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VIFF 2015 Interview: OBSERVANCE director Joseph Sims-Dennett

by Jason Whyte

"OBSERVANCE is the story of Parker, a private investigator who has been hired to spy on a woman and record and report her day to day activities from an abandoned apartment across the street from her. As hes studying the strange events surrounding the woman he starts to believe that the purpose of him being there extends far beyond the job that he was hired to do." Director Joseph Sims-Dennett on OBSERVANCE which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International FIlm Festival.

Is this your first movie in the Vancouver International Film Festival?

The fim is my first to go to VIFF. I have heard so many great things about the festival over the years from friends and colleagues so I am very excited to hand OBSERVANCE over to Vancouver audiences. We tried really hard to fly over for the festival but unfortunately I'm not going to be able to attend this time around but I'll certainly be there in spirit.

Sorry to hear you can't make it! Now tell me a little bit about your past and how you got into this movie-making thing!

I grew up in Oxford, England and moved to Australia when I was 16 when my family emigrated. In Queensland I managed to make a small film that won a few awards so I moved to Sydney and tried my luck in ads but ended up crashing and burning. Along the way I met Josh Zammit and we ended up living in the same apartment during a period of unemployment. It was at this time that Josh and I wrote OBSERVANCE and shot the film in our own apartment.

In your own apartment? Interesting! Tell me more about how OBSERVANCE happened.

The film was very much inspired by the period of time that Josh and I spent unemployed and living together. We had been trying to make movies but the idea of that becoming a reality seemed to keep slipping further away from us. So I guess writing and then making OBSERVANCE was an exercise in getting up and doing something with our lives as well as expressing our feelings of hopelessness.

So what kept you going while making the movie? How much caffeine?

I guess passion and caffeine are pretty important in getting yourself through the day. It was a terrible shoot during a massive heatwave in Sydney and we had barely had time to plan anything. It was a complete nightmare and we had no time to think, but after a while this film became a beast of its own and we all somehow got it over the line and finished the bastard.

So was the heat wave your biggest challenge or were there other factors too?

The biggest challenge was lack of any sort of budget beyond my credit card. It really slowed things down. We got through the shoot and felt pretty defeated by the end of it, like we really screwed up and barely had a film, let alone a good one. But with our editor Charles Ivory we spent about ten months cutting, which would have been near impossible if we had investors waiting on recouping their money. Then we spent another six months on sound and then another two on the colour grade, so we wound up about two years after we shot the film with the finished product. A lot happened in that time but everyone was very determined to stay patient and work the project until it was the best it could be.

Despite the heat and budget, did you have any truly awesome moments on the production?

There was a few moments from the shoot and cutting the film, but I really loved going to Brisbane and working with our sound designer Dave Gaylard and the Wild Blue team and completing the final mix. That's when it really came together and felt like the film. The experience of watching it then really hit home that we had achieved something special.

I would love to ask about the look and design of the movie, and how you achieved that look.

We were due to start shooting for 11 days on the January 2nd in 2013 and Rodrigo Vidal Dawson came on as our DoP about 2 weeks before so a lot of our decision making was on the fly. We decided to shoot on the ARRI ALEXA mainly because of the depth that we needed in the frame. People have described the film as horror, and those sorts of films often have a lot of shadow and contrast, but we wanted something quite low contrast and more of a focus on subtle textures. The rules of how we used the camera and lenses came from the narrative of the film, which is about Parker spying on a woman. His view of her is always restricted whenever she moves behind a wall, so he never gets to see the full picture of what she is doing and what is in turn happening to him. We felt that the audience should feel this way about Parker by having Lindsay, who plays Parker, block the scene before we brought the camera and lighting gear in and then picking a small, restricted angle. This meant that the character would be moving in and out of frame throughout many of the scenes and the audience would feel an undertone of manipulation and paranoia coming from the visual language of the story, which draws you even deeper into the character. These rules slowly break down and the camera becomes much looser and hand held as the story progresses and Parker loses control.

So after VIFF where is this movie going to show next? Any theatrical release?

After Vancouver we are heading to the BFI London Film Festival and then we are back in Canada for the Ottawa International Film Festival in late October which is exciting. There's a bunch more festivals coming up but I think it's all waiting on announcements so keep your eyes peeled if you can't see OBSERVANCE at VIFF, OIFF or London. There's no release date yet but I think we might be close to securing something soon.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I can't STAND that sort of shit and I usually do something. Even when someone is laying into the back of my chair on a plane that kind of assholeness make me very mad. In my movie or any movie for that matter I usually tell them to shut the fuck up or get out. I had a very awkward experience when I did that during a screening of WOLF OF WALL STREET because I just lost my temper at some mouthy kids and turned around and saw that they weren't kids, it was a friggin brick shit house dude and his mates. Thankfully some of the other audience members stepped in before the guy pummelled me. No regrets.

Wow, I am so with you on anger. It is awesome to hear. Now there are many aspiring filmmakers reading our site and out there. Do you have any advice for people wanting to get their start in making movies?

I keep saying to just go and do it. Filmmaking is hard but it's actually a very simple process and you shouldn't be afraid of it. I read a really inspiring article before I made OBSERVANCE by Ben Wheatley where he says that if you want to make a film then you have no excuse not to. Technology has completely democratised the medium and if you have a strong enough idea, you can certainly succeed. It is an exciting time.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

To be honest I haven't been to that many festivals as I live in Australia and it's hard to get away and even when I do I rarely get to fit screenings in as I am usually at meetings or press events. Only now that I'm attending festivals consistently that I have managed to sit and watch some films. I caught WONDERFUL WORLD END at Fantasia. I have never seen a film like that before, quite surreal but I left with this feeling of euphoria. I don't think I had ever see that film if it hadn't been programmed at Fantasia. The audience was mesmerised as well, like we were all experiencing this strange dream together. I don't know much about Japanese independent cinema and if this sort of story is common but it was so fucking lovely.

Be sure to check out the official website for OBSERVANCE, and check out the Facebook page!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 09/28/15 03:51:57
last updated: 09/28/15 03:54:18
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