Submerge: 10 years in the making of …
by Courtney Symes
The reality of being an ‘overnight-success-story’ is a rare phenomenon, particularly in the creative industry. As an art enthusiast, writer, and small business owner, I have first-hand experience of the years of hard work and dedication required to get most creative projects off the ground, which is why I wasn’t especially surprised to learn that Australian feature film, SUBMERGE (released 1 March) was ten years in the making.
Whilst SUBMERGE is only the second Australian lesbian feature film to attain commercial release (Emma-Kate Croghan’s 1996 Love and Other Catastrophes being the first), it feels like ‘pigeon-holing’ to simply label the film as a ‘lesbian flick’. SUBMERGE consists of so many complex layers for the viewer to peel back, depending on how much they want be challenged. I recently caught up with Canberra-based Producer Kat Holmes, who explained that: “I had always wanted to present a queer character to a mainstream audience. I never set out to make queer films; I just set out to make films. That the character happens to be gay is a side point … yes I have a desire to present a queer character to a mainstream audience, but also just to present a character … I think it’s always been about the character of Jordan, and the rest was the plot that formed around that.”
SUBMERGE follows the journey of twenty-year-old student and competitive swimmer, Jordan (Lily Hall, Neighbours). Jordan is trying to juggle training, tertiary studies, and an active social life, whilst meeting the expectations of her ambitious mother and embarking upon a controversial relationship with her tutor, Angie. The relationship that develops between Jordan and Angie is not controversial because it is a same-sex relationship, but because Angie is already in a relationship with Jordan’s history lecturer, Cameron. Whilst SUBMERGE tackles the theme of sexuality, it will appeal to gay and straight audiences alike as a relatable story for anyone who’s been a 20-year-old student. This is one step beyond a ‘coming-of-age’ flick, this is a ‘welcome-to-life’ story. “It’s a story about a person going through a fairly modern tale,” summarises Holmes.
It has been a year since the film’s first release in New York, and nearly ten years since completion of the first draft of the film. So whilst SUBMERGE might appear to be another home-grown overnight success story, Kat assures me that this labour of love has been a long, complicated journey. “They say you make three films: the screenplay is the first film, what you shoot is the second film, and then what you end up editing and putting out is the third film, and that couldn’t be more true for this film,” says Holmes as she elaborates on her journey.
Part of the film’s success lies in the creative tension between Producer, Holmes and Director, Sophie O’Connor, who are two very different people. Holmes describes O’Connor as “a true creative, and I am a true practical, logistics person with a creative bend, so there’s always been some tension there. But it’s like the natural tension that you find, say, between sales and finance … and it’s been ten years, so no matter what differences we’ve had, the fact is we’ve been on a decade-long journey together. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had … you get quite close”.
It is not for one but many reasons that this film impresses. There is the excellent characterisation of the script, a diverse and carefully selected soundtrack featuring music from talented independent musicians such as Falling Joys, Asian Envy, and Tokyo Denmark Sweden, and then there is the casting, which Holmes assures me was a “very long, convoluted and complicated” process, but well-worth the effort for the end result.
Three false starts at filming added to the complexity of the job, so despite originally casting Madeleine West (Neighbours and more recently Fat Tony & Co.) as Jordan, Lily Hall was the third and final Jordan selected for the role. Whilst Lily wasn’t on the original casting list, her agent put her forward and Holmes believes that selecting her for the role was “one of the best creative decisions we made, absolutely, and it’s vindicated by the fact that she won two awards.” Hall’s athletic physique in the film is convincing for an elite swimmer. “We got really lucky with that. Lily was a semi-professional dancer as a child, so she understood that character very well … she took a bunch of swimming lessons, worked really hard, built herself up and was right into the role from day one,” says Holmes.
With a cheeky grin, she continues, “What you won’t probably have realised or noticed is that we actually filmed this in two segments, two years apart. Again, credit to my crew for doing such a good job that it’s seamlessly integrated.” In addition to the breaks between filming, other challenges shooting the film included intense film schedules (made even more difficult by extreme weather conditions), the number of locations the film was shot in, and funding (which was by far the biggest challenge). Holmes recalls that “We finished our first shoot seven days before Black Saturday, which itself was the culmination of a month of insane weather.
It was also the end of two or three weeks of very bad bushfires, so we were filming in 40 degree weather on consecutive days”.
Extreme weather conditions, coupled with long days demonstrate Holmes’ and O’Connor’s unwavering determination to succeed. “We did a twenty-four day shoot over thirty days. We worked for eight days straight without a break, one day off, another six days and so on, and then we did an eleven day shoot two years later. Most of our calls were usually 6am and we would finish usually around 10pm or midnight, and just a credit to Sophie the Director who worked every single one of those hours,” says Holmes.
SUBMERGE was also filmed over 24 different locations, which Holmes said was a lot for a low budget film. “Most low budget films will film in three, four or five locations at most. Our typical day often involved moving our entire set from place to place, which was exciting and challenging.”
Obtaining funding for the film was the hardest part of the process and SUBMERGE only exists thanks to private funding. The film hasn’t received any government funding or grants at all. “The funding challenges were by far and away the biggest issue. Everything else pales in comparison to that challenge,” says Holmes, who is also heavily personally invested in the film.
In addition to these larger hurdles, “There were some little funny challenges,” recalls Holmes with a smile. “When we did the shoot two years later, obviously continuity was our biggest thing. Somehow we had failed to note down where all the costumes had come from, and therefore where they were returned to. So we had to recreate some costumes, and we had to fake some costumes. The only one who had different hair was mum, Elizabeth, so we had to keep her hair up the whole time for the second shoot.”
Whilst the filming process is peppered with war stories, Holmes believes that “those war stories bought us closer together. Everyone pitched in, people weren’t precious about things, and that’s the beauty of low budget art creation in every form.”
Despite the lengthy journey to create the film, there were also some highlights along the way, such as “the first morning of filming when I stood around and there were dozens of people on this set and they had all done this because Sophie and I had made them – we had made this thing happen, so the first morning of filming was fantastic,” says Holmes.
Holmes also notes the initial raw footage as another highlight. “The first rushes that I saw, when I saw what a beautiful job Sophie and the cinematographer Karl had done.” The other thing that viewers won’t release is that the promo image for the film has not been retouched or edited at all. “That picture that everyone is going to see when they buy it – that has not been manipulated at all – that is the original lighting and colour. So we didn’t use a colourist …That’s the original, beautifully shot footage that you see there,” reveals Holmes.
However, “Eclipsing even those two moments was the world premiere in New York last March – the first time that people outside of our circle saw it and commented on it, and the fact that my hero, and the reason I felt comfortable to do this was one of the judges on the panel. Her name is Christine Vachon. She’s one of America’s most well-known independent producers.”
After such a long journey, I asked Holmes what advice she would offer aspiring film-makers and directors. I admit that I was a little surprised by her quick response: “Don’t do it – it’s not worth the pain and sacrifice and everything that you’re going to have to make. Really think hard about if this is your calling or not. Don’t think that you’re special. That was a mistake that I particularly made, because I was very successful in the corporate world and I thought that I knew better, or that I could do it better. I’d heard many, many stories about the thousands and thousands of Australian film makers who just couldn’t get a feature film up, and I thought, ‘well that’s just because they’re not doing it right’.”
I realised that Holmes wasn’t advising against entering the film industry, exactly, but rather emphasising the importance of being realistic. “Just be careful of arrogance. When you do have a creative drive inside of you it can make you believe that what you have to say and do is better and more special than anyone else. That’s not to say don’t honour your creative goals and your creative burn and your ideas – absolutely – I’m just saying balance that energy out with a healthy dose of realism, because the one thing that you’re going to need to successfully make a feature film is persistence. That’s THE most critical aspect.”
There is also a well-worn path to enter the Australian film industry. “If you’re in Australia, don’t buck the system because it won’t work (unless you have a benefactor that has hundreds of thousands of dollars that you know about and no one else knows about) follow the rules. Go to film school, go VCA … make your short films, learn your craft, put them in the right film festivals, network, network, network and become attached to more known people – that’s the only way you’ll make a feature film in Australia.”
Despite this advice, SUBMERGE did not adhere to this conventional ‘rite-of-passage’. Even the way the film has been promoted and distributed goes against the traditional industry practices. Holmes and O’Connor have pretty much self-promoted SUBMERGE and been very active on the festival circuit, attending 27 festivals in 12 months and securing numerous awards along the way. “When you look at SUBMERGE, you can see that our vision is true, and the response that we’ve had to it – a lot of people want to see us make more stuff”.
Whilst Holmes would love to continue making films, she is hesitant to confirm what’s next until she’s had a reaction to the general release of SUBMERGE, saying: “I think my response is a wait-and-see approach”, even though “Sophie has pushed ahead already and just finished off a short film”. We wish the SUBMERGE team every success for the release and look forward to seeing more of their talent in future Australian films.
See the movie on submergethemovie.com
Watch the trailer and download @distrify – http://muvi.es/w5556
Courtney Symes is a Canberra-based writer, small business owner, and mother. When she’s not writing, you will find her enjoying a run around one of Canberra’s beautiful parks and seeking out Canberra’s best coffee and cheesecake haunts with the family. Read more at – alittlepinkbook.blogspot.com.au