Observance Premieres In Melbourne On April 12

April 6, 2016
It’s garnering comparisons to Polanski, picking up rave reviews, stirring topical debate – and now Melbourne audiences can come and see the local thriller that has everyone talking.

FilmInk caught up with British born director and writer, Joseph Sims-Dennett, after a morning of meetings about his new film, Observance. The film sees a private investigator, Parker (Lindsay Farris), taking on a case to make ends meet, but finding his life slowly spiralling out of control. Unleashed on the 2015 festival circuit, Observance has garnered a stellar reputation courtesy of its showings at The Fantasia Film Festival and The BFI London Film Festival. Yet, despite this, the Sydney made film will only just be making its Australian premiere this April. “We took it to Australian distributors and they didn’t want it,” Sims-Dennett says by way of explanation. “And now they are all like I’ve never spoken to them before. They’re like, ‘Hey, we’d love to watch your film’ and I’m saying, ‘I sent you the film and you said how much you didn’t like it. Do you not remember having this conversation?’”

Sims-Dennett is extremely forthright about what he sees as a failing with Australia’s film distribution which, in some instances, he likens to “being infiltrated by this elitist group of hipsters who are completely incompetent.” Observance is his second film after 2010’s Bad Behaviour (“That was how I learned not to make a film.”), which starred John Jarratt (Wolf Creek), who cameos in Observance, and Roger Ward (Turkey Shoot). Observance is very much a personal film for its director, having been borne out of a moment of intense emotional distress. After Bad Behaviour, Sims-Dennett went onto a career in advertising (“You get trapped in this life, and it’s the opposite of creative”) alongside Observance co-writer, Josh Zammit. In 2012, however, they both lost their jobs, and they decided to do something about it. “We thought that maybe we should aim to shoot a low budget film in January,” Sims-Dennett explains. “It would be a creative outlet that we desperately needed because we were so depressed.”

Filming began in January 2013 without any pre-production, and Sims-Dennett found himself working flat-out over eleven days, getting less than two hours of sleep a night. Throw in a Sydney heatwave and you’ve got all the makings of a tiring shoot. “I can barely remember the shoot because it was so horrible,” Sims-Dennett sighs. ‘But when I watch the film now, there’s a real depth of feeling there.”

Doubts had crept into Sims-Dennett’s mind about the quality of his work during filming, but it was through post-production that Observance truly came together. “There wasn’t a time limit,” Sims-Dennett explains. “I didn’t have investors saying, ‘Okay, you’ve got eight weeks to cut the film and a month to mix it.’ We paid for it with all of our credit cards, so we were going to take as much time as we needed.”

Now, in 2016, the final product is haunting and horrific, and feeds into a paranoia that dwells within us all. The plot was initially clear-cut, but as the edit took shape, Sims-Dennett realised that there was something much more important at stake for the film’s lead (played by Lindsay Farris, pictured). “He’s completely powerless, as though he’s being used and manipulated for this unknown purpose. That is a really powerful thing to talk about in a film,” Sims-Dennett explains. “That’s genuinely how a lot of people think about their lives. And conveying that feeling in this film felt far more powerful.”

Sims-Dennett understands that films like Observance are polarising for some, but he doesn’t believe that excuses distributors from taking risks. In the course of our conversation, he talks about the filmmakers that he’s met who will never see their work released, and of “masterpieces backed onto hard drives that are going nowhere. Australia is an extremely talented country, but its creativity is stifled by certain groups who think they know what they’re doing. We have these films that do well overseas, like The Babadook, that did badly in Australia. Then we get these films like Red Dog and The Dressmaker that’ll make loads of money in Australia, but overseas, nobody cares. It’s baffling.”

So, what’s the answer? What’s the incentive to taking artistic risks? “It comes down to filmmakers making films that they really care about, and hopefully we can keep going and doing that,” Sims-Dennett offers. “Eventually the industry and government funding bodies will move towards a model that supports those films. So you’ll have these zero budget films that are different, but will still find an audience.”

If Bad Behaviour taught him how not to make a movie (“When I watch it now, it doesn’t mean anything”), then Observance has taught Sims-Dennett to trust his instincts first hand and to learn “to hone in on that distilled idea behind the story.” And despite the lack of sleep and emotional trauma, it’s clear that Joseph Sims-Dennett wouldn’t take back the last few years. “It was a long time, but I feel like I did it the right way,” he smiles. “I wasn’t hanging around with people that I didn’t like, trying to make a film that I didn’t want to make. We’re now in a position where we can make stuff, and make a little money, but with stuff that we actually like, and that means something to us. And that was done by committing to this tiny little film and suffering for three years.”

FilmInk Presents will be hosting the Melbourne premiere of Observance on April 12 at 7.30pm, with director Joseph Sims-Dennett in attendance for a special Q&A. Secure your tickets here

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