One could safely argue that the entire Australian film industry is, in fact, unsung. It pumps out movies that most Australians don’t see; it’s filled with artists, techies and creatives who receive little to no praise or reward; the government and mainstream media are largely indifferent to it; and yet it still produces extraordinary work. Pretty much anyone making movies in this country (outside of big name players like Baz Luhrrmann, George Miller et al) is unsung, and you could even put forward a claim that local legends like Rolf De Heer, John Hillcoat, Ivan Sen and Kriv Stenders rate way too low on the praise and appreciation scale. But even within that paradigm, there are filmmakers slaving away outside of the traditional funding routes, making low budget films that they not only get released into the local market, but also into international territories.
One of the most quietly successful and prolific of these filmmakers is John V. Soto, who plies his trade in Perth, Western Australia, far away from Australia’s apparent filmmaking capitals of Sydney and Melbourne. Commercially focused, Soto raises the budgets for his own films and crafts them with an eye on what will sell and what will entertain. A strong facility for genre filmmaking further stokes up Soto’s commercial instincts. “Ultimately, there’s no point making a film if it never sees the light of day,” Soto told FilmInk candidly in 2010. “The film needs to be attractive to international distributors, otherwise it’s impossible to recoup its cost.”
John V. Soto has always been a sharp and tactical thinker when it comes to funding, packaging and selling his films. He creates his film projects from the ground up, and they remain his right through production and then onto selling and distribution. He’s a savvy player with an eye on all angles, and he been a longtime strategist. When he wasn’t slouched down in a darkened cinema or tearing into a comic book as a teenager, John V. Soto could most likely be found hunched over a chess board. In fact, Soto represented Australia in the Junior Chess Championships, and somewhat fittingly, the strategic skills that made him a formidable chess player have also aided him as a screenwriter and director. “I’m fairly good at plotting!” he told FilmInk in 2014. “When you play a game of chess, the one that wins is the one that can think more moves ahead of their opponent.”
Soto made his debut in 2009 with the sexy thriller Crush, starring then-on-the-rise local talents Christopher Egan (then hot off Eragon and Resident Evil: Extinction) and Emma Lung (Peaches). The film was shot cheaply and came with its fair share of problems. “I could write a book on what I learned from that film,” Soto laughed to FilmInk in 2010. “Most importantly, I learned that it’s critical to get your casting right, as we had some cast issues, which required a week of reshoots.” The film received mixed reviews, but it sold well. Though it lacks the muscularity and finesse of Soto’s later films, it served as something of a framework for the rest of his career.
Soto’s follow-up was a far more polished and ambitious affair. Shot in Perth on a budget of $3 million (funded by a handful of West Australian investors, including Soto himself), 2010’s Needle, was a blend of “supernatural murder mystery, horror and tongue-in-cheek humour,” the director explained. Needle stars Michael Dorman as Ben, a university student who teams up with his estranged brother (Travis Fimmel) to recover a deadly 18th century voodoo device that goes missing after he inherits it. “Needle sticks to certain horror movie conventions because that’s what the audience generally wants,” Soto explained to FilmInk upon the movie’s release. “Having characters killed off one by one certainly didn’t stop Agatha Christie from selling millions of books! The fun part is working within the convention, yet making it fresh enough that there’s a challenge for the audience.” Again the film performed well in home entertainment markets, with Soto’s casting of Travis Fimmel (who was beginning to establish an international profile at the time) a savvy move in terms of shoring up markets overseas. Entertaining and well made, Needle rates as tidy piece of horror filmmaking.
For his third film, Soto upped the ante again with 2014’s The Reckoning, an involving police procedural thriller. “Crush and Needle are both supernatural thrillers,” Soto told FilmInk in 2014. “I wanted to do a straight thriller about a detective on the trail of a killer, but I knew that it had been done a thousand times. So then I thought, ‘Well, what can we do that hasn’t been done before?’ I came up with the idea of telling the story from two points of view – the suspects in the case and the detectives.” Taut, tense, and gripping, The Reckoning follows a brooding detective (Jonathan LaPaglia) on the trail of two teenage runaways (Hanna Mangan Lawrence and Alex Williams), who have shot a documentary outlining clues to the identity of the person who killed his partner (Luke Hemsworth).
Displaying Soto’s ability to play with genre conventions, The Reckoning plays as “a film within a film” or more specifically, a found footage film within a thriller. “I found out later that Eduardo Sánchez [co-director of The Blair Witch Project] made a comment that the found footage genre is evolving, and that there will be hybrid versions of it, which is what I’ve done unintentionally,” Soto told FilmInk in 2014. “I didn’t want to make a found footage film. Essentially, I wanted to make a film about two kids telling their story with their camera, and a detective telling his story, and then merge the two into something compelling.”
Similar to Soto’s previous efforts, The Reckoning sold into a fistful of international territories, including the US. For Soto, more than half the battle in distributing a film is securing a sales agent who gives a damn. “We had offers from a couple of bigger distributors, but Lightning Entertainment was just so passionate about the film,” Soto explained. “They loved the script, and actually invested in the film. So when you’ve got a sales agent willing to put their money where their mouth is, you know that you’ve got something that can potentially work. Filmmakers need to be mindful to not just consider Australian audiences, but to consider an international viewpoint as well.”
Soto carried that line of thinking into his next project. Stepping up the ambition once again, 2018’s The Gateway is a sci-fi thriller involving parallel worlds and interdimensional travel. “Michael White [co-screenwriter] and I wanted to write a script for an Australian sci-fi movie, which in itself is a rare beast,” Soto told FilmInk in 2018. “So we spent a number of afternoons pitching ideas back and forth and found ourselves moving towards a time travel type film. The issue with time travel movies is that they have been done to death, and there are so many good ones, with Primer and Looper probably the best of the lot. We came upon the idea of parallel worlds simultaneously and decided that was the path that we wanted to go down. At the same time, we had already discussed the idea of a scientist who bends the rule of nature for her own needs, and the central premise of The Gateway was born.”
The story of a particle physicist grieving over the loss of her husband who travels to a parallel world to find him again, The Gateway boasts imagination and invention in abundance, as well as a striking lead turn from the excellent Jacqueline McKenzie. It also shows off Soto’s characteristic skill at getting the most out of his limited resources. “I knew that we would have a very limited budget to make the film, and I was very much inspired by low budget sci-fi classics like Primer and Monsters,” Soto explained to FilmInk in 2018. “The film’s budget came in at $1.7 million, which sounds like a lot of money, but really is a small amount to make a movie. But we used every trick in the book to get the maximum production value out of that budget.”
Like his previous films, The Gateway sold into international home entertainment markets and performed well there. A cottage industry unto himself, John V. Soto is a true quiet achiever in the Australian film industry, pumping out polished, commercial films at a prolific rate, and getting them in front of audiences. Currently working on a home invasion thriller called Avarice, John V. Soto continues to drive his own destiny and make it happen, without getting the requisite praise and attention.
Additional reporting by Travis Johnson
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.