Robbie Studsor: Firing Up Burning Kiss

April 2, 2020
Writer/director Robbie Studsor has crafted a highly original and visually audacious Aussie noir thriller with the eye popping Burning Kiss.

A candy-tinged, sun-drenched pop art Aussie thriller that most definitely does not fit into a line-up with the likes of Chopper, The Hard Word and Animal Kingdom, Burning Kiss is a canny mix of style and substance. Assured and original, the film marks the debut of young writer/director, Robbie Studsor, who makes the jump to features after helming the short Trinkets, and working on the scripts for several shorts and one feature (2010’s noir Esoterica) for regular collaborator Sam Barrett.

Burning Kiss begins six years after one-time police detective Edmond Bloom (Richard Mellick) was left crippled by the car crash that killed his wife Juliette. With the killer never caught, Edmond has fought to solve the mystery, all under the watchful eye of his damaged 20-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Alyson Walker) whom he indirectly blames for the tragedy. But when mysterious drifter Max Woods (Liam Graham) lands on his doorstep, Edmond is thrown into an even murkier moral morass. Max claims to be the driver of the car that put Edmond in a wheelchair and ended his wife’s life, and he’s begging for either forgiveness or punishment. But that isn’t the way that the controlling and arrogant Edmond planned it. He has other ideas when it comes to his end-game with Max, and Charlotte will quickly find herself wedged somewhere in the middle.

Liam Graham and Alyson Walker in Burning Kiss.

What was the kick-off point for Burning Kiss…your initial inspiration?

“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact inspiration, although I remember it had something to do with a bad heatwave in Perth, a bunch of fatal shark attacks that kept happening, and being stranded in the air-conditioning with all these 60s euro thrillers (like Rene Clement) and stuff the Beach Party films. I was quite into southern gothic at the time, and I started thinking of heat as a classic metaphor for temptation and danger and how I could approach that kind of narrative in a way that is expressionistic and fun.”

I can’t think of any other Australian films that have the look and feel of Burning Kiss. How did you develop your visual aesthetic? Do you have a background in visual arts etc?

“I constantly wish I had a visual arts background as it would make my job a lot easier! I wanted the film to have a pop art aesthetic that was Raoul Coutard by day and Mario Bava by night. Australian crime films have a tendency to go for realism, so I wanted to go in the other direction and blend eras, styles and atmospheres. There’s a tradition of European summer thrillers like La Piscine and Purple Noon that I was interested in. Ken Russell’s bonkers use of visual effects and Kenneth Anger’s pop occult imagery were also an inspiration visually.”

Burning Kiss director Robbie Studsor

The mood and genre, however, are quite classic. What were your literary/cinematic influences?

“There is a film from the 1960s called Lady In A Cage, and the opening titles might be my favourite ever. I put it up there with the opening of Blue Velvet. It instantly dials you into an atmosphere of hot weather and menace. It’s like Weegee meets Saul Bass. Outside of that, it was filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Ken Russell, Mario Bava, David Lynch, 1940s noir/ melodramas and specific films such as This Man Must Die by Claude Chabrol, Sexy Beast and the novel Story Of The Eye by Georges Bataille.”

You were partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign? What is that process like?

“It was actually lots of hard work and I’m still not certain that I’ve recovered! Outside of that, the process was really fun and I’m eternally grateful to everyone who contributed.”

Alyson Walker in Burning Kiss.

Can you talk a little about the casting process? How and where did you find your cast?

“I’d seen Liam Graham in another feature film I’d co-written and really liked him so he was cast pretty quickly. All the others were discovered through auditions, and I can’t even believe how lucky we got finding actors like Alyson Walker and Richard Mellick. Alyson actually brought in wardrobe ideas to her audition and just totally got the whole thing straight away; she’s amazing.”

What was the shoot like? I imagine that you may have been lacking in on-set luxuries, like most modestly budgeted Aussie flicks?

“We actually created a really comfortable working environment for the cast and crew, which is very tricky with a small budget and multiple locations, but it’s so important. I’m really proud of what we managed to achieve for everyone. That being said, it certainly wasn’t easy. We had a car catch on fire, a searing heatwave, locations fall through minutes before shooting, and all the other soul crushing scenarios provided by the merciless film gods.”

Liam Graham in Burning Kiss.

Can you talk about your thinking with regards to the effects and post-production work? It’s such a major part of the film’s aesthetic…

“Part of the film involves a character creating a fanciful version of the truth for their own means, so I wanted this relationship between reality and fantasy built into the visuals. The effects are designed to integrate into the edit in an almost ‘liquid’ way, so you constantly absorb abstract imagery and have an experience that is somewhere between a conventional narrative and an underground film by someone like Jeff Keen. It’s hard to believe, but there are over 200 effects shots in the film, that happen almost every 20 seconds, and all were done by one creative lunatic called Josh Weeks.”

The film has such a distinct look. Can you describe your working relationship with your DP and other key creatives?

“Collaborators such as Ivan Davidov (DP) and Louise Brady (production design) understood the aesthetic, and took in all the crazy mood reels and references that I gave them and came up with these wild concepts and ideas. Louise designed this unusual mixture of time periods from Australia, Europe and America which was perfect for the film. In terms of cinematography, Ivan modelled the ‘daytime’ to resemble the Godard stuff like Contempt and Pierrot Le Fou and the night-time to be garish expressionism like Blood And Black Lace. The working relationship was constantly inspiring and really fun.”

Richard Mellick in Burning Kiss.

What was your greatest challenge during the whole process, and your most affirming moment?

“The greatest challenge was trying to create a world much different to our everyday lives within a limited budget, and the most affirming was when I started to discover the ‘rhythm’ of the shoot in terms of what motivates each creative person on set and how to keep them inspired. There are so many different personalities involved in a film production, and when it starts to calibrate in the same direction, it’s a really special moment.”

 What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects?

“The next project is a horror film that explores Australia’s only ever documented witch hunt trial that may or may not have ever existed. It’s going to be really scary and unique. I can’t wait to get into it once the world returns to ‘normal’.”

Burning Kiss is available to buy and rent on digital now.

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