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Interview with Jonathan Teplitzky, writer/director/producer of Burning Man

Few films that deal with the pain and suffering from the loss of a loved one are as bold and innovative as Burning Man, a scorching new Australian drama from writer/director/producer Jonathan Teplitzky. His third and by far best feature film (Teplitzky also directed Better Than Sex and Gettin’ Square), Burning Man follows the whirlwind life of a pugnacious English chef living in Bondi Beach. The film begins by portraying Tom (Matthew Goode) as a hedonistic pratt but he is gradually humanised by Teplitzky as we learn, through a swirling non-linear narrative, that he is recovering from the death of his wife. I discovered during a candid interview with Teplitzky shortly before the film’s release (it is now playing in select cinemas and should be chalked down as a must-see) that the story was partly autobiographical.

My broad reading of Burning Man is that you’ve taken the genre of sad personal dramas involving family sickness and death and offset the morbidity of them by pumping the film full of risqué elements. Was that a deliberate move?

It probably is, but I’d interpret it differently in the sense that the film comes from an autobiographical start. My partner passed away ten years ago. Years went by and I really wanted to respond to the experience in a creative way. So I started thinking about this movie. What I experienced, what I have learnt talking to other people and researching, is that after such an event happens to you there is often a year of magical thinking, or whatever you want to call it, that follows. It’s almost as if you wander around with a get out of jail free card in your back pocket. That no rules apply to you, and once you get past the tradgedy and sadness of it it’s actually quite exhilarating to be set free from your normal domestic life.

Is that how you felt after the death of your partner, that you were set free? What sort of emotional hurdles did you encounter?

Life is turned upside down. You do and say and behave in ways — well, it’s like you’re a 20-year-old but you have the life experience of a 40-year-old. It’s quite a freeing and exhilarating place to be, but it’s deluded as well. After a period of time that slowly dilutes and real life intervenes. You have to reclaim responsibility for all sorts of things. I was really fascinated about the character and what it was like for him to wander around in that headspace. The film’s nonlinear structure came from that, because I wanted a structure that reflected his emotional and psychological state. I also wanted to explore what can be crudely termed his bad behaviour as a response to living through something like that, where he is trying to fill the holes left behind by that kind of loss. I wasn’t really trying to load up a story about loss with a whole lot of exhilarating things, it was more about drawing out of this character the things he uses to take the pain away.

For at least the first half hour Tom is depicted as a thoroughly unlikable person. Then you slow the film’s tempo down and humanise him. Did you ever worry that the protagonist might remain too much of an unlikeable person? That the transition wouldn’t be complete?

Yes and no is the answer to that. I knew we had to be bold about it. We couldn’t pull back and get too bogged down about the need to make him nicer and more sympathetic and stuff like that. Audiences will crucify you if you do that because they know straight away that you’re treating them with contempt and patronising them. I didn’t want to make a sentimental film that patronises the audience. That was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. I wanted the audience to judge him, and judge him harshly at the beginning. But I also wanted a big enough reveal so that as the audience understand what he’s gone through and the loss he’s suffered, he would transcend the behaviour they judged him on and they would perhaps change their judgement.

Different people will have different readings of the film but for me the way you’ve represented items of food as metaphors for memories was striking. Some food is to remember and cherish, others to throw away and forget. You’ve got a great scene when the protagonist is literally confronted with the idea of slicing open his own memories. Where did this idea to represent food in such a way come from and was it all intentional?

There was a huge amount of intention behind that. I wanted the film to be a juxtaposition of images and scenes and I wanted to fill it with images of life, because of the subject matter. Sex, food, fire, water, amongst others. Food was a really important part of that. The fact that Tom was a chef allowed me to use food in that way. He knows how to handle it and it means something more to him. If you speak to most chefs they have a lot of respect for the ingredients they work with. When we created the car crash scene at the start of the film, I wanted all the ingredients of his life swirling around him because that’s the world he exists in.

There’s even a food, or cooking, reference in the film’s title.

Exactly. Ultimately fire is about rebirth, not about destruction. For Tom it’s an everyday part of his life and the fact that things burst into flames was really important because it articulated his emotionally incendiary behaviour and his state of mind.

This is your third feature film in 11 years. I know you’ve done some TV work on top of this, but how do you make a living out of being a director? Do you have another job? A money laundering scheme? A wealthy sugar mumma?

If only! I’ve done commercials, but what I’ve found as you do more films is that the two aren’t particually mutually compatibable. I haven’t done commercials now for a couple of years so it’s been a lot harder financially, but, you know, you scrape a living together. You do a film like this and you get paid a decent fee but it’s not just for the time you’re doing the film, it’s to cover your life. I started writing this film four years ago so it’s a four year journey in terms of that. It’s tough, but it beats doing a proper job.

Given the profession is that tough, and it takes so much time and effort to make a feature film, how do respond when you read a bad review?

As you get older you have to accept the fact that when you make a film like this it’s going to generate different opinions. I can see that for whatever reasons – the boldness of it, the sex in it, the swearing, all that – there are all sorts of reasons why Burning Man could turn people off. You accept the fact that not everybody is going to love you, so a bad review is just part of what you have to brace yourself for. Hopefully you make a good enough film that is embraced by enough people to give it the life it deserves.

On an atmospheric level the film is often stunning. You play with spatial properties, flip images, toy with reflections of mirrors and water and so on. It looks so good that there are moments when I suspect viewers become partly taken away from the immersive elements of the film. Was that a concern? That you might temporarily remove people from the experience?

I was very conscious that when you tell a story like this it’s quite full on for most people, it’s confronting. To give at different points at every level a little bit of a break for the audience – like a shot that’s just nice to look at it, it gives them a breather for a couple of seconds, ready to move on and plunge into the next scene. That was really conscious. Obviously you don’t want it to stand out like dog’s balls; it needs to be within the context of the film.   

People still talk about David Wenham’s performance in Gettin’ Square. He was an absolute scene stealer, and of course was in Better Than Sex as well. This is your first feature without Wenham in it. Did you offer him a role?

The trouble was there wasn’t really a role to offer him. Apart from Tom (the protagonist) there are not many male roles in the film, other than a smaller part played by Tony Hayes.

You didn’t think Wenham would have made a good choice for the main role?

I thought David would have done an amazing job in the main role (but) we decided to go a little bit younger. Also, one of the things I experienced and a lot of people said to me is that when they go through that sense of losing someone they feel a real sense of isolation. I didn’t want to articulate that; I didn’t want him to say “oh I feel so cut off from everybody” and all that sort of stuff. I liked the idea of Tom being an outsider. So having an English guy there, who’s a little not of this culture, brings that idea out of being slightly more isolated than he otherwise would have been.

What David did in Gettin’ Square, well, there’s hardly a day goes by when people don’t ask me about that. In many ways not enough people saw that film at the cinema. It was pretty successful but I really had high hopes for it being a lot more successful. A lot of people have discovered it on DVD. What David did with that character – that’s an actor at the top of their game. It was a brilliant, brilliant performance. I learnt a great deal about directing and the process of acting by watching David.

With Burning Man you’ve added another string to your bow by producing the film as well, meaning you’ve performed the triple: writing, directing and producing. Did you feel like you had a great deal more control than you did previously or did you feel hampered by the burden of responsibility?

A bit of both. The way I look at it, the most important thing about directing is you’re taking on the responsibility of the film. That’s what you do, so why not be a producer as well? The system that operates now is very conducive to being a producer and it’s also because this was a personal vision — I wanted a lot of control in everything that happened.

Were you healed by the film? Was it cathartic?

I don’t know, is the answer to that. I would say it was an important thing to do. It was really important for me to respond to what happened to me  creatively. I think there was an element of it being cathartic but I also think enough time had passed that I could connect with this story as a movie rather than as my life experience. I think that’s really important. I think it would’ve been a mistake to make a film like this if you’re trying to only recreate what happened to you.

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