A little under a year ago, I received a curious email in my inbox.
Now, as the editor of a culture website, I tend to receive all manner of requests from people around the globe requesting coverage for their films. Some I’m able to cover, others I don’t have the capacity to. But this one piqued my interest as it was from a first time filmmaker from Albany, Western Australian.
Through the magic of the internet, Adam Morris had stumbled upon The Curb and asked if I could look over his film, Edward and Isabella, and give some feedback or a review. Once I saw that the cast list included Chloe Hurst – someone who I had interviewed in what feels like a lifetime ago for her work in the comedy A Few Less Men – I knew I should give it a spin.
As I played the calm and scenic relationship drama on my home screen, I found myself becoming quietly entranced by the central lead performances from Chloe and Daniel Barwick. Shot during COVID in Adam’s hometown, Edward and Isabella is full of single shot takes of the titular characters trying to rekindle that relationship spark on a getaway trip to the South West. Scenes of discussions with their therapist (Renato Fabretti) intercut their romantic trip, helping illuminate the gradual divide that is slowly coming between the two.
There’s an ease and confidence to Edward and Isabella that belies the first-time filmmaker roots. Adam’s writing and direction is effortless, affording Chloe and Daniel the space and air to construct the feeling of two people who have been in a long-term relationship together. Now, as a seasoned film critic, I’ve seen a fair share of relationships on screen that work harmoniously, and plenty that feel inauthentic to the core, but the bond that Chloe and Daniel share with one another shows that the two have genuine chemistry and connect with one another on a deeper level that simply portraying their respective characters.
Impressed with the film, I let Adam know my thoughts, promising an interview and a review at the time to help with promote the film. Time got the better of me, and I wasn’t able to get a review out early, but I did pass on my suggestions of festivals to submit the film to, and most importantly, sent the details of WA producer extraordinaire Ian Hale to help usher the film into the world. It quickly became clear that a humble review from myself would have only added to the quickly growing snowball of success that is Adam’s first film.
Before too long, Adam was a nominee and subsequent winner for the Best Film at the 2021 WA Screen Culture Awards, a downright impressive feat for a film that hadn’t even had a festival run yet. As 2022 rolled around, Edward and Isabella debuted at the prestigious WA Made Film Festival, before heading down to Adam’s neck of the woods for a rapturous reception at Cinefest Oz. These local festivals were a welcome achievement for the indie filmmaker, equaled by international acclaim and awards at the Prague International Film Festival, Swedish International Film Festival, Naples International Film Awards, Tokyo Film Awards, and the Paris Film Awards.
And now, almost a year later, Adam’s once again making a West Aussie festival appearance at the 25th Revelation Film Festival, taking place from July 7th through to July 17th. Adam will be attending the festival with partner and editor of Edward and Isabella, Talarah Pedrocchi Roelofs. In a circular manner, I’ll be attending the festival and running a Q&A session with Adam, as well as a panel to discuss indie filmmaking with Adam, Platon Theodoris, and Matthew Victor Pastor.
It’s always a delight to watch homegrown filmmakers succeed and receive a warm audience reception, and it’s even more delightful to have been part of the process to help bring a film like Edward and Isabella into the world. Part of the joy of seeing a film like Edward and Isabella succeed has been the manner that the WA film community has embraced Adam as a filmmaker, and championed the work of everyone who helped make the film, turning it into a festival success. As Adam mentions in the below interview, filmmaking is about teamwork, and while that is true about the creative process, it’s even more true about the community spirit that thrives within the Western Australian film scene where local filmmakers are supported and nurtured by the wealth of film festivals and creatives who help bring WA films to audiences.
After Edward and Isabella’s run at Revelation, it’ll head to The Backlot Perth on August 4th and 6th, before landing at the best cinema in Perth, Luna Palace Cinemas, from August 11th.
As someone who has gotten to know Adam quite a bit over the past few months, I can safely say that there’s nothing this man won’t try his hand at: he’s a published author, regularly plays guitar and sings at concerts, and also makes a delicious looking homemade pasta. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that he’s not resting on his laurels, as he has recently announced that he will start shooting his new film Frank and Frank (or The Valley and The Walrus: Ruminations on the Mystery from Soup to Nuts) in Albany, Bicton, and Mt Barker in August this year, with Trevor Jamieson and Rebecca Leafe joining the cast.
In the below interview which took place in 2021, Adam talks about his journey to becoming a filmmaker, what stories he wanted to tell as an author, writing authentic relationships and more.
First of all, what made you decide to be an author to begin with? What kind of stories did you want to tell as an author?
Adam Morris: What made me — oh geez, Andrew. I remember — like that bookcase that you’ve got behind you. That’s full of DVDs and CDs and stuff? —
AM: I always remember looking at bookcases with authors on them. And I just thought, “That’s the coolest thing in the world, to do that, I want to do that.” And I grew up in Ireland where an everyday part of life was words and language and all that kind of stuff. It was like growing up with soccer in Brazil, or ice hockey in Canada. It wasn’t a big thing to be a writer or a poet or a songwriter in Ireland, it was just something that every other person did. I was always fascinated by it.
I’m not really into fantasy or sci-fi, all that kind of stuff. I always liked the writing that was just about what it was like to be human. That was always what fascinated me and why I enjoy writing, because what I find the most difficult about being a human is actually being a human. I’m lucky that the mundane fascinates me in that way.
It’s nice to be able to honour the mundane, which is hard to do. How did you find your voice to do that?
AM: If you write as honestly as possible, it’s the hardest thing and the easiest thing to do. If you can cross that threshold where you don’t mind embarrassing yourself, that’s the hardest canyon to get over as a writer or as a songwriter or as a filmmaker. But once you’re prepared to expose yourself completely, the writing becomes the easiest form of writing, because it almost writes itself.
You went from being a novelist to a filmmaker which is not a common journey. Usually, people tend to stay in a creative lane and then be comfortable in that, and that’s it. Where was the desire to do that?
AM: I just look at them as all different art forms. I’ve worked as an author, I’ve worked as a songwriter, and now I’ve worked as a filmmaker, they’re all kind of the same. They’re just different in a way. I think my first art form love affair was with film when I was a teenager. I was a very, very introverted teenager. I spent a lot of time by myself playing basketball and a lot of time watching movies. I’m a really good three-point shooter, and I know Italian cinema all the way through the New York late 90s cinema.
I was going to do a book tour with my novel Bird that came out last year. But COVID hit. I had an album released and Bird at the same time. And the plan was to go to like wineries and do house parties where I’d play for an hour and then we would kind of release the book at different spots. I only got to do one and then everything got shut down. So I lost all my gigs and obviously couldn’t do any book tours. I was like, “Well, what am I gonna do? I could write another book.”
I started playing around with an idea for a screenplay. It was just a bright opportunity. Like if you don’t do it, when are you going to do it? I’ve been wanting to make a film since I was a late teenager. And, you know, twenty years later, I hadn’t. So yeah, I just thought I’d go for it.
It’s hard to do. Did you have challenges like that for yourself, making the film and through writing your books as well?
AM: Oh, yeah. But that muscle gets transferred through the different art forms. You don’t even have to push through a whole day, you might just do an hour a day. And then you might do half an hour a day. As long as you keep going, you wake up a year later and a shitload of work has been done. You know? In a sense, it kind of was easy because it only took thirty minutes a day for eighteen months or whatever. There’s a discipline there that you just have to keep on top of all the time.
I think you also have to be comfortable with not doing a good job every now and then as well. It’s okay to write something that no one’s interested in. That’s fine. At the end of the day, you’re really doing it to spend your time on earth doing something you’re interested in.
Was that always a goal for you then to tick off? You’ve got music out there, you’ve got a book, and now you’ve got a film. Was that always the goal, to make yourself feel complete in those fields?
AM: Yeah, yeah. I think I wouldn’t like to live with those regrets. I’m 41 now. And I would hate to be now working a job that I absolutely didn’t like at all and thinking, “Oh geez, I really should have written those books and I should have learned that guitar.” I’m not interested in that. I’d much rather go through the pain of embarrassing myself as an author or filmmaker rather than go through that self-loathing pain of “Geez, I’ve wasted this time on earth here.” It was important. Not necessary. To live intentionally was always important to me, not to just drift along and be a passenger in my own life. Rightly or wrongly.
There is a key throughline in Edward And Isabella where you have these two people who are questioning themselves both in the presence of each other, and then in the presence of a therapist. It feels like you’re exorcising some demons there, too.
AM: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s that space in between when you move from a relationship, and then you’re in no relationship, and then you’re testing the waters of a possible relationship. There are those moments where you think, “Do I actually want to be in a relationship with any human ever?” And then you might spend a week or a month or six months by yourself, and that might become very terrifying. So then you’re like, “Oh no, I need to have another human around. This is getting too dark.” If that throughline comes through, that’s terrific.
How did you go about writing the script? What points did you want to hit on in your first draft that you would improve on in subsequent drafts?
AM: I kind of like to go with the flow of the writing. I found it really interesting writing the screenplay compared to say a novel because you are writing with images that you don’t have to put down on the screenplay itself. It’s very peculiar. One of the coolest things about films is when they talk about that movie magic, what you see on screen, and then what you interpret in your head is no one else sees it. It’s what happens in the pictures that you make in your head as an audience. That happens with the screenwriter. I suppose you’re hoping that the images that you’re planning to put on up there are going to help the audience come to the same kind of conclusions. It’s a very weird process. It’s like writing without words. It’s very, very unusual. It’s a lot of fun.
Can you talk about the casting process for this? Were they both down in WA and that’s how you managed to get them?
AM: Yeah, Chloe [Hurst] came back from, I think, Los Angeles to be with her mum and dad. And Daniel [Barwick] was living with his partner in Perth. I just put the casting call out on four different Facebook actors groups. I didn’t know Chloe, I didn’t know that she was in Perth or anything. Chloe is a soldier. She saw the casting call and then sent an email. I sent her some pages and she sent an audition tape in just like everyone else. I think we got close to 200 auditions.
AM: Yeah, it was absolutely crazy. But hers was so brilliant. Like if she had worn a different T-shirt, I could have used her audition tape in the film. It was that good. And Daniel sent me a video of himself doing interpretive dance. (laughs)
That’s an interesting audition tape.
AM: Yeah, he’s an interesting man, Daniel. You’d have to ask him why on earth he sent me that. He was dressed all in black and he had a Farley Granger haircut from Strangers On A Train. I liked the way he looked. And he was doing this very silly interpretive dance in a video clip with this musician, and I liked how comfortable he was doing very bizarre things. I didn’t hear him speak because he was just doing these dance moves. So I thought, “If he can speak and if he can do that even half as well as he’s slow motion dancing with a smoke machine in a quarry which is what he was doing.” I thought this could be interesting.
We asked Daniel to read some pages. And then he went to the top of the male list with two other males. And Chloe went to the top of the list by herself for the female role. We did a chemistry test with Chloe and the three potential leads, and herself and Daniel were incredible. The other two guys were incredible as well. But Daniel and Chloe were terrific.
They feel like they’ve had a relationship for a long time here, which is hard to do. What kind of direction did you give them both on day one?
AM: On day one, they turned up so prepared, like ridiculously prepared. They were willing to try anything and do anything. Even though we had a very tight schedule, we were only shooting for, I think it was eighteen days. I think we had 33 or 36 scenes in total over those eighteen days. We were able to do one or two takes straight and then we were able to do a little bit of improvisation and you could ask them “All right, let’s go straight back to on the page.” They knew the stuff backwards and forwards, like it was just unbelievable.
That cliché that direction is 90% casting is so true. Because you just to have to say, “Bring that down a little bit” or “Can you be a little bit nicer on this bit?” You didn’t have to bring someone off into a corner and talk to them for three hours. They understood what each scene was about and they very, very rarely came in with a bizarre interpretation, if at all. I didn’t have to give them that much direction at all. I kind of got out of their way. It was a real pleasure.
I understand this is your first directorial film. Is that correct?
AM: No. I’m too introverted. Like being in a theatre group and hanging out with designers and costume-makers and actors. I just can’t, it’s too uncomfortable for me. That’s why the film is so tiny.
How did you grow your directorial style then? How did you find your own voice? Was it just as you were going? Or was it because of the competence of what you had written down on the page?
AM: I’m not an artist who is very self-loathing. I usually like what I do. You can take that for how it sounds, but it’s true. There’s not a lot of second-guessing. When I put the script out to the casting call, I was getting auditions from actors who either didn’t connect very well or just weren’t very good actors. I was getting these monologues back and I was like, “Oh, what have I done? This writing might not be as good as I thought it was.” And then I got people like Chloe [who] sent me something that was exactly the same. And it was like, “Oh no, it’s okay. It’s brilliant. It’s fantastic.” I was confident if we got together, we’d be able to work it out.
Also I watched hundreds of hours of my favourite directors in the leading months before we started shooting. So I’d spent a lot of time getting ideas of how to do it. I was watching Mike Leigh talk about it, and Woody Allen talk about it, and Francis Ford Coppola, and Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock. You can listen to everyone. And they came down to saying two things. The first one was to just make your first film, especially Francis Ford Coppola. My favourite quote from Reservoir Dogs — Old Joe Cabot says, “You just have to shit your pants, dive in, and swim.” I took that approach to it. And it’s so true, not just with filmmaking, with anything.
The other thing that they all said — and I was amazed that they all said it — but they all said it’s a collaborative art form. So when you are onset and you’re shooting, yes, you’re the director. You’re really just another body in the room. And if the actors want to make a contribution or the guy holding the boom stick or the guy on the lights or the girl who turns up with the lunches — if she has a suggestion before she leaves, listen to that suggestion. If you have time, try it out because it might be really, really wonderful. What you as a group are going to come up with is usually going to be better than what you would come up with yourself. You keep kind of a loving atmosphere in the space, and then everyone feels comfortable to try things and contribute things and feel valued.
Can you talk about how you went about organising the score for this film?
AM: I got in touch with a guy called Jonathon Jie Hong Yang. He did about five different pieces of original music. And again, I just put another casting call out, composer needed, on a Facebook site. It sounds insane, but that’s what I did. I didn’t get 200 composers, I think I might have got half a dozen or a dozen composers. Jonathon got in touch. The film wasn’t finished by that stage, so I could only tell him kind of what I wanted. And he started sending me these very orchestrated Saving Private Ryan sweeping scores that were absolutely beautiful, but didn’t quite fit what we wanted. We had a conversation back and forth on Messenger or on the phone. And then we said we needed something with a bit of space, that was a bit Eric Satie.
When I eventually was able to edit a few of the scenes together with my editor Talarah [Pedrocchi Roelofs], we sent them back to Jon and then he sent a few scores down. It just kind of worked like that. I think we might have still been in lockdown at that stage. I’m in Albany and Jon’s in Perth.
There was one point where I didn’t have any money and I was like, “Jonathon, I don’t think this is —” And Jonathon jumped on the phone and said, “Adam, I am scoring this film. I want to do this film.” So I said, “Okay, okay, okay.” And he did such an incredible job. And that’s an example of letting someone else in the room to contribute.
I don’t know what he’s normally used to. But it’s very spacious. It’s very minimal, but it just adds so much to the scenes that it’s on top of. I think it might be his first feature film that he’s scored. He has a very bright future ahead. Especially if he keeps ringing up directors and abusing them the way he did.
And then the theme song is actually my sister’s music. She’s a jazz musician in Hobart. So that theme song which is called Josephine, that was hers. But I only used it because it worked. Like I was originally planning to put all my own music into the film, but only one, two songs made it in. You can only use what works.
And then somehow, we managed to get two Giuseppe Verdi pieces that were recorded by the Philharmonic Orchestra in Rome. I have no idea how we got that for the price that we got.
Was the choice always to shoot down in Albany and in your homeland?
AM: Yeah, well, I wrote it to be in the house. But when I started to do the scenes, we had, like I said, 33 or 36 different scenes. And I thought, “Ouch, what have I done here?” I really thought I’d written a movie in three rooms. But then we ended up climbing mountains and going to beaches and going to nightclubs down here. It was just chaotic. And also it saves money if you shoot it in your own house.
Plus you’ve got a great landscape to work with down there. It looks stunning on film, which makes things a little bit easy. You’re utilising it in a way that reinforces the characters, and that’s the main thing.
AM: Oh, yeah. And I think it’s a good contrast, because so much of the film is about inside their heads. It’s nice to have that explosion of space outside every now and then as well.
So where to from here for you?
AM: I’ve got a book coming out at the end of next year. And Bird is getting translated into German in the middle part of the next year. So that’ll keep me a little busy. It’ll stroke my ego long enough, I can sit there and watch some TV or something next year. But I’d love to make another film. I just wanted to follow this process through to the end.
Because even for a very small budget, it’s still a very expensive hobby. I’d absolutely love to make a film every year or one every two years or something like that. But I don’t know if I can afford to. So I’ll just see how that goes. I don’t need this movie to make lots and lots of money. But it would be nice to be able to make a tiny bit of money off it. And rather than ask everyone to work for free on the next one, it’d be nice to be able to pay.
Obviously, it’s a privileged space to be in as well. So I’m reluctant to be complaining about it. But it would only take say $60 or $70,000 for everyone to get paid to comfortably work for a few weeks. Now that would mean the writer and the director still is not getting paid. So maybe we need $370,000. You’re not talking about millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I think a really nice idea [would be] instead of Screenwest giving out a million dollars to one person, they gave out $100,000 to ten people and then worked in some kind of screening arrangement where once a month at the Backlot or on SBS, they showed these films on a rolling basis, the last Sunday of every month. I think that would be a really nice way. There are different ways up the mountain. And as things get cheaper and cheaper, they’re still expensive, but they’re not prohibitively expensive.
I want to talk about the Screen Culture Awards because your film was nominated before it’s even released. What does that mean to you as a filmmaker?
AM: That’s unbelievable. It’s so surreal. It’s absolutely crazy. Myself and my partner Talarah who’s also the editor in the film, we’ve been working on this now for over a year. It’s just been a hell of a lot of that half an hour every day, sometimes two or three hours a day. And sometimes you have like a nervous meltdown and you need a week’s break because your editing suite has crashed for the fourth time, all this kind of stuff. So at the beginning, when you say “I’m going to make a film,” you’re just trying to make a film. That was the goal. And now to turn around and have it nominated for Best Movie Made In WA is just insane. I can’t even believe it.
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