Film Show 013: David Easteal
An interview with Australian director David Easteal about 'The Plains', which premiered at the 51st annual International Film Festival Rotterdam
Welcome to Film Show, a newsletter that’s run in conjunction with Tone Glow. While the latter is dedicated to presenting interviews and reviews related to experimental music, Film Show is a space for interviews with filmmakers and other artists involved in the film and television world. Thanks for reading.
Approximately thirty minutes into David Easteal’s debut feature The Plains, we see drone footage of a seemingly endless stretch of Australian land. It’s one of few moments in his 180-minute docu-fiction that takes place outside a car. For the most part, Easteal’s camera remains fixed from the backseat of a Hyundai Elantra, the windshield and passengers in clear view. It recalls the James Benning and Bette Gordon short The United States of America (1975), though the framing provides a different purpose. Here, we watch as the director and his coworker Andrew commute from work, the film capturing their evolving relationship over the course of a year. They talk about love lives and loved ones, the drudgery of work, the endlessness of Melbourne traffic. At one point Andrew confesses, “I can’t keep doing this day in, day out. Pointless.” The spontaneity of the freeway, especially when contrasted with the car’s unchanging interior, echoes this desire for freedom. When we reach the titular plains, it feels like the floodgates opening.
The Plains is one of the major highlights from this year’s IFFR, not least because its patient depiction of an intergenerational relationship is both true to life and surprisingly riveting. The car becomes a haven for intimate conversations and musings on life, for grappling with the declining health of one’s parents. Easteal isn’t afraid to let such realities play out uninterrupted. As we observe all this from the vantage of a backseat passenger, there’s beauty in incremental yet perceptible change. And while the time is almost constantly onscreen—always hovering at 5PM or some short time thereafter—there’s a poignant understanding of growth amidst stasis. We don’t really reach a destination in The Plains, nor does the film feel entirely complete when it ends, but that’s part of its spirit: The boundlessness we long for in life can, in part, be found in the relationships we have with others.
Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with David Easteal on Sunday, January 30th via Zoom to discuss the making of his debut feature, Abbas Kiarostami, his day job as a lawyer, and the joy found in artistic freedom.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Do you have any early memories you cherish of being in a car?
David Easteal: The thing about Australia is that it’s very much a car culture, so I have lots of memories in a car. I was actually born overseas but we moved to the Australian suburbs when I was still an infant and you need a car there. In terms of memories that I cherish, that’s an interesting one. I certainly have many but I don’t know if I was cherishing them; I was often impatient to reach the end of the journey. There were road trips we’d take every year as a family.
Where were you born?
I was born in Fiji to an American mother and a British father. We moved to Australia when I was around one and a half, so I certainly don’t remember life overseas (laughter).
Were there places your family would regularly go on these road trips?
I didn’t grow up in Melbourne, I grew up in the capital of Australia, Canberra. It’s closer to Sydney and it’s about three hours from the southeast coast of New South Wales. If you ever make it down to Australia, it’s a beautiful stretch of coast. Our family would go to the same stretch each year, around Jervis Bay. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to make a film observing from the backseat.
Something I was thinking about while watching The Plains was that, nowadays, if I’m going somewhere in a car I’m in the driver’s seat. The overwhelming majority of my time in the backseat was from when I was a kid.
I would struggle in the backseat and be one of those children who would complain. My mother would always impress on me—and it’s a bit of a cliché—the importance of the journey and not the destination (laughs). She has a few wise refrains from throughout my childhood and that’s one of the phrases I recall being told often.
I know that you work in law. What led you down that path, and what’s it like working in that field while also pursuing filmmaking?
Someone once told me that the legal profession is filled with scared artists, so perhaps there’s a ring of truth to that. I’ve yet to find a way for people to pay me to make three-hour films about middle-aged men driving home, but I’d love it if that changes (laughter). I do value my work as a lawyer; it’s very intellectually engaging, and I have the kind of brain where the rigor of applying legal argument is appealing. I started studying law straight out of school, when I was 18 or 19, and I was making films at the time too. I’ve always seemingly done the two side by side.
I work as a barrister now. We have solicitors and barristers—it’s taken from the British legal system—where barristers primarily do court advocacy work. It’s not so much working in an office. When I was working with Andrew in the suburbs, that was as a solicitor. Most people start off as a solicitor—not that you have to, but it’s an ordinary course—and you go to the bar, which I think has a slightly different meaning than going to the bar in America. It’s very stimulating, and occasionally you do feel like you’re making a genuine difference. I deal predominantly with family law, and a little bit with criminal law.
My work as a barrister means I can work for myself. Barristers are all sole traders—they get briefed by solicitors—and I made this film whilst working as a barrister largely because I don’t have a boss. I could block out my calendar whenever required. Practicing as a barrister is the only way I could imagine practicing law now, in large part because of this aspect of the job. Certainly whilst I have an interest in law and legal argument, if I had a choice, I’d love to make more films, but at the moment the two coexist.
The one thing I can say about The Plains is that I had complete artistic freedom. Up until post-production I was producing and financing the film myself. It’s not the easiest thing in Australia to finance a more artistically-based film. There are funding bodies but there’s an emphasis on commercial viability and the need to have sales agents and distributors attached from early days. In order to proceed with funding, there are necessary steps you have to have in place, and it was never going to happen with a film like this. [My work situation] permitted me to work exactly how I wanted to on this film. In that respect, it was fantastic.
It’s nice hearing you talk about this aspect of your film, as well as your freedoms as a barrister, as this desire to be unbound is present across The Plains. There are many comments regarding the drudgery of work, of not wanting to be doing this day in and day out. You’re at this point where you have such freedom—were there breaking points you had reached prior to your current situation?
It’s great but it can still be a struggle to live both lives. Although I have freedom in both, I would like a bit more. I think that’s why I resonated with Andrew. When we met at this legal center, I really struggled with life as a solicitor, working 9 to 5, especially with the commute. We worked in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. You see in the film that the commute’s quite a long duration, especially if the traffic’s bad—it’s about an hour each way. There was a tipping point—I knew I couldn’t do that forever. And that was one of the key draws for me of going to the bar.
But in certain respects, my life felt much more in order when it was a 9 to 5, just having a strict routine. I did a lot of yoga and these types of things; you could easily structure your week. Now, if I have a brief on Monday I’ll be working all weekend and often nights. It’s very much like a freelancer’s sort of job. There’s pros and cons but it certainly suits me better.
Were the conversations you and Andrew had in the film spontaneous, or were they previously held conversations you decided to bring up again?
The precise dialogue was certainly not scripted, but the shape that it took definitely was scripted, if you can call it that. When I met Andrew, we found out we lived near each other and he would start driving me home, and this is when our intergenerational friendship grew. He would make these calls to his wife [Cheri] and his mother, sometimes on speakerphone and sometimes on headphones, but in the film it’s confined to headphones. His mother was alive at the time and her dementia was worsening, and I would actually hear the calls.
I conceived that we’d shoot incrementally, but I knew where it was going in terms of the overall arc. Slowly, Andrew’s mother would die and, looking back now, it’s quite a poignant time. We shot in a way where, each month, I’d write what would happen. Not the dialogue, but I’d work with Andrew and make sure he was comfortable with everything we were going to traverse. There was no rehearsal. We left the film very open.
The time when, as an adult, both your parents die is really captured in the film, for both Andrew and Cheri. It’s an age when one’s own mortality is really brought to the fore. When we were filming, Cheri’s mother passed away during the shoot. That’s an example of something that never intended to be in the film, but over the course of the year that made its way in.
There’ve been plenty of writers who’ve explored this sort of age, but I’m someone for whom death and the impermanence of… everything (laughter) looms large in my mind. I remember hearing Seamus Heaney talk about this age in particular and the profound effect it had on him. He wrote at least one of his books of poetry at this time in his life, and he used this metaphor that I referred to in my director’s statement about the roof of a barn being removed, this parental roof, and suddenly the sky being exposed above you. That resonated with Andrew and Cheri on the plains, by themselves, just alone with no children and now with no parents, the whole sky above them, which Andrew could shoot his drone up into for 500 meters. It resonated with me.
So this idea of death looms large for you. Has that impacted various decisions you’ve made throughout your life?
My mother’s side is Polish Jewish so perhaps I’ve been raised with this constant awareness of death (laughs). Even in beautiful moments of my life I’m aware that they’re going to pass soon. It’s a sadness, and in a way I wish I didn’t have this affliction—I’m certainly not unique in having it. But in a way, it’s the way life is. You have to accept that everything is impermanent, and it’s difficult to grapple with.
I seem to have this strong need in my life to have stability but also uncertainty and chaos, which comes from my artistic practice. I haven’t made that many films, it’s been a slow process, but what I really loved about this film—and I’m not thinking about this academically—is that by making these shots where you’re driving into the real streets of Melbourne, there’s chaos. It’s totally out of your control, and I found it exciting. Sometimes it worked in incredible ways. I just find some moments in the film where the timing of what’s happening in the traffic is what makes it interesting or engaging. There’s no way we could’ve prepared that. But there’s this control element as well with the formal rigor.
That’s what I really admired about the film. I was thinking of Kiarostami’s Ten and how he focuses on people’s faces, and how not showing them in your film has a profoundly different effect. In The Plains, there are these stationary shots and we’re looking out the windshield, and it’s constantly mirroring the conversation. Andrew wants to be free from his work life and finds this happiness in the vast plains. The view outside the windshield is so vibrant and just out of reach, all while the interior of the car remains still. When you bring out the iPad to look at photos of Andrew’s time in the plains, it’s the only moment in the film when I felt compelled to not look at the windshield, and yet it conjures up this same longing as perceived through a barrier, another screen.
Perhaps that’s why I called the film The Plains. It’s about this longing, and I felt that too. That came from our conversations in real life. And it’s a transitory space for him because it was always this resting point on their long drives from Melbourne to Adelaide, where their family members lived.
Was there a connection between the title and the Gerald Murnane book of the same name? The final shot where we see Cheri’s face lends itself nicely to that idea.
There was not a specific connection between choosing the title and the Murnane novel—indeed it’s a title that has been used a couple of times in Australia, by Murnane, as well as an earlier poem by Banjo Patterson, and I guess similar to The Steppe by Chekov.
Murnane is one of Australia’s most remarkable authors, I like his work a great deal. Perhaps there is a thematic connection to Murnane’s work, which often grapples with the themes of memory, time, and landscape, all of which I sought to explore. Murnane also often traverses the border of fiction and autobiography, less so in The Plains, however certainly in Tamarisk Row, Inland and Emerald Blue—the latter two are exceptional and I personally prefer those texts to The Plains. There’s also a repetitive, obsessive quality in Murnane’s prose that can become, in some of his novels, completely entrancing and poetic.
It’s been a while since I’ve read The Plains. I recall there being a sense of memory and time being vast plains in and of themselves, which I liked. And perhaps coincidentally, the location of Andrew’s property on the Western plains of Victoria which appears in the film is actually quite close to the country town of Goroke, where Murnane retired to and now resides.
I wanted to ask about these other car films. How much were you thinking about framing your shots, structuring your film, etc. based on other car films you’ve seen?
I love the work of Kiarostami, James Benning, and Jafar Panahi. I think those are three prominent filmmakers you may be referring to. Are you thinking of others? I know Locke takes place entirely inside a car but I’ve never seen that.
The other one I thought of was Bruce Baillie’s Commute.
Ah, I’ve heard of it but have not seen it.
He actually uploaded it to YouTube! It’s less rigid and really personal, using a handheld camera to zoom and pan across windows and roads. It’s really like being in a car with a friend or father during a road trip as you listen to the radio and music. He tells stories and tries to entertain you, it’s really cozy. He’ll zoom in on drops of water hitting his car and have it be poetic.
I feel like I’ve seen some sort of extras feature where Kiarostami is filming drops of water on car windows while driving somewhere. I love those early Kiarostami films, the Koker trilogy. The first one isn’t really in a car but the other two have lots of car scenes. I think the contrast between the nature of car life there and how it is in Australia is that it’s really connected to the community in those films. He’s always stopping and there are people coming up to the window and talking. It’s a very isolating place in Australia; you’re in this vessel that’s really cut off.
I don’t know if there’s a direct influence on my film; I know the framing is similar in James Benning and Bette Gordon’s The United States of America, but I hadn’t actually seen it at that stage. I had seen Benning films—I love Stemple Pass—but I can’t say there was a conscious decision. This shot was something I had used in a previous film [Monaco] and it appeals in a number of ways. There’s this frame within a frame that creates contrasts, and there’s this complete document of what’s happening on the streets.
There was a practical reason, too. If there was a more conscious presence of the camera, it would have been hard to have Andrew loosen up. I can sense that Andrew is maybe a little closed off at the start of a take, but he eventually loses the presence of the camera and opens up. I find there to be these two most poignant moments in the film, when Andrew talks about his mother’s and Cheri’s mother’s dementia, and about how he has to tell his mother that his deceased sister has been to see her. When I showed Andrew the film, he had no memory of this. Filming this way created a space where we could recreate a very natural and authentic dialogue.
There are things in the film I see that no one really sees when they watch it. When Andrew drives out of the car park every day, across the road there’s a building that’s being built over the course of the year. It’s a vacant lot at the start and at the end it’s a completed development. It’s amazing, and you’re able to monitor over the course of the year these different things. I like that as well.
There are passages when you start with the empty car and then have you both enter. But there’s at least one moment when the film cuts mid-drive into a sequence where Andrew’s already on the road. Can you talk about the specific reasons behind the editing choices?
It wasn’t an academic process. The edit was taking place incrementally and in the process, I started to try out things and let go of formal conceit. Each time we filmed, we did start in the car park, and it was important to let go of that. It made the film much more watchable. There are certain things I tried which completely failed. I had always intended to use uninterrupted shots to give this element of time prominence, as Benning does, rather than having it disappear for narrative’s sake.
It’s daunting making a first film with this duration. A lot of people were saying it’s too long, not that they had watched it, but just in theory. I tried to introduce jump cuts—I hadn’t shot the film to have coverage—and I tried to compress time, but it made the film seem longer, and the bits in the film that I thought resonated lost all their power. The film needed this sustained rhythm, and we needed to see how Andrew got to this point.
How much footage was there overall?
We filmed one shoot each month, for twelve months, and we usually shot over two days. Eleven of those months are in the cut—one of the first months is not there. The gear would be hired for two days and we had two shots at it. There’s an alternate version for most scenes in the film, but these two takes were all that we had, bar one where we only had one attempt, but thankfully it worked (laughter). It was the scene with the iPad. I should preface that the way we filmed was that it was always at the same time in rush hour. Most of Melbourne’s rush hour is coming from the city to the suburbs, but this is in reverse, and I liked it going this way because you’re driving into the west where there’s the setting sun. The sky is quite spectacular.
There’s this initial run down a suburban road called Blackburn Road, and then you turn onto the Monash Freeway, which is one of the key arterial roads in Melbourne. There was one turn before the freeway where if for some reason something had gone wrong technically, or between me and Andrew, we could cut the take and quickly revert back to the starting position and try again. But when we turned onto the freeway, that was it for the day; there was so much traffic in the other direction that if we tried to turn around, it would take forever and at that point it’d be after 6PM.
Has Andrew seen the film already?
The sound hadn’t been done yet but he saw it with a premix. We did the mix in France and he and Cheri wanted to see the film before it went there to be finalized. I showed them the film at my apartment and it was extraordinarily nerve-wracking (laughter).
What were their thoughts?
I think for Andrew he was taken back to a period of his life which stirred up a lot of things around the death of his mother, what was going on with Cheri and her mother, as well as his workplace at the time. Initially I think it was quite confronting, but that settled down. I was more nervous about Cheri seeing the film. She’s a private person and was reluctant to appear in the film, and there were long conversations I had with her. I was more concerned about showing the film to her and, same with Andrew, I think she thought it was quite confronting. I see the film as fiction. It’s artifice. We’re not just documenting Andrew and I driving home—it’s shaped. But the film is largely drawn from their lives, and it was a difficult time. I think they’ve had ample time to sit with it and they’re excited about it now.
Do you feel like you’ve learned anything, be it about life or yourself, from having made this film that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t make it?
I had a friendship with Andrew but that certainly deepened in the process of making this film. In the film, we got to places we never got to in our commutes. I certainly learned a lot more about Andrew and Cheri. In terms of life in general, I mean, it’s a difficult question. Perhaps it was a process of learning again that the journey is more important than the destination.
I did want to ask you about your decision to play Suicide’s “Cheree.” What’s your relationship with that band? It’s funny, there’s a reissue of their material coming out soon and I wanted to get in touch with [band member] Martin Rev.
You should tell Martin that you like the film, and that you like the use of the song (laughter). I wrote to Martin directly to get permission to use it. We had to go through the labels as well but he was straight away into the idea, which was really great in terms of then dealing with the labels.
That part of the film seems like a climax of sorts, and that wasn’t intentional. In that month, his mother had just passed and in that month’s script, I was leaving the workplace. In the start of the film, Andrew’s more closed-off about Cheri, and that’s probably because in real life, she had probably said, “Don’t talk about me.” (laughter). The friendship between Andrew and I grew and I thought that it would be nice; I like that song and band a lot and thought I’d share this with Andrew. I hadn’t played him the song before, and I spoke with Martin Rev before the shoot because there was no point in shooting that without an ability to get the rights to use it. I started shaping that a couple months out.
Even the atmosphere of the song suits everything that’s going on. It’s in this middle ground between blissful and queasy, and you’re not exactly sure how to feel.
I wanted Andrew to stay silent, and we’re not sure what he’s thinking, whether he’s moved by it or just enduring it as it plays (laughter). That song has this twinkly sound that comes in halfway through, and the car passes through a toll gate at the same time, creating these two [beeps] right when the twinkling starts. It’s one of those coincidences that I really like.
These things were really miraculous. Even on the first drive when I’m with Andrew and there’s a truck that breaks down, the traffic is really fast up until that point. We could’ve had that conversation at that speed, but I don’t think it would’ve worked unless we slowed down. Up until then it was a bit awkward, we were finding our feet, and then it gets more intimate. It’s the first time he talks about Cheri and about not having children. Even one of the trucks has a logo that seems relevant (laughter). We get into this quieter space, and things like that were really fortuitous.
Did you have a specific goal with The Plains you wanted to achieve?
I was interested in exploring these themes and this method of working. I hadn’t made many films but it’s been a process of finding—and I don’t even know if I’ve found it—but I loved making the film this way. I was working with a tiny crew. In the car it was often me, the director of photography [Simon J Walsh], and Andrew. If I was acting there’d be a sound recordist [Steven Bond]. When it was just Andrew then I’d be the sound recordist. It might seem contrived but I thought, “If it fails, it fails.”
It was a most invigorating year. Each month it was really the process of thinking about what should happen, and then the nerves of knowing there were only two shots at this. Andrew and I would get in the car each time and I had no idea if it would work. It could have equally resulted in something that didn’t work, working in this way seemed perilous! A lot could’ve gone wrong at any stage, and not just dealing with the logistics of the shoot and what to write but even dealing with real people! That sounds funny to say but dealing with Andrew and Cheri, who were nervous about putting their lives on screen. They’d seen my short films but I’d not made any work like this. And Cheri herself, she’s on the phone in the film speaking to Andrew and he hangs up and she has no idea what he’s talking about to me throughout the drive, and that naturally creates anxiety.
You said every month you’d reevaluate. What sort of things happened?
Andrew’s mother was deceased when we filmed—that happened years ago. In his calls to his mother, he was actually speaking to Cheri, who had been aware of what Andrew’s mother was like. I think this was a very confronting thing for both Andrew and Cheri, so at a certain stage we changed it and had it so Andrew would call and only get through to the nurse. That’s more how things developed; there weren’t great changes to the overall arc of the film.
There’s one question I like asking at the end of my interviews. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
Oh god, I don’t know about that question (laughter). It almost sounds like a job interview question. I never liked job interviews—that’s why I like working for myself.
More information about David Easteal can be found at his website.
Thank you for reading the thirteenth issue of Film Show. See you on the road.
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