Ivan Sen And Aaron Pedersen Talk Goldstone and Carving a Genre for Aussie Outback Noir
We speak to the only duo to make not one, but two politically-charged Australian films with an Indigenous cop as the main character.
July 19, 2016
Ivan Sen and Aaron Pedersen have become one of the great double acts of Australian cinema. The former is a writer, director, producer, cinematographer and composer who first burst onto the scene with his debut feature Beneath Clouds, while the latter has lit up the nation's big and small screens in everything from influential crime television series Wildside to expressive Indigenous dance film Spear.
Together they're the driving force behind two of the best local releases in the last four years, as well as the reason that their central character of Jay Swan is fast becoming one of the nation's enduring screen heroes. First, they collaborated on the sun-drenched western 'noir' Mystery Road. And now they're back to serve up the second chapter that is Goldstone. Like its predecessor, this companion piece explores the efforts of Pedersen's Indigenous detective as he investigates unseemly dealings in the remote reaches of the Aussie outback.
But Goldstone doesn't just offer up another Swan-centric story (as pleasing as that concept is). No, once again, it not only navigates the country's distinctive landscape, but also provides a politically-charged examination of the complex state of the nation's race relations in the process. With the feature currently screening in Australian cinemas, Ivan and Aaron sat down with Concrete Playground to discuss the conflicts of their protagonist, the process of making movies in the middle of nowhere and what comes next for the duo.
ON TELLING POLITICALLY CHARGED STORIES WITHIN GENRE CONFINES
Ivan: "It's all inbuilt into the fabric of the character. He's a character who's a political character. He's an Indigenous police officer, and those two words together immediately creates a conflict within him — and there's a conflict on each side of him. Not many people trust a black cop from the Aboriginal perspective, and he's looked at with suspicion from the white side as well. They see him as a tool for them to liaise with the community, whereas he's actually there in the centre trying to help this community and keep people from being locked up.
So he's just got all these political, social aspects inbuilt. And I think that's why when you place that into a genre arena, automatically you're going to have a genre effort that's going to have political subtext that's inbuilt from the beginning."
ON RETURNING TO THE CHARACTER OF JAY SWAN
Ivan: [Looking at Aaron] "He wanted a job."
Aaron: "Yeah, I wanted a job. Nah, look, I was very inspired by the first one. I thought it was saying a lot of things. I thought he [Jay Swan] walked quite strong in the world. And as Ivan says, he's just a good man doing the right things — and I liked that. It was a simple profile of the man, but it was such a beautiful in-depth conversation he was having about the type of person you should be in the world. So I just said 'let's do it again, brother', because it seemed like people had gravitated towards him in a lot of ways. And throughout the whole journey of Mystery Road, not one person questioned the colour of his skin — they just thought 'good on you, you're doing the right thing'. And that for me was a win — and a coup — because you're trying to paint strong, male Indigenous images that are pertinent to helping this country, rather than being looked down at as a lesser kind of a person. So I just wanted to bring him back. I thought he had an audience, and he had people there who loved him, and people wanted to see him again — there was a bit of a hunger there.
And I wanted to work with Ivan again, which not a lot of actors get the chance to do. So, it was a great chance to work with him again. And Ivan's note was: 'well, we just fuck it up a bit. We reshape it. We make it more jagged — and make a different film'. And the truth is, it works — you know? He's a little bit more damaged, but people are with him, so immediately people are emotionally connected, like 'whoa, what's going on here?' So he's already got friends and family in amongst audiences, so it felt like a no-brainer really.
Obviously it's a lot of work to do it, whether you ask it or not. Ivan had a couple of other projects he was working on that didn't go the way he thought they might at the time, so it opened the door to write it. He sat down in a small period time — less than a fortnight — and penned the film, and then called me and said 'wrote it, bro'. And I was like 'yes! Here we go!' It's one thing to ask [for a second film], but it takes a lot to [actually] do it. So I asked the question and Ivan did the hard work for it. I'm glad I asked him. I didn't push it too much, but I wanted to see if he thought it was possible. For me, Ivan is heading in a direction that, if I don't catch him and ask him to do it now, then the stratosphere is his world. In years to come, it might be something we revisit later, but it was worth asking now."
ON SHOOTING THE FILM IN OUTBACK QUEENSLAND
Ivan: "To us, it's nowhere. Middleton's a pub, right? There's three people who live there. To us, it's just land. There's nothing there — there's no services. There's nothing that you need to look after a crew and house them and all that stuff. And we had to actually build the sets as well as our accommodation.
To shoot a film out there, full-time, for under $3 million is unbelievable. It feels like a much bigger film than what it is. It's a couple of hundred grand more than my first film in 2002. And to look at it, it's quite an epic film."
Aaron: "And we worked every day, really."
Ivan: "Me doing five jobs helps the budget — I don't get the money for that, by the way."
ON TRYING TO MAKE GOLDSTONE BOTH MORE POLITICAL AND MORE ACCESSIBLE THAN MYSTERY ROAD
Ivan: "It's another stepping stone to a wider audience...and that's partly why I wanted it to be a two-hander. So Alex Russell [who plays Goldstone's only permanent cop], his character is white, with a country background, and people connect with him. As they do Jacki Weaver, as they do to David Wenham. So that was all conscious, you know. And you've got [Indigenous actors] Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil on the other side. And Cheng Pei-pei. It's inviting the audience in to see different perspectives.
I was joking out on location that it's like a trifle. You've got your favourite piece of the trifle — whether it is the cake or the jelly or the custard — and you go for your favourite bit. But at the same time you're going to taste the custard and the cake as well."
Aaron: "I like trifle."
Ivan: "It was a very consciously-made trifle."
ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A THIRD FILM
Aaron: "I've already planted that one, too. But it's true. What happens in our careers — whether my career or Ivan's — is unbeknown, but I know Ivan is a great creator of his own destiny too. So the question is asked for that reason — but where's the window for it? That's really all it is, because I know maybe he'd love to revisit it or even just look at it, but where's the window for it? I asked the question a lot earlier in the piece. We had the discussion in the Middleton pub during the shooting of this one and talked about it in bits and pieces over the whole shoot. So, the seed has been planted and there's a little bit of watering going on, but it's just a matter of where the window is."
Ivan: "I had an idea, actually, about two years or a year and a half ago about a story — and after talking to Aaron out on location I realised that that story could be the basis of another. I mean, that story could've involved Aaron and just a totally different character, but we could see how [this story and Jay Swan] could interconnect...And the whole thing would be quite radical. And very different to the other two films as well. And extremely political."
Aaron: "Extremely political. It's outrageous."
Ivan: "It'll blow the walls out. But in saying that, it's extremely accessible at the same time because of that. Because that outrageousness is also what's attractive at the same time."
Aaron: "Yeah, totally. Look, there's a lot of unanswered questions still, as there was in the first. And the first and second complement each other in a lot of ways, and they're separate, too. It's just about the time it takes place. In the three years since Ivan and I did the last one, our worlds have shifted — personally and privately — and that happens with the characters too. And they can shift quite enormously, and there can be quite the chasm between them.
I always say this: look at the last image of Mystery Road and the first image of Goldstone. There's this chasm. You go 'hang on, have I missed a film here? What the hell happened? That's not the same person'. But it is. There's great beauty in how people make that connection, too. So, whatever that is, the leap that we're talking about won't feel ridiculous — it'll feel like life has taken place, and things have happened. And that's exciting too, because the excitement of shooting this film was the fact that it's the same character, but it was like you stepped onto another planet."
Goldstone is currently screening in Australian cinemas.
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