Little Tornadoes Director Aaron Wilson Talks About Working With Mark Leonard Winter, Christos Tsiolkas, and Presenting Rural Australia on Screen in This Interview

Aaron Wilson’s Little Tornadoes tells the story of Leo (Mark Leonard Winter), a young father whose wife leaves him to raise their two kids alone. Set in rural Australia in the 1970s, Little Tornadoes envelopes in the immigrant experience in a new home with narration written by Christos Tsiolkas. With stunning cinematography from Stefan Duscio, Little Tornadoes presents a glimpse at the enduring search for human connection, whether it be a son and his father, a father and his children, or a young woman seeking a new life in Australia.

Little Tornadoes is an Aussie indie film that deserves an audience who enjoys challenging and thought provoking films. Writer and director Aaron Wilson is currently touring Australia with the film, delivering Q&A sessions around the country to audiences. In this interview, Aaron talks about the task of touring a film, before moving into a discussion about the film itself, and a touching mention about who the film is dedicated to.

Visit the Little Tornadoes Facebook page for screening details.

You have been doing Q&As and answering all the tough questions from audiences. How has that been so far?

Aaron Wilson: What I’ve been doing is also trying to do little social media reels and whatnot, just to help better reach audiences or talk about the things that no one talks about with these sort of films, which is how hard it is. And audiences don’t know. I think as long as audiences know or they can appreciate, “Oh, it’s a lot of effort, oh I might look a bit deeper at this film, I might help you a bit more, I might actually call people” when they say “I’ll call people” or “I’ll tell my friends.” Because they don’t really understand the work that goes into putting a film out. “Oh, you’re cutting up your own posters? Oh, you’re putting up your own flyers?” I think if I can convey to people how much effort is going into it just to get the film to them, it might translate into a little bit more visibility.

I would hope so. I talk to a lot of indie filmmakers here in Australia, and I think that a lot of filmmakers go into their first film or second film with the notion that “I make the film, then somebody else does all that kind of stuff.” But you become your own one-person marketing machine.

AW: I think it’s the core. My producers and I have been working on how we can best make use of our time. And it’s involving a lot of me driving around. The film is about regional Australia. I want to take it out to regional Australian audiences, just trying something a bit different. I’m paying for every trip, every bit of petrol, every accommodation. Meeting audiences [is] wonderful for me, if I can just feel that happening and have conversation with people and make the most of that time.

At least I can’t say I didn’t try. When you look back and [go] “What could we have done differently?” I was pretty hands on with Canopy but this one I’m even more so. It’s pretty hard when you’ve got limited cinemas and you’re competing against the likes of Dr Strange with so much marketing budget. But I guess you just got to try to find different ways, and hopefully something sticks or hopefully audiences eventually start to spread the word and gain some sort of traction that can slowly grow.

What’s changed since 2013-14 with Canopy and 2022 now with Little Tornadoes?

AW: Social media, in particular. And also lockdown happened so people are in their homes a little bit more, they’re reluctant to come out. Yes, they’ll go and see some tentpole productions, but when it means investigating smaller films that they would otherwise have seen in a cinema for that cinematic experience, it’s just hard to bring them back to make them realise, “Oh, there is a reason why we love cinema.”

I guess the tour has been good because it’s allowed audiences to connect, especially small country towns and go “Oh, it reminds me of that communal nature of being out around people and having conversation about something that relates to us. I’m going to tell my friends about this.” They wouldn’t think of it until they’ve actually been in the situation. It’s bringing the horse to water, you know? Once they’re in that room, they get it, but it’s getting them there.

What’s surprised you with the conversations you’ve had with audiences? Have there been any that have really stuck out in your mind?

AW: It’s not so much surprising, but it is interesting that every single Q&A has been the same passionate energy around “This is an important subject. It’s very authentic and real, but in a way that we enjoy. We relate to it, it’s a celebration of who we are.” And people are embracing that. And they do it through conversation with each other in the room, the conversation bounces around from person to person and the Q&A goes for like an hour. It becomes a discussion.

That’s really what I was hoping for, using regional cinemas as cultural and social hubs that bring people out after lockdown. And to celebrate not just cinema, but who we are, and having discussions about who we are as Australians. So it has become more than just the film. But it’s hard to then disseminate that into the press and media to say, “Hey, this tour is happening and it’s creating these ripples.” But it happens in isolation if you don’t have any attention focused on it.

People are still very risk-averse as to what they actually go out and see. It’s confusing. They want the safe or the norm. But they’re afraid of going out to test something that might challenge them or might reflect their own experiences.

AW: It’s interesting too that cinemas are cautious as well. “Oh, we don’t know if audiences will connect with this. We don’t know whether they’ll want to see this sort of film.” But every time when we show, the managers of the cinema are watching what the audience are saying and how they’re reacting. They’re surprised. “Oh, wow, they really connect to it. Maybe we should look at a season, maybe we should look at more sessions.”

It’s not surprising, I guess. But people are generally risk-averse. And I think with cinemas, [they’re] doing it tough. They want to go for a safe bet. Trying to position this film was something that with a bit of love and a bit of care, it can be more than just a ‘little’ film. It can be something that can grow into something more impacting and more of a conversation piece nationally. It’s just trying to figure out how to kick it off, how to best get the momentum.

I was in the cinema the other week and a trailer for Little Tornadoes that popped up, and there was a older audience of men and women behind me. And I think it was a group that, by the sound of it, go to the cinema every single week. And one of them was going, “Oh, that guy.” When Mark [Leonard Winter] came on the screen, “Oh that guy, I’ve seen him in stuff before, I liked him.” And then when Christos [Tsiolkas]’s name popped up, they’re like, “Oh that’s right, I’ve heard about this film on the radio. Christos was talking about this on the radio.” And they immediately after the film bought tickets to the screening that’s coming up. That kind of organic discussion, the awareness of having somebody like Christos available to be able to go talk about the film or having a familiar face in the film — it’s those small things that are hard to pinpoint how to actually gain the audience. But at the very least, you know, it’s a step forward. You’ve got four tickets sold here in WA so it’s good. [laughs]

AW: As long as those four people then tell twenty friends, yes. That’s what I’ve been trying to spruik as well. I have my salesperson hat on at every session, explaining a bit about how hard it is, but also what they can do. Because cinemas will listen to people, they won’t necessarily listen to filmmakers. If someone says, “Why isn’t this film screening here?” “Okay, I’ll look into it.” And if someone says, “Oh wow, that film was amazing,” then they’re going to listen to what the audience is saying.

Let’s start talking about the film itself. I am a big fan of Mark. I think that he is one of the most gifted actors that we’ve got working today. I am always excited to see him on screen, and he’s given a very different performance than what he’s given recently in like Disclosure or Measure to Measure. How did you go about casting Mark and deciding that he was the right person to base this whole film around?

AW: I think I auditioned around ten people for the role. I was recommended people by my wonderful casting director, Jane Norris. Mark was the second person that I spoke to. I think Jane pointed him out and said, “You’ll come back to him,” and I did. I guess it was his quiet intensity. It wasn’t so much what he brought to the room, but it was just himself occupying space. I was curious about him, so I had further chats with him. From those chats came an understanding, I could see how the character would fit in the world of the film.

When we went to film, Mark turned up about three weeks early and wanted to just hang around town. He also moved into the factory space and basically worked there for two weeks. He got the guys of our crew to teach him how the lathes work, and he basically worked the lathes. So he knew how to work the machinery by the end. In the scenes, he is working the machinery. They were a bit worried about his long hair at the start.

He’s just doing and existing in that space, as if he were a factory worker. He brought an authenticity and an ability to fit into that world that was already existing, and I think therefore [he] fit into the rhythm of that world and the pace. His performance was almost reflexive, reactive to the world around him. The people that are in the factory who are in the scene as extras – he’s reactive to their rhythm and tone.

How much did you have to change the town to fit the era that you’ve set the film in? Was there much change with set dressing or creating era-specific stuff?

AW: There’s a lot of textures in the town that haven’t changed in the last fifty, sixty years. That factory for example, the lathes are all 1950s vintage, with years of wear and tear and grease. When we went to film actually, on the day of filming, the factory owner came in and said, “Oh, I haven’t cleaned it up yet. I haven’t wiped the walls down.” I’m like, “Do not touch the walls. Don’t touch them. Leave it.”

So it was capturing that lived-in experience as it already exists, but then embellishing it with textures that we found from around the town. Our production designer Tim [Burgin] and our costume designer Maria [Tsoukas] would go and speak to locals and source not so much collectibles, but items that were in use at people’s homes and place them into the scene. And then we brought in locals to get their thoughts on, “How does this look? Is this what it looked like in 1971?” And then they would help with their sort of advice and perspective. But also bearing in mind that in the country, things feel a bit older because they don’t renew and change things as much because if it works, don’t replace it, don’t fix it.

I think that’s part of the theme of the film too, that things move a little bit slower there. And unfortunately, it’s also the place that people have to go to start their life in Australia, the migrant experience. Can you talk about creating that migrant story in this film?

AW: The world that the film is set in is definitely shot in my hometown region. And it’s the hometown of our director of photography Stefan Duscio. It’s a naturally vibrant, diverse place. Lots of Calabrian and Sicilian Australians came across in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies. There’s that natural colour and energy and life from that influx of Italians. I wanted to reflect that and comment on that being an organic part of this world, that it exists, and it just forms part of the story in the fabric of the world.

But also the world as a character, trying to bring in that Murray River landscape, the river itself, the feeling of what it’s like to live in that world and how it affects the characters. It’s interesting that a lot of the Italians that came over came from similar climates, so they gravitated towards that Murray River region, because it was good for growing fruit or growing produce that they were used to growing. It wasn’t the big city, but it just felt like the ruralness of the world they came from. And now it’s evolved into this great part of regional Australia that has this organic mix of diversity.

It’s beautifully captured on screen. Stefan is easily one of the best cinematographers working at the moment. Can you talk about working with him on this film?

AW: When we researched the world of the film, we spent weeks just wandering spaces that we used to inhabit as kids. I grew up in Tocumwal on the north of the river, and he grew up in Cobram not more than five ks as the crow flies, as my father would say. And we just wandered the space of the forest and the town, the streets, the back streets. We wanted to find spaces that felt affecting to us but also helped to create and build a world as a character. What spaces in the morning look different to maybe in the evening [and] gave you an eerie, surreal, more suspenseful feel. That way you’re creating something people haven’t seen before. But at the same time, it captures an authenticity and a real sense of that part of regional Australia.

I liked the warmth of the house as well. Obviously, the crux of the narrative is that the mother has gone. But there is still a warmth, a familial warmth there that is brought there by Mark’s character. Can you talk about how you went about creating that feeling in that home?

AW: The home is almost like a little bubble. With the sound design, we focused on room tone. We wanted to feel like once the doors are closed, it locks the outside out and it’s this little oasis. And using the textures of the Seventies, the blankets and the bedhead, the lighting to create worlds that feel familiar and nostalgic, but at the same time, they feel intimate.

They talk about the importance of family and spaces for family to occupy, that would feel familiar for people so they created a juxtaposition against the big landscapes outside. Once you’re inside, that world is shut off. We’re in the space of the characters and the sound design, everything is very intimate and quiet. We’re drawn closer to the characters.

One of the things which I felt as I was watching was this felt like a film that was written for somebody that you know, and then at the end, of course, you’ve got the note “For My Nan.” I’m wondering if you can talk about your nan, because I’d love to hear about her.

AW: I think I recognise in my nan – she’s been this presence in my life since I was born. So we grew up on a farm, and my grandparents lived about 40 metres away, 50 metres away, up until my grandfather passed away and then my nan moved to Melbourne when she was ninety. But even after that, when I moved to Melbourne, I would always seek her counsel.

I would be able to talk to her about anything and everything in my life. And she would listen and offer a perspective that was a little bit different to everyone else in my family. She was always someone that grounded me in what I was doing, but gave me a strong connection to place, that world that I came from. So I think yeah, in telling this story, it was a way of celebrating the world that I came from, that culture on the Murray River. But also recognising the importance of family, that even if you drift, it sort of pulls you back. It’s something that I’m always going to respect.

It’s interesting, we had our gala screening recently in Melbourne, and it was five days after my nan had passed away. That was a very bittersweet night for me. But it was a nice way for me to recognise the legacy of the impact she had on my life. And I’ve now got this film to celebrate. It’s my way of celebrating my connection to her and family and beyond that, my community that I grew up in.

That’s really beautiful. Grandmothers and nans. They mean so much to us in our lives.

AW: I think it’s something that’s universal, too. When I travel around different parts of the world, as I drift further away from home, I make friends. People in different cultures and different countries have a strong connection to their family members, and you look at the relationship from father and son or the grandmother and grandson or granddaughter. You look at the commonality of those experiences. What are the things at the heart of those connections that we all can relate to?

I’ve used that when I’ve come back to make this film. And it’s very hard. It’s a story about a family dealing with trauma, overcoming obstacles, and how do they move forward not necessarily with the best skills to do so? But how do they adapt and move forward? For me, it’s always recognising the importance of family when you’re going through these sorts of things, and the universality of that experience. Hopefully, I’ve created a film that that has a universal appreciation of family at its core.

I think it certainly does. That complexity is in the father as well. I want to talk about one of the most visually impressive sequences in the film where he has those memories of the war. Can you talk about creating that visual style?

AW: When I had made my previous feature Canopy, we released that in 2013 so a while back now, but in the research for that film, I was speaking to a lot of ex-POWs about their war experience. And when they speak to me, it wasn’t so much about events that happened, it was about either the silence between events when they actually were free to let their mind drift and think about their predicament, or it was years later and where their mind would go to when they’re out on the farm or when they’re at a pharmacy by themselves. And they would just drift, they would always be drifting back into those spaces that haunt them. They’d describe what that looked like, and it was the same story over and over.

I wanted to reflect [in that scene] in a visual cinematic way the feeling of what it must be like to drift back into traumatic moments. And for me, it was about exploring trauma that persists from the war and from many wars, but the trauma that persists down the generations. And that’s very relevant in small country town where you see the next generation of soldiers, particularly from Second World War, that live with the resonant effects of the father’s experience. And then how do we move forward, hindered by those traumatic elements in our family? How do we adapt and how do we move? It really informed the storytelling for me. I don’t linger on it for too long.

For a lot of Australian filmmakers, there is this desire to push into masculinity, the remoteness in the rural towns of masculinity. Can you talk about what you find interesting about both the rural towns and the way that masculinity grows and changes in those areas?

AW: In the regional area that I came from, I think it’s the physical isolation that really affects the emotional isolation of these characters. You’ve already got men who are stoic and don’t say a lot. Then if there’s trauma affecting them or things in their life they have to deal with, it’s made harder by that physical isolation. I wanted to explore intimately what it might feel like for someone in that situation, when the doors are closed, when no one’s looking. Looking at the vulnerability of these people and exploring things that perhaps you don’t like talking about so much, but we know we have to, and it’s a bit uncomfortable. It’s things that are very personal to me, it’s the world that I came from, it’s people I know in that world.

But also the maleness in context to the women and the absence of women particularly at a period in time in early Seventies when there’s a great social change happening and society is really questioning expectations on women and gender roles.

It’s almost “What would I have been like if I had grown up in that time period and stayed in the country and didn’t move to the city?” It’s you as an individual trying to find your sense of self, your identity. And it’s hard enough to do at the best of times, let alone in a world where it’s physically isolating. I guess all these things were at play in my head when I wanted to explore the maleness of this world.

How did you go about writing the character of Maria and discovering what role she might play within the actual story itself?

AW: Maria evolved quite a lot because for me, she was symbolic of the change in the air and the energy that came in with the new migrants, the Italians into my hometown region. And we literally use food as a symbol for the warmth and the beauty that can come in and bring families together. It’s reflective of the change that happens to our culture and society as a consequence of new migrants coming and we grow and we strengthen as a consequence.

But I think over the course of finishing the film, we decided we wanted to really strengthen Maria’s voice. Christos particularly – coming on board in post-production – it was his decision to give Maria a stronger voice through the narration, and then also mixing Italian with English. We see on screen Leo, this man who is unable to speak but we see his journey. And then we hear Maria’s journey through the narration. And at some point in the film, these two characters converge, and we then see her on screen.

But it’s the combination of hearing her voice commenting on the world as an outsider, and then seeing her as this bringer of colour and energy and love into the home. That creates different dimensions to her character that really speak to the beauty of the migrant experience, and looking at the world anew, looking at the world through outsider eyes, and how that makes us re-evaluate the landscape that we live in.

What was that experience like with the post-production, working with Christos and writing that narration? What kind of discussions did you have?

AW: When we were starting to develop the narration for Maria, there were a lot of park walks. [laughs] It was during pandemic 2020, so we would be wandering and putting things out there. For example, the graves. Christos wrote about the cleaning of the graves and how that’s important for Maria, and how the Australian graves are dirty and they don’t clean them.

These are things that maybe another culture – say in Chinese culture, it’s important as well. Qingming is a period of the year where the family goes and cleans the grave. This experience and tradition of keeping the graves clean isn’t just an Italian experience, it’s Greek and also Chinese. It speaks to a greater immigrant feeling in the story. It was trying to imbue that narration with something more than just a singular Italian point of view. As an outsider looking into this world, how does that add to the story of the film and create something multi-layered?

Christos was a wonderful collaborator. He’s very generous at looking at the footage and the material that was there and really strengthening and enhancing it in a way that I certainly couldn’t have done. He brings a delicate intimate and sensitive approach to that.

To allow another writer to come on to work with you, what kind of emotional process did you go through with that? Was there a moment of vulnerability, questioning whether it was the right decision? I imagine that’s got to be a difficult choice to make.

AW: I was sitting down with my editor Cindy [Clarkson] in post. We knew that we wanted to have an extra voice in the film. We didn’t quite know how to bring it in. And I didn’t really have the skills to write it. I wanted to approach a writer that I thought that had that intimacy and vulnerability in his work. And for me, that was Christos.

So we approached him and sent him the edit, and thankfully, he responded very positively, came back and said, “Yes, I’m in.” So once that happened, it was really about empowering him. Well, sharing the vision firstly, but then once you share the vision, it’s like any other collaborator on your project. You want them to bring something spectacular and exciting to the project that you couldn’t have created. It’s part of filmmaking being this collaborative journey, so I’m very open to sharing that journey with all of my team. Once Christos is on board, he’s sculpting something that could only have come from him and makes the film infinitely stronger and richer as a consequence of his collaboration.

I think it’s quite powerful, the marriage between that dialogue and what’s going on in Leo’s life. It subverts what a narration is. Narration has traditionally been treated in some ways as being just telling you what’s on screen.

AW: Exactly. He was at pains to create something that enhanced what was already there. It wasn’t going to repeat what you’re seeing, it needed to be an extra layer. Christos’ point of view is different, the son of immigrants, compared to me, I grew up in this small country town and I know this world very intimately but from the inside. You bring these two stories, these perspectives together, they create this great juxtaposition, this exploration of what it means to be Australia and the importance of our history and how it is relevant to what happens today.

You’re exploring some really interesting things on screen: Canopy with the war, and here we’re talking about a multicultural Australia, effectively a boiling pot of different themes and ideas. How important is that to you as an Australian filmmaker? Is that what you want your identity as an Australian filmmaker to be?

AW: I think I’ve explored this in some of my shorts as well. But for me, the beauty of Australia and our culture is that it’s constantly evolving. When people come from different countries and different places, they bring this colour and energy that ultimately contributes towards the greater Australian society. We’re small enough that we adjust and we shift and we grow and we strengthen, so each generation of people that come from a different world contribute something and adds to the cultural landscape, and we’re constantly shifting and becoming something richer and more dynamic.

The film was a way of me saying, “Hey, fifty years ago, this happened. And at the time, there was fear and caution, people were worried about these new arrivals. But ultimately, we look back and [realise] we’re so much richer as a culture because of what these people have brought and contributed towards Australia.” And that constantly happens. It’s happening again today. It’s something we should be celebrating as Australians and be proud of, and recognising that’s what is Australian culture, and that’s what makes a strong part of our identity.

You’ve gone between shorts and features and documentaries. Is there a format that you enjoy working with the most? Or just enjoying the exploration of the different styles and the different languages of these types of films?

AW: I do a lot of commercials as well. I do a bunch of stuff in Southeast Asia. I think it comes down to the stuff I’m drawn to is cross-cultural connection, when you’ve got people from different backgrounds and you find this point of commonality that connects us. The same happened with this film inadvertently, it came about through the writing and also once Christos came on board. It became a process of our collaboration.

It’s what I’m drawn to as someone who was born in a small country town, then traveled to Melbourne, then overseas. I’ve come back and reflected on my birthplace and the importance of that, but the importance of it as a microcosm for the greater Australian society. We are a land of mixed cultures and mixed peoples. But that mixing is ultimately what makes us really special. I guess my work is a quiet way of exploring that cross-cultural connection.

The title of this film is Little Tornadoes, and there is a shot in the film of an actual kind of tornado in a way. Can you talk about creating that shot or managing the luck for getting that shot?

AW: It’s luck. As a kid, you grew up seeing those little dust devils, the whirly-whirlies. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you call them a different thing. But it was those little disturbances that happen in life, they pop up and they take a bit of topsoil away. But you get on with life, you move on. For me, it was the symbolism of that, but I wanted to have a shot in there somewhere of that.

And it’s like anything – when you go looking for it, it’s very hard to find. I remember it was around burn-off season. I’d sat on a paddock for about two or three days. Nothing happened. And then my brother the day after I left sent me a video to say, “Hey, is this what you’re after?” It was the perfect dust devil. I ended up going back and we captured this shot with a drone. So a bit of luck, a bit of persistence. A little bit of tumultuousness happening in life. It’s just part of regional life, things that have happened, little textures and we don’t draw attention to it as being a big scene. It’s just an incidental moment, and then we move on.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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