Neil Triffett: Staging Emo The Musical

August 19, 2016
With Emo The Musical – which screens at The CinefestOZ Film Festival – director, Neil Triffett, has crafted a very local, and very unconventional, song-and-dance flick.

Emo: The Musical is Neil Triffett’s feature length directorial debut based on his Berlinale 2013 award-winning short film of the same name. In the tradition of Romeo & Juliet – except with more eye liner – the film sees two high school cliques, the Emos and the Christians, clash when a member from each of their separate factions fall in love. Neil sat down with FilmInk to discuss the process of dismantling and rebuilding his original film.

By your own admission, your previous shorts have tended to be quite dark, so what made you decide on your next one being a musical? “All my other films were dark, but there was always an element of comedy to them. I have a slightly darker sensibility, and there’s a danger that audiences don’t want to watch that. But if you have humour, then there’s something that they grab hold of. So with Emo: The Musical, it was a case of going with a lot more humour. Emo: The Musical is still quite a dark concept in some ways, but the amount of comedy in there means that it might look like it’s not dark and grungy. It looks fun and accessible. People won’t feel like they’re being preached to, or that they’re being asked to be depressed. That’s important.”

When you were making the short, did you think that you could make a feature out of it? “We just made it to be a standalone piece of content that was going to be lighter, and that would show that we can do lighter, fun things. But there was no plan to turn it into a feature length film. After the reception that it received, it just began to build momentum, and it would have been crazy not to grab hold of that momentum.”

Neil Triffett and Benson Jack Anthony on the set of Emo The Musical

Neil Triffett and Benson Jack Anthony on the set of Emo The Musical

So, once you started on the road towards making the feature, what were some of the challenges that you faced? “Structurally, there are similarities between the short and the feature. Because it’s a Romeo & Juliet story, it’s got a nice little structure that works for both, so we had that going for us. But obviously, you’ve got to raise the stakes. We went to teen films and looked at some tropes that could be used or twisted. There are lots of minor characters in the background of the short film that are kooky and weird, but you never get to see them, so we wanted to hear what their storylines were, and we wanted a structure that would allow that. We expanded the story, and made the universe bigger.”

What were your influences? “We were talking a lot about Mean Girls, Easy A, and Hairspray. Mainly teen films. Something that we liked tonally, that we never got nearly as dark as, was Election, which we were quite excited by.”

So, did the process give you a chance to reassess certain aspects of the short? “Well, we had to re-evaluate every character because we were recasting. So that was just a huge journey. In the short film, we have Zak Marrinon as Bradley, the leader of the Emos, and we have Rahart Adams [Nowhere Boys] as him in the feature. We cast him because he was so different. There was no way that we could repeat ourselves or steal Zak’s performance, and Rahart wasn’t into that either. So we had to rethink the character. The Ethan [Benson Jack Anthony] character is really different as well. His backstory is quite complicated. He’s more vulnerable in the feature film, which came out of necessity because he’s such a dick! With the feature film, characters that were dicks for 30 seconds in the short film had to be dicks to each other for five minutes. You need to add vulnerability to the performance. Ethan is at times a total dick in the film, but there are other times when he’s nice. You can tell that he’s saying, ‘I don’t want to be a dick to you, but I’m being a dick because you’re weird.’ There was a lot of working out how he could be a dick that was still really likeable. We didn’t have to worry about that with the short. Tonally, because it gets darker, we’re upping the stakes. We’re doing mean things in the second half that are quite dark. Also, you had to seed that into the first half. Tonally, we were conscious that we wanted to go grungier. We loved the short film, but we were conscious that, if we wanted to make it a feature, we had to go dark. Properly dark.”

The Christian kids in Emo The Musical

The Christian kids in Emo The Musical

And you succeeded there by having your lead character trying to hang himself in the first five minutes. “That was so risky. Lee Matthews, the producer, made sure that he was on set for the hanging scene because, tonally, we weren’t sure that we could get away with it. People often come out of the film saying, ‘Oh, this film’s so light!’ And we’re like, ‘It opens with a hanging, guys!’ [Laughs] It’s very strange.”

What about growing up, were you part of any cliques yourself? “I’m from Port Arthur and we had a school of about 300 kids, which was between kinder and year 10. It was isolated out there, so your options were either to play football or play football. When I got to college in Year 11 and 12 in Hobart, I saw Emos for the first time. And I know that Emos are seen as a really negative trend, but if Emos had been around, I would have been a much happier kid. I was bored, and surrounded by these other kids down in the country. Lovely kids, but they weren’t into the same thing as I was. All teenagers get moody and depressed, and I got moody and depressed about that. If there had been another option, which is what Emo offered, I would have been happier.”

Emo The Musical

Emo The Musical

Regarding the Emo and Christians in the film, you never really persecute one over the other. You keep it quite balanced, and seem aware that in those teenage years, these cliques are the most important thing in the world, but as you get older, you realise that you can change. “Totally. Having that many characters, you can have those that change and those who don’t. We really stick the boot into Christianity in the first 30. By the end though, it’s important that we flip that around and say that a lot of these guys are nuts, but some of them are moderate. A lot of Christians are like that.”

Do you think that we’ll see a resurgence in the musical? “There’s already a resurgence. We were conscious when we were making this that we wanted to get it out before the musical resurgence would die. There are a few out there. Pitch Perfect has opened some doors. There’s Once and Sing Street. They’re all jukebox musicals that are based on intellectual property. In some ways, our film is risky in that it has new songs. We may never see musicals with new songs again. I don’t think Hollywood will be brave enough. But I think that musicals are back but in a weird meta way.”

Emo: The Musical plays at The CinefestOZ Film Festival, which runs from August 24-28. To buy tickets to Emo The Musical, head to the official site.

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