I’m sitting in my lounge room sipping a vodka and pomegranate juice while listening to my buddy Greg Pakis, who’s back from a stint overseas and saying something about how he’s looking for work and trying to stay on the straight and narrow.
When Greg leaves my apartment it won’t take long for him to lose his mind. The women around him copped the brunt of it: there were a couple of them that creepy goon followed down streets and laneways and one he scared (understandably so) when he whipped off his belt during foreplay. Greg collapsed on his kitchen floor immediately afterwards, pathetically begging for forgiveness like — the words of Biff from Back to the Future 3 come to mind — “some duded-up egg suckin’ gutter trash.”
Greg is playing the lead role in Jugular, a new Australian thriller about a man who moves into an apartment and is psychologically eaten away by the evil spirit of its previous tenant. So it’s not really him — his character’s name is Jack — but, amazingly, when I see the finished film his performance still manages to creep me out despite the fact I’ve known this guy for years. He filmed my 30th birthday party. He knows my mum.
Back to my apartment, my lounge room, my vodka and pomegranate. The entire film crew is there: the director, the AD, the cinematographer, the grip, the cameraman, the lighting technician.
Except they’re all one guy. J.J. DeCeglie, who I meet that night, has been whizzing around Melbourne for two weeks, shooting a script he wrote in a couple of months. Greg suggested my apartment as a suitable location for a few scenes.
Roughly two months later, in the same room, we watch the finished product. I’m initially relieved by the quality. Jugular is a lean, mean, high-powered genre film, a nasty piece of work with an infectious energy, a tight pace and at times very innovative work from the talented people in the technical department – of which there was…one.
Then I’m astounded by the turnaround. DeCeglie, I thought, could be the thriller world’s Roger Corman. Anybody in the film biz knows it’s a “take a look and get back to you” industry full of delays and hoop-jumping. Did DeCeglie even realise the speed he was running at?
“I had nothing to compare the process against, so I didn’t know if I was going fast or slow or at a normal pace,” he tells me. “Before production started I made a choice to make completing the film my whole existence until it was done. I thought about nothing else for a long period of time and was solely responsible for almost everything outside of acting in it.”
When I ask him if maybe he wanted to slow down for a bit, get a breather, take it easy, think about things, DeCeglie — in his firm but softly spoken way — shuts me down.
“No. If anything I got frustrated at how long it was taking, especially when there were breaks in filming due to scheduling. I was looking forward to the relief of finishing it, because there were some periods when I struggled to get sleep. My mind was racing constantly about the film. I did take small breaks when editing. Just to get that distance required for clarity on viewing.”
That energy is apparent in the finished product. You won’t find spit polished production values in Jugular, but the restlessness of DeCeglie’s approach (and what I assume is a fear of boring audiences or pandering to them) means the film is never dull and full of twitchy, grimy, freaky life, as it burrows further and further into Jack’s possessed mindframe.
This is guerrilla filmmaking through and through, the ultimate “bridge” production. If a financier watches Jugular and knows the budget (a miserly $5000) it won’t take long to put two and two together: imagine what this guy could do with real money.
Even on a budget as small as this, DeCeglie felt the pinch. “You’ve made this decision to be responsible for the whole thing,” he says. “You’ve gone to friends and family for financing and if you fuck it up it’s all on you.”
Flashback to my apartment, on the first night I meet a filmmaker who wrote, shot and edited an entire movie in approximately the same amount of time it takes Baz Luhrmann’s food caterers to make and distribute the sandwiches.
“I’m not going to write about the film,” I say to J.J. during the shoot. “I’m too close to it. Literally. I’m two metres away.”
When I see this micro-budget beast in its completed form I experience a change of mind. I wonder — if only for a moment — whether I should stop hanging out with Greg on the grounds of not wanting to, you know, get stabbed to death. A nano beat later I realise, yes, yes, this is a movie. Relax, I say to myself. Some of it was even filmed in your house.
Jugular is the opening night film of the 2013 Melbourne Underground Film Festival, playing Friday September 6.
For future information about Jugular’s release, visit the film’s Facebook page.