How to Make a Movie in a Foreign Country: Chapter 2

December 18, 2017
James Pillion jumped at the opportunity to direct his first feature film; the fact that it was to be made in Romania didn’t faze the young Australian filmmaker at first. The result is the highly accomplished Far From Here, and this series of candid articles that he’s put together exclusively for us.


There is much that you will come to regret in the making of your first movie. Hell, there are so many responsibilities that sit on your shoulders that it’s hard not to. We’re always going to slip and fall on the way to the finish line. The trick is to embrace the failures to come, to not beat yourself up over them. Sometimes we make the wrong choices to get to the right place.

I celebrated my 27th birthday in the first week of production. Jonathan and Maria surprised me with cake during our lunch break. They seemed genuinely happy, like they’d known each other all their lives. While our first few days had gotten off to a rocky start, the atmosphere was surprisingly cordial, a sense of honeymoon in the air. Jonathan and Maria’s on-screen chemistry was undeniable, helping to relax the gnawing feeling in my gut.

Naturally headstrong and confrontational, Maria kept me on my toes and demanded more and more freedom to explore. I welcomed her feedback and obliged her wishes so long as it didn’t take away from our airtight schedule. With only three weeks allocated to getting the film in the can, I didn’t have the luxury to stop and reflect.

The dynamic began to shift in our second week. With each day taking us to a new physical location, we were faced with a whole new set of unforeseen complications. Maria’s mood began to sour, her disapproval becoming more and more vocal on set. When I turned to Jonathan for help, I was surprised to find him timid, aloof and deferring his opinions to Maria. I began to doubt my choices and knew it was making me look weak and indecisive. Even though we continued to make our days, I was walking a tightrope and knew that it could all fall apart at any minute.

“Shooting Jaws was really a living nightmare. I dreamt about it at night. I’d wake up with that sick feeling in the pit of my gut. I felt that I was the eye of the hurricane. All this fell on me. It was the hardest production I’ve ever experienced…. And I still have nightmares about it to this day.”

– Steven Spielberg, 2010 interview


By the third and final week of production, love and happiness was out the window. We’d been shooting so many pages a day that my mind had turned to mush. I loved every minute of the work, but could feel myself falling apart. Everyone seemed to be picking sides and burrowing their own trenches and I’d lost the confidence to bring everyone back together. Maria meanwhile was cultivating her own private mutiny, communicating with the crew in Romanian as a way to confuse and derail my authority. Everything slowed down, but lucky for me the crew understood the value of hard work and were used to rolling into overtime without compensation.

On the cusp of finishing the film Maria and I got into a short argument over the blocking of a scene. I wrote it off as water under the bridge but when I arrived to set the following morning she flat out refused to speak to me. From that point on every interaction between us – both on screen and off – had to go through my assistant director. I pleaded with Jonathan to mediate the situation, but discovered that Maria wasn’t speaking to him either. We were both in the doghouse.

On the final day of production, Jonathan came to me and confessed that Maria had ended it. It was only then that I really saw how far he’d fallen. Crippled with anxiety, he had lost an unhealthy amount of weight, his eyes bouncing around the room with a genuine sense of paranoia. As much as I wanted to reach out and forgive him, I was consumed with anger. I felt that he had abandoned me – his romantic dalliance tipping the balance of power and sending the project into a tailspin. I didn’t understand then that my anger towards Jonathan stemmed from disappointment in myself.

Two years on, I’ve come to realise that I let my ego get in the way. There is a difference between knowing what you want and letting your insecurities drive your decision making. Like it or not, first-time directors are not in charge. Most often the youngest on set, our job is to earn the right to have our voice heard. You need to have a vision, to be bold in your choices but you also have to be humble. Creating something from nothing is scary. It requires you to embrace the unknown, to admit that you don’t know it all. The more you surrender your ego and open your eyes and ears to everything around you, the stronger your chances are of ending up with a film greater than the sum of its parts.

Read the third instalment of How To Make A Movie In A Foreign Country


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