The Team Behind the Bloody Brilliant Short Fim BALD FUTURE Chat About Crafting Dark Comedy in Australia in This Interview

I’ve watched plenty of films where the filmmakers were in attendance, but at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival in July 2023, it was a rare occasion to not know that the filmmakers were sitting right behind me during the screening of their film. Sure enough, director Reilly Archer-Whelan and writer Michael Whyntie had unexpectedly sat behind me to watch their pitch-black comedy Bald Future as it played at the festival.

It was lucky then that I found myself laughing hysterically at the story of a bald office worker Peter (Jess Kenneally) who is outwardly resented and scorned by his boss Owen (Mark Samual Bonanno) for his follicular failure as a colleague. On paper, Bald Future reads like a tale of harsh bullying and abuse, suggesting a leaden experience that has almost become expected from Australian cinema, but instead, it’s a ridiculously raucous satire that dismantles office work culture and the societal structure that it exists within.

Bald Future showcases a comedic double hander for the ages, with an almost silent performance from Jess Kenneally who gives a comfortable deadpan turn against Aunty Donna’s follicularly gifted Mark Samual Bonanno. Michael Whyntie’s dialogue plays out like an Amy Sherman-Palladino script that’s been round the s-bend a few times: it’s filthy, it’s frenetic, and it’s a little bit furious too, all of which gives Mark a fresh field to play on and absolutely tear up.

To find out more about how the film was made and where the inspiration for this style of comedy came from, I had a chat with Reilly, Michael, and Jess. Bald Future is on the long list for the 2024 AACTA Awards Best Short Film, and has screened at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival, CinefestOz, and is a semi-finalist for Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival.  

Bald Future screens in the Fantastic Shorts set at CinefestOz on Thursday August 31 alongside other winning Aussie shorts like Sweet Juices, Assets, and Waves.

To kick off the discussion, I asked Michael where the inspiration for the film came from, “I used to work in law firms, and they were very dry office spaces. I found that a lot of offices end up like living in a bit of a bubble. It’s quite divorced from the real world. A lot of the people I worked with were particularly weird. When you’re working in these environments, people are always playing power games, and trying to manipulate each other. They think it’s just a small-scale world that they live in and they’re trying to grab this tiny little bit of power that the job might afford them, and I thought that was ripe for satire.”

The imbalance of power between Peter and Owen is taken to absurd levels, with Reilly noting that Owen hates Peter for no good reason as he thinks that this office world really matters, leading Peter to get caught up in playing this ludicrous office game.

Michael mentioned that the subject of baldness was inspired by a friend who was paranoid about going bald, leading the satire to flow into the realm of exaggeration. Jess, who is bald himself, joked, “It would be a fun way to put his mind at ease about going bald. We don’t get self-conscious.”

Given the subject of baldness can be a sensitive one, I had to ask what wording was used for a casting call like this. Jess responds with a funny story:

“The casting call for this was through a mutual filmmaker friend who we both know who messaged me, and she said, ‘I’ve got some filmmakers who need an actor, and I think you’d be great for it.’ I’m like, awesome. That’s the thing that any actor wants to hear, ‘I think you’d be good for this role.’ I said, ‘Cool, send me the script,’ and then I got the file attachment and the first page says Bald Future, and I was like, ‘Okay, I get it. Yeah. That makes total sense.’

“From there I read the script and I had a great laugh. I thought it was quite funny with the satire and the ridiculousness of it. There’s no hiding that going bald can throw up a few emotions, but I accepted my fate a long time ago, so I wasn’t too stressed.”

It’s clear within Bald Future that Peter’s baldness is not the source of the comedy with the laughs instead coming from the heightened, absurd levels that Owen belittles Peter, and as such, Peter feels the need to compensate and atone for his lack of hair. For Reilly, it was important that they worked with an actor who understood the level of comedy they were working with, “It’s definitely important to us to work with an actor who felt comfortable with what we were doing and understood that it was about making fun of the people who are making fun of them.”

The pivotal moment in Bald Future comes when the new employee, a Fabio-alike Brad (Joseph Green), arrives and disrupts the flow of the office with his luscious long locks of hair. To spoil what happens to Brad would be to rob Bald Future of one of its greatest laughs, but needless to say, I think this was the moment that I laughed the loudest.

Striking that balance of satire is a difficult one that both Reilly and Michael managed to achieve brilliantly by bringing a level of body horror into the fold. Reilly comments about it, “With the comedy environment, in order for things to be funny you really need to escalate everything and escalate the unexpected. That’s where the comedy comes from. For us, it was exaggerating that experience and taking it to absurd extremes.”

Michael adds in, “The body horror stuff lends itself really well to an office environment. There’s just something about it in an office that really works satirically. To the extreme, when you’re in an office you have to contort yourself and mutate yourself and your behaviour. It’s this exaggerated world where people are hyped up a bit and body horror effectively expresses that to the extreme.”

As much as the body horror works to the extreme, so does Mark as an actor, with many of the lines being uttered with speckles of spit flying in the air. I asked Jess what it was like to act against someone like Mark and to absorb the tirade of words that Mark delivers to him.

“It’s funny, it’s sort of quite opposite to how I am naturally. I’m quite a talkative, loquacious kind of person. It makes it easier when you’ve got an actor like Mark who is so outrageous and he’s giving so much, and also that the script gives you a lot to react to as well, so it’s not like I’m having to manufacture anything, I was able to react. There was a bit of improv in there so there were new things coming in there so that you’re not giving the same performance each time.

“It definitely is a challenge. If you look at the script, and your character is on the page, but there’s no lines under them, you think ‘Okay, I’m not a part of this,’ but you do know that the focus is purely on you. So you’ve got to find a way to say, ‘I’m not going to be self-conscious about it, I’ve got to take what this person is giving try and genuinely react.’ Being comedy as well, try and react in a way that is going to hopefully generate a laugh.

“I really enjoyed it. It does take two to tango. It’s not somebody doing a one man show or a monologue, and that means that if I’m giving stuff back to the other actors in the scene, it makes it easier for them. It can be a little bit of a dance. I think it was set up really well with these guys describing what they wanted the reactions to be and where Peters head was at and what he’s thinking.”

Reilly talked about how she managed to help Jess get to in the mind space of just reacting, “Kudos to Jess. It’s a lot harder to act without lines because then you’re really focusing on someone’s body and their expressions. He had to really downplay everything and express it purely through these small-scale movements: wide eyes, slumped shoulders, where we position him in the frame. I think a lot of time, that can be a lot harder than expressing things verbally.”

Acting isn’t a competition between two performers, but when one actor has the bulk of the lines, and the other is mostly wordless, it can create a complicated space for the two to bounce off one another. Michael talked about how they managed to use that divide to build on the absurdity of the situation on screen, “I remember we kept telling Mark to interrupt Jess as soon as he would try to talk. The focus was always on Jess and his reaction to when he’s copping it from Mark with close ups on his eyes and his minimalist reactions.”

To amplify that disconnect between colleagues, the level of absurdity within Bald Future is employed to make it feel like Peter is on a different plane than the rest of the people he works with. Not only in a physical manner, where everyone else is dressed in top-of-the-line office wear or has make up on that suggests a night out rather than a day processing spreadsheets, but also in the tonal differences of the deadpan comedy that Jess presents and the absurdist comedy that Mark presents.

Jess responds, “Peter is isolated in the office and in the story he is extremely isolated. Then, everybody else in the office feels almost like they’re in their own film, and Peter is in his own film. For the actors, it’s not that hard to say ‘We’re playing it like this,’ it’s more of a job for these guys in the edit to merge those styles. It’s a cohesive story, and not too long, so you’re not having to fight that for 90 minutes.”

Michael continues, “The entire film takes place from Peter’s point of view. There are so many close ups of him looking at everyone and he just doesn’t know how to fit in this world, and everything is so over the top. Since everything is from his point of view, you see these close ups of him just freaking out all the time.”

The absurdity of Peter’s situation hits peak level with a bloody reveal that acts as a bonkers punchline for the entire film. I won’t spoil what the reveal is, but it involves a prosthetic application of a scalp that, when paired with the deadpan look that Peter gives, is one of the funniest moments in a recent Aussie film. Jess had nothing but praise for that prosthetic too, saying, “That prosthetic was amazing. When you see the film you’ll know what we’re talking about, but it was it phenomenal work by Ella Keys. It looks so real.”

Reilly talked about the work that went into creating the hair piece, “Ella hand sewed every single piece of hair into that scalp.” Michael chimes in, “She had to restitch the hair every day after it was touched or put on.”

As fans of body horror will know, a good practical effect will go a long way to adding to the vibe and tone of a film, and this bloody scalp is proof of that. Jess comments about Ella needing to restitch it saying, “That was my fault. It felt so good and real. I wanted to interact with it, so that just made her job a lot harder, but it was a phenomenal piece.”

I couldn’t help asking given the enthusiasm for this tainted toupee whether Jess wanted to take it home: “Now that I’ve got children, I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep it in the house because it would have been terrifying and created a lot of nightmares. Maybe something to keep in the back shed.”

Given the level of dark comedy that Bald Future eagerly swerves into, I had to ask about how Reilly and Michael decided to push into that level of darkness. Reilly commented, “If anything, we were trying to make it even more absurd. We kept trying to think of ways to make it sillier. Improv helped a lot with that. We would do a couple of takes strict to script and then afterwards we would have a play and do a couple of takes that were more improv. Then it got even sillier, which was great.”

For Jess, that kind of absurdity was a comfort, “One of the good things is you can’t have one foot in, one foot out of that absurdity. Committing to that absurdity was fantastic. That’s where if you pare it back and you don’t fully commit to it, it makes it more difficult. Fully committing in all aspects is what helped for sure.”

Reilly and Michael talked about their collaborative relationship as filmmakers, “Michael is the writer, and then we co-direct during the film. We live together, so I read a lot of early scripts and had my input as well. We worked through a lot of the pre-production so we were on the same page before we got to set. Our workflow is that if someone has an idea, you have to defend that idea, and whoever has the strongest defense wins. So, if I want to do something Michael doesn’t like, I have to try and convince him.” Michael adds, “We don’t do it for no reason. You have to be able to justify why you want.”

Their working relationship has been going for years, and it’s clear there’s a well-considered approach to filmmaking from both Reilly and Michael, as Michael notes, “We shot listed and prevised the whole film. We shot the film with us standing in the locations and everything. It’s the same for our next film, we’re so prepared that we know exactly what we’re going to do, so that even when you have improv we’re prepared for it.”

I asked about whether the manner of testing the film long before cameras even roll is a way of seeing whether a joke actually lands or not. Michael comments, “Definitely, and whether the shots cut together make sense and tell the story in the best way.”

Reilly adds, “For me, it’s about the flow. I usually start with a shot-list and then a storyboard, but even storyboards are still so static, and you don’t know how they’re going to cut together. When we’re doing something like a short film, where we have the opportunity to act it all out and put it together, and then you can see the flow of it before you even shoot. You can go, ‘Oh, this scene is way too long,’ or ‘This feels disruptive,’ or ‘This scene needs more coverage.’”

Jess adds in, “You can always tell who’s prepared and who’s not. I didn’t know that you guys had basically shot it with you standing in for it, but it makes sense. What that does is that that allows you to then have a little bit more freedom in acting, because they’re not discovering on the day things they can or can’t do. There’s always going to be stuff that gets thrown up in the air on the day, whether it’s equipment or whether it is a bit of sunlight coming in you can’t block out or something like that. There’s always going to be something that you’re going to have to adapt to, but if you’ve put in that pre-production work, it gives you the flexibility to be freer as an actor, and it makes it so much more enjoyable. You’re not having to be on the sidelines as much. For acting, so much of the day you’re not on screen, you’re not acting and performing, so if that time is reduced, and everything’s ready and you’ve got that clear direction, and everybody is hitting their marks behind the camera, then it makes for a much better performance on the screen.”

Given the scarcity of comedy in Australian films lately, I had to ask: is this an area they each want to work in?

Jess responds, “There’s not enough comedy in the world. Especially in Australia. I know what you’re saying, there’s a lot of depressing stuff that’s made. I mean, I made a feature and it’s depressing as shit, but it’s an important story that needs to be told. But man, we need to be able to laugh. One of the reasons I was so excited to come on board this project is because it is comedy. That was my first love of getting into acting. There’s a lot of funny people in Australia, and there’s a lot of great filmmakers. I don’t think we allocate enough resources toward it.

Reilly says, “It’s definitely something we want to continue working in. Our next short film is going to be a comedy and we’ve got a couple of different feature ideas that are satires. You can use any kind of genre, whether it be horror or comedy, as a vessel to tell your story, and then it’s not so on the nose. It’s a little bit of a more fun way to approach some serious topics.” For Michael, it’s not just about making a comedic film, it’s also about the vibe on set, “Working with actors like this in an improv way is so much fun on set. For our next one there is going to be a lot of improv as it’s just a fun way to work.”

Naturally, by looking at the future, we can’t help but look at the past, which lead to asking about whether there were any Australian film talents whose film journey they may be inspired by.

From an acting perspective for Jess, Eric Bana was a comedic figure in the nineties on shows like Fast Forward is still yet to be matched. “That guy was and still is hilarious. Starting off with The Castle, he’s still making great Australian films with The Dry. I think anybody who can really blend comedy and drama and acting across genres is something that I absolutely love. Eric Bana and Joel Edgerton are two who show what the pinnacle of Australian careers could be. If I could have anything that approaches that would be it would be amazing.”

For Reilly, looking at the work of her friends is an inspiration, “Isaac Smith has had this journey where he’s had this journey where he made short films and features, and now he’s working on big ABC shows and Netflix shows and has got a very successful career. I found that really inspiring because I think when you look at celebrities, you think that it’s just so unachievable, especially as someone with no connections in the film industry through their family, you think ‘Oh, I’ll never be able to do that.’ And then to see people who are inspirational for us having quite successful careers, it feels possible.”

That feeling that a career or a life in filmmaking was possible then lead to the question of whether they ever felt like they needed to ask for permission to be a filmmaker. Michael responds, “Definitely. That’s why I went to law school. After high school, I went to went into film school, and I just didn’t see any way in. So I was like, ‘I guess I’ll just become a lawyer,’ and then I was horrible at that. I guess I got lucky with a couple of things, like an attachment on a TV show in Adelaide, and then I got into the Victorian College of the Arts, and it just seemed way more practical. When I was much younger, I came from country South Australia, and it just didn’t seem practical at all.”

Reilly provides some useful advice to this, “Just keep trying as well. There’s definitely a point where you get a couple of setbacks and you think, ‘What’s the point?’ and you want to give up, but just keep making things that you’re really passionate about. There’s going to be times in your life where you’re not super passionate about what you’re making, but if you just keep making the things that you’re passionate about on the side, then that helps. For us, that’s connected us to filmmakers and given us more opportunities.”

Jess provides this advice from an actors perspective, “If you want to be in front of the camera, there are so many other hangups. If we’re talking about being bald, I mean, I started when I had hair, so you know when that was a thing for me to go through I was like, ‘Ah, man, half my roles of fucked. I better have a good wig guy.’

“One of the big things that I’ve felt is that it happens immediately for the most minute number of people and you’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to keep doing what you want to do and what you love. You don’t have to grind 24/7 for ten years; you can take those emotional breaks because it’s an emotional industry. It can be soul sucking at times when you feel like ‘I’m not getting where I want to be.’ But, if you’re doing it for the right reasons and the reason are that you love being creative, you love making films or you love performing or writing and if there are things that really make you feel good and things you enjoy, then it will eventually come, whatever that may be. It will take its own course. I love acting and I love making films, but I work as a sound recordist as well. That’s what keeps the lights on. It’s still a part of the industry, but I never want to stop acting. There are some great old man roles in their 70s, and that might probably be where I get my break. But I love doing it, and I think that’s the most important thing.”

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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