Vanessa Gazy: Highway to the Top

August 21, 2018
With her latest short, Shiloh about to screen at Flickerfest and her first feature receiving development funds from Screen Australia, we check in with fast-rising filmmaker Vanessa Gazy.

What was your entryway into the film industry? When did you first know you wanted to make movies?

Storytelling has always been my passion – I used to write stories as a child with an obsessive energy and singular focus that I wish I still had! But it wasn’t really until my first year of university that I truly became cognisant of the powerful ability of cinematic storytelling to get under the skin and into the heart, in a multi-sensory and often wordless way. Mulholland Drive, The Piano and Days of Heaven were probably the films that affected me most profoundly at this time, and made me want to bring my writing to life through film. So, I seized an opportunity to move to Paris to do an internship in a small production company, and it was through people that I met there that I wrote and directed my first short film. From there I began building my skillset, eventually doing my Masters in Directing at AFTRS in 2014.

Megan Smart in Shiloh

What was the initial inspiration for Shiloh?

I’ve always been fascinated and preoccupied by the sheer randomness which dictates the existence (or non-existence) of all of us: two strangers happen to go to the same party, or ride the same train, or grow up in the same street, and join their worlds together to create a new, entirely unique human being. In the film, Shiloh travels back in time to the day her parents met, and in a desperate bid to save them from unhappiness and tragedy in their future, she attempts to keep them apart. In doing so, of course, she faces the possibility that she herself will cease to exist. The film is thus a meditation on the mysteriousness and fragility of (the small matter of!) human existence. It explores the fine lines which separate life from death, existence from nonexistence, and soul from body.

How did the story change in development from the initial conceit to what we see on screen?

The overall structure and conceit of the film more or less remained the same from script development to the finished piece. The elements which changed were primarily around world-building and visual storytelling. For example, the wedding was originally written as a fancy marquee affair, where Shiloh’s parents met while working as waiters. After discussions with Director of Photography Ross Giardina and production designer Bethany Ryan, we began to set a look and feel for the film, assigning a very specific, heightened, timeless, European aesthetic. The wedding thus evolved into an intimate, rural, outdoor Greek wedding. In order to increase the sense of intimacy and family, we changed Shiloh’s mother from a waitress into the sister of the bride, so that the guests at the wedding would in fact become Shiloh’s extended family members – which certainly feels more aligned with the themes of the film.

Shiloh seems more complex on a technical level than your earlier short, Highway – what were some of the bigger challenges you faced in making the film?

 The film was definitely ambitious within our budget and time limitations – within its twelve pages, the script included an underwater scene, a fight scene, a wedding scene, a moonlit sex scene, a scene in which a character dematerialises, and time travel. We were working to a very limited budget, but we spoke in great detail as a creative team about what we wanted from the film, and how we were going to execute it. We were working late nights in freezing conditions, and the poor actors and extras were so cold – and so stoic! It was definitely a challenging and fast-paced shoot and edit, but the team was professional and talented, which meant that things ran to plan.

This is another genre piece from you – would you say that’s your chosen field, or is it just something you’re interested in exploring at this juncture?

I don’t consider myself exclusively a genre filmmaker at all, though I am currently enjoying exploring this area. What I am liking about genre storytelling at the moment is that it enables me to freely imagine and portray worlds and possibilities outside of our own reality, which can serve as subtle and profound metaphors about the human condition – while also being immersive and exhilarating film/television experiences for an audience.

Megan Smart in Shiloh

The family in Shiloh is of a mixed ethnicity. What informed that choice, and how does it tie in with the film’s themes?

 The fact that the family is mixed-race denotes nothing more for me than that is what family looks like to me and to many other Australians like me. I wanted to tell a specific, authentic, personal story about family, and this is a truthful representation of family to me. In Shiloh, the father is played by a wonderful Syrian-Australian actor called Jean Bachoura. I have a Syrian dad and, as it happens, when I cast him we discovered that both our fathers grew up in Bab Touma, Damascus, just around the corner from each other! So he immediately felt like family.

Meanwhile, Shiloh’s mother in the film is played by the lovely Sarah Armanious, who has a Greek parent – so the wedding became a Greek wedding with Greek music and guests. Regardless of where two potential lovers have come from, it is the moment in time and space at which they intersect – a moment which is marvellously vulnerable to a thousand different sliding-doors forces upon it – that matters in this film.

Did you draw on any extant films, texts, or filmmakers to inform the visual and narrative style of Shiloh?

La Double Vie de Veronique and Café de Flore were definitely tonal reference pieces. Mustangs and Melancholia were also referenced for specific elements of the visual style.

What are you hoping audiences take away from this one?

I hope the film prompts audiences to ask themselves the same questions that fascinate and trouble Shiloh (and me!). Since the film’s MIFF premiere, I have had some people telling me that they connected to the film because the questions it poses are the same questions that keep them up at night – while others have told me that the film has encouraged them ask themselves these questions for the first time. As a filmmaker it’s just great to hear that you’ve reached an audience and that they’ve felt something.


Odessa Young in Highway

You recently received Screen Australia development funding to turn Highway into a feature – how’s that coming along? How are you approaching turning a short into a long-form work?

It’s very exciting. I’m working with the great producing team at Goalpost to move from “scriptment” to first draft. The short film is very much a starting point for the feature, but with the feature I have taken a new, fresh approach to the material, and have entered new thematic territory that really interests me. It has been a really rewarding process so far.

Anything else you’re working on?

I have been developing my mini-series concept as part of the Screen Australia/Endemol Shine’s ROAR: Smart for a Girl program which I was selected for last year. This has been a really amazing experience which I am extremely grateful to Imogen Banks and Alice Bell for – the opportunity to workshop my idea with some of our most experienced television writers in a writer’s room environment has been invaluable, and I now have a mini-series pilot in my hand which I am very excited to be moving forward with.

Shiloh screens at the 2019 Flickerfest International Film Festival.

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