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The Enfant Terrible Grows Up

Cult film maker David Blyth.
Cult film maker David Blyth offers some tips for making a low budget film and talks about his pro

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In this interview with Ande Schurr, cult film maker David Blyth offers some tips for making a low budget film and shares the idea behind his provocative style.

“I see cinema like paintings and other forms of art where you’re actually making a statement about a place."

"And that comes back to me seeing, the horror within the every day. My New Zealand is more horrific than other people’s New Zealand.”

* * *

David Blyth looks invigorated. Fresh from principle photography on his latest film Wound, after a 20 year break from filming his own material, there is something single minded and unstoppable etched into his face.

David’s ability to bounce back, to reinvent himself relentlessly, indicates a nerve that is tougher than the printed poison from his staunchest critics.

From the king of punk-cult-material to B grade factory packaged Hollywood films. From popular NZ documentaries to attempting a new feature, David has gone full circle and is back to where he began you might say, but this time, he is comfortable.

For a few hours, I steal him away from the editing studio for this interview.

David explains the three key elements of making a low budget film without compromising on technical expertise. He shares why he is provocative and what is behind his fascination with sexuality onscreen.  He outlines the lesson he learned from movie genius Alejandro Jodorowsky, that has changed his entire outlook on film making.

The Listener Magazine (July 3-9 2004 Vol. 194 ‘Happiness is a Warm Whip’) has called David ‘one of the great mavericks of New Zealand film’. He is also a champion to aspiring directors – who have benefited from his part-time tuition at South Seas Film and TV School over 12 years – and worshipped by foreign audiences in South America, Canada and Europe who have revived his first feature Angel Mine and lauded his most recent documentary “Transfigured Nights”.

The 3 Key Elements of Low Budget Film Making

How would you advise directors on making their first low budget feature film?

The thing about making low budget films is that you must have a good script that has been well worked, well developed. You’ve also got to have really good casting.  These are two key elements in low budget film making. It’s around those areas that the tough decisions really have to be made, because you’ve got to just decide right out front how much time you can afford for the schedule. In the case of Wound it was twelve days which is very tight for a feature film. But with our incredibly low budget we had no choice - I would have loved a three or four week shoot. In terms of the actors, you have to make decisions about the level of cost you can afford. We made a decision early on, that we would go with actors where this was an incredible opportunity for them as well. But there is a disadvantage here because in the International scene, films are looked at totally in terms of who is in them – That’s where the term “Marquee Value” comes from: The actors name on the front of the cinema.

The third element is locations. One of the things that really makes a low budget film very difficult is when you have too many locations in your film because it’s all the company moves which waste a huge amount of time. In the case of Wound, we’ve managed to keep it down to about four locations for everything.  Low budget films cannot have multiple locations.  It’s amazing how the focus of the day dissipates. I’ve had situations in the past where the lighting trucks have been put in the wrong place and they end up being in shot, so they all have to be moved and that can take forty minutes.

So a film director is like the head of a comet and you have this amazing tail behind you. The bigger the tail the longer everything takes to do, which is why you need to keep your crew lean. The moment you have sixty people trailing you around there are a whole lot of logistics that come with it, extra trucks, extra transport, more catering, more production staff, more everything to cope with the number of crew.

You took great pains to ensure the actors were comfortable on the set of Wound. Is that your normal style or was this a special case due to the unsettling psychological content they had to deal with?
 
I’m a great believer in rehearsals. The actors are our representatives on the screen. In a film like Wound where the actors are being asked to go deeper into areas that are a little bit more disturbing and where they are a more venerable, it was very important that I created a very enveloping feeling of safety and security for them emotionally. And it was a fantastic experience on this film for me because I felt really in tune with the actors. I think we got the results because of it. I spent a lot of time with the actors before the shoot, explaining the emotional journey and the dynamic behind the story.

Also you have to be so focused on set and you have to cut out the things you don’t need to deal with right now.

Everyone has questions and concerns, so there are times when you can’t be as supportive of the actors as much as you want because you’re dealing with the physicality of the making of the film. That’s where rehearsals really play a part.
 
As part of the crew (Sound Recordist) I found your method of breaking up the shooting days beneficial in keeping energy levels high among us all. Was this intentional?

Breaking the shoot up, having two days first, then a regroup, then 5-6 days then another regroup was a really effective and efficient way of shooting the film rather than just having 12 days straight. We needed those regroups and the time to prep because we didn’t go into the film with that much preproduction. I’d only met the producer, Andrew Beattie three-four months before the filming.

We chose January because traditionally in New Zealand, January is a big black hole where nothing happens and that meant I could get industry professionals who had had a bit of a holiday but then had most of January before them twiddling their thumbs. So they are the best conditions I am ever going to get. I learnt that in Canada because I did two movies there in the winter and the reason we did it in the winter is that there were no other Canadian films shooting, which meant there was gear and crew available that would never normally be available at the price and competency that we could afford. 
 
Being Provocative

Do you see it as your mission to shock people with your content so they can ‘wake up’?

I do provoke. That is part of my style and there is a certain amount of satire too. It may limit my audience but I believe that I am providing another look at our New Zealand culture and country that no one else is producing and I feel that this is the most important thing. A different perspective.
 
People need to be able to have a range of ways of seeing New Zealand. I personally think that the Shortland Street perception of our culture is completely false and it has reduced really important issues and stories to banality.
 
Cinema is not just about making mega bucks or straight entertainment. For me, New Zealand cinema has helped this country grow up, because we’re basically an adolescent country; a very young country. It’s been important to see ourselves on screen.
 
I see cinema like paintings and other forms of Art where you’re actually making a statement about a place. And that comes back to me seeing, the horror within the every day. My New Zealand is more horrific than other people’s New Zealand and all my films have consistent themes.
I’m fascinated by the cinema of unconsciousness.
 
To illustrate, using Wound as an example, Master John is constantly giving  Susan things to chant and do, that engage the fore-mind, allowing all the stuff in the unconscious a chance to flow through.
 
In my experience of being in America and South America, I’ve also been fortunate enough to witness  Shamanic healings -  they are dealing with bringing the separated elements of people back together and healing them allowing the real message to come in through the unconscious mind.
 
We’ve got all this stuff in the foreground of our minds and it’s actually a whole lot of noise. It’s what's in the back of the mind that I'm after - this unconscious stuff. To access the unconscious you often have to distract the fore-mind to allow the back of the mind to flow through.
 
I see these people [Dominatrix’s] as therapists in a way, playing an important role in that they help people shift from their stuck positions. In Wound, the story is  about a women who is completely stuck. Physically, mentally, spiritually, and it is about shifting her. Obviously it is a very controversial perspective I’ve taken. The film is a dream you can’t wake up from.
 
Why do you have that dark perspective of the world?

It’s what one is born with I guess. It’s my personality, or it may have been a difficult birth, who knows. I’ve always had a slightly different way of looking at the world. The early films expressed it strongly but then I got caught up making commercial films in Hollywood but none of them were original enough because, really, you’re employed by producers in Hollywood to deliver something similar to the previous hit they have already had. So producers would look at your show reel but ask you to deliver a specific style which may have nothing to do with your past work.
 
Why You Must Be True To Yourself
 
Why did you risk a lucrative mainstream film career for a  alternative film festival approach with smaller audiences to appreciate your work?
 
I don’t know if I had to make this tough decision – I think the universe made it for me in that my commercial career really never took off.
 
I think I’ve always had an alternative career. My first films, Circadian Rhythms and Angel Mine were both experimental and that set the scene for the kind of films I would subsequently make in the horror genre.
 
Basically, I used the opportunity of my film Death Warmed Up to get an agent in America because the horror genre is international and at the time it was a genre that was in demand in the US. It all goes in cycles.
 
I started out wanting to be a mainstream director but I found out that my own particular vision seemed to be more art house and specialised cinema than mainstream cinema. The films I’ve been making have not so much turned up at the multiplexes so much as the fantasy and horror type festivals.

At a certain point in my American career – I spent 8 years directing in LA – I realised my passion was cinema but of a more European bent. I realised that in Hollywood, all I was doing was factory films. They didn’t want my creativity, they just wanted a certain product delivered and I didn’t feel that is why I was put on the planet. I wanted to do films where I was in control over the creativity and where the stories meant something to me.
 
It has really only been in the last few years that I’ve realised I’ve needed to return to my original creativity which is the whole motivation behind Wound. It is my own creative effort and I believe it will be completely unique and that will be the selling point of Wound.
 
How difficult is it to produce entirely unique content or are directors in the industry for the glamour instead?
 
I’ve taught at South Seas [Film and TV School] as a directing tutor for many years and what I see is all my ex-students coming out of the school and over the next 4-5 years, there is a trend worldwide, for film students to make their first feature. What I’m seeing is that they’re all making imitations of genre films – stuff we’ve seen before a million times.
 
For me I was never attracted to the glamour. Cinema is the most exciting way I know to express myself. And I believe that I have a different eye in how I perceive the world and the way I look at myself.
 
A Lesson I Learned From a Master Film Maker
 
How did you approach the making of Wound?
 
I approached my film Wound differently than the films in the past. It cuts back to when I met Alejandro Jodorowsky. I went to Paris because I really wanted to meet him and I did connect with him. He was on the jury of the Paris Festival of Horror and Science Fiction which gave Death Warmed Up the Grand Prix. He made a comment to me back then, 30 years ago, to stop projecting my ideas onto the universe, just be present in the moment. It’s taken me 20 years to finally understand what he was saying. Basically I’ve changed my approach and now I look at what the universe is giving me at the moment I have to direct the scene.
 
So it’s a return to what I call real filmmaking, which is that we get there on the morning, I don’t actually have a shot list that I will be religiously following because I don’t actually know what is going to turn up – in terms of performance, props, weather, locations etc.
 
Obviously, with low budget, our ability to withstand various complications is virtually nil because we don’t have the depth of infrastructure, we don’t have the resources. What it meant is I would look in the morning, when I had the power in the moment, looking at all the elements that I had, and ‘Film-make’ with those elements rather than come up with all the elements months before in my study and then forcing those elements onto the day.
 
The example I give you is the young film maker, who is starting his film let’s say tomorrow morning, and he has decided that he‘s going to have a shot hanging off the roof of the people walking into the shot. He gets there, and the DOP says, “the iron on the roof is so rusted and broken that there’s no way we can actually put a camera up there, it’s not safe, it’s not going to work”. But the young film maker has spent all night fantasising about that opening shot and now he can’t do it. It can be quite an emotional experience for a young film maker. You’ve hit a wall and now you’ve got to rethink with everyone around you pressuring you to make a decision.
 
This time I didn’t sweat it before hand. Obviously the roof shot wasn’t going to work so I was actually thinking more on my feet - it’s to do with confidence as a film maker. I feel now that I’m no longer the student; that I’m the master now.
 
Part of that shift was also looking at what the actors showed you that morning in a rehearsal space. When you actually come into the real location there are things that they pick up and also their blood sugar levels - did they have two coffees before they did the scene? All those elements actually affect how you are at the moment. And I’m seeing what they’re giving me – I’m going ‘yes, I love that’ rather than ‘all right, I’m going to get to this place I have in my head”. It is a completely different approach.
 
So I was constantly looking at what the universe had given me and was, in fact, right in front of my nose.
 
Maybe under traditional film making that would not have been as possible because big budgets demand certain things to be very much locked in. But for me, this whole experience on Wound has been the best experience I’ve had. I felt that I got to new levels of understand with the cast and I came out of the film at the end where all of us had the same, if not more, respect for each other than when we started and I’ve come off many films where I walk away with my head down thinking this was just so unsatisfying There have been so many compromises and disgruntled actors who are only there because they have to pay their wife’s divorce bill. Wound was actually a joyous creative experience even though there were strains and stresses caused by fitting in so much into a tight schedule.
 
I call it cheeky film making - “We aim for the stars and as long as we get to the roof I’m happy”. Some of the scenes we got to the stars. Some made it to the roof, there were no scenes that made it to the top of the chair. Lol.
 
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
 
In your NZ Listener interview you say “My career has always been tempered by having to have an entrepreneurial edge,” What did you mean?
 
With a lot of my films, I have not been able to get the funding for them based on the written material because people often don’t have vision themselves and can’t visualise from a page and see something. So what I mean by entrepreneurial, is often I’ve gone out and shot my films under my own steam, or with finance that I’ve managed to raise myself, and then gone to the Film Commission or to a TV Network, which is what happened with a film like Angel Mine with the NZFC and a film like Bound for Pleasure which I shot and then took to TV3, and they in fact bought their own version. If I’d walked in there with the brief they would have looked at me blankly.
 
Does it come down to backing yourself?

Yes. You’ve got to actually believe in yourself. Although in the case of Wound my two biggest fans, who are my two longest standing women friends, believed in me enough to put the money up.

I had that initial early burst of film making which got me an international reputation but I got so much criticism for Angel Mine and Death Warmed Up that it shifted me off my position if you like. I, like all people, are influenced by highly negative critiques. I got perhaps the worst reviews ever in this country for Angel Mine. Quotes that included ‘this is the kind of crap that will feed the roses to come’ and I know full well I’m going to get it again on Wound. I’m hoping that I’m going to be better prepared this time.
 
What did you learn from teaching at South Seas Film and TV School?
 
The interesting thing about teaching is that it forces you to articulate what normally remains just part of your own inner consciousness. Being at the school was good in that it forced me to relook and rethink at how I really do approach film. I realised that there was another level I could get to which was really about the mastery of film making.
 
Why do people not understand you? Has it been unsettling not having many allies?
 
The Film Commission describes me as edgy. I personally believe that the films I make will last way into the future, which has already been proved with Angel Mine which has had a renaissance thirty years on.
 
The irony with Angel Mine is that it was the very first Film Commission film but it was literally made for 20-30k in 1978 and there it is among all the other features that ranged from 800k up to 10-12 million. So for me it really makes me very proud that a 20k film from 1978 still has a currency and is still accepted as a feature film within the NZ cannon of films and yet it would have been the cheapest of them all. I don’t think there would be another film in the catalogue that would be under 50k. 
 
How do you think Wound will be received?
 
There is a lot of interest in this new film because everyone out there on the festival circuit remembers Angel Mine and Death Warmed Up as being extraordinarily unique films. For instance, the festival director at Fright Fest in London is excited because for him it is only those early films which interested him. At Montreal’s Fantasia, they had all seen Angel Mine and Death Warmed Up. Whereas a whole lot of stuff in the middle like the telly movies and straight to video type movies - didn’t play at festivals. I mean films like Red Blooded American Girl, Hot Blooded, Exposure and a few others I don’t talk about!
 
What interests you in sexual perversion?
 
I’m interested in the cinema of the subconscious; all the stuff that’s going on in the back of the mind. The whole thing of me utilising the stuff from the world of bondage and discipline - a master slave or a master submissive scenario - was actually to look inside the way we truly perceive power in relationships.
 
I wanted to look at alternative sexuality because it’s interesting that in our civilised society and culture we increasingly remove ourselves form death, bodily functions and sexual functions. I find it fascinating that this is occurring. Like all the deodorants are designed to hide bodily smells. We have got further and further from our physical realities.
 
In the Victorian times, children were present when dead bodies were being dressed and that was part of them understanding the process of death. Now in our western white society the coffin is closed. It’s only actually the Maori culture that has an open coffin and a healthier attitude to death.
 
I’m interested in exploring all that stuff of sexual desire and bodily function ... and of course horror is around these things and the reason why adolescents enjoy horror so much is that their own bodies are undergoing transformation. They’re growing hair, they’ve got body parts that are growing, that’s what is going on in horror. You’ve got strange things occurring with people. It’s interesting that the horror genre is the only genre that allows you access to those worlds.
 
I’m interested in Bunuel and Jodorowsky and  Brazilian director Jose Mojica Marins who did the Coffin Joe series – they all deal with these issues in a much stronger way.
 
I think my trip to the Fantaspoa Festival in Brazil made me realise just how earthy they are. I will give you a small example: I arrived at this hotel in Porto Alegre in Brazil, for this festival, and the very first morning I come down and there is a dead body being carried out, a young man. Everyone has masks on and I’m thinking it must be the swine flu. I approach the reception and they say ‘ah no, the young man’s girlfriend left him and he committed suicide’ and he handed me the suicide note. This would never happen like this in New Zealand.
 
That is what I mean with a kind of a physical connection to death that we’d never see in New Zealand. You wouldn’t get to see the suicide note, they would’ve taken the body out through the back, it would have been in a body bag, you don’t see dead people being carried out - they would be covered up!
 
Do you have any final words?
 
There’s been points in my career where I’ve hit the wall and I’ve had to ask if I’m deluding myself and whether in fact film is  just another addiction.
 
I love the feedback overseas. Particularly from foreign cultures. For the last 2-3 years I’ve been to four such festivals. That‘s where I was finally able to push through my own personal insecurity about whether my career was completely over; that in fact I was appreciated for the originality of my work – in this case a number of documentaries.
 
I refuse to lie down. Cinema is the most profound way to experience other people’s perceptions. I’ve hung in with the belief that what goes around comes around. I hope this new film will lead to a renaissance of my career as a film maker. 

Written by

Ande Schurr

1 Mar 2010

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.