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Those romantic fantasies of Mr Right whisking the beautiful Princess to a lush and exotic safe haven are …. Dangerous! says Gaylene Preston, whose first self-authored feature film, Perfect Strangers, is the perfect antidote to romance, as she explains to Andrew L. Urban.

Perfect Strangers, says its writer/director Gaylene Preston, “came from a deep, dark place, and it’s better out than in,” she adds with a laugh, but she also admits she herself doesn’t “fully understand everything about this film.” 

The film starts with Melanie (Rachael Blake) as a single young woman, and looking, like her friends. One night at the pub, a few drinks later, she goes off with a handsome man (Sam Neill), another possible Mr Right. He leads her to his boat and takes her on a mysterious trip to his remote and wild island home, but the romantic surface is shattered when she realises he is keeping her prisoner, like a man obsessed. Violent and dramatic events leave them both the worse for wear, and Melanie is confused about her feelings for this complicated man. When a few days later her one-time (as in one night) lover Bill (Joel Tobeck) turns up unexpectedly, she has a lot of explaining to do – some of which she does with a shovel.

Reminiscent at first of themes explored in The Collector (1965), Perfect Strangers changes gears to become a psycho-thriller and then again to a fully fledged, psyched out fantasy. You have to be patient with this film until the very end to unlock its secret.

Preston, looking quite unlike the revolutionary filmmaker she is proving to be, had a very clear idea of what it is, from the start: a “chilling romance” a unique story that takes the traditional notion of romance and gives it a severe, dark twist. Even now, with the film “out” of her system, she still gets energised talking about it.

"the dangerous deception of desire"

“You see we live in quite a mechanistic age but of you turn the radio on every second song is about ‘lurve’ (she pronounces it with a drawl that changes the meaning of the word) fawlling…everybody wants to fawll in lurve… There’s this thing in society about romance; ‘I lurve yew and yew lurve me’ and it’s a very particular transference of ideas. One person transfers onto the other person all their notions about this wonderful thing, romance. And I come from a generation who grew up with the Cinderella version. For women, there is this idea of being taken away from it all, and for men there is this idea of finding someone to protect forever…all that. Well, it’s extremely dangerous at a certain level. And that’s what Perfect Strangers is about: the dangerous deception of desire, because romance involves a lot of self deception.”

The film ends up being anti-romantic, edgy and unpredictable. Preston was never prepared to compromise on it, either. “I wanted to make this film no matter how I made it. So if I had to shoot it with my DV camera with drama students on my weekends, that’s what I’d have done. I’d do it with my mates and it’d cost $250,000 and we’d beg, borrow and steal … but before I do it that way I’ll look at optimising it.”

With 15 pages done, Preston showed it to Sam Neill “because he just kept coming to mind… as The Man. He was it. I thought I’d ask him, he’ll say no and then I’ll carry on. But he said yes.”

And yet for a while it looked like she would indeed be shooting it on DV at weekends, “because every producer I showed it to went, ‘ew, no! What the hell is that! I don’t think so.’ So I gave it to Robin (Laing) and she said, ‘oh yeah, that’s a goer.’”

She had showed it to other producers “because Robin and I had worked together a lot (Mr Wrong, Ruby & Rata, Bread & Roses, War Stories, etc) and I was hoping she could be producing my next film while I was making this one.”

"first self-written feature"

Perfect Strangers is Preston’s first self-written feature. As a school girl, she would write a story a day. What happened? “One day a teacher we had used my story in front of the whole class to ridicule the vernacular in it, the lack of grammar. I don’t think I wrote another story – I hadn’t even realised I hadn’t, that was the end of my story writing…”

But many years later her daughter, now 16 but 9 at the time, unlocked Preston’s writing once again: “We were walking to school and it was her first day with glasses. And she wasn’t going to wear them but then decided she would, and she said, ‘oh well, it’s nice because now we’ve got something in common.’ I said ‘We have more than that in common don’t we?’ and she shot back, ‘No we haven’t!’ 

“I said to her, ‘Well, I like drawing, you like drawing.’ She said ‘Nah, you’re better than me’. Then I said, ‘You’re a really good writer, you write really good stories.’ And she said ‘You don’t write great stories.’ And I said ‘Well I do in a way, I’m a filmmaker.’ And she said ‘But they’re not your stories. They’re Sonia’s story, or somebody else’s story…love you, bye..’ and she was off to school.”

As Preston walked home, she thought about all this. “Did I mean to spend my whole life telling other people’s stories? Did I really mean to do that?” 

Perfect Strangers thus became the first story Preston had written since she, too, was a little girl in glasses, about the same age as her daughter.

Published October 9, 2003

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Gaylene Preston



Interviews by Andrew L. Urban

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