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POLSON JOHN: Siam Sunset

The most successful film at Cannes this year (1999) was Siam Sunset, with its first sale to France setting a record. It is opening in Australia (Sept. 9, 1999) and its director, John Polson, reveals to Andrew L. Urban how the movie 'pursued' him.

"Weíve all had days when everything goes wrong," says John Polson, "this guyís having a life like that." Polson is talking about Perry, the central character in Siam Sunset, Polsonís debut feature. "I like the idea of a guy battling the universeÖ" Siam Sunset is a romantic comedy, but Polson puts a proviso: "It is a romantic comedy but the theme is the character coming to terms with the death of his wife. Itís really multi-genre, and I embrace that."

"an odyssey in search of an elusive colour"

Perryís perfect life creating colours for an English paint company becomes a world of pain after the tragically bizarre death of his wife. When he wins a bus trip across Central Australia, it is an odyssey in search of an elusive colour Ė Siam Sunset Ė and some relief from the natural disasters that mysteriously pursue him."

In a way, it could be said that this movie Ďmysteriously pursuedí Polson, who has built up an impressive track record as an actor and short filmmaker, founder of Tropfest, and recipient of the prestigous Byron Kennedy Award in 1998. He was in the cast of the mini series, Kangaroo Palace, whose executive producers included Andrew Knight, co-writer of the series. "I was really impressed with Andrew," says Polson, "and he knew that I had plans to direct something. Siam Sunset (written by Knight and writing partner Max Dann) had been lying around for a while, without a director attached. I read it and saw it had some very interesting things to say, and I wanted to do it, but Andrew said no. Itís too big, couldnít raise the money with a first time directorÖno hard feelings."

"itís very collaborative"

A year later, following the 1997 Cannes film festival, Knight rang Polson. Heíd been talking to the Australian sales company, Southern Star; when Polson's name came up, the sales company responded positively. They felt Polson's directing debut would be a positive sales angle. "Seems you could be an option," Knight told him.

Polson took the script and outlined what he thought it needed. "I donít mean to demean the writer here, but all scripts need direction; itís very collaborative. It needed to be shorter and the dialogue needed editing. It needed a vision."

Then came the hard part: Polson was needed for a hefty supporting role for Rowan Woodsí The Boys, shooting in Sydney. Knight and his Artist Services production company is in Melbourne. "Iíd fly down every weekend after shooting The Boys all week and spend 16 to 18 hour days with the two writers." The drafting went on for a year.

Artist Services called in Al Clark to produce, and Clark also had some inputs, but most of the work was done. "It was already highly evolved and completely engaging," he says. "Most intoxicating was the amalgam of the romantic and the comic and the surreal. It felt like that rare thing Ė a wholly original piece of work, but within familiar landmarks."

Clark was amazed at Polsonís focus; "From the start he would leave no detail unexplored, no element unexamined. This unrelenting approach to the script was the catalyst for the rest of us becoming as exacting in our standards."

"stretching the boundaries" producer Al Clark

As a first time feature director, Polson also enjoyed the lack of restrictions that come with perceptions of what can and canít be done. "The guiding force," says Clark, "was one of stretching the boundaries."

Linus Roache (The Priest, Wings of the Dove, playing Perry) is also impressed by Polsonís directing; "Heís an amazing guy, heís able to work on every level. I was blown away by that. From minute details to big logistics and yet still be available for the actors. Everybody completely respected him." Roache says the film struck him as very funny; "I read it and it got me. Also, itís not just comedic; itís very real and true, but larger than life, too. Thereís something magical weaved into it. I canít actually think of anything like it Ė which is probably in its favour."

The film had seven investors, the most that Clark as producer has had to deal with. "Itís the nature of the film; lots of travel and vehicles and big set pieces involving natural Ė and unnatural Ėdisasters, and corresponding SFX. It means there is no cheap version you can make. All you can do is contain it. We made it in 38 days! And itís a very complicated film. We had to tailor it to fit the money. Amazingly, it doesnít feel like weíve cut corners, yet every day we had to work out how to do things in less time and for less money than seemed possible."

But thatís par for the course in Australian filmmaking, where invention often has to replace cash and Polson gives Clark credit for being "the driving force".

"I enjoyed being an ally"

"It was certainly difficult," Polson admits, "and nerve wracking. But I quickly settled into it. I love working with actors; I respect and understand them. I enjoyed being an ally."

An actor himself, this is not surprising. And he never considered taking the lead role himself. "It would have been suicide. The industry probably expected me to do something, even if only a small role, - so I didnít," he says flatly. "Iíve made shorts [where I acted and directed], but I was the only one in them." (Polsonís celebrated short, Whatís Going On Frank? stars Polson as both Frank and his doppleganger.)

Siam Sunset has a big cast and Polson met 300 actors during casting. "I was secretly refining a technique for working with actors," he confides.

He relied on gut instinct ("itís all Iíve got") and it was his partner, fellow director Samantha Lang (The Well) who suggested Linus Roache after seeing him in Wings of the Dove. "She insisted I see him Ė and when I did, it turned on a light bulb for me. So I went to London and met 30 actors, including Linus, but I couldnít see anyone else in the role. Heís vulnerable, funny and I felt you would believe his wife has been killed a week ago. He has that ability . . . he didnít look like he was acting."

"every ounce I have"

Polson gave the film "every ounce I have" for a year even before making it. He learnt that time was crucial. He also learnt he could listen more to other people. "But youíre afraid and tend to cling to what you know. My second film, Iíll be more relaxed," he promises.

For music, Polson and the team chose an orchestral score, picking Melbourne based Paul Grabowski and the Melbourne Symphony (this despite a budget ceiling imposed on first time directors by the Film Finance Corporationís investment criteria). "My parents are jazz musos," say Polson, "so Iíve known Paul from his jazz work, but also know of his orchestral compositions. He loved the script and I wanted everyone on the film to fight for their area. I wanted the film to pull their best work. And he did. So did [cinematographer] Brian Breheny (Priscilla)."

In the edit suite, Polson was "tougher than the editor. I cut it right downÖit runs 92 minutes. I didnít wince to cut two days work out. You can say a lot about the film, but you canít ever say itís too slow!"

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John Polson

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..on set of Siam Sunset

Join us for a LIVE CHAT with John Polson
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..with Russell Crowe in The Sum of Us


..The Sum of Us


..at left in The Boys







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