Interview Peter Carstairs Hi Peter, thanks for talking to MIFF about your first feature film September, which is due for release onto DVD on 20th March.
MIFF: September is set before you were born - what inspired you to tell this story and why did you feel it was important to tell this story now?
Peter: I was very interested in two different ideas that came together at the same time. Firstly, I was interested in writing a film about friendship and, secondly, I was interested in exploring race relations in a pivotal but little known chapter in Australia's racial history – the late 1960s.
Prior to 1968, Aboriginal people in the country weren't paid wages in the same way as white people were. They lived on pastoral properties and, in exchange for being allowed to stay there, they worked for the white farmers for little or, in some cases, no money at all (they'd work for food and clothes and tobacco etc). This all changed in 1968 with the introduction of the Federal Pastoral Industry Award which brought wages for Aboriginal and white workers into line. But unfortunately, rather than pay Aboriginal workers like white workers, many of the farmers decided to just get rid of the Aboriginal families altogether. So there was a huge shift of Aboriginal people off the land into towns where they arrived with no jobs, no money, no skills and nowhere to live. They basically had to set up camps on the fringes of towns. The more I researched the period the more astounded I was at the destructive impact it had on Aboriginal people in terms of unemployment and the displacement of a people. It was devastating. And the impact is still being felt by Aboriginal people in 2008.
But one of the things that really amazed me was that I'd never heard about it – and that very few other people I talked to knew about it. If I had not done my own research, I might never have known about it. This was a major reason why I thought it important to try and tell this story now.
MIFF: The cinematography is beautiful - I understand you are from Western Australia did you grow up in similar surrounds?
Peter: Yeah I grew up in the wheatbelt in WA. I can't say its exactly like how we have depicted the world of the film – but in my childhood memory, it is similar; huge rolling wheatfields that sometimes go on for as far as the eye can see without a tree. The world of film is obviously fictional. But I made a creative decision that sprang from the character Rick (the white farmer) that he would have wheat growing right up to the front door of his house – using every available inch of land. And of course it makes it clear visually that the boys are constantly faced with a horizon that they have to one day travel beyond.
MIFF: Why did you call it September?
Peter: For a few reasons – firstly, on one level, the film is constantly drawing parallels and contrasts with nature. And September represents spring and a time of change and of growth. For the two main characters of the film, this chapter of their lives is all about change and growth; rejecting tradition; maturity etc. And on a far more literal level, the film begins in August when the boys discover (in the first few minutes of the film) that Jimmy Sharman's boxing troupe is coming to their town in September. The film ends when they reach that day. . . in September.
MIFF: How did you cast the characters of Ed and Paddy?
Peter: We auditioned lots and lots and LOTS of actors. We expected that it would be very easy to find an actor for the role of Ed the white boy and hard to find someone to play Paddy, the Aboriginal boy. But in reality it was the opposite. We found Clarence Ryan very quickly – I think he was the fifth kid we auditioned. But then we auditioned about 200 kids for the role of Ed before we found Xavier Samual. And they just worked together very very well.
MIFF: September screened at MIFF, Toronto and then Berlin Film Festivals where it was incredibly well received. When making a feature film, what sort of expectations did/do you have with the outcome?
Peter: Because it was my first feature, and because I had a large amount of creative freedom, we limited our expectations to goals around festival success and critical acclaim. To make a film that we were happy with and that was the best possible film we could make with our limited resources. It was our hope that it would get into one respectable festival. As it turns out it has far exceeded our festival goals with Berlin, Toronto and Melbourne, so we're thrilled. It’s a little bit of a life goal achieved. And similarly, the critics for the most part have been very good to us. But luckily I never put an expectation on commercial success. I think it’s hard to do that as an artist. Of course we all hoped it would do okay at the cinema box office but we never set ourselves any hard expectations. So we're happy with the overall outcome – we achieved our goals. And who know, maybe the film will do well on DVD.
MIFF: Before September you made a few short films which won a number of awards, how easy/hard was it to go from making a short film to a feature?
Peter: It was very hard to make the transition. Noone could have prepared me for how fast we had to work on September – we shot the entire film in 25 days! And the scale compared with a short is just incomparable so you have to let go of a lot of control – to relinquish more responsibility to your collaborators – your co-writer, DOP, designer, art department, and producers. It was hard at first, but I guess I learned to just roll with the punches – because there were so many of them!
MIFF: How did you put the funding for September together?
Peter: As it was selected as the first TFP [Tropfest Feature Program] project, there was a guaranteed commitment from the Movie Network Channel of at least $1million. But when we went into planning seriously, we realised we would find it very difficult to make the kind of film we were all seeing for $1million. So we went to the FFC and applied for additional investment through the FFC's creative door and we were successful. And because we were shooting in regional NSW the NSW FTO were able to provide us with a grant for about $100k. So we ended up with a total budget of $2.4 million – which is still very very low, but was enough for us to make a proper film.
MIFF: I understand you are a lawyer in your "day" job - how did you make the transition from legal world to film world?
Peter: I've also been a filmmaker for some time. I made my first short film 8 years ago (which premiered at MIFF and won an award!) and then I studied directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in 2001/2002. But after film school I went back to working as a lawyer rather than washing dishes for a living while I was trying to write. So I didn't really 'transition' as such, I kind of have dual careers. And when September was financed through the TFP, the law firm I work with let me take a year off to make the film. It’s a bit of a juggle but it seems to work for me.
MIFF: What's next for you?
Peter: I'm working on another original screenplay with the co-writer of September, Ant Horn, and am also trying to do an adaptation of a novel. And still working as a lawyer during the day, of course!
MIFF: If you could pass on one piece of advice to young aspiring filmmakers in Australia, what would it be?
Peter: Write, write, write, and keep writing. It takes a long time to get a feature film up so if one story idea doesn't get up, try another one.
MIFF: Thank you for your time and best wishes for your future projects - we hope to see many more at MIFF!
Release Date: 20 March, 2008 Rating: MA RRP: $39.95