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Colin Friels wants you to see Tom White, not for his performance but because it has left a haunting resonance with him, which he can’t explain; meanwhile the film’s director, Alkinos Tsilimidos, explains why the film is a little ambiguous rather than plot and action reliant. That’s probably because it’s so truthful about our often unfathomable nature, says Andrew L. Urban.

Director Alkinos Tsilimidos and actor Colin Friels are propped up at the elbow of the bar having a yarn when I arrive. We shake hands, but no-one’s shouting. It’s 10 am and the bar, on the first floor above famous Kings Cross eatery the Bourbon and Beef, is not serving. The large empty space, once occupied by poker machines, is now bright (at least during the day, its large windows sucking in sunlight), ready for another day and more especially, another night of social interaction as urban youth meets urban youth. This morning, it’s our interview room.

Colin Friels, who plays the title role of Tom White in Tslimidos’ new film (written by Daniel Keene), is still buzzing after seeing the film with a large Audience at the Melbourne Film Festival a few days earlier. “I couldn’t relax….David Field [one of his co-stars] was sitting next to me telling me to relax all the time, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to expect ….people getting up, ‘stuff it, I’m walking out…’ But they stayed and they clapped at the end,” he adds with a look of pleased surprise. He needn’t be: early critical reaction was positive, and centred on his complete, satisfying and complex performance.

The film is a journey for Tom White (Friels), who is at breaking point as an architectural draughtsman, his middle class life overpowering him. His impotent fury is as confusing to him as to his workmates and his wife Helen (Rachael Blake). When he slips out of his world and wanders into the urban undergrowth of Melbourne, Tom embarks on a journey in which he crosses paths with people equally lonely, equally afraid of their memories and equally at odds with life’s carbuncles. He finds temporary refuge, but often at a price. And in the end, he has to try and remember who he is. Or isn’t.

"outstanding performance"

Friels admits he always hates to see himself on the screen (“your face is so big”) and often he vaguely hopes no-one will see the films he makes. This time, for reasons he finds difficult to explain, he hopes the opposite. With his thumb and fingertips touching as he moves his hand up and down his torso, he says the film has left him with a residual sensation. “I didn’t know what it is… I don’t know why I want people to see it. It’s not about homeless people…that’s not the point.”

There is not so much a message, as a feeling, or feelings, that the film generates, largely thanks to his outstanding performance. The ending is ambiguous, and Friels says the whole film is well observed human nature in all its complexity. 

“We wanted the ending to be ambiguous,” says Tsilimidos. “We had various versions but we held back until we’d shot the film to see how we’d feel. To me it’s suggestive of a cusp. He’s at a point where he has to make some kind of decision about the rest of his life, and I don’t know what choice he will make. None of us, including writer Daniel Keene, know. Only Tom White knows…”

For Tsilimidos and Keene, the initial driving concept behind the film was to find a face for the faceless, the urban human flotsam that lives on the edge of society. Tom White is put into this world, and “goes back to the basics of adolescence, in a way, having to re-learn the things that make him a human being. He tries to understand love, and he meets Christine (Loene Carmen), and he regains his sense of love but repels from that; he meets Malcolm (Bill Hunter), who teaches him to find himself. With young Jet (Jarryd Jinks), he re-learns fatherhood. They all have their own worlds – which he’d never know.

“I wanted him to be dysfunctional … and to show that other side of town, in which he is a total stranger. He has to rebuild himself.”

"many recognisable elements"

Colin Friels spent some time researching the underground world of urban Melbourne, to help him find “how fractured Tom was…” And, adds Tsilimidos, “we don’t offer all the answers, but there are many recognisable elements in the film.”

Rehearsals were awkward; Friels doesn’t usually rehearse for films, but Tsilimidos felt it was “important to build a foundation for each scene.”

The director, a graduate of what was then Swinburne Film School, and creator of Every Night, Every Night (1994) and Silent Partner (2001) says he likes to approach filmmaking “from truth” but he also sees his role as being the first audience for the actors. “I need to give them responsibility for their characters and to balance performances.” For example, when discussing the role of Malcolm with Bill Hunter, he urged the distinguished veteran actor to do something “we’ve never seen before. And he loved that idea.” 

Published August 19, 2004

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Colin Friels as Tom White & Director Alkinos Tsilimidos


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