The Weight of Love: David Vincent Smith on He Ain’t Heavy

I genuinely don’t like to call “Australian shot feature film of the year” in June – but after seeing David Vincent Smith’s blazing debut feature, He Ain’t Heavy I am not sure I can imagine something that will stay with me more.

The rawness of Smith’s work and its honesty is disarming. He Ain’t Heavy stars Greta Scacchi, Leila George, and Sam Corlett as a family destroyed by insufficient support for complex trauma issues – Smith’s film is harrowing as it is human.

I had the opportunity to speak with David Vincent Smith about the film and its world premiere at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival on 14 & 15 June 2024.

He Ain’t Heavy is your first feature film. Can you tell me about the process of writing and directing and how it felt to undertake such an intense emotional project and sharing it with other people. 

David Vincent Smith: While it is my first produced film feature film, I had written numerous feature scripts before which I’m glad didn’t see the light of day but helped me to practice the craft and find my voice. Writing is difficult and you can’t cheat the work. When it felt uncomfortable in my stomach, I knew it was because I was sharing the truth, or hidden shame, and it was important to put that on the page and lean into it.

Telling the truth is what I value most in the arts and it’s what connects heart to heart with people. In the initial drafts I used quite a lot of clever metaphors and director techniques to perhaps disguise and shield myself from what I was saying, so a lot of the writing process was peeling that away to get to the raw stuff. How do you cut yourself open and bleed onto the page while protecting your own mental health; you need to be mature about looking after yourself and having a process where you can disconnect as well.

Two people really supported me, the producer Jess Parker, and script editor Lynne Vincent McCarthy; they really understand what I was trying to do and wrapped their arms around the project. I understood from the proof-of-concept film the importance of sharing this story, so many people reached out to me, waited in film festival foyers to ask for my help and advice to save their family. Many whom had never reached out to other people felt seen and heard by the project; that really fuelled the feature process as well. 

Almost immediately you throw the audience into the film with Max (Sam Corlett) as almost a malevolent spirit invading Bev (Greta Scacchi) and Jade’s (Leila George) home in suburban Perth. The way the neighbours act this isn’t the first time Max has come to the house screaming. Jade and Bev are tired and desperate. They can’t let him in. In that first scene you set up Bev and Jade’s relationship and the potential threat Max poses. 

Was it always in your mind to establish the dynamic with such immediacy? 

DVS: I wanted the audience to ride shotgun with Jade and experience her point of view. It was important to understand that even the simple task of coming home could be an incredibly dangerous affair. The sad reality is this is their status quo, so much so that Bev is still watching TV while Max is trying to bang the door down. This situation is a common and countless for many families; it’s only when you share it, you realise just how acclimated you have become to this unpredictable and dangerous new normal. We learn more about who characters/people are by their actions and this felt like an effective way to orient the audience around who these people are. 

Even though the film is social realism, there is a specific use of symbolism. Max’s body becomes almost that of a martyr. He is tended to by Bev in a washing ceremony. Although Max is clearly a danger to himself and others, you were careful to ensure we see his fragility. 

How important was it for you to show how he’s still “very young?” 

DVS: It’s important that amongst the chaos we don’t lose sight and the dignity of another human being. Most people don’t decide to become homeless and violent, it’s usually a decent often fuelled by untreated trauma. What we’re left with is this complex dilemma; how to help this human who was once a beautiful person we love but is now unpredictable and dangerous. It’s complicated and I’m still trying to wrestle with it; it’s why I made the movie to begin with. 

In terms of symbolism, I always do a semiotics pass when working on my director’s analysis of the screenplay. I’m looking for opportunities to marry authentic performances /social realism with images that can tap into deeper meaning to enrich the tapestry of a frame. 

Max is an addict, but the addiction comes from self medicating because he has been let down by the systems which should have been there do deal with his mental health issues. You never show Max using drugs, but his body is ravaged. Jade’s decision to do what she does is because there is nothing left for her to do. 

How do you think our health systems are letting us down? Not only the people who need help, but those who are carers. 

DVS: I didn’t come up with the premise of the film because I was searching for a movie idea. The idea of kidnapping a loved one and enforcing detox upon them was a real consideration in my life and came close to enacting out of desperation. I think we live in a society where often the weight of responsibility is so burdened on the carers that just getting out of the door to access a support service can be a difficult task. Carers can often feel judged by society and so they hide behind a veil of shame and their sacrifices result in compounding their own mental health problems. How much of your own existence do you sacrifice for one you love?

I believe society is poorly educated on how to help people with addiction. It so often is self-medication but so little is done to diagnose the root cause. We live in a world that asks the question “what’s wrong with you,” when really, we need to consider “what happened to you?” as well. 

As far as systems are concerned…. Well, let me tell you the prison system doesn’t help it only exasperate problems and the Emergency Room is not always a friendly environment or helpful place for those suffering from mental health problems.  

Specifically, about not showing drugs in the film. What irritates me about films that deal with addiction, is they often use drug and alcohol abuse as an easy, shallow ‘character trait’ to make a film seem ‘gritty’. This creates harmful stereotypes that are disrespectful to people struggling with addiction, and to the families who love them.

It was a conscious choice not to show drugs in the film for two reasons, the first, that I wanted the film to be open enough that the audience could layer their own story as I feel the experience is not just specific to one drug or problem. The other reason is that seeing drug use on screen even shown in a negative light can be enough to trigger intense cravings in those suffering from addiction. It seemed counter-productive to the purpose of the film to focus on that. He Ain’t Heavy isn’t about drugs; it’s about the price we pay for love. I would argue the film is more about Jade detoxing from Max, than Max detoxing from drugs. 

Jade feels like she can’t move on with her life. She is always second under the shadow of Max. Yet she loves him. Leila George plays this desperation, grief, and anger so well. How did you direct her into becoming Jade? 

DVS: You are right, Jade is paralysed by her love for her brother and is witnessing her friends live a life she imagined for herself. Leila is a professional who works incredibly hard and that was evident every day on set. During rehearsal I’m not a big believer in rehearsing the text but rather the character through parallel improvisation, so we ensured we had time to play with the character before the film started. Rather than transpose all my ideas for the character; I believe the truth needs to come from the inside out; so, I gave Leila a lot of permission to take ownership over the character and contribute and collaborate.

Filmmaking is organic, it’s alive so I’m always trying to react, listen and be present. Rather than force actors to say and do what is essentially staged things, it has to feel like the truth and so listening and giving Leila permission to try both our ideas was important to that process. We just tried to be as open with each other and honest while filming scenes. 

The best way to direct is to understand an actor’s process and how you can help facilitate an on-set environment that feels nurturing for them to do their best work.  

Working with Greta and Leila was incredible of course there is already years of chemistry built into a real mother and daughter relationship which was such a gift to the film. Greta was amazing, she is an absolute cinephile and highly intelligent; we would sit down on the bed in Jade’s bedroom and discuss cinema when there was a moment on set, and it didn’t matter who I brought up she would always have a story: “Charlie Chaplin – oh yes David let me tell you when I spoke to his daughter she set us up on a tour in Cuba and did you know this thing about Chaplin in Cuba… Krzysztof Kieslowski – oh yes David, let me tell you about when I met him at…” working with Robert Altman and so on. She’s super grounded and lovely. 

Can you tell me a bit about the significance of Grandma’s house? The space where Max and Jade were children, and the space they return to. 

DVS: I wanted the story to take place in a space that would echo memories of childhood and perhaps better times for the family. The siblings would have had many adventures here not necessarily related to the problems unfolding for the family now. Further to that for Bev (mum) the home has the residue of her own hopes and dreams. So that the location wasn’t foreign for the actors (here’s a space you’ve never seen before now know and pretend intimately it’s your grandparents’), a part of my process is lacing locations with history and emotional memory.

When preparing for the film I brought Leila and Sam into the house and gave them several tasks including writing secret messages and drawings throughout the house from the perspective of when they were kids. The searched for each other’s messages, made those discoveries and defined their meaning. These little sketches appear in the background of some scenes amongst real family photos generously given by the actors again help anchor the film in truth. 

Tell me about filming Perth.

DVS: We filmed in a place called Gosnells which is very kind fringe working-class lower socio-economic suburb has a bit of a bad rap. It became a bit of a thing memes of “Gozzywood”, and the local MP even dropped by with Hollywood star cookies with Gozzywood written on it. However, the reason why we filmed here you might find interesting, has none of the reasons above of course. 

When we were going to make the film, I’ve done enough low-budget filmmaking to know where to spend your time (the money you don’t have) to elevate a film, and of course the house was absolutely critical; the more life/look it had the better shot we had of making a film especially when art department had almost no budget.

 About a year before I did second camera on a feature and refused payment and said, “pay me in helping me location scout for my film.” Long story short, myself, producer, my partner, and three other filmmakers spent six months searching and visiting at least 200 houses if not more. The problem is grandparents’ homes don’t look like grandparents’ homes in 2024; everything is gutted inside into white walls, subdivided etc… so this house belonged to an old Italian woman who had passed away some time before filming and she kept the house the same from the 70’s if not earlier. Hence how we had all the textured wood panelling in the kitchen and colour tiles which I was desperate for. 

Searching for the house was also a mission because it’s supposed to be isolated home in the countryside on the outer edge of the “Perth Hills” however we couldn’t afford to shoot that far out because you must pay for travel time after a certain distance so, finding a house that “appeared isolated” in basically suburbia was tough and we were thinking of lots of tricks.

The house in the film use to be a market garden a long time ago, and now that all the area around is just a normal suburban street, she had kept a small border and the neighbouring block empty and we were able to use that and some of course second unit shots (my partner shot) of the car driving out further than where the house was located to stitch the idea of it being further out than what it was, if any of that make sense. I just couldn’t have it look like suburbia because that level of yelling and screaming the whole neighbourhood would hear so it needed to feel isolated. 

Then for the rest of the film, we shot Fremantle for best friend’s house and the bar/street scene. And a short trip into the hills for the watering hole. But yeah, it was kind of every no-budget trick in the book I could think of. We could only afford like 12 hours of actual nighttime so had to be really strategic and clever with lacing that through the film. 

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about in relation to He Ain’t Heavy?

DVS: When creating this film there were suggestions to of course push the film more aggressively into genre, however I felt that focussing on constructing heightened cinematic set pieces one after another would disrespect the heart, the humans and families which is the soul of the film.

While it’s tempting to brandish elaborate camera movements, ring out the emotions with music and sound design, I decided to hold back and push a naturalistic/authentic approach and those families who are suffering from similar circumstances to the characters have expressed how believable the film is, which was always the aim. I feel fortunate to have been supported with my decisions and vision by the whole team. 

I didn’t want to offer an answer to the characters plight in the film. Life is more complicated than that, and this a subject with many nuances, if I knew the answer I’d make a doco, write a book and share it with the world.  

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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