Tangles and Knots: Short and Sharp

September 26, 2018
It takes a special film to cut through the noise in the short film world, which is exactly what Renée Marie Petropoulos’ final thesis film has done, not only playing at the biggest film festivals in the world, getting nominated for an AACTA Award, but also tapping into a hot-button issue.

“The film was shot in January 2016, long before the current discourse around sexual violence and consent had even begun,” Renée Marie Petropoulos, the writer/director of short film Tangles and Knots, tells us.

“The #metoo and Times Up movement simply shone a public light on the horrifying historical injustices against women that have existed for decades. I can’t think of any woman who hasn’t felt threatened, harassed or who has experienced assault in some form. That being said, I do believe that the themes of Tangles and Knots are universal and more important than ever.

“The film explores the idea of the threat of sexual violence being felt at any age and questions the idea of consent. The ending is purposefully ambiguous and has sparked a lot of debate and questions from viewers at our screenings at both Berlinale [where it premiered] and at SXSW. Mainly, what is considered an ‘invitation’ for sex? In this film where the boundaries are blurred, it can emerge from any unintended gesture: sharing a cigarette, touching another’s arm, a compliment, a glance. For me, NONE of these gestures should be an invitation for assault but are often taken as such. With the #metoo movement and Times Up becoming ubiquitous in Hollywood, this question has become even more important.”

The short was Petropoulos’s final thesis film for her MFA in Filmmaking degree at New York’s Columbia University, resulting in a co-production of sorts.

“While the majority of pre-production and production was spent on the ground in Sydney, our post-production journey took place in New York at Columbia University,” says Petropoulos, who had previously completed a degree at the University of Technology in Sydney. “Our team of producers [Janet Brown, Yingna Lu, Associate Producer Melina Maraki, Executive Producer Alex Petropoulos] were predominantly based in Australia but our co-producer, Kristin Frost, was a fellow student and represented the film in New York during Post-Production and throughout the Columbia University production process.

“While in pre-production in New York, I began assembling a team of key creatives, specifically Australian cinematographers and came across the incredibly talented, Zoë White, ACS, whose more recent work includes The Handmaid’s Tale and feature films Catfight, Nancy and Princess Cyd. At the time she was based in New York where we met a few times in person to discuss the project. We really connected about story, the characters and worked together to create the intimate aesthetic look and tone of the film. She was also visiting family in Sydney at the same time as our final shooting dates, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Ultimately, Zoë really pushed my aesthetic above and beyond and throughout the shoot we collaborated really well.

Renée Marie Petropoulos

“Throughout pre-production we had an Indiegogo campaign running in October 2015 which helped raise a portion of funds for the film with donations from friends and family from across the globe,” she adds referring to the financing behind such an ambitious project. “In November I flew down to Sydney to continue pre-production and to secure cast and locations with our team. We shot in January 2016 in Sydney. it was a hectic 4-day shoot which involved a lot of rescheduling scenes due to unpredictable weather. Post production was then completed back in New York as I finished my final year at Columbia University.”

Petropoulos was also able to attract an incredible cast, including Toby Wallace, Mitzi Ruhlmann, and in the leading roles, two of Australia’s most exciting actresses, Leeanna Walsman and Odessa Young as mother and daughter, Laura and Michelle.

“From the very beginning, I wanted to make a personal film,” says Petropoulos. “The film’s core relationship was based on the very unique bond I have with my own mother during my teenage years. Our relationship is intimate, very open, flawed and of course, very complex. Sometimes we acted more like girlfriends together. My friends would flock to her for advice, she is so easy to talk to and so loving. Everyone that attended these gatherings would treat her like she was one of the girls in our group. Boundaries were so blurred between us and I honestly didn’t realise that our relationship was so unique until I was much older. She supported me in her own unique, loving way and honestly, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without her.”

For such a female driven story, Petropoulos engaged with a majority female crew on the film. “This was very important to me as a director when considering both the subject matter of the short and the energy I wanted on set. First and foremost, I wanted all of my actors to feel comfortable and safe when exploring such emotionally troubling and violent material. That was the most important element of this decision.

“Secondly, in my own experiences as a director, I’ve found working with a predominantly female crew creates a more open and nourishing creative environment. That being said, I would also like to give a shout out to all the men who supported and worked on Tangles and Knots during pre-production, production and post-production. Ultimately, it’s all about finding the right people for each project and I was so lucky to work with such a talented, passionate team! In my future projects, I hope to continue collaborating with women and promoting diversity in the industry.”

Followings its overseas bows, Tangles and Knots has played at all of the major local film festivals and will next screen in Adelaide.

The success of the film has inspired Petropoulos to write a feature length version of the story, among other projects. “I am expanding the relationship, the world Laura and Michelle live in and exploring the aftermath of the climax of the short film. In conjunction with this project, I am also writing another feature, a horror film set in contemporary Greece and two other short films to be put into production early next year.”

Ultimately, though, making the short film has been an incredibly rewarding experience that has put the filmmaker on the map in Australia. “For me, Tangles and Knots is a uniquely Australian story,” Petropoulos says. “It explores a very specific part of Sydney society and very prevalent issues of sexual violence and toxic masculinity in Australian culture. It was so important for me to make this film in Sydney and to shoot the film quite close to the suburbs where I grew up. So for me, it is such a tremendous honour being recognised by local festivals and to be nominated for the 2018 AACTA award for Best Short Fiction Film.”

Tangles & Knots screens at the 2019 Flickerfest International Film Festival.

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