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By Steven Kastrissios
Urban Cinefile asked me to write about making my debut feature, The Horseman. Although writing essays has never been my specialty (I scored a C+ in final year English), I thought it would be a unique opportunity to write a detailed account, as press coverage is usually limited to a few hundred words and trying to squeeze a five-year journey into a few paragraphs can be tricky.

I have been shooting little genre films since I was fourteen. Growing up in the bush, my mum helped me source gunpowder and supervised staged explosions. My dogs were transformed into man-eating zombies and G.I. Joe figurines came to life, only to tear limbs from one another through the magic of stop-motion animation. Basically all my nerdy interests were united with the gift/curse of filmmaking.

"the idea for The Horseman hit me"

When I was eighteen, I gathered a few film-school mates to make an action film called The Park. Shot on miniDV, it was originally almost feature-length, but was later cut down to 30 minutes (you can only endure amateur student drama for so long). It was produced with a budget of $600 and filled with wannabe Desperado gun battles, wannabe Die Hard punch-ups and wannabe Goodfellas violence. The film picked up three Queensland New Filmmaker awards and the final result led me to believe that armed with the right script and cast, shooting an endurable feature length micro-budgeted action thriller wasn’t out of reach.

In 2003, HD was still too expensive for ultra-low budgets and some independent films shot on miniDV were breaking through to theatrical release. Encouraged by this, I went about developing various ideas, searching for the right concept that would compliment a micro budget. But after a couple years of chasing concepts that were too expensive to realise properly, the idea for The Horseman hit me. I could clearly see how both the story and the production could work.

Six weeks later I had the first draft, which structurally changed very little in the final shooting script. The main adjustment was bringing the tone from a cheesy action approach to something more grounded. One afternoon of script workshopping with two actor friends helped me refine the story and trim thirty pages worth of superfluous dialogue from the script.

In a weekend we shot a short film adapted from the opening scene of the feature script, as a kind of test-run/proof of concept. It turned out well enough, picking up a Queensland New Filmmaker award and soon after I brought on my film-school classmate Bec Dakin to produce the feature version with me. Her fearless approach and practical ‘can-do’ attitude was what I needed in a producing partner, as she also tackled tasks like towing the generator, assisting art department and cooking for the entire unit.

This was now 2006 and fortunately digital technology had exploded with HD becoming much more affordable. Bec Dakin and I assembled a small crew, largely made up of talented and hardworking film students who worked for deferred fees. Chris Anderson, a veteran stunt coordinator came on board with his team and the final and most important pieces fell into place when we found a tremendously talented cast of Queensland actors, led by Peter Marshall. His performance has been singled out as nothing short of powerhouse in every single review I’ve read and his easy nature and enthusiasm lifted the entire crew through the long nights.

"how we financed the film"

I should probably mention how we financed the film, as that was always my first question to indie filmmakers. We shot The Horseman just before the wonderful tax incentive 10BA was suspended. It worked by giving a certified film’s investor an almost 100% deduction in their tax, matching their investment. Therefore I was comfortable going to my family for the funding, knowing their investment would be returned almost in full, regardless of the film’s sales and earnings.

Most of the film was shot in and around one house that we redecorated to pass as multiple settings. Cinematographer Mark Broadbent wrangled two Panasonic HVX202 HD cameras to capture the unpredictable performances with a somewhat unconventional approach using a cross-shooting set-up that covered both actors simultaneously. The action sequences also benefited greatly with the second camera operated by the sharp eye of Scott Kimber. We wrapped production after twenty-six days, on time and even under budget.

With a professional background in editing, I was comfortable handling the visual side of post-production. It took about four months to get to the first rough cut and then I began a series of screenings at home, grilling whoever was unfortunate enough to visit me for detailed feedback. This process led to eighteen more cuts until we locked picture. To save money, I colour graded the film myself using Color from Final Cut Studio, which brought great results. The Post Lounge (my ex-employers) helped us with a rough sound mix and with a semi-finished film, we began to send out screeners.

Our plan all along was the standard indie film route - screen at a prestigious international film festival, score rave reviews, sell the film in a bidding war followed by a local release. However, a year later we hadn’t been accepted into any festivals here or abroad and with no distributor attached the media were not interested in covering the film.

Rebecca Dakin and I began to lose faith. We believed we had something good, but maybe it just wasn’t a ‘festival’ film. So we decided to go straight to local distributors but nobody was interested in theatrically releasing an R-rated Australian film with a no-star cast. Especially when it hadn’t screened at any festivals and was unreviewed. So we were in a ‘Catch 22’ situation.

Our last hope was connecting with local industry people who might be compelled to help. We found that support in Greg Mclean and Matt Hearn, the filmmakers behind Wolf Creek. They helped brainstorm strategies for the film and put us in touch with James Hewison from Madman Entertainment who continued this good will. A small, yet significant gesture came from Seph McKenna from Village Roadshow. Although the film wasn’t right for their catalogue, he put the film in front of Melbourne International Film Festival programmer Juliana Chin, who added it to the festival at the eleventh hour.

After our world premiere in Melbourne, the ball finally started to roll. Positive buzz began to spread and soon we were invited to South-by-South West Film Festival in USA. In the lead up to our American premiere, anticipation was building strongly amongst the online film journals - “looks to be one of the greatest revenge movies of all time” wrote WeAreMovieGeeks.com.

"rave reviews"

After the screening, several critics wrote rave reviews including Harry Knowles who held a viewing at his house for the Ain’t It Cool News’ team of writers. We entered a bidding war with sales agents from around the world and signed with LA based sales company, Media 8 Entertainment who sold the film to USA, UK, Germany, Benelux, Brazil, Scandinavia, Middle-East and other territories.

Screen Australia came on board to help us pay for our delivery requirements (transferring to 35mm, Dolby Digital license, legal fees etc) and we recently paid out the deferrals to cast and crew.

It is now 2010, and after five years of working on the film, The Horseman will be getting a local cinema release through Umbrella Entertainment. If you’d like to know more, you’ll have to buy the Blu Ray!

The Horseman releases July 8, 2010 in Sydney (Chauvel), Brisbane (Tribal Theatre) and Melbourne (Cinema Nova).

Published July 8, 2010

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Steven Kastrissios


Steven Kastrissios and Bec Dakin

Interview with PETER MARSHALL
Interview with CHRIS ANDERSON (stunt co-ordinator)

The Horseman
Written & directed by Steven Kastrissios
After Christian’s (Peter Marshall) teenage daughter is found dead in an inner city alley, he receives a porn video featuring his obviously drugged daughter. Incensed, Christian takes his pest control van on the road to track down those responsible. Along the way, he picks up a teenage hitchhiker, Alice (Caroline Mahorasy), and the two strangers find a genuine friendship growing between them. But the surviving members of the porn gang catch up with them.

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