Alexandra's Project

For some years I'd been thinking of different ways to make low budget films. In particular I was interested in making a small, hand-crafted film, extremely low budget (though it had to be shot on 35mm film) and with a tiny crew but a relaxed shoot.

I didn't go close to achieving my aim with this until the film following this one, ("Dr Plonk"), but it was very much in this mode of thinking that "Alexandra's Project" was formed, some years before it was made.

My starting point was really the notion that the smaller the budget of the film, the higher proportion of it has to be dedicated to film stock and processing. If you could somehow reduce your shooting ratio (the amount of film stock used compared to the length of the final film) to the barest minimum, then one could think about a very, very low budget film.

But I already shot with relatively low ratios (6:1 sort of standard, 8:1 a luxury, 5:1 about the lowest I'd tried) and it was hard to think of how to get them much lower...unless, of course, for some reason you were shooting a television set, and the drama was unfolding on the TV set itself. Then you could shoot the material that was playing on the TV set with a digital camera, you could edit it digitally, play it back on the TV screen and shoot it then. All your working out of stuff, your mistakes, the fluffed takes, the going again for focus, all that would already be done and gone, and theoretically, you could shoot the television set material at a ratio of about 1.05:1.

This started a line of thinking about script. What's playing on this television set? And for some reason, I thought of a woman talking to a video camera. I don't know why I had this thought, but I did, and it seemed to me to be a good, cinematic image, full of possibility.

Then more questions came. Who is she? What's she doing in front of this video camera? Is she rehearsing something? At this stage I didn't yet know what sort of film this might be. I thought for a little while that she might be a stand-up comedienne practising a routine, and that it would be a comedy, but no real drama came to mind (and not much comedy either).

I asked myself, is she happy or is she unhappy? I preferred the notion of her being unhappy as having much more dramatic possibility and so she became an unhappy woman talking to the camera.

I became distracted by other projects and the unhappy woman just sat at the back of my brain for a year or three. She surfaced again during the making of "The Tracker". I knew I should find another project to get on with, and not just wait, as per usual, until it was almost too late and I had to pull one out of the hat somehow. And it seemed appropriate to try the very low budget unhappy woman.

I began to dabble with the new project while editing the current one, writing up the occasional card, finding a space on the wall to begin building the script. It began to form itself into something very closely resembling what I'd been after...a man, alone in a room, watching a television set which had on it a tape of his unhappy wife. Perfect micro-budget material!

I began to think about what might hold an audience...not only the audience for the film I was making, but also the audience of one, the man watching his wife on the television set. What keeps him watching? It was about at this point that the idea of her doing the strip-tease occurred.

I also began to think of Gary Sweet as the man. I'd worked with Gary on "The Tracker" and I'd very much enjoyed doing so. I thought he was a much better and more interesting actor than his television roles had allowed him to show, and there was something interesting also about the personal baggage he carried with him.

The more I thought about Gary, the more he began to invade the script and influence it, pushing it into new and interesting directions. Having a character to visualise freed up my imagination, and as the work became darker than I'd expected, I rang Gary and spoke to him about it, effectively asking his permission to write it for him, and warning him that it was going into some pretty dark areas. He was, of course, intrigued, but patient enough to allow the how when what and if to come in their own good time.

I thought I was well on the way with it when I struck a slight snag. In trying to broaden out the idea of the strip-tease, which was to happen very early in the script, I realised I had no real idea of what I was trying to write about. I rang up friend Chris and suggested we go to the Crazy Horse together (about the only strip-joint in Adelaide).

An hour into the session at the Crazy Horse and I was sinking into a sort of depression. I watched a succession of girls stripping...some carefree, some earnest, some neutral, almost blank. None of it meant anything. I knew nothing about them, about who they were, why they were there, what they were like. There was no way for a strip tease to work in the film in the way intended unless we knew something of the character beforehand. And to know something of her beforehand meant opening up the script to a whole lot of 'before' material, which meant in turn that the extremely low budget approach, a room and a man and a TV set and a tape on the TV, was conceptually not going to work.

Work on the project stopped. The cards still hung there for a few weeks, then I took them down. I knew what had to be done but I didn't feel like doing it, and felt happy enough concentrating on completing "The Tracker".

As Christmas approached I realised there was an effective three-week break for me. Most everyone I knew was going to be away, interstate or down the coast or wherever. I had no plans whatsoever, and, unusually, was faced with a substantial block of free time. I planned therefore to give the new script another go.

I started on December 22, at 4 am. I worked each day until 8 in the evening, at which point I would cook myself a simple pasta meal, eat it and go to bed, ready to be behind the desk again by 4 the following morning.

There was one day of interruption...Domenico (Procacci, Italian producer and very good friend) visited Adelaide on December 26th, and together we went to (sound man and also good friend) James Currie's place in the country for a relaxing day of barbecue and French wine.

Driving back to Adelaide that night, Domenico quizzed me about the project I was writing. I began to tell him the story, which on the cards was still all over the place, but which now in the telling came together into something quite gripping. Domenico was somehow hooked, but dubious that I should be thinking about doing it any time soon. "You must slow down, Rolf. Have a break. Why do you want to do this now, so soon after the last one?" I told him that it was because of its nature, that its time for me was now. If I were to fall in love, for example, there was no way I could write that script, and it seemed very unlikely that having written it, I would want to make it.

By the time we got home, Domenico had thought about it. Unexpectedly he said, "Okay, we'll do it", and for the next two hours we worked out the details, how long the shoot (seven weeks), that we would shoot in a studio (a studio set would be much more flexible but a fair bit more expensive than an actual house), what the budget should be, where we would go to find funding. But Domenico, that evening, guaranteed the whole budget, and next morning I was back at the desk, writing whilst knowing the film was financed. None of it was speculative any more.

I sank deeply into the two characters, both of whom had frailties, but both of whom had a position that I could understand, that I could sympathise with. I worked day after day in that secluded and very quiet town house I was renting, the curtains drawn to make it into a perpetual night, so deeply immersed that I didn't notice that the geography of Steve and Alexandra's house (that's who they became during this time) mirrored the geography of the house I was in. I cooked dinner for myself as Alexandra. I woke up as Steve.

At one point, a number of days in, I ran out of milk for coffee...I had by this time not spoken to another human being for close to six days (apart from the conversations I'd had with both Steve and Alexandra), nor had I been outside. The simple act of wandering down the road was almost frightening, and I was barely coherent enough to make the transaction.

Back inside the townhouse, I was safe with my characters once more, and for more days I lived their world, their problems, their antagonisms. There's a part of me in both of them, but neither is remotely like me. And at the end of the three weeks, as scheduled, I emerged with a script that I was happy to shoot.

Then followed a sort of crazy mixed-up time of two in pre-production, the other heading towards its premiere. "The Tracker" premiere at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, accompanied as it was with its music score played live in synch with the rest of the sound track was a highly complex affair to stage, and would have played havoc with pre-production for "Alexandra's Project" had not the latter been so relatively straightforward. Its cast was small, the locations very few, the crew also quite small, and most of them I'd worked with before, and knew what to do.

The main issue was the casting of Alexandra opposite Gary Sweet as Steve. The first three actresses I offered the role to either declined it or were otherwise engaged (perhaps both, considering the nature of the role). Sydney casting director Faith Martin was engaged and I flew to Sydney and spoke at some length to three actresses, and then to Melbourne where I spoke with another three.

In some ways I wanted to give the role to all of them, for their courage, but there was something about Helen Buday that stuck with me. I'd worked with her before, many years previously (on "Dingo") and knew her to be capable of a great performance. But there was also something haunting and haunted about her, something that I felt would permeate the character, allowing just a bit more sympathy for Alexandra (I've learnt over the years that audiences judge my characters much more harshly than I do, and in many cases, that proved true with "Alexandra's Project").

The schedule allowed a week of rehearsals, then two weeks of shooting the video component just with Helen (Bogdan Koca, playing the neighbour, had one day scheduled in the video sequence).

Gary, who had read the script a couple of months earlier but not since, and had been on a theatrical tour since then, decided he didn't want to rehearse. He'd largely forgotten the detail of the script but obviously understood the role, and he wanted to approach the viewing of the tape with as little preconception as possible, to see it as fresh as possible. Rehearsal would only flatten the freshness he now had.

Helen, on the other hand needed the rehearsal time to talk through things in detail, to fully and completely understand the character and why and how she is capable of making such a decision and carry it out so fully and ruthlessly. Every day of that rehearsal week Helen and talked, for up to twelve hours a day.

Then the first week of shoot was upon us. Into the set went Helen, I and James Currie, the sound recordist. Ian Jones had pre-lit the part of the set we were using, but he was not required to shoot the video the character Alexandra was, Helen was her own camera operator, switching the camera on and off, making sure she was sitting squarely centre of frame, and so on.

But Helen was far from talked out, and was nowhere near ready to start filming. Everyday during that first week the three of us would walk into the studio and lock the door. James would go to his dark little corner offset, put the headphones on and listen. Helen and I would talk, dissecting and discussing, analysing, debating and even arguing at times. And every lunchtime, and every evening, the three of us would emerge, saying that everything was going fine to the questions of "how's the shooting going?". No one but the three of us knew that we hadn't shot anything at all yet.

As our time available to shoot this material shrunk, I trusted, had to trust, that it would be all right, that it was actually improving things, because the talk seemed so on the money.

And on the money it was. The start of actual filming could no longer be delayed because Bogdan was flying in from Sydney on the first day of the second week, and was not available any other day that week. We started, Helen started really, and was astonishing. In that one week, we shot what had been scheduled for the two weeks. When it was all edited together it was a powerful, surprising, deeply engaging but shocking performance.

Later in the shoot, it was Gary's turn, a complete contrast in approach, but leading to the same deliver an authentic and true performance.

In talking with Gary about how to shoot him sitting in a chair watching the tape, we'd decided to go for broke along the lines he'd previously indicated. He'd said he didn't want to know too much about what was on the tape at the time of filming, which is somewhat problematic because rehearsals on set just prior to a shot are not just about the actors, they are as much for the crew (particularly the camera operator, the focus puller, the boom operator and the sound recordist need to have as much knowledge as possible about what's going to happen in the shot, the level it will be played at, what the likely movements are going to be and so on).

But we said we'd give it a go, to work out everything to do with the shot without Gary, then to get him on set and shoot straightaway, the very first time he'd ever see the tape.

The tape was almost an hour long. We broke it down into logical sections, the longest of which was fully nine minutes in duration (a film magazine can take 1,000 feet of film, so you end up with a maximum shooting length of just under eleven minutes, so one take per roll of film).

We would then lay a track, to be able to track into or out of Steve, and we'd work out when we'd be tracking and when we'd be still. It was very useful that the tape meant a shot of identical duration each time, so we could rehearse the track until the timing was perfect. Allowance was then made for any movements that might come from Steve, for example sitting forward or sitting back at various times, and different scenarios of this were then rehearsed.

Finally, when we'd made a quite complex shot as foolproof as possible, often taking five or six hours to do so, we'd ask Gary to take his seat. We'd ready, tense up, roll the camera and sound, and put the clapperboard on. We'd then roll the next section of the tape and wait to see what happened.

It was an extraordinary way to film. For over 80% of the material of Steve watching the television set, we captured Gary's performance successfully on the first take, the first time he'd seen that part of the tape. Gary was so into being Steve and seeing what was happening with his wife on the tape that there was a point at which I thought he was going to crack, that he was going to actually vomit. As he came off set after that take, Gary could only shake his head and say, "I almost threw up then..."

It was intensely draining for Gary, saved only by the fact that we were barely doing two shots a day and he could relax off set in between. We shot for almost two weeks like that, then turned the camera around and shot what Steve was looking at for another week (at something close to the promised ratio of 1.05:1).