Wide Open Road: The Plains Director David Easteal Talks About Melbourne Traffic in This Interview

Filmmaker David Easteal has talked about films ‘unique ability to capture passing time,’ and it’s with his three-hour docu-drama The Plains that the viewer is gifted the feeling of watching a city change over time. Here, David follows his friend and colleague Andrew (Andrew Rakowski) as he drives home at five pm in congested Melbourne traffic. With the camera firmly placed in the back-passenger seat, we sit with Andrew as he listens to the radio, navigates traffic, talks with his wife over the phone, and occasionally acts as a lift home for his colleague David (Easteal).

The Plains is a fascinating and mundane experience. It’s a rudimentary tale that engages in a profound act of soul searching, one that’s almost unique to the introspection that one falls into on a long, gridlocked drive home. The Plains arrived during a curious time in humanities existence, as it screened internationally, and then finally at the 70th Melbourne International Film Festival. The Melbourne setting, as witness through a weather-beaten car windscreen, became a place of nostalgia and vibrant emotionality for a city that had spent the longest time in COVID lockdowns in the world. For many, that feeling of yearning to be stuck in traffic once again, surrounded by people, yet separate in each owns metal vessels, was a strange experience.

After all, that feeling of actually being stuck in gridlocked traffic is at times an infuriating one, and at others, it’s a mind-numbing experience. For Andrew, he uses his forced time in solitude in his vehicle to organise his life, with frequent conversations with his wife or calling his mother to check in on how she’s going. It’s outwardly unsentimental, but it’s that lack of sentimentality that makes The Plains resonate even more. Reports have stated that the average Australian driver spends 66 minutes a day commuting, but this quotidian experience is one that we rarely get to see immortalised on a cinema screen. The Plains defies excitement, instead it embraces that mundanity, amplifying its existence and honouring those long hours spent staring at the rear end of the car in front of us, waiting for them to inch further forward in their life so you can do the same in your own.

Both understandably and frustratingly, The Plains struggled to gain a life in cinemas, with precious few audiences around the world having the chance to become completely immersed in David’s presentation. It’s now finding an audience on MUBI, with an Australian launch scheduled for June 6, and I highly encourage you to sit with the film and experience the world that David presents.

I spoke to David about The Plains ahead of MIFF in 2022, touching on the themes of the film and more. Read on below.

I know that you’re very keen for audiences to see The Plains in the cinema. Can you expand on what the cinema viewing experience means for you?

David Easteal: It’s interesting how rapidly the way we view movies is changing. I think that all films are better seen in a cinema, however I find myself going to the cinema less. It’s not just preferable for bigger, spectacular films, but also for slower, more contemplative, quieter films. Being enveloped in the darkness and not having the distractions you do at home, to be absorbed into the film’s rhythm. When watching films at home I’ll catch myself reaching for my phone or something like that, even for films I really want to see, it’s terrible!

With that said, I was very pleasantly surprised after we launched the film digitally. The film was meant to launch physically in Rotterdam at the start of the year, at the last minute new restrictions were implemented in the Netherlands and the festival was changed to an online event for press and industry only. Initially I was quite concerned about presenting the film in this way, for the reasons just mentioned, however it was received well through the online platform. Viewing films at home perhaps permits a unique intimacy, which is different from what occurs when viewing communally in a cinema, and it has its own merit, especially if you can be disciplined about the distractions.

Can you talk about your path into filmmaking?

DE: To earn a living, I work as a lawyer. I started making short films while I was a student. I wasn’t studying film, but I’ve always been drawn to film. I wanted to start exploring making films and I loved the process. I kept on trying it. I studied law and other humanities and at the same time I was learning about making short films through the process of doing it.

There is an autobiographical tone to The Plains. You’re in it. A colleague, Andrew, is also in it. Where did the idea of turning your experiences driving home together into a film come from?

DE: At the time of conceiving the film I had left the workplace where I had met Andrew. I was trying to think of a new film after my last short film. A character along the lines of Andrew intrigued me, and I tried to write a film based on such a character; someone in their middle age hurtling towards retirement, stuck at work in some respects, and with a heightened sense of mortality dawning upon them in the context of his mother passing away. In the year that we drove home together I had been present as his mother’s health declined and she passed away. I realised that I knew Andrew from the specific context of the commutes home and the idea came to limit the film just to this context. With the imposition of this limitation, suddenly things opened up for me creatively. There are certainly some autobiographical elements, but it’s not a straight autobiography or documentary. I was working to make it a narrative work, something to be viewed from start to finish. Although it draws from reality at times, it has been manipulated and shaped for the purposes of making a film.

I approached Andrew about playing a version of himself, and thankfully, he was interested. There are many aspects unique to Andrew’s personality, and how he communicates, which were important to me to retain in the film. He has an ability to be quite funny, immediately next to saying something very existential. My personal performance in the film was perhaps more pragmatic. I was concerned that combining Andrew with a professional actor would inhibit things. We had an existing friendship, which grew further over the course of the film, which I thought could help us go to more emotional places in the film. It also permitted me a way to direct the film, as I could attempt to shape the conversation and progression of topics during the long, uninterrupted takes.

There’s a moment where Andrew is asking you about your relationship, and the David in the film says, “I don’t really want to talk about that.” Then there a pause for maybe a minute or so, and then Andrew asks “Well, what about it then?” That’s that kind of familiarity in your relationship with one another that that kind of questioning doesn’t feel intrusive or awkward. It comes across so gently, almost like a brotherly figure. That is hard to imitate.

DE: Thank you. When I got to know Andrew years prior, I had been going through a breakup and he would give me advice talking about it during our drives. So including that element in the film was true to the time, but also functionally served a purpose in the script. I wanted to start to include information about Andrew’s life and his relationships, and it seemed like a natural way to be able to progress to this – for Andrew as the older colleague to start asking questions, it then worked for me to start asking him questions in reply, as part of a normal flow of a conversation.

Was there a script written or was it following key dot points of what needed to be touched on?

DE: From the outset of the project I knew broadly where the film was going to go, which was the death of his mother and the character of the co-worker leaving the office at the end of the film, based on the time we worked together. Each month I would embark upon a process of writing what was to occur in the next month’s shoot, keeping in mind the overall shape of the film. I would discuss the plan with Andrew, or Andrew and Cheri. When we came to shoot the next scene, we were both on the same page, not regarding precise dialogue, which was improvised, but rather the overall content of the conversation to be filmed that day.

In writing the film in this incremental way, it began to evolve and take shape in many unexpected ways that could not have been foreseen at the start of the shoot. Events were happening in all our lives, and what started out as a dramatisation of years past, began to involve inclusion of more contemporaneous events.

Let’s talk about the radio elements, because that feeds into the metaphorical tone that gives you this understanding of the cycle that these people are trapped in; they’re going home but never truly getting home. They hear fractured politics on the radio with people talking about being unhappy about society. Were they real radio segments or were they scripted?

DE: Obtaining the rights for real talkback radio proved to be prohibitively expensive. As a result all of the radio was constructed in post, which turned out to be a blessing, it ended up being one of my favourite elements of the film. Talkback radio, particularly Jon Faine, was listened to by a number of my colleagues who worked at the legal centre. In that sense it seemed to speak to the character in a way – the demographic that listens to ABC talkback being largely middle class, left leaning, middle-aged.

I approached Jon Faine, he had just left his position at the ABC, and he thankfully agreed to be the host. We recorded a sort of fake radio show where I gave Jon a list of topics and he had a few suggestions about those topics and what might happen, and we organised a number of callers and literally ran a sort of radio show in real time that was done at the sound designer’s studio. The callers were great. Some of them were Andrew’s friends. I had a friend who was at that time producing talkback radio in a regional city in Victoria and if they were a bit quiet on any specific day, they had a list of locals who are the regulars that they can call up, so we enlisted some of these call-back regulars. It was only scripted insofar as the topics provided, Jon can riff on whatever topic you give him, he is a professional.

The talkback did something interesting in the film. There’s a sense of isolation in the commute. You’re amongst all these other people moving through the city, but you’re separate from them. The radio brings in a broader socio-, political-context of what’s going on with others in the city. In the context of the film, whenever there’s a silence, and perhaps the isolation of the commute is most acutely felt, Andrew puts the radio on.

Tara Judah wrote a review for Senses of Cinema [i]“This is possibly the most authentic I’ve ever seen Australia depicted on screen,” partially because we spend so much time in our cars. It made me think of my drive to work where an hour or more of my day is spent in the car by myself. It’s a mundane aspect of our lives that we don’t get to see on screen often. How important was it for you to bring that aspect of Australian life to the screen?


So far in my films realism has been important to me. It’s true that a lot of Australian films don’t deal with the day-to-day reality of middle-class lives. There are exceptions of course, however a lot of films engage with a criminal underworld, or are more outback/Western type of films, or if they are contemporary there seems to be an emphasis on genre. I, like a lot of the population, am middle-class, work a job, engage with family, friends, and have to commute home at the end of the working day, amongst thousands of others, often tired. I have concerns about things in my domestic life, struggles with some relationships. I wanted to reflect life as I knew it, I wanted to make a film about characters I like. I don’t know any career criminals, or cowboy types. I can’t really imagine writing about a killer or something like that. It’s interesting that in Australia a lot of our everyday life is not often reflected in our cinema, whether that’s to do with filmmakers’ preferences or funding models is perhaps for a broader conversation!

I think the commute is a very interesting thing to explore. It’s this sort of dead time where you’re moving with this rhythm of thousands of other people through the city, yet alienated from them. It is perhaps more pronounced in Australian cities which are quite sprawling. I wanted the streets of Melbourne to be a part of the film, indeed they are documented through the windscreen throughout the film, forming almost half of the frame. There is something nice to just be able to see the streets of Melbourne. Maybe in time you can look back and see what Melbourne was like. I don’t want to speak too grandiosely, but it’s almost like a historical record that depicts what the streets of Melbourne were like at the time we filmed. I know when I watch earlier Frederick Wiseman films, I find them quite fascinating as a document of a time.

Often, if somebody is traveling home, we see them get in the car and then it cuts to them at home. The journey is inconsequential. What I appreciated about The Plains, noting that you can’t decide what gets shown on billboards along the drive, is that we see a couple of Clive Palmer billboards. One is ‘Make Australia Great’ hanging over this sea of traffic. It’s this reinforcement of what you’re exploring in the film. It feels fortuitous.

DE: Indeed, these in-between moments are often excluded from films. They form a large part of our day-to-day lives, and I seem to be drawn to explore them. It was exciting to film this way, uninterrupted on the real streets during rush hour, as an element of the shoot was totally out of my control as the filmmaker and left to chance. There was something exciting as each time we didn’t know what was going to happen on the roads, and how that would interact with what was being filmed in the more controlled environment inside the car.

For me, there are some extraordinary coincidences that occurred during the shoot, which are visible if you pay close attention, such as the billboards. Another one that comes to mind that I liked is in that moment we talked about earlier where Andrew’s probing about my relationship, a truck rolls up beside the car and it’s has the word ‘Cope’ on the side.

My commute in Perth is very different than the commute in Melbourne. We don’t have tolls here, so it took me a while to realise the ping every so often was a toll charge being registered.

DE: You actually only hear the triple ping when you are running out of money on your e-tag. Even though Andrew does a commute all the time, it always was a triple ping, he never seems to top up his e-tag! There was a nice moment of serendipity for me in the film regarding those pings, when the pings of the e-tag match up with the similar twinkly sounds in the Suicide song Cheree, when it is played in the film.

There are about 15 cuts in the film and some of them are a little bit jarring. We get set into the rhythm of him leaving the office, entering the car, and driving, and then sometimes he’ll already be on the drive home. Can you talk about the choice of where to place the edit?

DE: We didn’t shoot to have coverage so were always limited with editing choices. That said, the edit proved to be a very complex process which took a lot of time. Although it was shot quite formally, it was not a mathematical process of laying up each shot for a certain period of time. The only choices to make were where to cut in and out of each shot, which could greatly effect the overall rhythm of the film. As the film was of such a long duration it took time to work this out.

What does being an Australian filmmaker mean to you?

DE: It’s interesting question. I haven’t really grappled with the question much internally before. I often find it hard to label myself as a filmmaker, yet alone an Australian filmmaker, as it seems to connote a professional type of filmmaker. I don’t see myself as a professional filmmaker, as in someone who can pick up a script and go and shoot it, on contract. I’m interested in trying things out with film, doing things I’m interested in, in that sense, an amateur.

That said, my films have been very much linked to setting, and the world around where I live. I find, even in the suburbs of Australia, where I grew up and spent a long time driving around, a great beauty – whether it be in the sky or in the colours or in the trees that is uniquely Australian. The people I know and include in films are Australian. I see other people go and make films overseas. At this stage I couldn’t imagine doing that.

[i] http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2022/festival-reports/stuck-in-traffic-iffr-2022/

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.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!