P:O.V. No.7 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, POSSUM

An interview with Brad McGann on POSSUM

Richard Raskin

When and how did you first get the idea for making this film?

It was very spontaneous. I had just finished making two shorts in Australia which had funding from the ABC and AFC and which were basically aimed at a television audience and were screened on TV. And after making them, I decided to return to my home country, which is New Zealand. I decided to go back for about six months, just to spend some time with the family.

And I thought that while I was back there, I might as well see if I could get a film of some sort made. I was thinking of just doing something on Super 8. I rang a producer, and he said that there was a submission date for screenplay proposals in about a week. So I wrote the script very quickly, in about four days.

So I went away and just played some music. I thought: OK, I'm going to write a film, I'll give myself four days to do this task, and I'll put some music on. There was a time when I was working with autistic kids, and for some reason - I think the combination of the music and the fact that I was working with free-flowing thoughts, that I was allowing anything to come to me - this one particular child whom I had spent some time with just popped up. She used to hide under tables when I was working with her, and that image of a child under a table was really the germ of the idea.

There is such an authentic quality to the film that I thought you must have had contact with an autistic child.

I remembered working with this child and there was something very animalistic about her. I'm using that term in the proverbial sense. One of the things that really amazed me was that some of the other residents that I was working with were actually quite scared of her. As a care attendant, you have to spend time with them, and you have to bathe these people and clothe them and assist them with eating. I actually became quite fascinated by her ability to imitate animal noises. When she was in the bath, she would bite me and she would fight and scratch and scream. And I put this tape on, which had ambiant whale noises and birds tweeting. And lo and behold she just started imitating these noises. It wasn't just an imitation, it was more a replication of the noises. And I realized that when I played these tapes, she became very focused and it was almost a moment of genius that came out of her.

That's what fascinated me and I decided to base the story in a time when people didn't know anything about autism and give it a slight fable quality, because I guess up until the 1930s - perhaps even later - people had a very limited understanding of autism, and used to surmise that possibly these children were possessed by spirits or were feral children that retreated to the wilderness at night. That was based on a bit of research. So I decided to take a more abstract concept of autism, explore it as opposed to the more clinical, institutional image.

One of the things that fascinated me in your film is that there are points on Little Man's voice over where he whispers. I've never heard that before on a voice over. Do you remember why you thought of doing that?

I was interested in getting close to the central character, which is Little Man. I decided that within the framework of the family, my first impulse was to go with Kid's story. But it's very hard to tell a story from the point of view of an autistic child or somebody who's communicating very much in a different language. So I thought the most sympathetic character would probably be the most interesting: a person who is caught between the world of the father and the world of the child. That gave me a point of reference from which I could explore all the characters, using very broad brushstrokes. The detail in the film is very much with Little Man while the other characters were painted with very broad brushstrokes, so that they jump out at you almost. I thought well if I've only got fifteen minutes, then Little Man's internal world was the place that interested me most when I was writing the film.

The whispering quality really just came - I didn't anticipate that it was going to be a whisper when I wrote the script - but when I got to the editing suite I realized that it really was an internal space that was being reflected in the outside world. And I decided that the contrast between a vast landscape and a quiet whisper set up a really nice opposition. But I think it was really to pull the audience in, now that I actually think about it. What I was trying to do was to bring a focus to the film which was the internal voice of a child who was seeking to understand the world around him.

Is it correct to describe Possum as monochrome?

It's sepia. It's actually not monochrome because to create sepia, I think they use three hues. But the final effect to the eye is very much a monochrome effect.

What about your decision to do the film in sepia?

Well, when you do a submission for any funding body, one thing that they prompt you to think about is how you are going to approach the style of the film. It's actually a very hard thing for a lot of filmmakers to do, because production designers and directors of photography and various people come in later. And to write the film and project it in your mind and know exactly how it's going to look is, I think, very much a myth. But what I did decide early on was that I wanted a very simple device that allowed me to give the film a timeless quality. So I gave myself at that stage three options, which were: 1) to shoot in black and white, which I felt just wouldn't quite do it; 2) to shoot in color and then do a 40% color removal - which was my preference, but that was very costly (the lab said that this would blow the budget); and 3) which is what we did: we shot it on black and white, and then did tests processing it on color stock, which is a very inexpensive way of achieving a monochrome result.

It was really a matter of talking with the director of photography and the designer and making that decision on a collective level. It made the designer's job very easy and it made my job very easy, because the removal of color can sometimes highlight the emotional scape and sometimes it's just one less thing to concern yourself about. And over and above that, it was really trying to achieve a timeless quality. I didn't want it to be fixed and say the 1890s, which was the period that I gave the designer. I wanted more ambiguity about the setting. And that was our collective choice.

I remember being very struck by the look of the film, right from the first shots. Did you do something special with the exposure or in your choice of film stock?

Some of the shots were overexposed. I was looking at the print and thinking that the grading has gone a bit wild. But somebody came up to me afterwards and said: You know, I really like that rustic, overexposed feel that the film had. That just happened. The lab actually warned me, because not many people shoot on black and white and process on color stock. One of the consequences of choosing that approach is that you can't control the grading to the same degree. I was actually surprised to see that it was overexposed and at first, I panicked and thought: My God, what's happened here, something's gone wrong. And then afterwards, I actually quite liked it.

That's exciting sometimes. It's good to have that element of surprise that sometimes works for the film, and people think it's intentional though in actual fact, it's a mistake that occurred. I wasn't expecting so much grain, but I think I like it [laughter].

I suppose that the basic polarity in the film is the father, who's identified with the trapping of animals - there's even a moment where he bangs his fist down on a trap, so you've got that identification - and then you very successfully identify Kid with the world of the animals...

You're asking about what approach to the wilderness that each character has? That was something I became aware of after I made the film. I realised that one of the keystones in creating these characters was very much about their approach to the wilderness and nature, and perhaps the wild side of human nature. Given that I see that we are part animal. We're human but there's also a very untamed animal side to us which I think that through conditioning and society and just the way things are structured in life that we learn to tame and we learn to fit in with each other. I use "the animal" in an allegorical sense. It wasn't necessarily referring to possums, or rabbits... It was more "the animal" as the wild, unspoken part.

The father is very much a trapper by profession, but at the same time, he's trapped. And I kind of like that contradiction. He's sort of a pioneering New Zealander in some respect, and they were very much about taming the wilderness and gaining control over the land and keeping the family together. And Kid was very much at the opposite end of this spectrum. She was the untamed spirit. She related more to the animal world than the human world. Missy was somewhat repulsed - both intrigued and also a little disgusted by Kid, and is somebody who likes going through jewelry boxes, who likes refined things. There's a shot of her playing with the pearls. So I guess she's somewhere on the other side of the triangle.

Shot 84 Missy going through her mother's jewelry box.

Shot 72 Little Man pets a possum skin, then puts his fingers through the eye-holes and continues petting it.

And then Little Man is right in the middle of the family structure. He can see why his father needs to trap but at the same time he's very much intrigued by Kid - this child who represents something completely different. Possibly the shot where I tried to achieve that was where he was sitting on a tree and he was patting the skin and he puts his fingers through the two eye-holes and sort of makes these two little eyes. And the next shot we cut to is the father tanning the skins. It's strange because I suppose that over and above that, there is a theme of death which comes through that and the idea of the skin being a dead possum, and yet the boy is still seeing life in that skin. That was something that I noticed in watching the film, I didn't actually intend that. It was kind of foreshadowing the end at some level where his sister is gone but at the same time he has kept open the possibility of her being alive and being out there and free to run and become who she wants to be. And ultimately the possum that visits on the tree. So there was that very mild link between those two shots.

One of the things that I especially like in your film is the interplay of sound and image. You do an enormous amount of work on the sound track.

Not personally. What I did was I gave it to a sound designer, Chris Burt. He's one of the better sound designers in New Zealand who's done a lot of work on short films. I'd seen short films which he'd sound designed, like Kitchen Sink.

I gave him a brief in which I summed up in about fifty words what I expected from the sound. He put his own slant on it, and I actually didn't hear the final thing until we were mixing. He said: "Look, you can leave it with me." I went through the script and said to him: "These are some of the details that I would like in there if you can do that. But the overall feeling I'll leave to you." And then I came and we did a pre-mix.

One thing of interest in the sound was his interpretation of Kid, because I didn't actually anticipate in the beginning that he was going to use real animal noises. When I first saw it I must admit that I was a little bit reticent. I remember thinking: Maybe that's going a little bit too far. I always envisaged that it was going to be her actual noises. And then I was going to mix in a little bit of wild noise. But he actually used pure animal noises, which was sort of interesting. It gave it a completely different interpretation and took it to a different place.

I remember talking to the producer about it and saying to him: Are we going too far? And he said: No, I actually quite like it. So I decided to be bold and go with it. It's always good in shorts to be bold. If there's any place in which you can actually be bold, it's in a short film. It's better to try it and risk failing than being too safe and too precious.

There are two specific sounds I wanted to ask about. One is Missy's running her finger around the rim of the glass. Where does that come from?

Shot 12

The back story, the story you don't see, is a story about the death of the mother. How she died is irrelevant. It's just the fact that she's gone. Missy's character for me was very much a mischievous adolescent. Somebody who was discovering her sexuality and who to some extent was ruling the family. She had stepped into the mother's shoes. And when the father is mourning, when he sets a plate out for the mother, Missy's running her finger around the glass is a kind of mischievous playing with the idea that there's a ghost.

So when Little Man shakes his head no, it's because he doesn't want her to be making fun of the father's symbolic gesture?

Yeah. It isn't a deliberate act against the mother. There's a cruel aspect to children, and they sometimes do things they don't necessarily even approve of themselves.

I also wanted to ask about the sounds Kid makes when she is bathed.

Well, I know she screams. And then suddenly she grabs Little Man's hand. And this is one thing that this autistic kid used to do. She'd grab my hand and look through the gaps. Autistic children are always fascinated by gaps...

Shot 32

Shot 34

I think at that point, what I wanted to do was to bring in a new layer of the film, which was really taking it out of the ordinary and placing it more in the extraordinary. I love myth and I love the idea of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary... This was really very much the first turning point of the film: going into Kid's world, which being a short film happens very quickly. You're very quickly led into a different space. I think what I said to the sound designer is that this is where it begins to turn. And how he achieved that was very much up to him. I think he brings in a bit of wind and a bit of music and these more elemental noises begin to come into the film.

Another thing I like is that the pacing of the film is such that the viewer has a chance to sit back and register things. The viewer isn't always rushing to keep up. There are...

Reflective moments.

Yes. And one of them is when the bite on Missy's leg is being treated and she and Little Man exchange glances.

I call those "reflective moments" - moments where you can register some of the subtext, which comes through in the silences. That's something that a lot of filmmakers try to achieve. When I decided to make the film, I knew I wanted something that had a lot of space in it. I was thinking not so much of figurative space, but of cinematic space and space in terms of text. I wanted moments where not much was happening, but yet something very small was happening, and it was probably that very small thing that would ultimately affect the overall flavor of the film.

So even though it's a reflective moment, there is a certain amount of details that are being passed out to the viewers. And what they're doing is that they are registering it very much at a gut level as opposed to an intellectual level. I think that's very important in a film: to appeal to an audience at a place where they don't understand it intellectually, and you can achieve that best in those moments where you are saying something to them and they aren't quite sure what they are being told. I know what I'm saying but they don't necessarily know the ins and outs because you're not telling them everything.

And I think with that moment you mentioned, I'm really putting out the possibility that even though Missy is the antagonist in the situation, she'll get her own way. She very much is the one who rules the roost and has the sympathies and the affection of their father. So even though she is the one to blame, she is the one who will win out. And that's sort of true to life in a lot of places. Often the people who provoke trouble are the ones who manage to get out of it at the last moment and let other people becomes victims of that.

So it was setting up this unspoken language between the two characters, saying: Yes, I can do this. And yes, Kid is now in serious trouble. Even though I'm to blame, I'm the one with the power in this situation.

And there's also a possibility of creating a sort of ambiguity about her character, as to whether she is really a daughter or... I don't like to use the word incest, but she is in the father's bedroom, and he is washing her leg. So there are certain overtones that suggest that. Maybe it's not a sexual thing, but there is a tenderness between the two of them. And very much the way that Little Man has a tenderness with Kid, I think Missy has that with the father. But it's very much in the background, and we only see it through a gap in the door. And I kind of like that, because then the viewers are able to draw their own conclusions.

Shot 111

Shot 112

Shot 112 (cont.)

Shot 113

Which comes to the thing that as a director or storyteller, you should only give maybe 70% or 80% of your story. I think that you should leave at least 20% of your story untold. I like that personally. I like to be able to fill in some gaps and not be told everything.

So in those reflective moments, there are very small things happening - but they're open to interpretation. I guess that's the essential thing.

That moment where Kid is tied up... I mean, here the father again is doing his thing of trapping. Her wrists are tied and even the end of the bed looks like part of a cage with her hands sticking out through the bars. And Little Man frees her. This is clearly an important choice that he makes...

Yes, I know what you're getting at.

First off, the scene preceding the one you're talking about is for me, the second turning point. It's where the father throws the book on the fire. Some people might say that the death of Kid is the second turning point, but for me, the father throwing the book on the fire is very much the second turning point, because everyone is making decisions at that point. In that scene, we see "animal" written on the book. And the voice over of Little Man is, in a whisper: "Missy told Dad what happened. That night the Devil came into the house." And it was the idea of that parallel between the Devil and the animal in Kid that interested me.

Quite often we see the Christian image of the wilderness: as a place in which evil lurks and the animal within people must be crushed... It's quite a brutal thing that the father actually does. And I needed some image to allow the audience to go into that phase in which there is potential violence and there is cruelty occurring there. But I wanted the audience to at least understand why the father was doing that. And I think in tying up Kid and Little Man letting her go, what we are actually left with in the final scene at the dinner table is: who is to blame here? Is anyone to blame? Is it just something that happened through fate? Is this the way the world exists - where the people inevitably become victims? Little Man let her go. The father tied her to the cot. And yet Missy was the one who told the father in the first place. Even though it's a very simple matrix...

I guess I see the world that way. I do see the world as being potentially cruel. Nature is able to provide gifts for us, but at the same time it's very cruel. There's a contradiction. And I think that exists within people. Quite often they do things that they're not really happy with. And why they do that is actually a mystery to themselves. Why racism exists. Kid could be a street kid, or disabled, or an elderly person. She could be anything. I guess this is going very much into the subtext of the film but I think there is something that we don't control, that life can be very cruel to people who don't pose any threat, who aren't doing anything wrong and have a right to be here. But we tend to fear things that we don't understand. And yet, I don't know if that is essentially an unconscious or a conscious thing. I like to think that people are able to sympathize with people less fortunate than themselves or people that they don't necessarily understand. To me, the world would be a fantastic place if we did understand... I don't like to use the word misfits, or minorities.

Shot 172

And I think that last scene at the table for me was a really important scene and why I chose to go up high. Because there was a certain amount of loneliness and I guess it wasn't really guilt, it was almost like: My God, what's happened? This child has died. Who is to blame? Are any of us to blame or is this just the way that life works, is this fate? And I think there are circumstances where you can't really blame anyone. And I don't like to see Missy, the father or Little Man as responsible. I see it as being the overall circumstance, as almost an inevitability. This is very bleak, but I actually see that in life around me. I sometimes go past beggars lying in the street, and I think: these are people who possibly need a lot of help, but at the same time people are scared of them and they won't do anything. And to some extent, we can perpetuate things...

Kid to me represents the outsider, essentially. She is the proverbial outsider, and the family I guess, if we're talking very intellectually, is almost like society. And the relationship between the outsider and society is very central to my work. All the films that I've made seem to focus on the outsider and isolation. And also elements of sympathy between characters who have nothing in common. I'm very interested in exploring that. Yet again, I came up with a different construct to express that.

My last question is one that you've already answered, at least in part, when you said that you like to tell only about 75% or 80% of your story. Do you have any advice to give to student filmmakers?

Well, I have a quote that I always put in my diary for some reason, and it's by Robert Bresson. [Brad McGann removes a piece of paper from his diary and reads the quote.] "Make visible what without you might never be seen." I can't impose that idea on anyone else, because some people like to make films that are populist in nature and there's nothing wrong with that. Those films have an audience. But my personal belief, my own philosophy is very much to tell stories which without me might otherwise not be seen. That's just where I come from. And I would always recommend that people try that before resorting to doing...

It really comes back to what you want to say and how you want to say it. Like there are only seven stories, right? There's this old belief that there are only so many stories and it's not really about what story you're telling, it's how you are saying it. And I think the subtext of any story is very much you're own subtext. The story doesn't really belong to you; it's the characters' story. But the subtext of the story is very much the filmmaker's story. So I would say: Know your subtext. Know what you are trying to express. And if you're unsure of it, it's really good just to think in terms of your own emotional space. Don't intellectualize it. Just register it at an emotional level. Because there's so much academia surrounding film. And I think it's very important to keep that spark of life within it, where you go with gut instinct. If lecturers, and friends, and script editors, and producers, and camera operators and all these people can have their own interpretation of your work, I think if you can understand the subtext, that personal space that exists within you as a filmmaker, then you're in a very good state to realize the project. And the actual story and the dialogue and the way it's shot, all that can be altered. But if you know what your story's about, and the internal space of your film, which is never seen it's only sensed, then it'll be great.

Clermont-Ferrand, 25 January 1998

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