The Widow: Brendan Young’s Fever Dream

June 12, 2020
The filmmaker unravels his stylistic short film and sings the praises of the St. Kilda Film Festival.

The film has travelled the world and now returns to your home turf. How do you feel about the film being selected for St Kilda Film Festival?

I was born and raised in Melbourne and this is a short film deeply steeped in local crime history. Set in 1960s Melbourne about a slice of untold real-life events (albeit highly fictionalised!) So, to the say the least, I was genuinely thrilled to see The Widow included in this year’s festival. It just felt highly appropriate for the film to take part in one of Melbourne’s most celebrated film festivals. The festival is in its 36th year, accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and celebrates short film making in all its various styles, formats and genres. Kinda made sense to me!

The Widow first premiered in Rimini, Italy at the Amarcort Film Festival in mid-November 2018 and has been on an extensive journey to various festivals around the globe. There’s still a few more to come, but as the film’s festival run draws to a close, being in the St. Kilda Film Festival feels like the “cherry on top”.

Brendan Young

Are you personally a patron of St. Kilda Film Festival, and what do you think about it in terms of film culture in Melbourne?

I’m showing my age here, but I’ve been attending the St. Kilda Film Festival off and on for about 25 years! I’ve spent most of my adult life living and working in Sydney (relocated back to Melbourne about 5 years ago), often I would be travelling interstate to attend. And way back in 1999 I had the pleasure of having my relationship comedy, Three Chords And A Wardrobe produced by that stellar trailer blazer, Bruna Papandrea, screened as an opening night film.

Outside of the Melbourne International Film Festival, St. Kilda is the other key film festival in town. The festival was one of the first in the country strictly focused on Australian short films. So many emerging Australian filmmakers got their leg-up via the festival – a notable example being Clayton Jacobson. A short film version of Kenny was screened at the festival. It was an audience favourite. It won awards and the rest, as they say, is history. Every year, the festival offers up a range of fascinating industry discussion panels, industry development programs, Q&As with filmmakers, retrospectives and a diverse array of well over 100 films for the general public to discover and enjoy. The festival is a major event on the local arts-culture calendar.

An aspect to the festival’s success is driven by the people who organise and run the festival. Up until last year, Paul Harris was the festive director. He’d been in the role for well over two decades. Paul is a walking, talking encyclopaedic enthusiast of film culture and film history. An extraordinary cinephile. A witty raconteur, broadcaster and film critic with an astounding knowledge. Any Melbourne-based filmmaker worth their salt tuned into Paul’s weekly celebration of local and international film culture, Film Buff’s Forecast on 3-RRR FM for over 30 years. It’s now a podcast by the way – do yourself a favour.

Having Paul at the helm meant there was always some great and unexpected side-bar programs and festival events in the mix. Paul left after an amazing innings and another great cinephile, with a highly established history as a festival director and festival programmer, Richard Sowada has taken over as the new festival director.

This year’s festival had to tackle some serious challenges with the whole ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Rather than postpone or cancel the event, the festival’s response was to stage the entire 8-day event online making all screenings free and accessible to everyone.

Can you tell us what inspired you – story-wise – to write The Widow?

Well, I’m a great enthusiast of genre film. I have a particular penchant for crime thrillers – everything from what would be classed as traditional “film noir” through to the gritty, neo-noir character-based films coming out of the US in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But also, a fascination in the European variations and interpretations on the genre from the UK, France and particularly Italy. I wanted to make a very personal and authentic Australian crime film with its own unique cultural perspective.

The inspiration to the film evolved from two key aspects. Firstly, the film is based around real-life events taking place in Melbourne in the early to mid-1960s. The press labelled these events “The Market Murders” — a bloody and violent battle of opposing factions within the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta (Mafia) to seize control of the lucrative produce industry with a focus on the Queen Victoria Markets. The group at the centre of this battle was known as “L’Onorata Societa” (The Honoured Society), an organisation with direct roots to crime gangs long established in villages scattered across Calabria in Italy.

And the second aspect comes from my own experience growing up in the inner city Melbourne suburb of Brunswick in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. These days, it’s mainly known as a hipster enclave, a hub of Melbourne’s alternative arts, music culture. But back when I was just a kid, it was strictly a working class suburb with a rich mix of post-war migrant Southern Italians and Greeks. I grew up surrounded by families from Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, Abruzzo and Sparta! The main character in the narrative, Luisa, is based on a real person. An enigmatic and seemingly austere Calabrese woman who lived at the end of my street. I must have been around five years old when I first encountered her. She was a widow. The woman’s husband, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, was allegedly gunned down at the Queen Victoria Markets (or so my parents told me) years earlier. In a sense, the film is a kind of wild, romantic, fever-dream imagining of what may have happened to her. And how she became a widow.

Did people tell you that you’re crazy for making a period film?

Oh yeah. Just about everyone! You have to remember this was a very low budget, crowd-funded film featuring quite a number of urban and rural locations, the use of period vehicles and so on. Basically, most sane industry people thought that we didn’t have a hope in hell of pulling it off. But to be honest, I felt reasonably assured as I’m pretty used to working with tight budgets and having to be absurdly resourceful.

Roger Corman was always an inspiration! That said, we had a whole lot of generous help, support and assistance. We had access to over a dozen or more period vehicles. This came through a network of friends of friends. And in particular, a vintage car enthusiast, Leo Notarianni, who provided so much help in contacting and coordinating various vintage car club enthusiasts who happily lent their cars to the production. Leo has a real obsession with Italo-Australian culture from that period. But mostly – he just loves the cars.

I spent ages roaming around Melbourne trying to find interiors and exteriors that would provide a convincing period setting. We had amazing luck. For example, I had a scene originally set in an Espresso Bar and there was one location in Fitzroy which was perfect, but the owners just wouldn’t come to the party – and it wasn’t about the paltry money we had to offer them. They just didn’t want a film crew messing up their premises. But then I thought, okay, I’ll set the scene in a barber shop – thinking it would be an easier period location to find. It wasn’t. Many places that might look okay outside had completely modern interiors and so on. However, I located this extraordinary barber shop in Sunshine in Melbourne’s Western suburbs. It was run by an 80-year-old Italo-Australian man who had left his barber shop interior pretty much untouched since the 1960s when he first opened the business. It was a brilliant location. Incredibly, out the back of the shop he had hung on to all sorts of original items from the 1960s. A virtual time capsule. When we arrived to shoot, he’d taken it upon himself to re-dress his entire shop with objects, products, advertising posters and calendars from the period. We walked in and it was like stepping back in time. The other asset, in terms of capturing the period, was shooting in black and white. It can be very forgiving. Particularly in terms of production design and set dressings.

When attacking such a well-storied genre as a gangster film, what tropes did you embrace, and which ones did you try to skew?

Like a lot of folks, I love Coppola’s The Godfather films; Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino, etc. But, I very much wanted to make a different kind of crime film. More focused on intimate emotionality than criminality. The Widow is really more a doomed romance, set against a crime milieu rather than a bunch of tough talking wise-guys pulling off heists and shooting at each other, etc. Sure, that machismo factor is a true reflection of the Italian crime culture and some of this posturing found its way authentically into the film, but the main difference between your run of the mill mob film is that I wanted to make a crime film with a woman in the lead role. And not some kick-ass, sassy, wise-cracking butt-kicking ingenue. I wanted to feature a woman of a certain age; a mature woman. Poised, contained, elegant. A woman who, by circumstance, is driven to extremes in order to survive an ordeal. There’s an intriguing understated transgressive cultural element apparent in Luisa’s character – again playing against certain expectations.

Daniela Farinacci. Photo by L.J. Spruyt Photography

How did you cast, and what sort of research did you provide for the cast to get under the skin of their very specific characters?

Casting The Widow threw up some very unique challenges. The main challenge was around the use of language in the film. I wanted to achieve a genuine of level of authenticity. And I’ve been pretty unimpressed by how Italian-Australians have been portrayed in Australian film and television over the decades. The film is mainly performed in Sicilian and Calabrian dialect of the time. More so, a regional dialect specific to Melbourne in the 1960s. A time-locked language that isn’t really spoken anymore. We had three translators work on the dialogue. Two of them, Rosa Simonelli and Vince D’Amico (who appears in the film) grew up in Melbourne during the late 1950s and ‘60s and were able to give the dialogue a real sense of time and place. Hilariously, we have to subtitle the film into proper Italian when it screened in Italy because the dialect and the use of local slang and co-opted Aussie English makes it incredibly hard for contemporary Italian audiences to understand.

However, the biggest hurdle was the lead role of Luisa. Not only did I need to find an actress who could take on some of the more intensely physical aspects of the role – being buried alive – being just one! But also, be able to speak a local Sicilian dialect naturally and with ease. Although it’s probably lost on English speaking viewers, Luisa Benvenuto, who is Sicilian, speaks Sicilian dialect to the mainly Calabrian characters. This was an attempt to recreate how members of various regional backgrounds communicated at the time since the two dialects share common words and expressions. I’d been a huge fan of the Melbourne-based actress Daniela Farinacci ever since I saw her in Lantana playing opposite Vince Colosimo. I have been keeping an eye on her film and TV work ever since and knew that I’d love to work with her some day. Luckily for me, the film’s Executive Producer, Frank Lotito who also appears in the film, knew Daniela both professionally and personally. He was able to introduce the project to her and arrange a meeting. We caught up for a coffee and I just knew she was perfect. Frank helped set up introductions with other cast members including Steve Bastoni, another great actor I’ve long been a fan of. Frank and Vince D’Amico could speak Calabrese dialect fluently but the other actors – Joe Petruzzi, Nick Carrafa and Steve –  who was born in Rome – who are all fluent Italian speakers, had to learn their dialect dialogue phonetically. Actor Vice D’Amico recorded all their lines and the actors could playback, listen and rehearse to the recordings to perfect the right cadence, accent and rhythm. They all did terrific work. I know this because elderly Calabrese and Sicilian speakers who have seen the film have all given the thumbs up.

Frank Lotito and Joe Petruzzi. Photo by L.J. Spruyt Photography

I’ve done extensive research into the events of the time. Some of this information was passed on to the actors, but mostly, they drew on their own respective family histories or local knowledge about certain “colourful identities” here in Melbourne. In terms of characterisation, a lot of it was just sitting down and talking about the nature of the characters. In some cases referring to photos and newspaper reports of the time. With Daniela I also showed her some Italian crime films from the period that were a big influence on the film – particularly those featuring strong, complex female characters. It was great for her to see a young Claudia Cardinale holding court and even Greek actress Irene Papas was a reference. But the main thing was to try and capture the low key taciturn and reserved nature of these Calabrese crime figures. It’s a noticeable difference from the very showy, explosive, loud representation of “Americano”  screen mobsters. Real local mafia said little, revealed little and were on the whole, totally unassuming.

Steve Bastoni. Photo by L.J. Spruyt Photography

Why such a long short film and has that been a positive or has it worked against the film?

From the get-go, The Widow was always planned as a “proof of concept” project. The motivation to make the film was to clearly demonstrate the mood, the style, the look and feel of the planned feature version of the film (However, that goal has now changed!) I wanted the film to be more than just a demo-calling card – a couple of exemplary scenes cobbled together. To be honest, I never set out to make a successful short film, but rather, an effective and engrossing distillation of a more complex narrative, in order to help bolster interest and support for the longer project. I had a lot of well-intentioned people say – ‘listen, it’s a short film, keep it under 10 minutes. You’ll have so many more festivals you can enter it into. And no-one wants to watch anything longer than 15 minutes’. And that’s all very true. If your aim is wanting to make a huge splash on the short film circuit – short and sweet will give you lots of opportunities. Of course, it greatly depends on the inherent quality of your film too! The original shooting script of The Widow was about 19 pages. But as I was shooting the film, I just wanted to take more time with how certain scenes played out. There was a genuine rhythm I was going for, particularly in regard to the performances and I innately resisted condensing for the hell of it. When I started editing the film, I wrote some additional scenes and scheduled more pick up days to shoot. There are a whole number of festivals that will cap their short film entries at say, 15 minutes and 20 minutes. Some go as low as 7 minutes! But you’d be surprised just how many festivals allow for 30 minute and sometimes 40 minute short films. I guess the other main issue working against a long short film such as The Widow (which runs at 28 minutes) is festival programming. I was well aware that a festival programmer would have to love my film a helluva lot to want to include it since they could easily fill it with two shorter films. But I was more than happy to wear that possible outcome. And I’m sure I was passed on by a lot of festivals because of the running time alone. Nevertheless, I think the film has performed way beyond my wildest expectations. Currently the film has screened at over 50 international film festivals and so far, collected 62 awards, so I don’t have regrets.

When the St. Kilda Film Festival went virtual, were you all for it being available online, and around Australia?

I must admit, when it was initially announced, I was a little disheartened to hear about the festival going online. Only because I’ve experienced the St. Kilda Film Festival at fabulous venues like the Paris Theatre and St. Kilda Town Hall with big appreciative audiences in attendance. But I was also pleased they persevered in these unprecedented times. The whole Covid-19 pandemic has caused havoc with all sorts of public events here and overseas. A number of festivals internationally have been postponed, some cancelled entirely. I’d rather be included than not have the film screened at all. The national availability doesn’t really concern me since my film is reaching the end of its near two-year run. I’m actually happy that a lot of people who had missed previous screenings in Australia, can now get to see it. Again, I would have much preferred to see it projected on a big screen and with an audience, but hey! The film can reach far more people and the convenience of watching the film session anytime, anywhere during the 8 day run is actually great. I think the national online availability might be an issue for other filmmakers. Particularly those who are just getting their films out there. It remains to be seen how other local festivals will view the availability as a reason to disqualifying or bar entry into other festivals later in the year or into next year.

Photo by L.J. Spruyt Photography

What do you hope for the film following its screening as part of the St. Kilda Film Festival?

The simple hope is that local producers and funding bodies might see the value in backing and supporting my intended limited series drama version of The Widow for streaming. This is the reason I made the film in the first place. To gain support and interest. I made the film completely outside the local “industry bubble”. No funding bodies or established industry support. The film was produced by my partner Cathy McQuade and myself virtually in our lounge room. So, it’s time to get out of the house and on to a bigger platform.

What’s next?

As I mentioned, I’m currently developing The Widow as a 6-part drama series for streaming. I’ve plotted the 6 eps and I’m currently fleshing out the episodes with the intention of approaching local production companies, producers and funding bodies for support. The series expands the narrative of the film considerably and features a compelling backstory set in Sicily and Calabria in the 1930s and 1940s. Just before the lockdown in Italy in early March, a former Rome-based producer, now living in Melbourne, presented the pitch to two established Italian production companies both currently having a lot of success with Netflix series. They are keen to see more and I’ll be sending over more material within the next month or so. But in the meantime, I need to find some local support. Interestingly enough, I also connected with some former producer friends up in Vietnam – I spent a number of years working as a freelance director shooting TV commercials throughout South-East Asia with a focus on Vietnam. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we developed another limited 6-part espionage thriller set in Saigon in the turbulent summer of 1963 leading up to the assassination of the corrupt  President of the South Republic of Vietnam, Diem and his equally corrupt right hand man, his brother Nhu at the hands of their own generals. Like the The Widow series, it’s a multi-lingual, multi-national project. In this case, there’s a large French component along with Vietnamese and American aspects of the narrative. I really want to own the space of multicultural and multi-lingual projects – it’s something I’m quite obsessed with. The project is currently with Gaumont in Paris. My fingers are crossed. It could be genuine game-changer for me. In the meantime, I continue to write, develop projects, pursue intriguing collaborations in the hope that I might eventually live high in the dirty business of dreams (to quote a great book title!)

The Widow is screening at the St. Kilda Film Festival

Main Photo by L.J. Spruyt Photography

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