Ulysses Oliver Heads Along the Love Road As He Discusses Breathless Films in This Interview

Love Road is Ulysses Oliver’s directorial debut. It’s also one of five films that have screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 2022 and 2023 that hail from production company Breathless Films. In 2022, Breathless Films screened Lonesome and The Longest Weekend at the festival, with Tennessine, Biredeater, and Love Road screening at the 2023 run.

Love Road is a non-linear relationship drama that follows Jaz (Shalane Connors) as her relationship with Daniel (Ishak Issa) splits. As that fracture takes place, so does our engagement with their story, with the narrative jumping between timelines to give viewers the sense of how the past informs the present. While Jaz evades Daniel’s presence, she also deals with a more heartbreaking issue: the loss of her mother (Aileen Beale).

In the below interview, recorded ahead of the opening of the festival, Ulysses talks about the inspiration behind Love Road before going in depth into the vision and community focus that comes from Breathless Films.

Love Road screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 8 and 9; Birdeater screens on June 11, 14, and 18; and Tennessine screens on June 13 and 16.

Where did the concept for Love Road come from?

Ulysses Oliver: I’m a producer, as well as a director and a writer, and I came at it from the angle of, “Okay, I happened to have a window of opportunity in my life, what is achievable [in that time] and maybe I can dedicate a small amount of funds to what’s achievable within that kind of scope.”

Married with that was that I was going through similar issues to Jaz in terms of [losing] a parent. My father had passed away and then my mother was sick as well, so it was pretty rough stuff to process. Then I had these little segments or bits of relationships that were going around in my head, some of which I’ve written down. I ended up [with] a series of twelve essays on different themes of a cycle of love that I’ve been working with over a number of years.

I’m a big fan of Wim Wenders, King of the Road, that kind of approach to filmmaking where you take a location and kind of transpose your idea and your story on top of it. It was motivated from doing the road trip that these two characters go on and finding locations along the way, and then retrofitting these ideas about love and loss and the cycle of a relationship on top of that. The nonlinear structured relationship felt like a good marriage for something a bit like Guy Pearce’s character in Memento, where you go backwards in [the] edit to get into the mindset of a character. In this case, we’re nonlinear jumping between the three different time periods to capture that space of how we process memories. Particularly when we’re trying to figure stuff in our scattered mindset. Some of the beginnings of writing the story was in that mindset as well and processing some things that, for better or for worse, have happened in relationships.

As you’re talking about that scattered mindset, I’m reminded of the feeling when you’re in a place, and something contextual sparks a memory of something that feels similar to that location. There’s a cut where Jaz is in her car, we see her sitting there, and then we cut and see in the passenger seat her mother’s urn. You can be walking and experiencing your day, and then suddenly, a memory of something hits you in a very unexpected way. I felt that that was the case for these characters where this relationship is echoed through time, and that echo hits them in unexpected ways. That’s the way we experience day to day life where the relationships that we may have had with people, whether it be fleeting or long and powerful, they carry through our lives in fascinating ways. That’s what I felt from the characters, and that’s where we experience via the road trip.

UO: I think you’re right. By leaving out all the bits in the relationship that happened between these three timelines on this road trip, I [was] trying to capture the idea that sometimes it’s only when you revisit these places, or when you’re stuck in a car together, and you’re forced to have these moments of reflection or moments of togetherness, [they] always tend to [become] a cathartic, make or break relationship moment. It’s fun to also play with the audience a little bit [about whether you] can fill in the gaps and use your imagination in terms of piecing it together. What’s happened between those moments is interesting as well in your imagination.

There’s a few spots like that [throughout the film]; her with the urn, her driving and then she looks at a cafe and then we go back in time, and when she gets to the house, we cut back and look at that. It was very much written as I was going down the road trip, “Okay, what’s happening? What can be motivated at each of these places? What happens at the same place, but at different times?

With that in mind, how did you shoot it? A linear perspective would kind of make sense but in the same hand, you’re on that location, so you’ve got to monopolise your time there.

UO: It was written in a nonlinear fashion. As much as it jumps around in timelines, there’s a three-act structure and a trajectory along the road. We did retrofit the schedule. We did the middle timeline first, because we needed Ishak to grow a beard. Then we did the young love second, and the final timeline third just so there was a bit of an emotional arc for the actors. It was all done over two weeks with four-day chunks, we did four [days], then four and then four. We weren’t driving in a linear direction the whole time. We looped back and forth, over multiple takes and multiple days. It was kind of doing that road trip four times. And then we got into the edit room and jumbled it all up again in a different order than what we had originally envisaged.

Did that surprise you in the edit?

UO: Oh definitely. I think that’s always the case. In a nonlinear film, you do have an infinite number of possibilities in terms of how to piece it together, for better or for worse. This film was shot three years ago, so that’s how long it took me to work out the puzzle pieces to put it back together. When we did an initial rough-cut, editing to the script, it came in as a two-and-a-half-hour film. Cutting it down to [the] 86-minute runtime was a challenge. Being out on the road, everything was done in two takes. Some were better than others, so there were all those challenges in the edit that you have to work around. At some point you have to go ‘it is what it is,’ and put it out into the world.

I know as a writer that there are things that I write that other people won’t see. And as a filmmaker, there are things that you will film that audiences won’t see at all. But it’s that understanding of knowing when it’s time to relinquish control and letting it out into the wild. Having a film festival like Sydney Film Festival is a great deadline creator, a push to say, “I have to have it complete by this stage.”

With that in mind, we’ll shift to talking about the Sydney Film Festival and your relationship with the festival. Last year you screen Lonesome and The Longest Weekend, and this year you have Tennessine, Love Road, and Birdeater. Filmmakers would be excited to get one film into Sydney Film Festival, but in your capacity as a producer and as a director, you’ve had five films in two years. How do you feel about that?

UO: We’re very proud. We submit the films like anybody else. Obviously, it says a bit about what we’ve managed to achieve. It’s not just Breathless, ever film has its own village of people that have come together to make it work. The director of each film brings their own posse to work with us, and none of the films would have made if that wasn’t the case. We’re partnering up, if you like, with these different vehicles. I think maybe that’s a strength of ours in that we don’t claim full control over any of these films, we’re more here to facilitate getting those films made.

The flip side though, is that it’s very hard to get a feature film made. You don’t make that many. There’s obviously a place for the Screen Australia way of making films, but we’ve kind of been programmed in Australia to think that that’s the only way to make a film. And I suspect, more and more people are going to catch up to our way of thinking. We’ve seen that we you can make it in other ways. Maybe we’re a little bit of a forerunner of hopefully creating more of a truly independent, ‘French New Wave-style’ of how to make films.

On the Breathless Films website, it says, “We believe the best art comes from limitation and necessity.” Those are strong words that say a lot about the kinds of films that you’re creating. Films like Lonesome and The Longest Weekend, these aren’t traditional films that the funding agencies would usually support. These are queer stories, and for want of a better term, they’re still considered fringe cinema. Yet, there is an appetite for these stories. Can you talk about presenting these stories to audiences and how that feeds into that limitation and necessity mindset that is behind breathless films?

UO: I think you said yourself, they are the type of films that a funding body would not necessarily take a risk on. They’re not the kind of films that have a guaranteed return at the box office. We end up leaning on stories that are going to work. You’re not competing against those bigger vehicles; you need to make stories where it doesn’t matter that you don’t have [an A-list name]. We’ve got certain [actors] that show up in some of our films that have a bit of kudos to them, and that certainly helps, but it’s not necessarily reliant on that. We are going through more stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told, but also stories that it doesn’t matter that you don’t have a $5, $10, $20 million budget [for]. It’s about the internal characterisation, maybe in a subtle way, looking at a political view, or it’s LGBT stories with Lonesome, or gritty realism and telling authentic stories or characters that don’t fit into the kind of stereotypical form that we like to put things in in Australia.

I think the great struggle is that we do need to financially justify [when] we’re making these films. It’s less of a hole to dig, but we’re digging it. We are the ones that are burning a hole in the back pocket. We need to believe that there is a market out there. Internationally, as much as there is probably less money going around [for] theatrical [releases] for independent cinema, there is a huge market now with streamers for indie films. It’s not huge financially, but there’s a lot of sales agents and distributors out there that that will give you a small amount of money that is enough to hopefully keep the cycle of films going. [We’re] working on what we put in, rather than what we can get out and rather than thinking of it as, “How do we justify this to Screen Australia to give us a million dollars?”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Each time, you go to ask for funding, you have to justify your existence. We exist. We tell great stories. Therefore, surely, it’s self-evident. But that is the difficulty of funding models and having to write proposals. As much as you are creative people, you’ve also got to have that business mindset, which can be so difficult. I take my hat off to filmmakers like yourself who have to balance so many different things just to get films made.

Within Breathless Films, there is an emerging community of creatives. You use the same talent across films. With Love Road, you’ve got Shalane Connors, who is also in Tennessine. You’re using directors, writers, producers, like yourself, across different projects. What does it mean to be able to build up that kind of community within Breathless Films?

UO: Aileen Beale, who is in Love Road, played the voice of the mother in Lonesome. At one point, we were toying with the idea of having these little subtle links between all the films, in a Sliding Doors kind of a way. Certainly, across the crew, there’s a real community building on that side of things. You do you keep going back to the same crew in a lot of cases. I’m fortunate enough that my son, Julian Oliver, who’s in his mid-20s now, he did a music engineering degree, so he’s worked across all five films, doing both sound recording and sound design, and some music as well on Love Road and Birdeater.

The camera crews, production design, the art department and makeup are all shared across [most] films. I guess we consider these first five films to be our first slate, we’re now we’re now working on a second slate of films where we’re looking at working with a bunch of the same creative writers and directors. So look out for that.

Alongside building that community, there is also a real strong sense of coming out of the gates with a creative confidence. “These are the stories that we want to tell. We’re not afraid to tell them in our way that. We’re going to push how we want our narratives to go forward and how we want to see those kinds of stories being told.” I really appreciate it that about Breathless Films in the sense that it doesn’t pander to the expectations of what people might expect. You must be proud.

UO: I am proud, although, that occurs to me that maybe that’s a symptom of a relatively short turnaround of from seeding an idea to final product. The flipside of that is sometimes I wish there was more work done in development, and that we had more time to shoot, and we had more time to work in the post production, or that we had a bit more resources or whatever it might be, but then would the films get made if we were more precious about these things? Probably not.

What’s the expression? Opportunity meeting good luck or limitations breed creativity? I think it has been that, and I think that that’s what comes through as a result. I don’t know about you, but my creative passion only goes so far to where I can really deep dive into something. I feel like [there’s] a two-year window where that’s sustainable, but we’re asking filmmakers to have that over five to ten years with more conventional pathways. You then spend five years going through revision after the revision and trying to pain yourself to make everybody happy. I think you end up with a different type of film.

You can spend so long polishing a rock before it becomes just a grain of sand. It becomes so different from what it was to begin with. Sometimes that’s really good, and then other times, that really impacts the creative drive. As you’re saying, you have a certain period of time where that creative spark is sitting there, and you’ve got to really monopolise on it otherwise you could become bored.

UO: And in this short timespan, disposable modern world we live in, I think that’s more and more the case.

I’m curious if, after our global COVID experience, that reminder of the fragility of life and how fleeting life can be if that has played into how you create things?

UO: I think it definitely did. Now with the second slate it’s easier because we’ve got all these runs on the board, so people believe when we say we’re going to do something that we can do it. All four of those other films were shot in that gap between the different lockdowns. People [were] itching to get out there and create something. They were willing to take risks. That was quite fortuitous. Hopefully that then shows now off the back end of COVID, [we can] still we continue to have that bit of energy.

I can see workplaces and offices are now starting to force people to go back into the office full time, so we are going a bit more back to the old way of doing things. Although hopefully that will change in terms of thinking more outside of the box. At the same time, at Breathless, we don’t want to lose that very pragmatic, independent ‘limitation breeds creativity’ side of things, but we also want to find ways to evolve and be bigger.

At the moment, we’re actually trying to find the right balance of not wanting to lose that while also upscaling to a degree. Lonesome did okay, and had a theatrical release, but it’s not a Blair Witch Project [level of success.] We’re not putting in X and getting that times 100. That’d be amazing to actually make this whole thing truly work. Right now, it’s still a lot of doing a lot for very little but, we’re still up for the challenge.

With that in mind, how do you decide on what kind of projects that will get off the ground? Do you do market research? Do you say, “Thrillers are really popular right now, will they still be popular in two years’ time when we get it off the ground?”

UO: I think the first slate was more our taste and what was pragmatically feasible. While the second slate has been a lot more research [based]. We brought in Paul Struthers as part of our team who has a background in marketing and the film festival circuit and so we’ve learned a lot from him leading that charge. We’re spending a lot more time trying to go to markets, either by proxy or directly. We had the producer of Birdeater, Stephanie Troost, at Cannes recently making lots of meetings.

We probably will look at doing a horror film and leaning in a little bit more on genre or leaning in a little bit more on films that have a topical flavour that would make it more sellable in the market. If you compare Lonesome to Love Road, I’m very proud of it, but is there a really big marketplace for a nonlinear heterosexual relationship drama? We’ll see.

We’re looking at working with some bigger name directors and cast. Those kinds of things do help. It’s almost a shame but we probably won’t be making five films in two years [again.] It’s tough. I think maybe a film every six months is still pretty good going.

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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