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Dead Europe: notes from a QA with the director and producers

dead europe film 300x168 Dead Europe: notes from a Q&A with the director and producers


Last night I popped along to an advance screening of'Dead Europe, the film adaptation of Australian author Christos Tsiolkass book of the same name. The session included a Q&A with director Tony Krawitz, producers Liz Watts and Emile Sherman and cinematographer Germaine McMicking, and since I had pen and paper handy, I thought Id take some notes. (NB said notes were scrawled by hand and in the dark, so apologies in advance for anything that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.)

On the whys of adapting the book

Film reviewer Peter Krausz, who led the discussion, began by asking what led Krawitz to take on the adaptation, to which Krawitz said that hed been gripped by the book, reading through it in an almost feverish state. The book had haunted him, and he wanted to share it, this unadaptable book with others. In choosing his films, he notes that hes drawn to films as though hes an audience member.

Emile Sherman added that hed also been taken by the way that the book tackled big questions and big subjectsparticularly for an Australian writer. Its a book that looks at historys forgotten people, the dead to which the books title refers. He knew that the book had the potential to be thought-provoking and cinematic, but since it was a huge volume, knew that some sort of through-line had to be found in order to make it suitable as an adaptation.'McMicking added that the novel had a nonlinear, modern style that allowed readers to fill in the gaps, and to him felt very much like a film from the very beginning.

An outsiders view of Europe

Krawitz added that it was a film that had the potential to be uniquely Australian: it offered an outsiders view of Europe. There was no point in being half-hearted in the adaptation, he said, adding that they were dogged by a fear of the mid-zone. Liz Watts agreed, saying that the film was an ambitious project, one of sprawling ideas. It was a film that was Australian, yet reached across national borders.

Antisemitism is an ongoing theme throughout the book, and Krawitz said that he approached the film with sensitivity, but was also trying not to let the fear of how the film might be perceived take over. He emphasised that it was a film'about antisemitism on a number of levels: both around the boy Elias who forms an important part of the plot, but also on a broader scale. Theres a huge amount of scapegoating in the film, with people blaming others for their problems.

Objective and subject cinematography

In developing the film, they were drawn to humanism, and spoke a lot about traditional Greek tragedy, opera, Shakespeare and so on. They were dealing with a rational character placed under tremendous pressure, and who is placed under circumstances in which his latent superstition and prejudice bubbles up until its difficult to tell what is and isnt real. Watts described the film as being a case of you are what you believe.

Cinematographer McMicking was asked about how this was achieved using film techniques, and noted that the approach used in the film changed as main character Isaac becomes increasingly lost in the past and in Europes ghosts. The film begins with a very subject point of view, one that feels almost documentary-likemuch of Europe, for example, is initially seen through Isaacs own camera lens. But as Isaac becomes increasingly disturbed, the film begins to feel more objective, zooming out so that we can see Isaac without the mediation of his own lens. However, they wanted to be able to achieve this effect without resorting to using horror film techniques: they were striving instead for a hall of mirrors effect. Krawitz agreed, noting that they also drew inspiration from war photographers in the sense that the film has a stolen images feel about it where the cameras melt away.

The sound design, by Sam Petty, was also designed to be naturalistic while reflecting Isaacs changing perceptions, disillusionment, and growing irrationality. They emphasised real sounds such as unfamiliar languages and train station noises and steered away from horror film techniques and sounds with too much melody, as these felt too obvious.

Avoiding horror tropes

In addition to avoiding horror techniques in sound and cinematography, the narrative itself also underwent changes to prevent it from crossing over into the horror genre. The themes of vampiricism that are in the book were removed in order to maintain a sense of rationality: the film had to work as something that might be real, or that might be occurring in Isaacs head, and this wouldnt have been possible if the blood-drinking elements had been included. The real horror that they wanted to include was the horror of the forgotten people of Europe.

On an unfamiliar Europe

All agreed that'Dead Europe was to be a sort of anti-Contiki tour of Europe, with an emphasis on disorienting wide angle shots and a focus on areas and elements not usually seen on film. McMicking added that they pushed to find things in which photographer Isaac, given his fairly worldly, cultured personality, might be interested, so that they could show a side of Europe not seen before: a Europe of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Watts added that this involved a huge amount of liaison with local facilitation crews and NGOs, and that the film feels very real and current because of the fact that the team wasnt afraid to work on difficult or challenging areas.

On casting

Sherman added that Isaac, although fairly sophisticated by Australian standardsis positioned as an innocent when he arrives in Europe. Actor Ewan Leslie has a sophisticated, intelligent presence of his own, and this was integral in helping to create an Isaac who seemed as though he might be capable of handling anything. The approach offered something more interesting than the stereotypical fish-out-of-water approach of placing a stereotypical hapless Aussie in Europe. Krawitz added that Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Elias in the film, also has an extraordinary sense of craft.

Reception and issues

Watts noted that they were nervous about how the film would be received given that it tackles some difficult issues, but that generally the response has been very good, particularly in places such as Canada, where the film was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, in that viewers could identify with the old world meets new world theme. When a viewer asked about whether homosexuality was being portrayed in a negative light given a gay paedophilia plot point towards the end of the book, Krawitz pointed out that this was needed for plot reasons in order to allow Isaac and Elias to meet again: if this had not been the case, Elias would have been a girl. The film, he adds, is progressive and modern in its approach to homosexuality, with Isaacs sexuality just being a part of who he is rather than having to be problematised or made an issue.

Other concerns included reactions to the antisemitism in the film, but Sherman noted that at its heart the film is about the abuse of innocence, and he hopes that its something that will push people to discuss it, even if it is likely to be too much for some. He added that it addresses a very different sort of antisemitism to that often seen in other texts: a deep-rooted, almost pagan form of it. It was a difficult task to explore these issues without crossing the line between making a film that was'about antisemitism rather than a film that was antisemitic.

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