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TORONTO ’07 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW: Peter Carstairs: “Cinema is ultimately becoming more international.

TORONTO '07 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW: Peter Carstairs: "Cinema is ultimately becoming more international.

Throughout the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as a showcase for new and emerging filmmakers from contemporary international cinema.

Fourteen filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions. Director Peter Carstairs is at Toronto with his feature film, “September,” which TIFF describes as revealing “the tumultuous human emotions beneath a sinister inequity in Australia’s past.”

Tell us a bit about yourself. What led you into filmmaking?

My name is Peter Carstairs, I’m the director and co-writer of the Australian film “September” – a film in the Discovery program at Toronto. I’m 36 years old and this is my first feature film.

I grew up on the West Coast of Australia before moving to Sydney and studying film directing at the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS) where I made several short films including “Gate” and “Pacific“.

In 2006 I entered “Pacific” in Tropfest (a short film festival in Sydney that has recently joined forces with the Tribeca Flm Festival), and it was accepted. I then became eligible to enter a feature script into a new program called the Tropfest Feature Program (the TFP). The TFP was set up by Tropfest to develop and produce one feature film script per year written by a Tropfest finalist – with a prize of a AUD$1 million finance package to make the film. I submitted a first draft of the script for “September” to the TFP and in February 2006 it was announced as the winning script. We commenced shooting within 9 months of the announcement.

Toronto is “September”‘s international premiere.

What are your goals for the Toronto International Film Festival?

We’re having 5 screenings while at Toronto – 3 public and 2 press and industry. So I just hope people come! The film is about a seminal time in Australia’s history, that many Australians don’t really even know about – so I hope people will find it a rewarding experience on a few levels.

We obviously also hope to sell the film into North America.

While we’re there, I’m also arranging meetings with North American agents, producers and managers etc with a view to making future projects either in the US, or in partnership with the US.

How/where did the initial idea for your film come from and/or evolve?

The initial idea was to write a film about a friendship – and about the corruption of childhood innocence. So I decided to write about a friendship between an Aboriginal kid and a white kid that starts to fall apart as the boys reach that age where they’re not quite boys anymore, and still not yet adults. I had also been reading about race relations in Australia and, in particular, during 1968 when white farmers were, for the first time, required to pay Aboriginal workers the same as white workers.

Up until that point, this had not been the case – ie Aboriginal families mostly lived on properties and worked in a simple exchange for food and clothing.

But although the wage laws were good intentioned, rather than bring about equality, the wage laws caused even more division in Australia because the white farmers, if they had to pay white and black workers equally, preferred to employ white people – the result was that Aboriginal people who had been living on properties all their lives were often simply carted off to towns and left there. They had no jobs, no education, nowhere to live and no money. It was a major turning point in Aboriginal displacement in our country. And in Aboriginal unemployment.

This is what is going on in the background of the film as our two heroes are trying to remain friends. So the film is very much a character story set against a political backdrop (rather than an overt political movie as such). It is emotionally driven.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?

The biggest single challenge I faced throughout the whole process was the lack of time – in planning, preproduction, and post, but particularly during the shoot. Because of our low budget we could only shoot for 25 days. For a first time feature director, and with the film being shot on location three hours from Sydney, this meant we had to work very fast, shooting up to 5 minutes a day.

We were very lucky that we secured an Australian distributor and an International Sales Agent (Arclight) some time before we shot the film.

But during the 9 months between the project being picked up by TFP and the shoot, my co-writer, Ant Horn, and I wrote 3 more drafts of the film, and the producers and I also raised more finance. ” September” was eventually completed for around AUD $2.4 million (approx US$1.9 million).

What are your creative influences?

For the film I looked at a lot of paintings of people in open spaces – particularly the Australian painter Jeffrey Smart and American painter, Edward Hopper. I looked at the way they composed their images but also their lighting and the way they at times isolated their subjects in open surroundings. I also looked at photographers such as American, Sally Mann, who photographs people in very ordinary looking places and with her framing and shallow depth of field always manages to make them extraordinary. We also listened to the music of Estonian born composer, Arvo Paat, and even some Radiohead (Kid A album).

What are some of your all-time favorite films? What are some of your recent favorite films?

Here’s a snapshot. I have always very much liked Asian directors including Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee and the way they deal with emotion, particularly their male characters. Favourites from these directors include “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” “The House of Flying Daggers,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “The Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain“. I love Francois Truffaut‘s “The 400 Blows” and Lars Von Trier‘s “Breaking the Waves“. I love all Terrence Malick‘s movies – the way he takes his time and never tries to explain why a character is like he is. And I also like Susanne Biers‘ films “Open Hearts” and “Brothers“. And Michael Winterbottom‘s “Wonderland“.

Recently I have discovered Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers (a new addition to DVD stores in Australia).

My favourite films to have come out of America in the last 12 months are probably “Babel“, “Brokeback Mountain” and a truly fantastic film from New York called “Keane“.

What are your interests outside of film?

I originally studied Law and when I am not making films, I work as a copyright lawyer. As far as being a lawyer goes, for me, it is by far the most interesting area.

I am also an avid photographer. I mostly shoot people. I recently shot my first wedding (my sister’s) – I thought the results were quite appalling but my sister was very happy.

How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Success for me as a filmmaker is to simply be able to work as a director, and to be able to maintain a personal expression.

Cinema is ultimately becoming more international. People the world around are becoming far more sophisticated in their understanding and curiosity towards cultures other than their own. I’m excited by that. I’d like to see more films, say, directed by Australians, with American partners with an international cast shot say in China.

What are your future projects?

I am currently writing another original screenplay with my co-writer Ant Horn and am trying to acquire the rights to a book which I’d like to adapt as a film. Both projects are relationship stories, although one is much bigger than the other. Both could be made in Australia or America – or somewhere in between.

[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’07 section.]

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