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FRESH AIR – ON LOCATION

A handmade film uses Sydney streets, young actors and a cut and paste approach to approximate what its maker, Neil Mansfield, calls Zinema. ANDREW L. URBAN visited the set in a suburban location to catch some cinematic Fresh Air.

Bridie Carter, looking like a young madam from some Western saloon, her teeth clenched around a long, slim cigaratte holder, takes a careful swing with her croquet bat and the ball obediently slips through the wire goal post. Nadine Garner, holding a white lace umbrella, also in a 1920’s costume, is less successful, while Marin Mimica looks on calmly. The whole scene is being shot by a young man who fusses over an 8mm movie camera on a tripod, while the entire proceedings are captured by a 16 mm camera on a tripod further back.

None of this seems to bother the grand, cream coloured façade of 97 Cambridge Street, Stanmore, one of Sydney’s quieter inner suburbs. No 97 is a Salvation Army hostel, but "it’s the sort of grand old home where you’d shoot a Wings of the Dove sequence," explains producer Rosemary Blight, standing under a tree in the front garden of the hostel.

"The film tracks a week in their life"

This short scene is part of a flashback, one of several flashes back and forward, in which the characters are making a film. Behind the slightly larger of the cameras is a tall, amiable, stubbly faced Neil Mansfield, the writer/director.

After three takes, the unit packs up and moves four or five streets away to Cardigan Street in Camperdown for a scene of Bridie getting out of a taxi.

Bridie, a NIDA graduate, plays E (short for Elizabeth) an aspiring musician; Garner plays Kit, a would be painter; and Mimica plays Jack, who wants to be a filmmaker. The film tracks a week in their life, as they come to make decisions about their futures. Are they really artists, or should they go and get a ‘proper’ job?

"... more than six years of work on the script and the finance"

Mansfield is making his first feature film – after more than six years of work on the script and the finance. He was working at Film Australia and making clandestine music videos (usually without pay) and Blight’s husband, also a Film Australia employee, one day brought home Mansfield’s script of Fresh Air, to show the then budding producer, his wife. Blight liked it and went to work trying to get it made; it turned out to be a long, laborious process. "We basically grew up together," she says with a laugh. Mansfield worked up 12 drafts of the script, each to be rejected by financiers and distributors.

Blight then heard about the New Screenwriters Scheme the NSW Film and TV Office was administering, and applied. Part of that Scheme is a mentoring process, and Mansfield got lucky: he got Bill Bennett as his mentor (just before Bennett embarked on Kiss or Kill).

"A Marrickville village film" producer Rosemary Blight

"That was a key," says Blight. "Now the script was starting to find its ‘friends’, and Bill was very supportive, nurturing Neil, which was great because Neil doesn’t come from film culture. It needed friends, because, as Blight puts it, it "isn’t a sexy proposition for the usual players…there’s no star names, a first time director…."

The next ‘friend’ the script found was Bridgit Ikin, head of SBS Independent; then came Marion Pilowski, Head of Acquisitions and Program Development at Premium Movie Partnership (Foxtel); both took up rights in the script, and the impetus was now there for the film to be considered as one of the "Million Dollar Movies" jointly financed by the Austraian Film Commission and SBS Independent. It eventually became the second of five scripts greenlighted for the series, which automatically brings in Beyond Films as international sales agent.

"I first read it on the bus between Broadway and Newtown," Blight recalls, "and I couldn’t stop laughing. It was very observant of people – in fact, some of the characters seemed to be on the same bus with me…" Now that it’s finally in production, Blight is elated. She has complete faith in Mansfield: "I think he’s got it," she says. "He’s very observant…his view of the world is very different. In other scripts, you see people larger than life, but he sees them as they are."

She calls Fresh Air a "Marrickville village film" since it is about the three characters sharing a house in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner West.

"I call this ‘zinema’" Director, Neil Mansfield

After the five weeks of shooting with the actors, Mansfield will have six weeks of shooting what he calls the "zine" elements. "I call this ‘zinema’" he says smiling, "a wanky excuse for a cut and paste style. . . zine as in home made, non profit sort of magazine. It’s expressionistic in style but naturalistic in content."

As for the title, Mansfield says he tried to find something that was "open – a title that’s ambiguous, and one that could have several applications."

The script began as a purely visual comedy, with no conversation in it. "Then I started working in dialogue and it took off from there."

Mansfield sat at cafes and listened; he sat at home and listened; he visited friends, and listened. The dialogue came from life, in a away.

"Bridging the kitchen sink drama with the observational comedy,"

In the final stages of development, we worked on bridging the kitchen sink drama with the observational comedy," he says.

Cinematographer Toby Oliver says the film uses "wobblycam, and a fragmented jump cut style, but also some scenes are very static with no camera movement, or there may be an elaborate dolly set up. We are also using photos and words sprinkled through the film. The final product will contain several different elements. We also use a variety of film stock different processing techniques."

Mansfield studied communication at tech and did film production; he applied three times to get into the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and is still smarting over the fact he didn’t even get asked to an interview.

He believes there are two kinds of filmmaking: one is the normal, formal style, the other this handmade approach, in which the actors are aware they are in a film.

"It’s a great pleasure to work on a film that puts its story first." actress Nadine Garner

As Nadine Garner says, this doesn’t show, but is an "unconscious, underlying thing, as if we could at any moment wink at the camera – but we don’t. We’re aware deep down that we are commenting on an art form and we’re part of that artform."

Garner lavishes praise on Mansfield for his trust and understanding, and for having no agendas. "It’s one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had," she says. "There’s so little decision making driven by ego or money – it’s a great pleasure to work on a film that puts its story first."

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