Interview with the Australian director Michael Anthony Kratochvil

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The creator of amazing “Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go?” speaking with us!

A sort of cosmic horror, not separated from a ferocious irony, made its way into our spirit after watching Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go?. It happened immediately after the discovery of such short movie, which participated in 2021 to S+F, we mean the science fiction festival in Trieste. At that point we felt two needs, after selecting it for Indiecinema Film Festival 2022: to find out something more about the historical episode that took place in Australia in the 19th century, which inspired this chilling tale, and to explore the aesthetics of the film together with the director Michael Anthony Kratochvil. So let’s begin.

Between History and a new horror Myth

For the making of “Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go?” you were also inspired by episodes that really happened in the nineteenth century, in such a remote place as Sullivan Bay. Are they well known in Australia? Or at least how did you find out about it and what struck you the most?

There is a well known story in Australia about a convict William Buckley, who escaped the convict settlement at Sullivan Bay and was thought to have died, but ended up living with a local indigenous tribe. There were other convicts who escaped with him as well, but we don’t know anything about what happened to them. They are all thought to have died. My story is about what could have happened to one of them. A story we will never hear about, because it faded into the nothingness of time, and didn’t even get a chance to be documented in history. I was really interested in creating a new history, by merging the future and the past together in the film.

Even the locations you have chosen for filming appear decidedly wild. Did you shoot your cinematic short story right there or in similar environments?

We were unable to shoot in the exact location of Sullivan Bay unfortunately. It took a long time for us to find a suitable location that could work for what I had in my imagination. When I visited ‘Devilbend’, I instantly knew it would be perfect for the film, and could help create that evocative feeling of being lost in an uncertain landscape. In fact, when I was location scouting at the site, I actually got lost in the dense bush, which was terrifying! I think that feeling and also the sense of isolation of shooting when the pandemic had started, all helped create the uneasy atmosphere in the film.

A genre crossing, from which metaphysical horror is born

Since the first viewing of the film, we have been positively impressed by the curious mix of genres: the historical trace blends admirably with the metaphysical horror. What can you tell us about your approach?

That is a great way of describing the approach for the film. Taking history, and perverting it into something unusual, to create a new kind of history. I was very inspired by a painting from an artist Frederick McCubbinDown on his luck’. I wanted to find a way to bring that painting to life, but introduce elements that couldn’t possibly belong in that world. I had this vision of an anachronistic approach to filmmaking, by pairing two aspects that don’t belong together – in the one frame. This was also explored in I Call Upon Thee, the other short film I made at the same time as SWEET MARY. This is an approach I will be exploring more in my future films.

As for the metaphysical aspects, I think that is present in all of my films, a sense of yearning for transcendence, for something that lies beyond our everyday experience.

Doing a film critic analysis of your work, we came up with a quote from Clive Barker universe, regarding the cruel and superhuman appeal of your work. Can you tell us what your main references are for genre cinema? We have seen excellent horror from Australia, in recent years, which however almost always concerned serial killer stories…

The Clive Barker quote is very perceptive, especially for the characters of Dum and Dee. I always loved the style of the Cenobites. I tried not to be too influenced by other films, and was mainly drawing upon art, culture, religion and my imagination for references for the film. That said, The Prowler and A Clockwork Orange were two movies that were very important to me for the film.

Down on his luck (Frederick McCubbin)

The importance of soundtrack and acting

Even the sound design of the short seemed very accurate, evocative, with its silences and with the revealing impact of the song. What can you tell us about this?

The melody for the song and the lyrics actually came to me in the shower! It was one of the first elements, I think before I even wrote the script. The lyrics and the melody lived with me for a while and helped establish the melancholic feeling I had in mind for the film, for the character of ‘Len’. In fact, the whole film was something I meditated on for a long time, until I felt ready to make it.

I worked closely with the sound designer Sean Kelly for almost six obsessive months on the sound design. We used to play in a band BEST WISHES, and in many ways, we used a similar approach to the sound design as we did with our collaboration in the band. We like working with dynamics and building to something grandiose.

Benedikt Schiefer created some truly otherworldly music for the film, which also helped set the tone for the sound design. We actually worked backwards. Getting the end song right was essential to understand what the peak of the movie would be, and then find a way to build up to that. For the end song, I had a vision in mind for Phil Spector meets Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig In The Sky’. That was my brief to Benedikt and he took that and created his own original approach. Once that end song was worked out, the rest of the music could then be worked out and then the sound design. It was a ‘backwards’ approach, but it worked for the film.

Who are the actors in your film? And how did you find them?

Eliza Baker, who played ‘Dee’ is a fashion model and hadn’t had much experience acting before, but she was a total natural. She had fantastic instincts, great ideas for her character and was completely fearless in bringing this character to life.

Darcy Halliday who played ‘Dum’ had a meticulous approach to his character and understood him from the inside out, which is reflected in his chilling performance in the film. He is an exciting talent and completely embraced the character and created something really unique.

Paul de Freitas who played ‘Len’ was only cast in the film, under a week before we had to shoot and did an amazing job. He actually played ‘The Grim Pope’ in my other short film I Call Upon Thee. He was 73 years old when he shot the film, and had an incredible amount of energy that was inspiring to all of us on set, especially in the difficult conditions we had to go through in making the film. He brought something very soulful and evocative in the film. It really felt to me like he was tuning into the ghosts of our ancestral past with his performance. I have worked with Paul on several projects, and I’m making a new short film starring Paul which will be released in 2023.

Festivals and new projects

What were your previous experiences, in the cinematographic field, and what projects are you dedicating yourself just now?

Previously, I had mostly made short films and music videos. My focus now is transitioning to making my debut feature film. I Call Upon Thee is being adapted into a feature film which I am writing/directing, and I also have a handful of other feature films I am planning to make, including JUDETH, UNCOVERED, MILITIANS amongst others. I’m also half way through writing the feature script adaptation of SWEET MARY, which I’m really excited about. It will take the characters of ‘Dum’ and ‘Dee’ into a new setting.

Finally, we discovered “Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go?” thanks to Trieste’s Science + Fiction and now we can find it in competition, again in Italy, at the Indiecinema Film Festival. Are you satisfied with the journey and the reception your work has had in festivals?

It has been amazing to see the film connect with audiences around the world. I put everything into making this film, my heart, my soul, my savings! The film was a big risk in many ways. It was born out of a very difficult time in my life. So first and foremost, it was a personal expression. And I think audiences can tune into that, and see if you are expressing something that is very pure in that way. To see the film being appreciated by other cultures is amazing to me, especially in Italy! I grew up watching Italian cinema, and it is a true honor to have festivals like Indiecinema Film Festival support my work.

Stefano Coccia

Picture of Stefano Coccia

Stefano Coccia