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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Ivan Sen is one of Australia’s most acclaimed young Aboriginal filmmakers, his latest film Mystery Road, having opened the 2013 Sydney Film Festival; he sees it all in his head, which is also active in grappling with the business of a new, highly commercial project, as he tells Andrew L. Urban.

It’s a mystery … how the creative process works. A mystery how it works in different people. For Ivan Sen, it’s all in his head. Looking relaxed – quite Zen really - as he arrives at the offices of his film’s distributor with a small backpack, he orders a flat white, and spreads out at the head of the boardroom table. When we get to the part about Loveland, his next movie project, the head of the board table seems quite an appropriate place for him to sit: he’s talking big budget, mainstream, highly commercial movie making, with Chinese partners. The morning after our interview he flies to Shanghai for talks. The talented young indigenous filmmaker in business mode.

But filmmaking is indeed business; it’s called the film industry, not the film pastime. It churns through millions of dollars and even low budget films – like his acclaimed new murder mystery, Mystery Road – has to have commercial legs. It was chosen to open the Sydney Film Festival on June 5, 2013, but part of the deal was that the Festival continue to work with Dark Matter (the distribution company set up by the producers) to help promote and market the film on its commercial release some weeks later.

"a new Australian myth"

Murder mystery-cum-Western, Mystery Road is a new Australian myth, you could say. Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his small Queensland country town and his first case is the murder of a teenage girl. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the big city, Jay finds himself alienated from both the police, including the Sergeant (Tony Barry) and drug squad’s Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and his community, including his own daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton) who lives with her mother Mary (Tasma Walton). Though thwarted in his investigations by a lack of cooperation from the locals, and a lack of interest from his fellow cops, Jay gradually unravels a complex crime web.

One of Australia’s most respected filmmakers, Ivan Sen had no trouble attracting the extraordinary cast who populate Mystery Road. Ryan Kwanten was so keen to work on the film with Sen he took the few days he had off and flew out from Los Angeles just to go on location in outback Queensland to play the role of Pete, a redneck roo shooter. He was on the ground for three days before flying back to Los Angeles to continue work there on the hit TV series True Blood.

“Ryan has been a big fan of Beneath Clouds,” says Sen, his acclaimed 2002 debut feature, “and he was attracted by the script.” So were other big names playing small parts, including Jack Thompson, who gave such a powerful rehearsal in a country hotel room Sen wanted to bottle it. He didn’t have to; Thompson repeated it perfectly next morning on camera.

“He’d spent his youth in the outback and he felt really connected to it. When we started rehearsals he took off his shoes … which he did when we shot the scene.”

Then there is David Field. “As soon as I write the name of a character I visualise who’s going to play it,” says Sen of his process. “David Field is one of my favourite actors and he just delivers. Faultless. They all are … as soon as I thought of Jim the coroner, I thought of Bruce Spence; I wanted his unique presence, that tall frame and that special screen presence he has. When I thought of the gunshop owner, I thought of Roy Billing. It’s a gut feel…”

"a murder mystery / Western with an Aboriginal detective caught between two cultures"

As they say, 80% of a director’s job is done if he casts it right. Sen had first floated the idea of a murder mystery / Western with an Aboriginal detective caught between two cultures several years earlier to Aaron Pedersen. It was time to call him up for the role of Jay Swan. 

And then there was the edgy, unknowable Johnno, a drug buster cop in the outback town where the story is set. He is ambiguity on legs: Hugo Weaving is the man for that.

For a low budget film with few resources, juggling the schedules of these busy actors was only made possible because they were all keen to do it. And one more thing: Sen himself directed, shot, edited and scored the film, which cut down the need for at least a few crew.

“When I’m shooting I’m also editing at the same time. It sensitises you to what you’re doing, to be aware of how shots go together. At the end of each day I’d also do a bit of editing just to make sure the shots cut together – at least from a technical point of view.”

Unlike most filmmakers who write the screenplay, then shoot the film and finally go into post production and edit the film – each section offering a new range of possibilities – for Sen it’s all one seamless process, mostly joined up in his head.

This is so ingrained in his working method that he already sees the trailer for Loveland in his head, before a single frame is shot….hell, even before the finance is in place. “It’s a sci-fi romance set in a future city with a great deal of CGI work,” he says with evident enthusiasm. “The investors like that …”

Published August 15, 2013

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Ivan Sen


Mystery Road
In Australian cinemas from August 15, 2013

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