In the annals of detective fiction, there are names that resonate: Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Lisbeth Salender and now, Sam Slade. Well, it will resonate if she manages to survive her first case. Slade is the hero of new Aussie indie, Trench, itself the brainchild of Cinema Viscera, a Melbourne based independent production company formed by Paul Anthony Nelson and Perri Cummings.
“Perri was studying screenwriting at RMIT and writing for Neighbours at the time, looking to branch into film and TV,” Paul explains. “And I was a frustrated auteur yet to fire a shot, so our meeting was kind of kismet, and we’ve been making stuff ever since.”
The duo met when acting in a play back in 2007, which was directed by Trench’s lead, Samantha E. Hill, who plays the aforementioned Sam Slade. Since setting up Cinema Viscera, they’ve made five short films, as well as ‘a bunch of other miscellany’ before their first big feature, Trench.
The film sees Sam Slade throw in the towel as a comedian and then accidentally become a private eye. Her first case is reclusive writer Becky Holt (played by Cummings herself), who is experiencing strange phenomena in her Melbourne apartment. Filmed in stark black and white, Trench appears to be more than just a nod to film noir.
“I love detective films, film noir, and particularly quirky spins on this genre; films like Brick and Zero Effect, and a micro-budget film I particularly loved was Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir first feature, Following,” Paul confesses. “But we were both interested in making a film that put women front and centre, and dealt with both male privilege and everyday sexism, but also gave us female leads who weren’t just blandly “strong”, but funny, messy, clever, silly, inventive, curious, terrified; all the colours of the rainbow! We like to value complexity and empathy when creating our characters.”
Despite its apparent noir aesthetic, the duo admit that Paul’s original pitch was ‘What if Following met Clerks in Melbourne?’, and saw the director setting about trying to capture the “feel of the ‘90s indie boom I came of age with, meeting classic cinema and today’s issues.”
For Peri, films like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train guided the dialogue.
“But the film that wound up being our North Star was Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which is one of our favourite movies,” Paul admits. “It’s a perfect blend of New Hollywood/indie-slacker comedy and cool detective picture. Hell, if I could avoid being sued, I totally would’ve just remade that shot for shot with a female lead. But, yeah, we knew we’d never be as intricate as Chandler – nor should we be – but it gave us a precedent to riff on. The film also draws on those great 1930s screwball comedies, mainly for Becky and Sam as they always seemed so much more feisty, fun and real than the traditional femme fatale.”
With its jazz soundtrack, from local musician Adam Rudegeair, fedoras and Manhattan-esque cityscapes, was there ever moment when Paul and Perri thought to just scrap the Melbourne backdrop and plunge feet first into Americana? The answer is a deafening no.
“Never! I’ve lived in Melbourne all my life and have always wanted to shoot the place in black-and-white,’ Perri explains. “We wanted to make a picture that had relatable themes but was uniquely Melbourne. And we were inordinately amused by the idea that someone could think their comic observation skills would make them a great detective. We wanted to make our first film to be a definitive product of the town we lived in. We also want to make films that represent where we are and what we are currently facing, even though Trench nods the fedora at classic film noir, it is very Melbourne – all our lead character wants is a cup of coffee!”
As Sam wanders the streets of Australia’s most liveable city (sorry, Sydneysiders), her investigation leads her to encounter a handful of people, the likes of which would make a progressive’s blood run cold. These are the sexist men who hide behind irony when they tell an appalling joke, they’re the women whose misreading of feminism does a disservice to their gender. Whilst it’s never explicit, did Peri and Paul have anybody in the back of their minds when Trench was being written?
“It’s more what we’ve seen in the culture, in the media especially,” Paul states. “Men fobbing off awful behaviour under the guise of, ‘ohh it’s just a joke,’ or ‘I just do this for the cash’ – or, in [one person’s] case, using feminist rhetoric as a Trojan horse in which to push her repressive, conservative agenda. But we also wanted Sam’s investigation to discover that nothing was ever as it seemed. The characters are far less powerful and in control than the auras they maintain, and it doesn’t take a lot of pushing to puncture that.”
Having started writing in 2015, movements such as #metoo hadn’t risen to the stature they are now. The idea that someone like Donald Trump could be President of one of the most powerful nations in the world was barely comprehendible.
“Male privilege has always been a Wizard of Oz type scenario – using status and fear and coercion to keep the patriarchy in control,” Paul continues. “It just needs a few intrepid Dorothy Gales to look behind the curtain and expose them for the frauds they are. The system is wide and far-reaching, so it’ll take a while, but the cracks have already started to show. With any luck, it’ll crumble to dust in our lifetime.”
Having grappled with the detective genre, all whilst taking a swipe at toxic masculinity, we wrap things up by poking Cinema Viscera to tell us what else they’ve got up their sleeves.
“We’re writing and financing our next film right now, which is in a genre we’ve longed to dig into: Horror,” Paul enthuses. “It’s a modern gothic horror drama, currently called Inheritance, and it’s about an orphaned woman who inherits the family home she never knew, to find it may be haunted by more than mere ghosts.”