As difficult as being a hitman can be, Steven Ray has never quite had a job like this. Hired by Percival to make good on a failed suicide attempt, Steven encounters a bizarre string of either incredibly unlikely coincidences or very direct karmic powers: Percival cannot die. No matter how many ways Steven tries, no matter the gruesome circumstances of the attempt, Percival soldiers on, worse for the wear, but a breathing example of Steven’s failure. Director Dru Brown’s THE SUICIDE THEORY, a darkly comic neo-noir brings together two unlikely friends in the singular goal of one of them killing the other one. The film took home the Dark Matters Audience Award at last year’s Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival, and receives an encore screening tonight at the Alamo Drafthouse.
I had a chance to sit down with Brown, the Brisbane, Australia based director, and discuss his film, one that was clearly one of the strongest in the festival last year (and one of only two in the Dark Matters section I considered truly ‘dark,’ the other being BLACK MOUNTAIN SIDE). Because of the nature of the story, our conversation quickly turned to the two phenomenal actors upon which the film hinges. “We extensively cast the role of Steven because he was on set almost every single day of the shoot,” says Brown; “I was looking for a particular look and a particular style of actor and just couldn’t find it locally.” Steve Mouzakis, the actor who plays Steve, was someone on their radar, but he is based in Melbourne. “He read the script and he dug it, and I said If you want it man, it’s yours,” the director says, “you just gotta come up to Brisbane, and shoot for four weeks on this crazy indie budget film, and just trust us.” Mouzakis is a perfect ‘hero’ for the story. He swims through the murk of the film like Decker in Blade Runner, unafraid to get his hands dirty, but still open to a real connection. His humanity is what makes Suicide Theory so compelling. Says Brown: “he gets on screen and he’s just this dark destroyed intense character.”
Leon Cain, who plays Percival, came on much later, because an earlier cast actor had to drop out. “He’s a natural opposite of Steven in sort of looks and persona,” Brown says; “we had already shot a few days with Steven at the time, so I could see that the way he was going to play the character would conflict with Leon, because he is so soft-spoken and almost childish. We got lucky I think.” He provides the perfect foil to Steven and a lot of the humor comes from their improbable friendship. “I didn’t realize how funny it was,” he says. “I think we did our job being really dark and gritty, and it’s almost a release valve for the audience. The audience laughs at those points because they’re invested, they find the irony with those characters.”
One of the things I found most interesting about the film, is that it is unlike most other Australian films I’ve seen. I was watching the film in a theater and listening to a few of the conversations around me – one couple said they didn’t think it looked like an Australian film because they didn’t recognize any of the landmarks. This always makes me laugh because lots of people forget that Australia is the size of the US and they only recognize Sydney or the Outback – which seems to be primarily for the shooting of post-apocalyptic wasteland films. “Yeah we get it, it’s fucking empty out there,” says Brown, who decided his film could easily be shot in his home city of Brisbane. “We tried to make a unique Australian film,” he says, “because people know Australia from film. Nine out of ten films look exactly the same – there are a lot of good Australian films coming out at the moment, we tried to come in under that, but also give you a different version of Australia.” In fact the original script was set in New York City; screenwriter Michael Joeseoph Kospiah lives in the US. “When I got a hold of it I said we can still shoot this in Brisbane,” the director says, “there’re a lot of dive bars and apartments, and sort of smoky dirty back alley streets. I wanted to make a film like that. We don’t really do too many films like that in Australia.” They even discussed using American accents and trying to hit a bigger market but in the end, Brown wanted to make a bit of a statement. “We love the fact that we’re Aussie,” he says, “we’re proud of Australian Cinema and we wanted to contribute to that. So we’re making an Australian film but people could potentially recognize the locations and the feel of it anywhere in the world. We never say in the film where it’s set, it’s just set in a city, really.”
Most Australian films seem to be obsessed with ‘being Australian’ or the ‘Australian Identity,’ things that don’t play too well outside of the country. According to Brown, they don’t play too well inside the country either. “We’re struggling at the moment back in Australia, Because Australians are not wanting to go to the cinema and watch Australian films,” he says; “There’s big blockbusters in this cinema, and this little Aussie drama in this other one, and they’re going to go to the big blockbuster because it’s the same ticket price. So we got to try to find a way around that.” That being said, the film does have a uniquely Australian feel to it. The people are cutthroat and sort of morally ambiguous. That’s a universal quality but it feels like also a particular Australian cinema quality. That’s just something they do really well. They don’t get bogged down in ‘why? why is he doing that?’ I feel like in America, especially in indie film, we have to be so like self-aware and winking at the audience the whole time. Brown said the look and tone were part of his original pitch to Steve Mouzakis, referencing Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir THIEF. “It’s going to look like that,” he told them, “and it’s going to be MIDNIGHT COWBOY, just two wacky characters going on this adventure.” He does not feel that Australia really makes many neo noir films: “we shoot a lot of suburban dramas and a lot of outback epics and stuff like that but no one’s really attempted that.”
In fact, the film that THE SUICIDE THEORY feels most like is MEMENTO (starring Australian Guy Pearce). It even has a whiplash sort of ending that makes you want to go back and rewatch the entire film again. I asked Brown about working under those circumstances, where you have to constantly be reminding the actors ‘this is what we know,’ ‘this is what we haven’t revealed yet,’ etc. “It’s tough, and as a director you’ve got to be on your game,” he admitted; “After every day Steve would come up to me, because we shot it out of sequence, and said ‘Is this making sense?’ Because he’s down this day and up the next, … And I’m like ‘Yeah absolutely’ And then I’m getting home and panicking going ‘Is it making sense?.’” To further complicate the process, the crew shot somewhat erratically, adhering to location availability, so they were shooting “crazy random scenes day after day… It’s really incredibly hard to keep those switches and those tonal beats in line.” Of course, the way the film reveals just a piece of the truth at a time, is what makes the film so brilliant, and part of what attracted Brown to the script origjnally. “It was just one big giant twilight zone episode to me,” he says. He told Kospiah that he loved the idea of a script in which you’re always revealing something new but you don’t really know at the time if it was just a random scene or not. “The first time I read the script,” he confesses, “I was like ‘that’s a bit weird, that’s a bit weird, that seems a bit unnecessary,’ ‘if that doesn’t come back then we might have to cut that out,’ and by the end of the film you are like ‘oh, that’s genius.’” While they were shooting, even if the schedule was all over the place, Brown felt confident he could keep all the story arcs rise and fall appropriately with the cameras rolling. “It’s tough,” he says, “but I had read that script thousands of times by the time we had it and were going to shoot it, so it was really in my head engrained.”
In one of those ‘feel good about toiling away in your writing career’ stories, the director discovered the script on a website called Simply Scripts. “A friend of mine posted something up there, and said ‘can you take a look?” he says, “and I sort of read it a little bit – it wasn’t for me – so I moved on and got a bit distracted and I found this script. And I just contacted Mark.” The film made its World Premiere in June at Dances With Film, my favorite festival in Los Angeles, where it actually ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize. Although Australia has been known for years on the festival circuit for their well-crafted shorts, it may be time finally for the feature filmmakers to start to stake their claim. “We’re a small market, mate,” Brown explains, “we don’t make a lot of feature films. We’ve got a small population; our film industry is still relatively young. The US churns out so many, but they’re providing for the rest of the world. We’re trying to provide for Australia, and for the overseas guys that really like Australian films. So it’s a small market, I really think it will start to grow with a little more international attention.”
THE SUICIDE THEORY plays tonight in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse Village at 7:00 pm.