With his 2009 debut feature Cedar Boys, writer/director Serhat Caradee powerfully told of the experiences of young men of Middle Eastern heritage living in suburban Australia. It was a stand-out first feature, and Caradee has been keeping busy ever since, acting regularly on television (The Principal, East West 101, Hunters), and teaching acting and mentoring students at top-tier institutions like The Sydney Theatre School, UNSW, and NIDA. Caradee finally returns to the director’s chair with his bristling labour-of-love, A Lion Returns, a gritty, urgent story that reverberates with topicality and thematic richness, telling of family, forgiveness, redemption, and the dangers of extremism.
The film hones in on Middle Eastern Muslim-Australian brothers Jamal (Tyler De Nawi) and Omar (Danny Elaaci), who couldn’t be more different. Omar is a university lecturer specialising in Middle Eastern studies, while Jamal has just returned from an excursion into terrorism in Syria. On the run from the police, Jamal desperately wants to see his dying mother (Helen Chebatte), but Omar is standing protectively in his way. Jamal’s possibly murderous actions have brought great shame on the family, as well as isolating his Anglo-Australian wife, Heidi (Jacqui Purvis), and their young son. As Omar tries to convince his father (Taffy Hany) to speak with the son of whom he is so painfully ashamed, Jamal is side-swiped by his quietly radical uncle Yahya (Buddy Dannoun), placing them all on an explosive emotional collision course…
You took the crowd-funding route with A Lion Returns…what prompted you to go that way? Was it a tough call?
“One of the reasons for this decision was that we thought we could get into production a lot quicker than if we went through government funding routes. After two years of writing and development, we thought that we would use the crowdfunding money to kick start the whole production and also generate early word of mouth and publicity. Yes, it was a tough call, and I knew that we had to make sacrifices during production, but given the story, characters and location, I was confident that it could be done.”
And what was that process like? Can you take us through it a little?
“I did some research on the do’s and don’ts of crowdfunding, both locally and internationally. We decided to go with Pozible. Their crowdfunding process is that if you don’t reach your target amount, you lose all the pledges. So, if it doesn’t work out, everyone gets their money back. Pozible has a really user friendly platform and layout. They were very helpful in guiding us through. In my research, what really jumped out for me was to create pitch videos, but to avoid the generic two or three talent sitting on a couch and talking about how awesome they all are, where the money will be spent, and how important this project is. It seemed so cliché and generic. So I came up with an idea to shoot our pitch video in the back seat of a car, with me sitting in the passenger seat and directing the actors in the backseat about why we’re making a pitch video and why we’re in the back seat of a car…given that the first thirty mins of the film is actually set in the back seat of the car! We included bloopers, mistakes and beeps every time someone swore. It was hilarious and it went down very well. It must’ve worked because we hit our target of $47,500 with one day to spare. We also had two investors: one for $15,000, which became part of the shooting budget, and another for $10,000, which helped set up our off-line edit.”
I believe that you shot the film in a very economical 10 days? Can you describe the whole process? How did you manage this feat? And when did you shoot?
“We shot the film in late October, early November in 2017. The ten days – a two-week shoot – was all that we could afford. Ideally, I would’ve loved to have had twenty days and a four-week shoot. We prepared very well. We rehearsed with the actors over a period of about two weeks prior to the shoot. Having lots of dialogue and technically just one location – a car on a street and in and around one house – made it easier. Although the car scenes were shot over three days, unfortunately we didn’t factor in airplanes going over every three minutes in [the Sydney suburb of] Haberfield; the heat in the car which caused sweat beads on the actors and also made one of the camera fan noise continuously come on. So these interruptions made one of those three days very distracting, challenging and difficult. We probably lost half a day. Everyone had faith in each other, and a lot of trust in me. By communicating, collaboration and focus, we got the job done. In fact, our first AD collected all the actors’ and crew members’ phones every morning so they would always be ready and focused. That minimised recovery time.”
You kick the film off with an amazing near-thirty-minute dialogue scene in the back of a car. That’s a very brave move…what was your thinking behind that?
“The gestation for the opening scene was the basis of a one-act play that I was writing. But it then turned into the beginning of a screenplay. The idea was to set up Jamal’s character, his relationship with his brother, and to establish why he went overseas, what he did/didn’t achieve plus his emotional, mental and psychological state before and after. The foundation of that car scene sets up what is to unfold thereafter. There is actually a three-act structure in that 30-minute car scene between Jamal and Omar. The first act is dealing with Jamal’s immediate return, his purpose or mission, and the reason why he went. The second act deals with Jamal and Omar’s different points of view on religion, extremism, and issues in The Middle East, and what Jamal has done to his family, community and culture. The third act deals with Jamal’s mental state before he went, what happened over there, how it affected him, and his current vulnerability. Some influences for this scene were the films On The Waterfront, Day And Night and Winter Sleep.”
For a long time, non-Anglo cultures didn’t get much play on Australian screens. That seems to be slowly changing?
“It depends on what period we’re talking about. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were a fair few Italian and Greek Australian stories and characters that made it to the screens. But I think since Fat Pizza, The Combination and Cedar Boys, there has been a slight emergence, especially since the Underbelly series, Wildside and East/West 101 on Australian TV. Hopefully, the cinema landscape allows even more diversity and opportunities to tell a wide range of different stories that offer insights into the varied and culturally mixed society that we have.”
There are so many themes and ideas boiling away in the film. Did you ever fear that it could get away from you?
“Not really. At its core, the film is about redemption, family, love, PTSD and the effects of one’s choices on those that love you the most.”
A Lion Returns is a real performance piece. Can you take us through the casting process? You’ve worked with some of these folks before, of course…
“The next time that I hear that there aren’t any good diverse or ethnic background actors in Australia, I want to face-palm that person. Seriously, either they don’t know how to direct actors and actors from culturally diverse backgrounds, or they’re not casting well. In the two features that I’ve made now and in all my short films, acting has been the key component that holds the films together. This film and especially those first 30 minutes would not work or hold if it weren’t for the acting. Performance is key. Maintaining good performances is how to engage the audience in your story. If the acting is poor, over the top, over stated or not believable, then you’ll lose the audience. If you’ve made a film with all the bells and whistles of production value but you don’t know how to direct actors to get good performances, then your film and storytelling is mediocre. Buddy Dannoun, Helen Chebatte, and Taffy Hany were all in Cedar Boys, so it was not a difficult choice to work with them again. Tyler De Nawi, I first met on the TV series The Principal, and he later did some of my acting workshops, as did Maha Wilson. Danny Elacci and Jacqui Purvis both auditioned and got the parts.”
What was the most difficult part of the whole process for you? And what was the biggest surprise?
“Shooting seventeen scenes on one Saturday with 25 extras, eight kids and the sun continuously changing throughout the day was one of the most difficult days I’ve ever had as a director. The children were only there for four hours, so we had to cheat and shoot in a way that you could not see them sometimes. So we added in all the kids’ sounds in post-production. Ahh… filmmaking! The other major difficult part was post-production and finishing the film so it was of cinema quality, as we didn’t have any money left. We tried getting post production completion funding three times with no success, which is one of the reasons it took us so long to complete. Until The Steve Jaggi Company and Head Gear came on board, we were at a loss for what to do and how to finish it properly. Fortunately, that lifeline from Serve Chilled in QLD and Steve Jaggi came at the right time and we secured Bonsai Films as our distributor. So we ended up doing all our post sound design, mix, music, effects, and grading in such high quality that when you watch the film it still looks, holds and works like a mid-budgeted film.”
The COVID period has been tough on everyone, but particularly on the arts and entertainment community. How have you been managing? Have you had to refocus your creativity in other ways?
“Yes, it knocked out a whole bunch of film festivals, productions and acting/film schools. We were going to premiere at The Gold Coast Film Festival in April this year and then hopefully The Sydney Film Festival in June. But all that went out the window, and everything was put on hold. Keeping busy for me is not an issue. I’m usually a solitary creature who loves watching docos, movies, reading and writing, so it didn’t affect me in that regard. But work wise it has been difficult, as I do a lot of teaching.”
What’s happening next for you? Anything that you can talk about?
“My business partner and producer Liz Burton and I have multiple projects on our Bonafide Pictures slate. One of them is the true crime story Killer Country, which is inspired by Sandra Lee’s book Beyond Bad, starring Kate Box, Laura Gordon and Anthony Gooley. I’m also attached to a Canadian/Australian co-production of a film adaption of the bestselling American author Michael Prescott’s book Mark Of Kane. There have also been a few new offers. More about that later…”
A Lion Returns is released in cinemas on November 5. Click here to read our review of the film.