Filmmaking is a tough nut to crack here in WA, but with the right team, some funding behind you, and, of course, a promising idea, you might just have a film festival hit on your hands. Writer-director Kaleb McKenna knows this; his satirical short comedy Setting Them Straight is currently doing the rounds internationally. With a popular webseries (Four Quarters) and the upcoming feature film OtherLife under his belt, Kaleb is hard at work setting his next projects in motion and securing further festival fanfare – everything is a learning experience, as he’ll tell you.
I sat down with Kaleb to discuss how he established himself as a writer-director, his process and experience of the short film and its festival run, and his advice to local up-and-coming filmmakers.
CH: To start with, could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and what made you get into the filmmaking scene?
KM: I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, so getting into filmmaking was a kind of natural movement from that. I did a Bachelor of Commerce at UWA, which was good because I met a lot of people and I did University Drama and Theatre Productions. I started being in shows and I directed a show, and from that I decided to go to Curtin and did my post-grad in Screen Production. I made some university films that had some success, and that led to getting Setting Them Straight funded straight of uni.
CH: You made your debut in 2013 with two short films – Dinner Date and He Was a Good Boy – how did you make that leap to the point of being able to write and direct your own projects?
KM: It’s all just university – to tell you the truth. The best thing about university is that you get to choose what you get to do; they kind of give you… enough rope to hang yourself. In Drama Production – the class that we were doing – five people wrote scripts, four films got made; my script for Dinner Date was chosen to be made. From there, if you wrote it then you got to choose who you wanted to direct it, so I directed it. I was lucky enough to have some great people to work with on that and it was successful – Dinner Date won the National Campus and WA Film Festivals in 2013.
CH: And how was that whole first-time filmmaking experience?
KM: Daunting. It was really daunting. It took a lot out of us, but we unknowingly at the time did a couple of things that really helped us a lot. We all put in extra money of our own to make sure that we were feeding everyone properly, that we could spend enough on production design, and that we had multiple venue options. The one thing we really made sure to do was to get people who were really good actors. It wasn’t a friend of a friend acting, it was people who were well trained in the craft – and I’ve done that from then on.
CH: Since then has there been a general approach or process you tend to take in making a short film now? Do you feel your skills are honed or improved with each film?
KM: Yeah, absolutely. My skills, definitely, and my organisation; all together my knowledge of what goes into a film is always expanding. I was lucky enough to be the director’s attachment on a feature film called OtherLife, which was shot in WA; doing a project that scale, the organisation kicks up a level. That’s due out later this year, but I can’t say too much until it’s confirmed; features are always changing their release schedule.
CH: Your big hit at the moment is obviously Setting Them Straight. How did that idea come to fruition? Was there a personal aspect, and what creative steps did you take in realising your vision?
KM: It was just a funny idea I came up with, I don’t really know how it happened. I just thought it was a funny premise – that a guy would come out of the closet as straight, and from there, Brett Dowson – who produced, co-wrote and is in it – we got together and we wrote it late 2012, just after we shot Dinner Date. It was one of those things we were going to film with friends but that fell through, so it ended up being this script we both loved that we were searching for an avenue to make. Luckily in February 2014 OOMPF! came along with their one-off filmmaking fund for FTI members, and they really liked the script so they put it up. The only real change it underwent since its conception to shooting in October 2015 was the move away from a funny idea, to instead drill into the reality of why it was funny. The film is showing how ridiculous it is that these parents wouldn’t accept their son because of his sexuality, when in essence it has everything to do with who they are and nothing to do with who he is. We took a lot of care with the film’s message and its importance because we want to give those communities a voice, but we don’t want to be their voice
CH: How are you tackling the whole experience of worldwide premieres and festival touring? What advice would you give to up and coming filmmakers now having been through that?
KM: Save a lot more money so you can actually go to the festivals, and look into travel grants and travel funding a little more. The film cost roughly $7,000 to make; the budget was $5,000 and we crowd funded $2,000, and then spent an extra $1,600 on marketing for its festival run. I would say to anyone doing that run make sure you’re in a financial situation where you’re able to attend as many festivals that will play your film as possible. We’ve had a lot of great experiences at festivals but we would love to have gone to the Raindance Film Festival, who gave us our world premiere in Palm Springs. Both Brett and I were on feature films at the time so we couldn’t go, but that’s one thing I’d hammer in – definitely try to get to the festivals that are lovely enough to show your film.
CH: Who are some of your biggest influences and how do they shape your projects, and what is the next stage for you?
KM: John Hughes and Richard Curtis are my two big ones – Hughes being able to tell such a big story with elevated stakes in small environments and situations. Planes, Trains and Automobiles has so much happening for a guy on a cross country trip and The Breakfast Club in the microcosm of a school – he can tell these larger than life stories in such condensed ways. And I love Curtis’ ability to make these honest romantic comedies, the way he explains love and a broken heart I’ve always taken on board – he’s sincere, but never cringe worthy. Oh, and Edgar Wright, I want to be able to write really fast paced comedy like he does.
Feature films are obviously the long-term goal, but there’s so much going on with television and online stuff now – being able to have a continuing or long-form format is really fun as a writer. We’re not as isolated as everyone thinks here in WA, we’re a community and we’ve got each other’s skills to utilise – there’s a whole group of young, really good filmmakers coming out of Perth at the moment. Get together; that’s how you make better stuff. It’s fun.