Unsound Director Ian Watson Talks Diversity, Representation, and the Need for Consultants on Set

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The new Australian drama, Unsound, has arrived with a well-earned accolade – a Best Indie Film nomination at the 2020 AACTA Awards – as well as a keen celebration of underrepresented communities on film. This drama follows Finn (Yiana Pandelis), a deaf transgender man in Sydney, who meets Noah (Reece Noi), a gay musician who falls for Finn. Together, they discover the comfort of their own identities, while also finding love and a community within each other.

Seasoned television director Ian Watson makes his feature film debut here, with a script written by Ally Burnham. While I personally found the narrative engaging, and the performances quite impressive, I also didn’t feel that I could do the film justice by writing a review about it, especially when a stunning piece of film criticism by multi-gender trans woman Naavikaran exists over at ArtsHub, and so I sat down to talk about the film, the production, about consultants and representation with director Ian Watson.

This is that discussion.

Andrew: The two central performances (Reece Noi and Yiana Pandelis) in Unsound are really, really beautiful and wonderful to see. How did you come about this script in and where did you kind of learn about this kind of story?

Ian: I came onto the script and the production relatively late. Producer, Tsu Shan Chambers, and the writer Ally Burnham had been working on it for several years, and got two or three weeks out of production, and they lost their director. So I was working with a producer Tsu Shan Chambers, we were doing short work at film school, and she asked me whether I – because of my TV experience -, could step across to read and direct it. I thought it was fantastic. I loved the script. I thought it plays right into my sense of where drama should be and how it should be done. So it was a wonderful kind of opportunity for me to get jump across and do a film which I hadn’t done before.

Andrew: Has it surprised you that you hadn’t done a film before?

Ian: It’s the funniest thing. I’ve had films in development. And they’ve just never come through. And for a long time there was a divide between film directors and television directors who were considered two different beasts. I think that’s not the case anymore, because there’s more crossover. But it was just circumstances things didn’t happen. I hadn’t had the opportunity prior to this to be able to actually lock onto a film. So it was well timed.

For me, it was Unsound had already been cast. We had a lot of time in rehearsal, where we workshopped the film, where we workshopped the script. We had consultants with us, we had the AUSLAN consultants and the trans consultants were there with us through the process. So it was just slowly keeping them in an environment where they could work together. And the work is beautiful. They have beautiful connectivity. They’re great as actors, they’re both great listeners, it was an opportunity for us to just develop that core heart of the film, because for me, it was it’s a really complex series of issues that come with the film.

And rather than laying the politics of the film there, what we decided to do is just allow it to be treated as a the story of a love story. And in that way, we could tell this beautiful heartfelt story that allow the politics to exist within that. And then it kind of fell into place.

Andrew: What I like is that Noah and Finn are not defined by who they are. And being trans or being deaf, just happens to be part of who they are as people. And I think so often in film, and TV, you know, we see these stories, and this person is just a trans person, or this person is just deaf, and they’re not allowed to live outside of that kind of bubble that is forced upon them in those realms. So it’s really nice to say that these are fully created characters.

Ian: Absolutely, that’s the beauty of the script that we don’t treat them separately, we treat them as part of the community. And for me, Unsound is essentially about community and identity. And it doesn’t matter what’s your community. And it doesn’t matter what your identity is, as long as the two line up and you find your place in the world. And I thought that the script sort of exemplified that and made that clear, so that we could tell this story, as I was saying, without politicising it too much, because that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is to show how simple and unique their lives are.

Andrew: Can you talk about what kind of discussions took place in making sure that the deaf representation was presented properly and respectfully on screen as well? You’re talking about there being representatives that you talk to prior to making the film, what kind of process did you go through there?

Ian: In the writing process, to begin with, we had consultants from the trans community and the deaf community working with the scripts. And then when we went into rehearsal, we follow that through so we had cast members that were AUSLAN only speakers, so all the time, we had AUSLAN translator with us in rehearsal and on set. We had trans consultants with us in rehearsal and on set so for me, it made it much more of a collaborative process.

But my roots go back to being a theatre director as well, which I love to work in that collaborative space. It was quite an easy transition. But it was also how easily the consultants fell in into the process and how much they absorbed. And so it really has impacted the thing I’ve been saying: it was a film about a community made by a community, and in many ways, it’s kind of like community film in a way.

We kept that process through shooting and kept through into the edit as well, where we had the consultants back, just so we could acknowledge ourselves that we told the truth and told the story in the right way. I personally don’t identify with any of those communities, but it doesn’t stop me being able to empathise and tell that story and enable those people to have that story told. That’s quite a hot topic at the moment, this notion of do we have to be of that community to tell the stories of those communities and I felt with my experience and the way this process had been set up by Tsu Shan, the producer, that we had permission to do this.

Andrew: There is that discussion about ownership about who owns stories and who can tell stories, but then I look at a film like A Fantastic Woman, for example, with Sebastián Lelio is telling a trans story to tell a really powerful trans narrative. While he is not trans himself, he has created a powerful film.

Ian: I think it’s valid that through just doing it properly and being thoughtful and considering the storytelling, I mean… stories are told by in many ways by many people. And it’s the knowledge you have, and I can’t accept that you have to be of that world to fully understand it and represent it, not if you’re listening to the other people around you.

Andrew: I think what you’ve done here is that you’ve got the collaboration with the right consultants, ensuring that it’s an informed perspective, ensuring that people who are coming from a lived-in perspective, who know what they’re talking about and knowing how to actually imbue this story with the element of truth that it deserves and requires. And so you’ve done the work there, and that and it shows on screen as well. So certainly for you, as a director, and for the rest of the team, there’s a lot to be proud of here.

Ian: I hope so. I hope it reaches that wider audience, the general public, allowing them to see the film and gain an understanding of how these communities exist. And for a lot of people it’s a window to worlds they don’t necessarily understand or have contact with. So the more that we normalise diversity, the more that a film Unsound can be seen by people, and they understand that, as you say, they have a lived-in life as well. They’re just not part of a diversity of segments within the community.

Andrew: I want to talk about the dance sequences, and the nightclub sequences (deaf rave clubs), too, because it is such a beautiful kind of presentation of the deaf community. I was aware that there were these sort of dances and events that deaf people could go to to experience music, but the way you presented here is so wonderfully informative and educational. Did you attend a dance like this to get an idea of what it would be like?

Ian: No, unfortunately, to be honest, no. I did a lot of online looking at clips, and I think the only place they exist in Sydney is out of The Deaf Club at Parramatta. I think just through timing of things and the speed that with which we prep the film, I didn’t get to have a look.

But I am aware that in places like in London, for example, they have deaf raves that might have up to 500 people, they’re all in this room. With the speakers turned up, the bass turned up, and the speakers on the floor.

We have a lot of people from the deaf community who came along to the shooting. These dance parties can work because a lot of people are dancing, and other people are just standing around talking and signing with each other because they’re there for the community, they’re there for the catch up, rather than for the dancing. So the dance sequences kind of became the core of what initially cements these people together. But out of that, we see that it’s just the place for where the community can meet. And can kind of celebrate themselves.

Andrew: I found them really beautiful sequences and wonderfully shot too. It is it is a beautiful looking film in a lot of ways as well, where you’ve got the lightness and the darkness. I want to talk about you were nominated for the Best Indie Film last year at the AACTA awards, how much does that mean to you as a filmmaker? To have that kind of recognition from your peers.

Ian: The best of that is that it gets on list and it’s seen by more people and it gets a bit of cred, so more people will see it. Weirdly, personally, I’ve taken it as a take it or leave it type of thing. For the film, it gives a certain level of credit, a certain level of quality. I should say that then when the marketing people get onto it, they can use that to advertise the film. So it gives it gives it a bit of a voice to be able to go out into the community. It’s a great thing and we’re all incredibly proud of that. But what I hope it leads to is audiences. People seeing the film because ultimately, that’s where it has to sit. That’s how we’ll judge the success of the film.

Andrew: It’s just been released over in Melbourne and Sydney. And it’s coming up in other regions soon.

Visit the Unsound website to find out screening date details.

Ian: It’s had a good release. It was released in Cinema Nova over in in Melbourne and was doing well. And then they had the five day lockdown. Until it had to shut down I think I heard it was number three at the box office. We’re hoping that audiences will rebuild. And it’s playing at The Backlot in Perth on the 18th of March. And it’s in Adelaide too. And then the 18th of March at Dendy in Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra, so it’s getting it will get a good run, and the word of mouth is terrific. And the reviews, the reviews have been coming in, and they’ve been good.

We just want people to see the film. And just because that’s ultimately why it’s made is to bring education and to bring awareness of those communities to the public. That’s the purpose of making the film.

Andrew: From my perspective, at least, a film like Unsound encourages the casting directors in Australia to think outside the box a little bit and go, gosh, you know, there are great actors in the deaf community and transgender community. Why haven’t we been looking there in the first place?

Ian: I hope so. We love our cast diversity. A lot has changed over the years. I think now if we can start looking at the deaf and transgender actors, we can make up the distance lost. We don’t have to politicise their community, we just have to have them as part of the film and television community. You know, I remember from to The Secret Life of Us, Deb Mailman was in season one, it was wasn’t until season three or four that they actually started talking about her Aboriginality. Up until then, it wasn’t even an issue. And I think that type of casting is what makes it so wonderful. If we could just have these underrepresented people presented just as people.

Andrew: Coming back to how the deaf and trans communities are defined in the media, they are so often defined by who they are. And then that makes them that ‘others’ them in the public’s eye. And that’s not fair. It’s not right, as you saying they just people.

Ian: Yes, that they were defined by their disability, or that they’re different. And that’s not the case, because we are all part of a community, we’re part of the same world. And it is unfair.

Andrew: I really hope a lot of people head along to go and see Unsound and appreciate it. As a director, what were the things that you learned as you were going along? And the changes that you might instil into your productions that you will go in to in the future?

Ian: Oh, that’s a fantastic question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, because I learned to trust other people around me more. I realised that direction is not such a solo practice, it’s about collaboration. And if you’re clear enough and willing enough people share things with you, people will share their feelings and thoughts. Whatever it is, whatever the show is, that it’s using the resources, the real resources of the people’s spirit, as much as the economic resources or what they can supply for the right people for the production. That was my first big take out, there’s other people who can help and make productions more informed.

And I think just in terms of how I shoot television, I’m trusting more that I can tell the story visually with less dialogue. And because there’s great slabs of Unsound where characters are just signing, and my series or TV director instinct was ‘is there enough information per frame for it to hold an audience’. So I had to trust that if they’re signing, I don’t have to put music with it, because we have subtitles, and to just let the film sit and let it be rather than trying to push it along. So that was the other big take out.

It’s just about how I can trust audiences more to just be there with the story. Television is fast and furious, and, networks are frightened by silences. Of not enough happening. So it was just to kind of break my own television mould a little bit as a director, which I really loved.

Andrew: I think that’s good. As you’re saying, TV is fast. And the production of it is so quick. And the turnaround is so quick. You’ve worked on Home and Away, and I know that the turnaround on those shows is intense. How do you manage to get change taking place in the television realm? Does that take place during production? Or does it take place in discussions prior after the show’s being filmed?

Ian: How do you made in terms of effecting change?

Andrew: How do you how do you as a director affect change in television, I guess is the best way of putting it.

Ian: I think by just following new principles, following new processes, following new ways of doing it. Your own emergence or your own development as a director, I think it’s just bringing that to it each time you set out to work. And I think fairly by osmosis, these things are absorbed by other directors on their own journeys. And I think slowly we, we try and bring our experiences of directing into our next show, and our own awareness of how, how we want to tell stories, I think suddenly, it moves forward. I hope it does. If you’ve been doing it for 30 years, I hope I hope it’s moving forward.

Andrew: I think Unsound is certainly helping moving forward film. So I’m excited to see what continues on from there. I do enjoy TV, but my passion and my love is with films, mostly. So, you know, on a purely selfish person, I do hope to see another film from you in the future, because Unsound is good, I like it a lot.

Ian: It’s enormously satisfying to take on a singular project like this, and to see it from beginning to end and to develop the characters the way you want to and to explore the script, with the writer Ally Burnham who was there on set as we were shooting. So if anything wasn’t working, then I could consult with the writer, and we can rework it on the spot. If I had to reshoot something, we could rework it, and you don’t get that luxury in television, which tends to be a little bit more solo. So it was that collaborative ownership of it by all of us, the actors, the crew, that made it sort of special because it is a special film about a community, made by a community. And I think that instilled itself into the film. So it was that that was a real pleasure of filmmaking for me as much as having a film. It was being able to fully immerse myself and the crew in it.

Andrew: As we wrap up, is there one kind of enduring message that you want to pass along to people who will be heading along to go and see this film?

Ian: I think just pass the word around, just enjoy the film. But tell people about it. It’s different in a lot of ways in its subject matter, its treatment of the subject matter, and just opening the doors to our awareness of these communities. And that: love is love.

It doesn’t matter what our community is how we identify what we identify as that, that love is love.

So it’s trying to treat that sense of Unsound as a community experience. And to see it that way.

I then want to close this interview with the manner that Ian and I started before talking about Unsound: talking about the enduring qualities of Australian cinema.

Ian: It’s good to remind audiences that Australian films are good. I mean, this is a window where Australian films can be seen, and they’re doing good business. And what it’s going to do is make people realise that, ‘hey, Australian films are good, and we should get on to them, we should go and support them’. Australians can be really loyal to the television. And they’ve just got to learn that same loyalty to the films that come out of here. It could be a plus I think, in the long term would be great.

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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