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Interview: Sam Dixon

There is a fine tradition of brooding cinema that emerges from the dark corners of Australia. It’s littered with idiosyncrasies and suburban tension that could only emanate from Oz. Ted Kotcheff’s desolate masterpiece ‘Wake In Fright’, newcomer Ben Young’s rapacious ‘Hounds Of Love’, ‘The Snowtown Murders’ by Justin Kurzel and David Michôd’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ are all set in rural parts of the land down under.  

You can now add to that list hotly tipped writer and director Sam Dixon’s ‘Dancing Goat’, who’s most recent short film has added to the acclaim he is has already received for previous works ‘Old Mate’ and ‘The Sunshine State’. Far Out caught up with Dixon for a chat about his work and other projects in the pipeline.  

Did you study film? If yes where and when? If not how did you find your way?

Well I began making films with my mates in school. After school I worked in a pub in a rural town for a year, a proper backwater hillbilly pub, and I think this period definitely influenced the kinds of films that I would go on to make. After that year I did a 3-year degree, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and TV at the Queensland University of Technology. And I fucking hated it. I came close to dropping out every year but someone always talked me out of it. The best thing I got out of it were the friends that I made, who I continue to work with today, and it made me realise what I didn’t want to do. I had this idea that I would never make a living out of being a writer/director in Australia, and that I should try to specialise in being a cameraman or a production designer or something, but I was really just confused. I quickly realised I had no interest in the technical side of filmmaking, and I may as well just stick to doing what I loved, even if it was going to be struggle.

Dancing Goat from Sam Dixon on Vimeo.

After I finished that degree I continued to make short films in Queensland before moving to Melbourne where I did my Masters in Screenwriting at VCA. The best thing I got out of that was that it taught me discipline, as I was forced to write solidly for a year and a half, and I do think it made me a better writer as a result.

Can you talk us through the decision to shoot predominantly in 16mm?

I’m definitely not one of those film purists that swears off digital. I think both have their pros and cons. The convenience of shooting digital is very alluring. I do think I’ll make a film on digital at some point, but in my opinion what it comes down to is what suits the story you’re going to tell the most. I think the kinds of films that I’ve made so far have suited the aesthetics of film more than digital. I just love how alive it is, that it’s like an organic thing reacting to light. Digital has always seemed a little dead to me. The other thing I love about shooting film is that it also teaches you discipline. You can’t just do take after take after take, cause money is rolling through that camera with every shot. You have to know exactly what you want and just fucking get it.

You’ve already made three well received shorts is there any plan to make your first feature length?

I’ve been developing a feature film with Screen QLD for a number of years now. I actually began writing it as my main Masters project. Since then it’s been through a number of development programs and I’ve received a few batches of funding to continue writing it. Last year Screen QLD sent me and one of my producers, Emily Avila, to New York to pitch it at this event called IFP (Independent Film Project). It was pretty crazy, and I was definitely out of my element pitching this thing to all these industry big wigs. The fact that I hadn’t slept in 5 days didn’t help (jetlag/insomnia). We did get a bit of interest in the project, and I’m currently working on another draft. At the end of the day though I really have no idea if this thing is ever going to get made or not. But you can’t sit around twiddling your thumbs waiting for funding cause it may never come. I’ve got a few other ideas in the pipeline that I’ll start writing. We’ll see what happens.

Your films are set in rural Australia and involve older male protagonists and chance encounters are also a strong theme. Are these conscious or sub conscious decisions in the writing and can you elaborate on any of the meanings?

All of the films I’ve made have somehow been inspired by something that’s happened in my life, even a story as outlandish as Dancing Goat. I guess it is subconscious, in that a story or an idea will come to me and I’ll just blast it out. Then when I sit back and critique what I’ve written, I’ll see the thematic similarities between my other films. But it’s definitely not a conscious decision to write stories that often revolve around chance encounters.

In regards to the rural settings, that comes directly from my own childhood, growing up on a farm on the outskirts of a small town. I’m a firm believer in writing what you know, and that’s a world that I know very well. Not saying that anybody shouldn’t be able to write about whatever the fuck they want, and write it well, but just from my own experience, I feel like I have a particular knowledge and understanding of that world to bring to the table over someone who hasn’t grown up in these worlds.

Some high profile directors have suggested that cinema is dead, do you think there’s any truth to that or is the art form simply evolving?

I don’t think cinema is dead, and I don’t think it’ll ever truly die. The shared experience of going to the cinema and watching a movie with a bunch of other people will always be there. But I do believe it’s changing for sure. Since TV shows have become so much more cinematic over the last decade or so, there’s definitely been a massive shift in the industry. TV is becoming more and more viable as a serious artform, and there are a lot of high profile directors and actors that have been making the change to TV. I used to swear off TV, thinking I’d only ever want to write movies, but that was a very narrow minded view of things. There are so many fucking great shows out there at the moment, and these days I’m really excited by the prospect of writing a long-form story.

The term ‘webseries’ used to always make me cringe, as I’d only ever seen absolutely shithouse content. But I think that’s also changing. Now that people can make a movie on their fucking phones, it means there’s a bottomless ocean of mediocrity and bullshit to navigate, but it also means that people with actual talent can make a movie or a webseries without having to spend thousands of dollars on camera equipment. I guess the problem there is how to get your stuff seen, but I think if something is truly good, it’ll find an audience – eventually. I’ve been thinking a lot about the webseries lately, I’ve got some ideas, nothing too solid yet, but I think I’m gonna try my hand at that soon.

You’re also a member of the post punk band EXEK, how do you enjoy being behind the drums apposed to being behind the camera?

If I were to compare it to film, it’s like Albert Wolski (our singer/guitarist/lead songwriter) is like the writer/director, and as a drummer I’d be the cinematographer or something. It’s a collaborative process, but we’re all ultimately following Wolski’s artistic vision. And I love taking on that role because, as I said, I don’t feel the same pressure as I do with filmmaking. I think music and film go hand in hand together too, as there’s some songs that don’t necessarily work for EXEK, but we might end up using them in a film of mine or for some other project down the line. Wolski has helped me with the sound design and music on my last short Dancing Goat, and we have a great working relationship that I think is just going to get better and better with time. I’m really excited about this next album we have coming out through Superior Viaduct, I honestly think it’s the best thing I’ve contributed to musically and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. 

Jimmy Cass