Beautiful but Real
An interview with The Waiting City’s director Claire McCarthy and
producer Jamie Hilton
By Rochelle Siemienowicz
The inner workings of a marriage are mysterious and opaque. It’s little wonder that filmmakers usually find it easier to explore the fireworks of a new romance or the warlike explosions of infidelity or separation. Instead, The Waiting City tackles the harder task of depicting a mature love story, successfully revealing the alchemy that keeps two people together and the special kind of magic required to reinvent a partnership.
Director Claire McCarthy
Against the exotic and chaotic background of India’s Calcutta, the film follows an Australian couple, Fiona (Radha Mitchell) and Ben (Joel Edgerton), as they wait to adopt a much-wanted baby from an orphanage. Delayed by bureaucratic bungles, and without the comforts and distractions of home, Fiona and Ben are forced to look at each other and to reevaluate the marriage they have built.
The first Australian feature film to be shot entirely in India, The Waiting City is stunningly beautiful with a vibrant colour palette rich in oranges, yellows and reds. A multitude of locations, characters and crowds are depicted, convincingly transporting us to a very foreign part of the world. Made for just A$3 million, and shot on the digital Red camera (by Denson Baker ACS), the process of making The Waiting City was always going to be a logistical challenge. Wisely, writer/director Claire McCarthy, producer Jamie Hilton and cinematographer Denson Baker had worked in
India before, and had tested their collaborative chemistry on a shorter and less ambitious project, a music video for ‘Sunshine’ by Sony Music’s Old Man River.
Here we talk to McCarthy and Hilton about the value of that learning process. They also discuss the challenges of making international sales at the height of the global financial crisis. But first and foremost, they want to talk about the film as a love story; one they hope audiences will find to be “beautiful but real.”
AFI: The Waiting City is a mature love story about a relationship that’s ongoing, with a real sense of history to it. Can you talk about how you managed to get that into the script, and then the process of working with the actors to convey that?
Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton
Claire McCarthy: Certainly. We wanted the film to explore the love story, more than other things that the film also deals with, like the adoption process, which should sit underneath the love story. And as you say, the calibrations of that relationship had to be really carefully figured out. I think it’s quite common to be estranged from someone, even in an intimate long-term relationship. And it’s about figuring out how to fall in love again with somebody; what it is that has eluded you about that person, what was special about that person. In the safety of
your comfort zone, in your home environment, it’s easy to run and hide, and just to be polite about things and let it slide. But when you’re put into a pressure situation, you’re out of your own home and you’re cooped up together, like this couple are, and they’re forced to deal with things that have just been lying latent.
Plotting those calibrations in the script was tricky, and also giving the characters enough room to transform personally, within themselves, as well as wanting to offer the better part of themselves to each other. Making that feel real, and not corny, that was a real tricky one. Working with Radha and Joel, having such great actors attached, was a major component of being able to get those things to feel real. They were both very giving and very brave in that process. We’ve really spent a lot of time working off-script with them, working to find the shared relationship, the history,
as well as the non-verbal language, the things that you don’t say as well as the silence. How do people live with each other and find that non-verbal stuff? So we did a lot of improvisation and at times things would find their way back into the script, things that they offered up. Oftentimes I was re-writing five seconds before we were shooting, to better fit the shape of their mouths or to just really try and hone in on some of those awkward or difficult emotional moments.
AFI: Jamie, can you talk about how you came to be working with Claire?
Producer Jamie Hilton
Jamie Hilton: Actually, one of my first jobs on a film set was assisting in the grip department on one of Claire’s AFTRS films. She was a few years ahead of me, as a filmmaker, and I got to meet her then and made a connection. We stayed in contact. I became very busy very quickly in the [music] clip world – I made about a 100 clips and then decided that it felt a little bit like work and I wanted to actually do something more significant. I just had a look around and went: “Which filmmakers do I respect that I know I have relationships with?” Claire
had a really hard, but rewarding time doing Cross Life, which was a low budget feature film that she did. She’d made a couple of really successful shorts, and I just went “Okay, there’s a director that a) probably has great ideas, and b) is probably worthy of creating something amazing and me putting my efforts behind.” So I called Claire up and basically said: “Let’s work on a project together,” and she responded positively and came with The Waiting City as one of a few projects that she was thinking about. It all happened
Claire McCarthy: I was finishing post on a documentary [Sisters] that I’d made about me and my sister in Calcutta and I had this idea kicking around for a while for The Waiting City, but it was still in its very nascent stages. So I pitched it to Jamie and he said: “That sounds really good. Why don’t we just see what happens? Let’s just try and get a script together.” There was a script, but it was a swill draft really. I re-drafted and then we went through IndiVision together, which was an initiative of the former Australian
Film Commission, now Screen Australia, and went through their script development hoops. That helped to expose us to some really amazing people through that process, and so we developed the script.
AFI: Before making The Waiting City you actually made a music video together in India as a kind of test project. This was the video for the single ‘Sunshine’ by Old Man River. Can you talk about what you learnt from that process?
Claire McCarthy: We really had a commitment to naturalism. We wanted the film to feel real, not documentary in a sort of vérité way, like a handheld way. But we certainly wanted there to be an authentic sense of real locations as opposed to studios or in sets. We wanted to put the characters in situations where they would be responding to real things in the environment as they occurred in the moment, things that you may not be able to script. So we put the lead singer of the band, Ohad [Rein], into real situations on the streets. We shot with an all-Indian crew, which was
something that we wanted to really test out. We also wanted to see what it was like shooting film, in terms just of the logistics of that, the turnaround in receiving our footage and what that was going to be like. We had to make decisions about what kind of kit we could get, how that was going to be formed, the visual approach to the film, and what kind of equipment we’d source. And we were working with Denson Baker ACS, who’s actually the cinematographer on the movie too. So we were really also testing out ideas for the visual style as well, what the film was going to look
like in terms of filtration and technical creative and decisions about how to treat the camera.
What we learned from that process was that it was too logistically challenging to shoot film. We were going to be in Calcutta, which would have been a four-day turnaround to receive rushes, to receive our footage. We were like: “Hm, that’s not good enough, we have to see the footage.” And Red was right on the cusp and we thought, okay, let’s see if we can pursue that. The big thing for me with shooting on a digital format, was that I didn’t want it to look cold. And Denson [the cinematographer] really brings some beautiful warmth and an organic feeling to the
AFI: Had he worked with digital much before?
Claire McCarthy: He had, he’d shot a lot of material on different digital formats as well as film. 35mm was the format he shot on The Black Balloon. But yeah, he was excited by that, because we could embrace the fluidity and spontaneity of it. It was really good that he was able to figure out a way of making the film feel warm, rather than cold and crisp.
AFI: Did making the music video influence your choice of crew?
Radha Mitchell and Samrat Chakrabarti-Krishna
Claire McCarthy: I had this fantasy of having a skeletal crew with four of us and a boom operator, and then the actors. I thought it would be pure. And after making the music video we thought, “No, that’s just not going to happen. We’ve got such limited time and budget and we’re going to have to plan so much more than we would ever have imagined. Everything is going to have to be thought of.” Denson and I went to every single location a number of times, places that I already knew from my trips to India, but also places we’d sourced. We
took thousands of location pics, which we made into photographic storyboards. That really helped to plot out where the best vantage points to shoot, and what resources we were going to need. We learnt to plan, but also to be fluid and be able to adapt to things that we couldn’t foresee, and accept things like the fact that crowds were going to gather while we were filming.
Jamie Hilton: The music video allowed us to use somebody else’s money to test ourselves and our co-collaborators that we were going on a potentially very ambitious journey with, and hit the ground running. These guys were commandos – creative commandos. It’s hard out there, working in the heat. I don’t like to talk about how hard things are, because it makes things negative, but I think that was a really important trip, because it bound us as a team. You know, just a music video over there on the streets of Varanasi is quite a difficult undertaking, and it
gave us all a sense of real belief and real passion and real desire to actually get the movie made. The biggest lesson I learned was that we could do this, that it was possible.
AFI: Was it a long and arduous process getting the financing together?
Jamie Hilton: I’ll give you a really short answer…
Claire McCarthy: “Yes!”
Jamie Hilton: Financing a film is always hard. We had Screen Australia on side, and Radha came to us, which was a blessing. I think, once we had Radha and Screen Australia, Screen NSW came on board… the [Producer’s] Offset is beautiful. It’s right there, it’s 40% of your budget sitting in your pocket – a little less for our film, because we shot a lot overseas. And then a significant post-production investment from Spectrum Films and Deluxe, and then just a small amount of money of private funds against foreign sales. So in answer to your question: it was
a relatively simple, traditional financing plan, and it made sense to all parties involved.
Claire McCarthy: The snowball really started, in terms of being able to get the financing, once Radha was on board. I think having serious cast attached really gets people interested.
Jamie Hilton: Having said that, the script comes before the cast.
Claire McCarthy: That’s true. You can’t go to a cast without a script. You can’t go out to cast before your script’s ready.
AFI: Can you tell us about your international sales – you have H2O on board as sales agent?
Jamie Hilton: Yes. It’s really tough for dramas at the moment. I think we’ve done very well, potentially better in terms of reaching out to multiple territories as opposed to large numbers in regard to sales. We’re getting released in the United States, in Canada, in South Africa, in Latin America, in Scandinavia…
Jamie Hilton: We’re working on India. We’ve got to work out the size of the release and other details, but there’s definitely a hunger in India to see the film, a lot of attention. I guess you could say that we’re probably doing a significant amount more sales than other Australian films around, because of the cast and because of India and because the film’s hopefully really strong. But the numbers just aren’t what they used to be. It’s very difficult to gauge what success is in foreign sales these days.
Claire McCarthy: It doesn’t help that there’s an economic crisis. We’re really lucky that we’re getting such good response, but it is tough out there.
Jamie Hilton: We went to market during the GFC. At Berlin, we launched an announcement and started doing the presales, and it was apparently the worst market of all time in memory. And then at the Toronto Film Festival [in September 2009] I think there were two sales made. Two sales! In Toronto, when we came out, there were something like 17 [Australian] movies in Toronto last year, and there was 300 or 400 movies that they programmed, and only two sales. I mean, there’s thousands and thousands of industry people attending – what are they actually doing if
they’re not buying and selling films?
AFI: They were there with no money in their pockets…
Jamie Hilton: Yeah, it was quite interesting coming out of that time. But things have picked up and I’m actually quite optimistic about the film’s performance here hopefully and potentially a bit travelling further overseas. We’re lucky to be making movies in Australia, where we are subsidised. We don’t have a big enough audience to sustain our industry and when a film does $1 million or $2 million or $3 million at the box office, it’s a big success, even though it’s not recouping its investment. It’s a big success here, and
it should be seen in that light.
Claire McCarthy: We really wanted the film to have an audience. We wanted to have an international audience, and for Australians to be interested to see the movie as well, at a time when we were coming out of the back of that loss of faith that Australians had about our own movies… We wanted to make something epic, that had a unique point of view and that also had a love story and elements that people can hopefully relate to. We wanted it to have an ending that didn’t feel like it was totally down, and that was optimistic and hopeful. Hopefully Australians are
starting to come back to the cinema – it feels like they are.
AFI: Finally, from a craft perspective, are there any people you’d like to single out for special mention?
Claire McCarthy: Definitely. All our heads of department worked so hard, it was really a collaborative effort. There’s Denson Baker, cinematography. And Pete Baxter, production design. Justine Seymour, with her costume design and the transformation that she achieves through that, and Michael Yezerski, with his music. Veronica Jenet was our fantastic editor, and I’d like to mention ‘Salty’ (Paul Brincat), who managed to record sound in the most congested, difficult, loud city and still make it have fidelity and beautiful, crisp dialogue, which I
think just is unbelievable. We didn’t really have a big budget for ADR, so it’s pretty much 90% what was recorded.
AFI: Are you serious?
Claire McCarthy: Yeah, he’s a genius. Then I’d like to mention Paul Pattison, who did makeup and hair, and just the way he created a look for both characters, where they’re kind of glamorous and sort of amazing, but they still feel real. Real but beautiful. Real but cinematic.
Jamie Hilton: I just wanted to add that because this is a very naturalistic film it would be easy to overlook the design elements. Denson Baker’s cinematography is obviously a standout. But the design elements are less obvious than they would be in a more stylised film. Production designer Pete Baxter’s work is almost invisible, but he’s done such an amazing job. In India it’s very very hard to recreate those scenes and it’s so much more than naturalistic!
Claire McCarthy: I absolutely agree. Naturalism is a style, and there are lots of subtleties and discussions and choices that have to be made in order to make it feel natural.
AFI: Thanks for your time and best wishes with the film.
The Waiting City released in Australia on 15 July, 2010. View the Trailer or visit the Website.
The Waiting City: Fast Facts
: Jamie Hilton, Claire McCarthy, See Pictures
: Radha Mitchell, Joel Edgerton, Isabel Lucas, Samrat Chakrabarti, Tilotama Shome, Tanusree Shankar
: A$3 million – a combination of private investment and federal (AFC/Screen Australia) and state funding (Screen NSW).
: 33 days, Calcutta and surrounds
: H2O Motion Pictures
The Waiting City: Connected
- Claire McCarthy is a Sydney based writer, director, producer and visual artist. Her feature debut was the low budget Cross Life which screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 2007. Her credits also include the Calcutta-set documentary Sisters (2008) and the acclaimed short film Skin (2006).
- Jamie Hilton and producing partner Michael Petroni head the slate at See Pictures. The Waiting City is their theatrical debut and they are currently developing Holy Cow, an adaptation of Sarah McDonald’s best-selling novel set in India.
- Denson Baker ACS won the 2002 AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non Feature Film (Jack). Recent cinematography credits include The Black Balloon (2008) and We Have Decided Not to Die (2004). Currently working on Oranges and Sunshine.
- Veronika Jenet won the 1999 AFI Award for Best Editing in a Non Feature Film (Hephzibah) and the 1993 AFI Award for Best Achievement in Editing for The Piano. She was also nominated for her work on Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) and Vacant Possession (1995). She also won the 2008 AFI Award for Best Editing for The Black Balloon
- Michael Yezerski is one of Australia’s premier young composers. He was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Original Music Score in 2008 for The Black Balloon and his other credits include Newcastle (2008) and Cross Life (2007).
- Pete Baxter is a sought after production designer whose credits include Lou (2010), The Tender Hook (2008) and Lucky Miles (2007).
- Paul Pattison is an Oscar ® winning makeup supervisor (for Braveheart in 1996). Recent credits include Tomorrow When the War Began (2010) and Dying Breed (2008).
- Paul ‘Salty’ Brincat is an Oscar ® nominated sound recordist (nominated in 1999 for The Thin Red Line). He was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Sound in a Feature Film in 1993 for Broken Highway. Recent credits include Lou (2010) and television’s Sea Patrol.
- Justine Seymour is an accomplished costume designer now based in LA. Her first collaboration with Claire McCarthy and Denson Baker was on the short film Skin. Her credits include Black Water (2008) West (2007) and the upcoming Kate Woods feature The Dreaming. She has also worked on Moulin Rouge (2001) and Mission Impossible (2000).