Chris Elena Talks Refused Classification, Queer Stories on Screen, and Rejecting Film School in This Interview

As far as indie filmmakers go, Chris Elena’s philosophy melds past and present in both form and content. He shoots on Super 16 film for a certain look and texture, but his narratives are very much preoccupied with the particular nuances of queer expression here and now. His 2019 short film Audio Guide went a more Twilight Zone/X Files/Black Mirror (pick your era) direction as an exploration of mortality and faith, nabbing a Best Actress award for Emma Wright’s lead performance at the 2019 Sci Fi Film Festival in Sydney, and scooping both Best Screenplay and Audience Award at the 2020 St Kilda Film Festival in Melbourne. Chris makes another festival appearance at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival with his latest short film, Refused Classification, a scathing hilarious satire of film censorship rules around the expression of queer love.

Nisha-Anne caught up with Chris over Zoom to talk with much enthusiasm and profanity about his filmmaking craft, the weird tension of sex and religion, his experience at film school, and how his first feature script is coming along.

Refused Classification screens alongside Raw! Uncut! Video! at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival from July 7th through to 17th. Chris will also take part in the Short Film Panel alongside producer Kate Separovich and director David Vincent Smith on July 10th at 12pm.


First up, tell me how this love affair with 16mm film started.

Chris Elena: Okay, so I love the look of film so goddamned much that when I started making films around 2009-2010, that’s when digital was coming in, and I was noticing that films were losing their colour. They were losing their texture. I was really like, “No, no, I don’t want to do that, I want to go to film, I really love film.”

There are a lot of naysayers about it, and people complaining about the process of it, “Where you’re shooting something, you don’t get as many takes, you can’t watch it on the spot, you can’t playback.” All of those things are like yeah, no, that’s why I like film. I don’t want to watch a scene just after I’ve shot it. Because either two things: one, everyone in the room is going to be watching that playback monitor and they’re going to have opinions. And if they don’t like what you’re doing, there’s going to be either a rift or they’re going to not really have love for the project like you do.

It’s not that I want a hierarchy, it’s more of like I need everyone to trust me. That’s one: I don’t like playback, and I kind of like to watch it [way] after, give it a couple of days. The process of it I really like, and I like that you have to make a decision, and every decision you make when you’re shooting on film has to be the correct decision, which I prefer. I like that idea of no, the decision I’m making is the right one and the one we have to do because we’re here, we’re doing it.

Whereas [with] digital, there’s too much faffing about, and it doesn’t look as good at all. The thing with digital is you don’t have as much colour, you don’t have as much texture, and you have to do all this work in post-production. A lot of digital films look like now, whereas if I’m making something, I don’t want you to know when we shot it. I don’t want you to know when the film is set. I want it to be watched in twenty years’ time and [people] go, “When the hell was this made?” Given IMDb is not right next to them. I want everything that I make to feel timeless.

Specifically Super 16 is my ultimate favourite because that’s the one [format] digital can’t seem to mimic. It’s been mimicking the look of film, and a lot of the times it’s done an okay job with a lot of editing and post-production.

Like Knives Out.

CE: Yes, exactly that. Knives Out, that’s got [the look of] 35mm and I was like “Oh oh!” But yeah, exactly that. Super 16 is the hardest one because Super 16 has more noise, more grain. And it’s almost as if every image that you shoot on Super 16 is oversaturated which is my kind of look, I love it. So 35mm is 90s, early 2000s [is] 80s, whereas 16 is 70s. So that’s why I’m like, “I want that, I want that feeling.”

Doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on you as a filmmaker in the moment to get it right?

CE: Well, it doesn’t feel that way when we’re shooting. Which is weird, because I think the thing is when you’ve got actors and a crew who are just with you and everyone in the room is on the same level, I feel comfortable. I don’t like this thing of hierarchies. I think that’s the worst thing for a film set. With film, it’s the opposite. It’s more like nope, we’re getting it right. We’re doing it, we’re shooting.

Chris Elena on set

Even with this one, there were some slight focus issues, which again we’ve remedied and fixed, and we always said if worst comes to worst, we can go back and shoot it. Also the thing with film is you’re always on time which is outweighing any worries you have in terms of production issues with film. You’re only doing three to four takes max. Whereas with digital, you’re doing seven to eight and you’re running more time.

When you’re working in 16mm, it’s mostly in camera but then you know that you can tweak some stuff in post if you want to. I know you did a bit of that with Audio Guide where you punched up the colours in the last bit to make her mood more intense. Are you ever tempted to colour-correct in other aspects, like the warmth and the vibrance?

CE: Yeah, of course, you always have to colour-correct with everything. With Audio Guide, we did a thing where as the film progresses, the colours get warmer. So literally the colour thing goes [on a sharp zoom up] up until the last scene in the bathroom. 

With Refused, it was just a general colour-correction because there’s a lot of colour in frame anyway, more so than Audio Guide. But the last scene I ramped up the colours so when she’s giving her speech, the colours go up, up, up until it’s the three of them and then it’s just a blow-out of colour.

That’s the thing with Super 16. When you blow up the colour, you really blow up the colour, and I don’t think digital can do that. When you’re doing colour-correction on digital, you really have to introduce that colour back into the frame and you have to work ten times as hard. The colour-grade on Audio Guide took three and a half hours. The guy who did it said this with digital would take two days.

Claire Denis said it: digital pushes colour away, film embraces it.

So 2009 you were making films. I’m going to show my ignorance of your age here, Chris. Was that after uni? End of uni?

CE: No, no, no. So 2009 I graduated from high school. So at the start of 2010, I had a choice: go to film school — mind you, HECS was not kind for film school, it was really more like HECS was [for] uni. So if I’m going to do film, I’m going to have to find a way to pay for it and it’s going to be rough. So the choice was film school or learning screenwriting through a creative writing course. And in doing so, I can learn also how books are written and how poetry is written and really get a feel of how stories are told. Maybe that’s the more beneficial one. So it was between the two.

This is the film school story. [Note: Chris had promised to tell me this story several months ago on Twitter.] I was like, “All right, let me do an introduction day at a film school. Let me try that one.” Because I’d had early acceptance at [University of] Wollongong [for writing].”

I went for a day. And it was one of the worst days in history and I’m like, “All right, it’s a sign.” When I got there, there was a kid with a Where’s Wally scarf, looking very dapper and very nice. And he goes, “Oh my parents are paying for this one. But the next one, the next course is on me.” And I’m like, “I’m doomed.” I’m wearing a ripped Iron Maiden t-shirt with red Converse and I’m like, “Oh.”

And then we get into the classroom and the lecturer comes in, doesn’t say hello, he’s got a very obnoxious smirk on his face. And he goes, “Tell me the one movie that taught you how films are made and how films operate.” And that’s it, not even a hello. I’m like, “Oh this is warm.” Lot of answers for Godfather, Seven, Fight Club, and I was like, “Okay.” I’m not knocking the answers, it’s just that they were the same five films.

I have a choice of two movies, but I went with a more generic one. I said Smokin’ Aces which is an action film from 2007. And I got really aggressive looks, they were really like, “What? Smokin’ Aces?” And then Where’s Wally McGee gets up and goes, “Go on, explain that one.” And I said, “Okay, it’s a generic action film that taught me about blocking, colour-grading, how a scene works when there’s spectacle involved.” So it really gave me a better idea of how the camera operates when there’s movement away from just two people in a room, talking, and it’s a generic action film but that’s the point. It brought me there. I love the film, but like it goes a bit more above and beyond.

And one of the cinematographers on it, [Mauro Fiore], he did Avatar. He’s one of the best cinematographers and they got him just for this movie. The colour-grade on it looks like a painting. I was like, “That film really kind of blew my mind because I went to see an action film and I came out almost knowing how to shoot an action scene, knowing how to shoot spectacle in one sitting.” That’s why, I’m giving you a real answer. Mind you, the second answer which will tie in to Refused was Shortbus but no one in that room has seen Shortbus so.

And then the lecturer at the front was going, “No, you can do better than a Tarantino rip-off” and I’m like, “Okay, you’re snobs.” It was a snob test. And I said, “Okay, Crank 2. What a tour de force of cinema.” And their jaws dropped. Then they said, “All right, what’s your intention?” I said, “Well, I want to make movies. I want to shoot on film.” They said, “Nah, film’s dead. Film’s on the way out, we’re going digital.” I’m like, “I’m out.” Picked up my stuff and left. So I was only there for a couple of hours.

Love it. Man, I applaud you for going your own way. Now that I’ve watched all four films and in chronological progression, you obviously have a commitment to putting queer stories on screen. Is that a kind of mandate for you?

CE: Yes. There’ll be times where if it’s not in there, I’ll find a way. I think now it’s more prevalent, but growing up, it was not. And I was just like, “You know, if you put a queer relationship in this film or you had a same-sex couple instead of just a man and a woman, and you give them the same time you’re giving to the centre couple, this film is far more interesting. It’d be so much more revolutionary.” All you have to do is change the gender of one character. I always wanted to see that.

I was going to Dendy Newtown to get my movie content and I was seeing all this amazing stuff. And I don’t know if The Limited [his first film in 2015] gave it away but I went to a Catholic all-boys school and it was a disaster. It was horrible. Seeing 16, 17, 18-year-old boys terrified of seeing a same-sex couple on screen or seeing any queerness whatsoever was mortifying to them, unless it was titillating to them. I was like, “Fuck this.” It stuck in my mind and it kind of instilled in my brain [that] anytime you make a film, keep at it, keep going.

Matthew Cropley, Jonathan Darby, and Patrick Gilbert in The Limited

Every time I was watching films, queer relationships always felt more real, more lived-in. I related to queer relationships on screen more than I did heterosexual ones. Refused is a big thing for that. When I was growing up, queer relationships — they enjoyed sex and there was a joy after having sex and they would sit in that bed and they would talk. Because the only time you saw queer relationships was in arthouse film, they had the time to sit and talk afterwards and just have a smile.

Sex looked great in queer films. They looked guilt-ridden in straight films when I was growing up. When straight couples were having sex, it was either titillating but it’s a thriller and she could be a murderer and “Ooh, we shouldn’t be doing this.” I went “Why not? Sex is great.” This is me being 13, 14 and having access to Foxtel. And I was just like, “No, queer relationships got it. Straight ones are terrified of sex.”

And then it tied into boys at a Catholic school saying, “Ugh, queer relationships.” The films they’re watching, they’re scared of sex, and they look terrified. This is what heterosexual relationships look like on screen. We need to have more queer relationships, because that’s meant to be terrifying, but it’s not, you’re scared of sex. So that was my thing of “No, throw it in there. That’s your thing.” And it’s always stuck with me ever since. And also I like the idea of if I put a queer relationship on screen, I get to talk to more queer actors and more queer creatives. I can talk with them and we can have an honesty.

You know, it’s funny, you’re talking about boys being terrified of seeing sex on screen. I wonder: how would you go making a film about porn?

CE: Yeah, that’s a great question. Porn is a fascinating one. A lot of porn is misogynist, and the culture is misogynist. I don’t know much about the gay porn culture, but straight porn and the guys who watch it — there’s a real hatred of women, it’s like “Yikes.” But there are aspects you could look into and explore the fear of sex or the idea of when you’re watching a piece that is strictly sex and you were terrified of it. Does it seem more safe to you? Does porn almost seem like science fiction to someone who’s terrified of sex?

I follow a feminist pornographer on Twitter, Erika Lust, and she makes really, really great representative porn where it’s all different types of bodies or different types of sexualities. She very much goes against the misogyny of porn.  

CE: Anna Brownfield is also a feminist pornographer. She’s incredible. Just recently I got into her stuff and the feminist porn she makes. The women in those films are 50 and 60. They’re beautiful, it’s that idea of an older woman enjoying sex. And I recommend the documentary Morgana. Have you seen that? 

No.

CE: It’s about a woman in her fifties who was in a relationship, who was married with kids. She was suicidal, she hated herself, and then she slept with a man, like a sex worker and then she had a new lust for life. She started getting into porn and travelling around the world, being in her own porn films, and she’s 55. It’s beautiful, it’s a great film. I highly recommend it. 

That’s really interesting because, you know, there’s that Australian movie just come out, How To Please A Woman. And also Good Luck To You Leo Grande, the one with Emma Thompson.

CE: And that’s [Sophie Hyde], an Australian director. Director of Animals and 52 Tuesdays, which is a pretty good film.

I was raised Roman Catholic as well so I know exactly what you’re talking about in terms of the shame and the titillation and there’s a naked man stuck up on a cross. Is that hot or not hot? You know? (laughs)

CE: Yes! (laughs) 

Am I supposed to feel bad about it? But you made him hot.

CE: It’s not my fault. Absolutely. It’s so funny when you grow up at a Catholic school or have religion surrounding you. My family is not very religious, they just wanted me to go to a nice school. It was all fascinating because I could look at it more from a distance and go, “Okay, this isn’t working, what the system is.” The kids who are really Catholic or going to school that’s trying to be extremely Catholic, they’re all terrified of sex. If they are turned on by something, it’s a competition or a joke or they’re like giggling and it’s like you can’t enjoy this. Why aren’t you enjoying finding something arousing? What’s wrong with that?

I’ve always had that from a distance, I’m not religious and I watched so many movies growing up. Shortbus was a big one where — and I recommend it highly — where it’s literally about three people in New York having sex and being really happy and excited about it and just being in love. I saw that and went “This is the best. And if I went to school tomorrow and recommended it to those guys, I don’t know what it will do to them. They’ll never tell me the truth if they found it titillating or fun.” But that idea of religion, titillation, and the idea of the bodies we’re seeing on screen as well is a big one.

Watch Audio Guide here:

You know, something that’s just occurred to me, Chris, and I love this about your films and the way you’re talking about it, you’re very sex-positive. So how does asexuality fit into that? Is that something that you would want to address at some point on the queer spectrum? What do you think?

CE: Yes, big time. I think I want to talk about it because I don’t know enough about it. My biggest idea of queer relationships from screen was through sex, that sex is wonderful. Because growing up in a school or in the culture that we have, sex is scary and sex is dangerous. So I think it’s getting through that, understanding that, and then going “All right, what about asexuality? Let’s look into that. That’s wonderful.” So I’m definitely hoping to look into that, maybe in the next film. But I want to talk to more asexual people and get more of an idea.

And do your research.

CE: Exactly.

You’ve had Kym Vaitiekus as DOP and editor on all four films. Tell me what that process is like, working with him?

CE: When I was in my creative writing course, I had made two amateur movies, because I’m like, “Just hire a nothing cameras, you don’t know how anything works. Get your friends, put something on screen. It has to be a disaster, you’re not going to learn anything. You didn’t go to film school so get to work.” So I did two. And then came the third one, The Limited, where I was like, “I want to shoot film, I need to shoot film, I need to do it.” And this was at a time, 2014, where film was really not happening at all. Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson had not stormed the gates of Kodak yet, going “You need to make stuff.”

So there were cameras literally collecting dust and Kodak [film] I had to get from New Zealand. One of the people I used to make movies with, a friend of mine [said] “Hey, I went to a lecture with this guy named Kym and he just lives nearby and I approached him saying ‘I know someone who wants to make a movie on film and can I get him to talk to you?'”

Spoke to him, and we just hit it off. That was it, like a house on fire. He was most intrigued by the queer subtext in The Limited. I said to him, “I hope this movie isn’t going to come across as homophobia.” He said, “No, the opposite.” He retired and then I semi got him out of retirement. I said, “Let’s make movies together. We do the edits together. Like I’m not anti-opinions. Let’s make it together and really mould it.” He’s my closest filmmaking person. We’re very close friends anyway. But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be shooting on film. I wouldn’t know how. I learnt the most from him. He’s in his sixties, so he’s a seasoned veteran. And we just talk movies. The running joke is we have such different tastes on films that when we agree on one, it must be good. (laughs)

What’s one you agree on?

CE: We agree on the film Pride. We saw that together after we had shot The Limited. And we both loved that and Kym [went] “All right, this is our system. If we both like a film, it’s good.” Like Snowpiercer. He hated it. I love it to bits.

I’m with Kym on that one.

CE: Heathens!

Hate is a strong word but yeah.

CE: He loves The Lego Movie and I’m like “I’d rather step on a landmine.” Pride was the big turning point. “All right, we’re gonna join forces.”

So you both love 16mm but do you both have a similar idea of pace? Or do you have different ideas of pace and editing that you have to kind of work out?

CE: Yeah, great question. Yes, I’m more slower paced. He’s a little more “Let’s get to the point.” That was also a learning curve for me where it’s like “Don’t let the camera just sit there. You’re not a seasoned filmmaker yet. Learn about telling information in a timely fashion.” He would be like “Let’s get to it sooner” and I’d be like “Let’s take a little time” and we both came to a compromise in the edit, which I think has helped the pacing on all of those movies.

If I was going by my initial ideas, Audio Guide would probably be 25 minutes long and Kym’s like, “No, no, let’s get through and get through it.” Also shooting on film, because he’s the editor on set, he’ll go “Nah, we can’t do that shot that way, it’s not going to line up properly and the pace is going to be off. Let’s do this.” And I’ve become better at it. Him being an editor and a cinematographer, he knows pace. Also the look and shot choices, like let’s condense three shots into one so it gives you an idea of the surroundings. So you know where your environment is, where people are, and how they’re operating. We’ve just got to find a way to do it where you don’t notice the camera.

The pacing is really good in all of them. I’m pretty sensitive to that as well. And also because I just rewatched Hunt For The Wilderpeople and there’s a lot of quick cutting in there which I hadn’t noticed before. I get really excited by quick cutting.

CE: (laughs) Kym’s the same. I’m a quick cutting guy as well except when I make movies.

Emma Wright in Audio Guide

You said in an interview that you turned down funding because they wanted you to make the protagonist in Audio Guide male rather than female, and you were like, “No, all my protagonists are going to be female.” Why?

CE: Why are they going to be female? I think it’s growing up where majority of the protagonist you’re seeing were male. A lot of the films that had female protagonists weren’t on screen unless it was Tomb Raider. And I think that again stuck in my craw. 

I grew up with mostly women, I was surrounded by my mum, my aunt, my grandmother. Every time I’d watch a film and there’s a female protagonist, there’s more emotion on display. There’s more dissection of feelings and thoughts, and there’s more sensitivity on screen. I want that. And I still think lowkey we don’t get enough female protagonists in bigger films or just films that are widely seen. I’d like to keep doing that. 

I’m a person who speaks how I feel emotionally, and I’m very open myself and vulnerable, I’m a very sensitive person. When I’m talking with women, I always have more of a breakthrough with them. I always feel more comfortable around women and talking to women and growing up with women. That might be another reason why when I watch queer relationships, they’re more emotionally available and open and more accepting of things. This masculine sort of nonsense, I don’t respond to it. 

Every time I think of [making] a movie, I think if a woman was front and centre, there’d be more emotion on display. There’d be more things discussed, there’d be smarter choices, thinking rationally and more emotional intelligence. I always get that with female protagonists. And yeah, I want to keep exploring that. I also just want to see more female protagonists.

Read about how Chris came up with the idea for Refused Classification and how he cast the film on page two of this interview.

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