I think I’m going to always shoot in rural New South Wales for the rest of my life. They were amazing!
How many takes did you have to shoot?
We shot for 12 hours. We had terrible weather – it was freezing cold when we arrived, it was covered in snow because it was August last year, so we actually couldn’t bring our little girl, our baby, out in that weather. So we ended up rehearsing most of the morning – just doing it over and over again, not rolling the camera but just getting everyone in position and making sure that everyone was in the right place and making sure the focus was right. We ended up doing three full successful takes in the end, which we could only do in the afternoon once the rain had cleared and the snow had melted.
As you can imagine, anything that is one take is very complicated – everything has to be technically perfect. We had 18 people on screen, they all had to be perfect in the moment. We only had two professional actors – everyone else was a non-actor. So for us to get three usable takes – that was very exciting. But we did, in the end, have to do a second shot at the end and split the piece. It was always intended to be one shot, but in the end it ended up being two – there were just some things we couldn’t overcome.
You have two great up and coming young Australian actors in the short – Toby Wallace and Sara West (Bad Girl). What was your casting process like?
Sara, I met many years ago – I had been a 1st AD on a short film she had done. Then we saw her in this short film that won in MIFF two years ago [Trespass by Mirrah Foulkes], and then I saw her at Flickerfest at the after party and I said, ‘look we’ve got this great script, it’s quite a small role but we would love a really great actress in it’. She was incredibly enthusiastic – she’s a filmmaker herself, she’s a writer herself, she’s a director herself, so she came with immense generosity. She read the screenplay and immediately agreed to do it.
Once we had Sara on board it was easier for us to go out and look for the metalhead. I think Tom must have seen every great young actor in Australia between 20 and 25 years old. Ultimately, we went with Toby because he and Tom connected so beautifully. Toby had this great energy and we decided to go with him. I think when Tom met Toby he thought, “This is someone I’d like to work with in the future – I’d like to start building something with him now. So casting both Sara and Toby was looking forward, because it’s such a great collaborative process and you like to work with performers that you’d like to work with in the future as well.