Prepare for The Returned

October 24, 2023
Acclaimed actor and theatre director Ben Pfeiffer will make his feature film debut from his own award-winning screenplay.

“I personally find grief endlessly fascinating,” Ben Pfeiffer tells FilmInk as we chat to him and producer Josephine Croft about their upcoming film, The Returned.

“Grief is complex and everchanging. It doesn’t impact you the way you anticipate it will and it hits you out of nowhere with these small triggers,” says Pfeiffer.

The Returned, which is currently in pre-production, follows an intimate journey of grief and loss as three siblings – played by Pfeiffer, Edwina Wren and Dushan Philips – navigate their emotions in differing ways upon returning home to their mother – played by Louise Siversen [left] –in her final hours.

The story is inspired by Pfeiffer’s own experience with grief.

“I lost my dad in 2006. The year before that, in 2005, I was waiting on a cancer prognosis for both my parents,” Pfeiffer shares. “I knew that the grief journey with my mother would be fully understood and clear to me, but the grief journey with my father was going to be complicated. I am the youngest of 4 kids, so I was just observing the responses of my siblings. I realised that everyone has a default coping mechanism. That is the territory from where all of this was born.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, Pfeiffer still aims to imbue the story with lighter moments.

“I know that the content seems heavy, but there is a beautiful lightness and sense of humour in the script. There is an aliveness and feeling of celebration that tends to also be a part of the grief journey.”

The Returned has already received recognition for its unique script, notably awarded Best Screenplay at the Paris Screenplay Awards. With the project now in full motion, the filmmakers are dedicated to creating the film on a micro-budget, aligning with its original vision and intent.

“We are trying to shoot it on the smallest budget possible,” Croft says. “It is very easy to do because it is quite a contained film. There aren’t 50 locations and 100 cast. Ben wrote it keeping the idea of small-scale filmmaking in mind.”

The power in Pfeiffer’s screenplay has also allowed the team to align themselves with different organisations who will provide ‘in-kind’ services, which will go a long way in helping the team manage the small-scale production.

“We are aligned with the Salvos, so they are going to give us free reign over their flagship store to get access to costumes and props,” Pfeiffer says. “Our official presenting partner is this organisation called Quest for Life, who work with individual families and groups that are dealing with grief and trauma. We really want to work with organisations that feel in line with the ethos of the film.”

“This project specifically has attracted a lot of people who are really passionate about the story,” Croft shares. “Money isn’t the driving factor for anyone who has joined our team. It is the story, the artistic manner in which Ben plans on telling the story and the emotional connection each individual has to the heart of the story.”

Ben Pfeiffer and Josephine Croft

The team has also found support in rural Victoria, which is where they plan on shooting The Returned.

“There is a real grassroots quality in the way this film is coming about,” Pfeiffer explains. “We are shooting in Wannon. That has allowed us to connect with a lot of artists and filmmakers who are rural, which has been phenomenal. As soon as we connected with one or two, the word spread and suddenly we had 20 to 30 people from regional and rural areas who were contacting us. It’s great because it gives the community where we are filming a sense of ownership over the project, and it has created opportunities for people who are secluded from the larger industry.”

The chance to work on a feature film may be tantalising for the crew, but what must really capture the imagination of his team is Pfeiffer’s stylistic sensibility.

“There is a meditative quality to the film,” Pfeiffer says. “Films like Roma and Lilting are what I would compare it to. These long and sustained shots where there is a focus on depth of field and information which is being transmitted through different layers in the visual language.”

Much of this style has been influenced by Pfeiffer’s interest in exploring each character’s grief journey in an individualistic way.

“You get the three differing grief perspectives from each child, and I wanted to explore how each journey manifested,” he says. “You have absent grief, healthy grief, and complex grief. We see the same set of circumstances play over, but from completely different perspectives. For example, for the healthy grief chapter, we are looking at some really smooth camerawork, whereas, for the absent grief it’ll be really tight frames where the only movement comes from the character moving through the frame.”

For both Croft and Pfeiffer, the journey to create The Returned is just beginning, but the path has already been fortuitous.

“It’s been a really interesting project in terms of crossing paths with people and as a consequence a lot of beautiful parts falling into place,” Pfeiffer says. “With a lot of projects, it feels like pushing shit uphill, but with this, it has never felt like that. It’s already been a really positive experience with an incredible team of people.”

The Returned is planning to shoot in January next year.