Australian filmmaker Jeffory Asselin now has an extensive list of achievements to his name. The part-time filmmaker and Murdoch University media production manager has fuelled his career with several renowned short films including Three to One and Strike. His production expertise, extending from directing to screenwriting, producing and editing, makes him one of the industry’s most resourceful and cunning individuals.
In November 2012, the opportunity for a locally driven feature project came to fruition, and Asselin brought the industry and Murdoch’s brightest minds together for his first feature film, PINCH. The idea for the coming-of-age crime-drama came from his own unenviable life experiences. Growing up in a regional state-housing project, his imagination gave him enough inspiration to pursue his passion.
This Year’s WA Screen Awards placed a swath of high and low profile artistic endeavours in the spotlight. In the Best Feature – Drama category, PINCH took on Kill Me Three Times, Paper Planes and The Reckoning, and in a historic, upset victory, Asselin’s production snatched the top prize. Placing local, salt-of-the-Earth cinema back on the map, the micro-wonder is set to trample through WA’s film festival circuit later this year. Hot off the presses from its world premiere at CinefestOz, the independent film will be coming to Perth at an event held on September 7 at Luna Cinemas, Leederville. Chatting with me on a Saturday morning, Asselin was eager to share his love and enthusiasm for cinema, his career and home state.
PINCH won the WA Screen Award for Best Feature – Drama this year, how has the win influenced your idea of success in the industry?
I regard myself as an artist, and I never really went into filmmaking with stars in my eyes; I never really bought into the celebrity side of things. For me, success would be having my next project financed because of the competency of this project. That’s why we made the film because we all said right from the beginning – look, we can’t compete with the big boys. What we can do is make the best fricken film we can make, and prove to funding bodies and investors that next time we can make an even more cracking film if you give us a chance. Until that happens, it’s nice to be acknowledged and respected among your colleagues as a decent filmmaker. For us, it was really about proving ourselves as filmmakers, more so than going in with any view of winning prizes.
You beat major productions like Kill Me Three Times and Paper Planes; do you think the industry will gravitate towards story and character rather than scale?
The irony here is that we have a real crowd pleaser on our hands, but we’re struggling to get distributors on board who understand that. It’s a funny, fickle business, let’s put it that way. We’ve toppled three huge, flagship projects that have all got distribution – some are doing well, some aren’t, and here we are struggling to get someone to take it on in Australia.
You have to question the distributor’s mould. They were all screaming murder last year because all of these films failed, including Son of a Gun, I mean – look at the people they had on that! Son of a Gun was lucky to pull $100,000.00 at the box office. I’m just looking at it from a logical point of view that perhaps that mould isn’t working. We’re always being told you need an A-lister attached to sell your film, but I disagree with that. I actually think if you make a bloody good film, and you know who your audience is, I think you can make a film just as good, and make a profit out of it. We know from history that a lot of critically acclaimed films that come out of nowhere haven’t always had big actors in them. Or the other strategy is that you pull an actor out of retirement, dust him off, and put him back in the game.
I’d like to see Australia make more of these lower budget films, and not have to rely on the government funding, and create more of a business model, not a charity system. The Australian film industry at the moment is under pressure to go and compete with Hollywood, but we just can’t do it, and we have to be honest with ourselves; we just can’t do it with our budget.
The WA film industry has gone through several major changes, how do you see it developing over the next few years?
I think we’re going to see more of these low budget films because of the way technology is at the moment. I imagine there are going to be more films targeting video on demand, as opposed to theatrical release, and I think there’s more money in that.
You worked to bring Western Australia’s film industry and Murdoch University together with PINCH, how did they collaborate throughout the production?
Most of my other director colleagues work freelance, and do ads to make their bread and butter. I made a decision a long time ago that I didn’t like the ad industry; it wasn’t really my thing. I wanted to be within the educational realm, so I got a job early in the piece working in a studio with a university, and I still make educational media products. I actually come from a very strong multimedia background as well, so I was fortunate that I got the job there, and then I eventually took over the studio and built it up, and chipped away at my short films on the side. Murdoch has always supported me in doing that because when you work for a university most of the staff are generally doing PhDs or some form of staff development. It worked out for me because I would utilise the resources there, and then if we picked up a couple of wins it would put some attention on the university, so it was kind of a nice little marriage. Especially with the PINCH project, it’s really put a lot of positive energy into our university, and I don’t think you can pay for that sort of publicity.
You filmed around Perth and regional WA, how did these locations accentuate the film’s tone and atmosphere?
One of the tips I always give to students is – don’t slouch on your location. I treat my locations like another character in the story. People tend to take the easy route when it comes to locations, and go, “hey – let’s just shoot there because it’s convenient”. I’m always looking for visually aesthetic backdrops, and I treat it like a paint palette.
Some of the places where we shot, you can’t go there by car. We went hiking up there because I would see these hills and think – hang on, I know you can’t get up there by car, but I bet there’s a nice shot up there. It’s little things like that, looking for places around Perth that people haven’t shot. All the big budget movies play the same tune – they go up to Broome, or they go down to Margaret River, but I find your dingier areas are more interesting that your clichéd, tourist attractions.
Lead actors Craig Hyde Smith and Alla Hand stand out immediately, how did their dynamic develop on and off screen?
I’ve worked with Craig before, and because I had no money, I had to try and find the best option. I always had Craig in mind, and I knew that he was capable of pulling off a feature, and I knew that his parents would allow me to take him for 7 weeks and take time off school because he was 16 at the time. For his age and his experience, he was just a treat to work with.
We ended up auditioning probably 50 girls for the other lead, and then I met Alla by pure accident. I was auditioning the Rhonda character at the studio, and I went out to grab my next talent, and screen test them when I saw her sitting in line with all of the older actors. She was obviously in the wrong line and I said to her, “you must be auditioning for another film because I’m casting for older characters here,” and she said, “yeah, I’m here for a student film”. So I walked her down to where she had to go, and I looked at her and thought – oh my god, she looks like my girl. Anyway, I told her I was screen testing for this role, and it turned out that she really captured me through the camera, and straight away I was like, “yep, she’s the one”. She hadn’t done a lot as well, and I kind of took a risk on everyone on the film because they all didn’t have a great deal of experience. I guess it’s one of those things; it’s a director’s intuition. I just had a hunch that these guys could do it.
I have to say it was one of those projects where I felt like with all the momentum I had behind me that it was meant to happen. Some projects you do – you’re just hitting walls constantly, and although we had our fair share of challenges with the project, I had this feeling… that we were doing this film for a reason, which you don’t often get.
All media courtesy of PINCH & Jeffory Asselin