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After 15 years ‘in the wilderness’, filmmaker Joel Anderson comes in from the cinematic cold with Lake Mungo, a cool psychological thriller – made out of sheer frustration, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The bare walls of a small upstairs room are lit up by faint sunlight from the autumn sun; we sit facing each other in wicker chairs, Joel and I, no other furniture in the room. Downstairs it’s the Dungog hardware store; upstairs it’s Dungog Film Festival HQ. It’s May 2009, and Joel’s film, Lake Mungo, has its world premiere here at the fest. Worlds apart, yet fittingly apt: making films is as hands on as a hardware store. And Lake Mungo is the result of creativity – and hard yakka.

Joel Anderson enrolled at the Victorian College of Arts film school at 18 and made several shorts before falling out of the filmmaking world, spending 15 years in what he calls ‘the wilderness’ – making adult work experience videos, writing and generally surviving on the edge of real filmmaking.

He had several feature scripts in development, too, but “they didn’t get anywhere” he says, and the protracted process simply frustrated him. So he decided to make a DIY film; very low budget and very easy. Like a documentary, but one that he made up.

It goes like this: In December 2005, 16 year old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns in a dam near the small Victorian town of Ararat. She is enjoying a family picnic with her parents June and Russell Palmer (Rosie Traynor and David Pledger) and brother (Martin Sharpe). A month later, when strange noises and apparitions begin, the family becomes convinced there are supernatural forces at work. The use cameras and videos to try and record the apparitions, and even hire a psychic (Steve Jodrell) - but they’re all looking in the wrong place for the wrong things.

"how family members deal with the reality of death"

The film’s subject matter grows out of Joel’s long time interest in how family members deal with the reality of death in their midst. He was writing the bulk of the story in and around 2005 when the cinemas were busy with films like Capturing the Freedmans, docos that engaged audiences and worked at least as well as narrative fiction. And, crucially, it’s a cheaper alternative.

But it’s not necessarily easier. For one thing, casting actors who are really good and convincing in a ‘natural’ setting but not known is “exhausting” says Joel. And it’s important that these actors have low public profiles for the doco feel to be authentic.

“The rehearsals were just about getting used to their ‘family’ members,” he says. “Once we were shooting, we didn’t rehearse and it was all shot in real time,” with Joel acting as the off screen interviewer. “The actors knew the story but they had to improvise the lines, so you can see the wheels turning as they spoke.”

It was never meant to be a supernatural thriller, says Joel, “but after I started writing the treatment it slipped the leash … the ghosts came out of the premise. And I do like ghost stories, it’s a good way of addressing insoluble problems.”

The lesson he has learnt from making Lake Mungo this low budget way was to keep the office and the bureaucracy as small as possible.

"vulnerable artistically"

Although the film has been well received, Joel is not sure he’d “go the same way again. It makes you vulnerable artistically . . . on the other hand, we captured moments we’d never have found otherwise.”

Published July 30, 2009

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Joel Anderson


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