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A Danish ghost (nothing to do with Hamlet) hovers around the filmmakers as they create Wish You Were Here, set in Sydney and Cambodia. But ironically, it’s all about reality and truth, they tell Andrew L. Urban.

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (Brothers, After the Wedding) had no direct involvement in the making of Wish You Were Here, but her influence is ever present, like an amiable ghost over the shoulders of Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Darcy Smith directed.


“My absolute priority,” says Darcy-Smith, “from script to screen, is truth. Truth of performance, of character, and of story.”

The two filmmakers are discussing the film and lounging in armchairs on either side of a settee in a Sydney hotel overlooking Circular Quay, with Price getting a cup of tea, Darcy-Smith sneaking a smoko at the open door of the balcony. 

Bier, and fellow Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg (all at one time working in Dogma style), have a reputation for creating accessible contemporary characters in crisis, with clear and realistic performances, strongly focused on story and audience engagement. They are all cited by Price and Darcy-Smith as references.

Four friends - husband and wife Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price), and Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) and her new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr) - lose themselves in the fun of a carefree South East Asian holiday. Only three return home. Dave and Alice come back to their young family desperate for answers about Jeremy’s mysterious disappearance. When Steph returns not long after, a nasty secret is revealed about the night her boyfriend went missing. But it is only the first of many. Who amongst them knows what happened on that fateful night when they were dancing under a full moon in Cambodia?

"the heart of the film was always the central husband-wife relationship"

“The heart of the film was always the central husband-wife relationship,” says Price, “and how hard to fight for it.” In fact, when it was first drafted, the screenplay was ALL about the relationships, it was intended as a very low budget film to be shot around Sydney for about $200,000. But then everything changed. The budget was inflated twelve-fold to $2.5 million and it was partly shot in Cambodia. The final draft became a mystery thriller with the central relationship intact.

One reason for the film being ‘supersized’ explains Price, is the enthusiasm of producer Angie Fielder. “We were thinking low key but she’d have none of that … “ The other big factor was the screenplay being put through the Aurora development workshop, which over a 12 month period beefed up the film’s mystery elements, with valuable inputs from a wide range of experienced filmmakers, including American Ted Hope and Australian Peter Duncan.

"how each of them would behave in similar circumstances"

Darcy-Smith was keen to present audiences with a film that would make them consider just how each of them would behave in similar circumstances. “I was always trying to see it from the cinema seat,” he says. The craft of writing the screenplay is reflected in how it was structured as a non-linear story, maintaining the mystery and the tension.

It was written that way, but Darcy-Smith is emphatic that editor Jason Ballantine was crucial in shaping the final film. “I’ll work with him forever,” he adds enthusiastically.

“This was my opportunity to step into the shoes of others – but always with a clear mirror held up to myself. As writers, Felicity and I have plumbed our characters for credibility and humanity. Our intention has always been that our audience walks away from the film with a feeling of - ‘My God. That could so easily have been you or me...’

Fascinated by the idea of unexplained disappearance, Darcy-Smith had spent time in South East Asia and experienced some dodgy situations. “We also looked at some case studies, but in that framework we expanded on the relationships. We have two kids ourselves so we constantly asked each other, what would you do?”

For all its mystery elements, “we always wanted the film to be exciting and thrilling for audiences,” says Price. 

"free and spontaneous"

Darcy-Smith explains his method: “The film has been shot on location, using available light, practicals and flexible low-key lighting states. Securing cinematic locations with interesting sources of available light was key to achieving the low-key, atmospheric lighting. Camerawork is predominantly hand-held, though steady, with only a small handful of judiciously considered tracks or precision camera moves to underline key dramatic moments. The focus was on capturing truthful performances, and so the camera remained free and spontaneous. Darren Aronofsky, when discussing The Wrestler, talks of approaching his drama as a ‘pro-active documentary’ (as opposed to actual vérité documentary, which is entirely reactive). It’s an approach to blocking, coverage and lighting that allows for spontaneity and freedom in performance. Looks and feels real, but in reality very carefully prepped and rehearsed.”

But reality can bite, as he found out: “Filming in Cambodia was everything you'd imagine it might be, and more. We were filming in authentic locations, in some of the sketchiest parts of the country and more often than not working with non-actors. Our crew spoke very little English, their equipment was, at best, antiquated and second-rate and our locations were being demolished before our eyes. Our days were long, chaotic, hot, plagued by illness, exhaustion and gear setbacks.

"I'd love to do it all again"

“I fell neck-deep into a sewer on day one and that was one of the easy days. Our final night in the country I missed the wrap party as I was holed up in my hotel vomiting. We (Felicity and I) also had our 5 month old and our 2 year old travelling with us... The entire experience was challenging in the extreme and I absolutely loved it. I've never felt more alive. As a bonus, the material we shot was beyond expectations. I'd love to do it all again.”

As for those two amazing child actors Otto Page and Isabelle Austin-Boyd, Darcy-Smith is immensely proud of their work. They were chosen from over 200 children in a major casting sweep and are crucially important for the film. “Susanne Bier often uses children in her films ….” notes Price; Bier would surely be proud to be such a role model.

Published April 26, 2012

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Felicity Price & Kieran Darcy-Smith


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