Sydney Film Festival Interview: Director Ivan Sen talks Goldstone, corruption and Indigenous representation

Following its premiere as the opening night film of the 63rd annual Sydney Film Festival, The Iris sought to learn more about Goldstone from Director Ivan Sen. Chatting character, corruption, representation and scale, Sen gives us further insight into the follow-up to 2013’s universally acclaimed Mystery Road, as well as discussing how his direction has changed and letting us know that a television show based on the two films is in development. Mild spoilers for Goldstone follow.

In Goldstone, a 109 minute long outback thriller/action feature, Australian actor Aaron Pedersen reprises his role as Indigenous detective Jay Swan. Set onto a missing persons case, Jay arrives in the small town of Goldstone with – as mentioned in the interview below – a different tone as compared to the one that Pedersen conveyed so well in Mystery Road. He is immediately arrested for drunk driving by young local cop Josh (Alex Russell) and when his motel room is riddled with bullets, it becomes clear to Jay that a deeper level of corruption surrounds the case. The all-star cast includes Jackie Weaver, David Wenham, David Gulpilil, Cheng Pei-pei, Michelle Lim Davidson, and Tom E. Lewis. It’s described as a “taut, intelligent thriller encompassing the environment, corruption, politics, corporate greed, tradition, and mythology”.

The Iris: So, first off, congratulations on the film, I really enjoyed it. Mystery Road received such huge worldwide acclaim, what was the idea behind making this more of a spin-off rather than a direct sequel?

I just don’t think there was enough to try and solve at the end of the last film. For me, you know, it was kind of open-ended but the stakes of resolving those things that are a bit open at the end of that film, I just don’t think they’re high enough to warrant a whole film based on resolving them. So, the beauty about someone like Jay Swan, this indigenous detective, is that you can place him in a range of environments, which can feed entirely new stories separate from what came before. In saying that, there are connections to Mystery Road and they were just consciously placed in there to help feed the character into this new situation.

And when we catch up with Jay he’s kind of a broken man. His daughter died. What was the idea behind having Crystal [his daughter] die between films and not really on screen?

I think Aaron [Pedersen] may have had something to do with that. It wasn’t something I was pursuing in writing it, and it was something that came from encouragement from Aaron more than anything. He just felt it was a nice little layer to inform his character and, basically, it went on to evolve and then the alcoholism came with that.

Aaron generally has a lot of input early on and then I’ll integrate his ideas into the screenplay and go from there. But [Jay’s] a broken man and the alcoholism, which was hinted at in Mystery Road, has come back full circle. But we didn’t want to repeat ourselves in this film so, the idea was to show how the issues that are within the community that he’s trying to help are also present within him and manifest themselves within him this time, as opposed to on the exterior.

There’s a different tone to Jay this time around; he’s quieter, for example. In terms of his characterisation, how did that then influence how you wrote the other characters in this film?

This film was written in ten days…once I sat to write it, it was written in ten days. I was always going to strip the dialogue away from him in this film and just leave him as this presence who was more like a silent observer in this film – I mean, more so than the other one – and the world, kind of goes on around him. It’s just how it all panned out, just having him as this strong, visual, physical presence and a lot of the dialogue you’ll find around him come from a lot of the other characters.

You’v got Alex Russell and Jacki Weaver, which makes up a really strong cast. Alex is, especially, a huge presence. How did the character of Josh add to the dynamic this time around? What kind of energy did he bring?

I think the idea of this film was for it not to be a subjective thing, which Mystery Road is. It’s actually my fist film where I step away from the main character and cut away from them so, more broadly, I guess, this film is a stepping stone to where I’m heading in the future with trying to redefine what genre is and making films that are actually for a bigger market, but containing meaningful elements which we’re more familiar with when we watch drama films.

So, Josh is this character who is on the cusp of being corrupted. He hasn’t been corrupted but he’s on the edge, and this Indigenous detective comes along and kind of throws a spanner in the works. Josh hasn’t been fully corrupted but he’s been turning a blind eye enough, his soul is already engaged in the corruption, and we bring this other character in to force him to decide where his character will lead in the future.

The addition of the Mayor (Jackie Weaver) provides a deeper political context to it all, and the corruption is very layered into the social structure of the town. How did you layer this as a parable to the wider corruption, which is kind of going on in wider Australian society?

The corruption at the local government level in Australia, that’s there on record. A few years ago I moved up to the Tweed river area, north of New South Wales, and I remember the whole council got sacked for a dodgy deal that was let through to develop the whole northern coastline. So, a lot of that land there was just grabbed by developers and the public couldn’t access it. That whole council got the sack and they should have actually gone to gaol for it…the stuff is all real. That’s the beauty about film, all these layers are out there and people tend to not notice or gloss over things very quickly and it’s when you get all these elements structured and presented into something that’s palatable people take notice of things and go ‘wow, this stuff is going on’. It’s all going on, it’s just how it manifests into something people take notice of.

Yeah, I thought you structured it brilliantly, in a very accessible way.

Yeah, and a lot of that came just innately because it was written in such a short time. There was that one draft and then another strong draft a few months later where it just connected all the dots up.

What was the idea, behind the score this time? There’s that motif of music – the big, kind of, swirling piece – that comes around on the emotional beats.

I guess, I wanted the film to have more of an emotive feeling, but with music I didn’t want it to dictate to people I just wanted it to curate that ambiance and for it not to be constrained to any certain emotion. So, I think, my main focus was for people to hear the same thing at the same time but possibly feel different things depending on their perspective. But also I just spent more detail in every facet, in every element of constructing the film; I really just threw everything at it. I was much more detailed this time I think than ever before.

In terms of the setting of the film – in Mystery Road the first 30-40 minutes was located in a neighbourhood, in a town – this is almost entirely desert – what was the idea behind the total change in location and what did the character of the land bring to the movie?

Well, for me, the land is the stage. I don’t really refer to it as a character because all the characters play on top of that stage and for me our environment informs who we are and also the decisions we make and that defines us as characters. So the landscape just was another element.

The visuals behind it were still spectacular even though it was a barren land. What was the main thought process behind the big aerial and big wide shots?

The aerials were something I started with in Mystery Road but it’s like everything, we just wanted to push the envelope…push everything further than we did before. I wanted to explore actually conveying dramatic action from the aerial perspective, not just using it as an establishment or a cut away but using it in the fabric of the drama so, you actually see interaction whether it’s just one person or several. The drone is such an important device in film making now. People are exploring what you can actually do with them, and I did explore other stuff where I would actually travel with the characters and move with them for extended periods, but it’s like everything, you keep pressing notes until you hear it go out of key, and then you get rid of it.

I wanted to talk a bit about that amazing action scene towards the end. What was it like shooting that big, ambitious action scene

Mystery Road was my first action sequence so that kind of gave me confidence to push the envelope with action and make it extended this time. It helped that the camp was where we lived, so it was very close and I got the chance to walk around it a lot. I was living in a tent, but a lot of the crew and cast were within that space. So I would go there everyday and just walk around it and, because it’s very small, I would just think ‘how are we going to give this thing scale?’ So I think in different angles and directions, so I had written that because I knew it would have a very interesting look because we’ve got these passageways and containers. It was just something from the script that I thought would work, visually.

It was very raw which I really enjoyed.

Yeah I mean we’re talking about not using music and not manipulating people with it. Letting them find their own emotion. You know, the most important thing in the action is not having any music in it, that’s why it feels raw and real because you’re hearing all those sounds within that camp. When the guns go off they go off.

The portrayal of Indigenous Australians is still problematic at times and many Australian films still play to stereotypes. What do you feel are the main issues still plaguing the portrayal of Indigenous Australians?

I think it’s changed a lot over the years. And people are aware of misrepresentation. There’s a lot of people that don’t go there. And when they do there’s often a lot of collaboration that goes on. Then we’ve got bigger films like Australia – it’s rare that kind of film does exist – we’re it kind of just glosses over everything in favour of a cheesy love story, that’s used as a device. But as I said, people are more aware these days, so when they do [go that way], collaboration is usually the way people go.

Three years ago you had Mystery Road as the opening film for Sydney Film Festival, and three years later you have the opening film again. What does that mean for you?

It’s nice to know that we haven’t repeated ourselves because I don’t think the festival would want to open with a film so closely connected to Mystery Road which wasn’t doing something different. So I feel like we’ve probably achieved that, making something that’s not a repeat and taking on a whole different story and approach. It’s a relief, I guess, more than anything. Relief that we’ve done something that’s different and possibly stronger than previously.

Is Aaron’s character someone you want to stick with. Can we expect more?

There’s a TV series in the works which we’ve started developing with the ABC, and people are very interested in that. Aaron and I did speak about a possible third film but it would need to very radical if we did another one. I’ve just got a lot of projects going on at the moment, I’m not sure if we’ll do that one.

Goldstone opened the 63rd annual Sydney Film Festival and will be screened again on Saturday 11th June (2:30pm – State Theatre) and Sunday 12th June (8:30pm – Hayden Orpheum, Cremorne). For more details and tickets head to the Sydney Film Festival website HERE

Director Ivan Sen will be speaking at 5pm on Saturday 11th June at the Apple Store as part of a free “Meet the Filmmaker” talk. He will also be appearing at the free Indigeneity and Australian Screen Storytelling talk on Sunday 12th June at 4pm at the Hub Upstairs.

Stay tuned for our film review of Goldstone as part of our Sydney Film Festival coverage this year.

Transcript by Jessica Marie Gregory and Chris Singh. Interview by Chris Singh.