Contemplating Ivan Sen | FilmInk

Sen’s features, from his debut in 2002 with Beneath Clouds through Dreamland (2010), Toomelah (2011), Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016) have always been challenging and poetic. Loveland extends Sen’s unique vision into sci-fi.

Filmed in Hong Kong and set in a near-future, Ryan Kwanten plays Jack, a desperate assassin searching for a way to extend his life in a world that appears to be doomed for destruction. Jack finds love in this loveless place with April (Jillian Nguyen). Hugo Weaving is a doctor who may have the answers Jack and April need.

We spoke to Sen from his home in Queensland about Loveland, his filmmaking and career.

Loveland has been described as a departure for you, as it’s a sci fi, set and filmed in Hong Kong… but in another way it’s exploring the possibilities of genre, something you’ve pursued in Mystery Road and Goldstone.

“My favourite films are film that push genre. Films that work around the edges of the conventions. I’m more to the art house edge of genre, which can create quite unique works. Things like The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998).

“Another obvious example would be what Stanley Kubrick did with genre. Almost every film he made was a different genre; The Shining (1980) is a horror film, 2001 (1968), a sci fi, Paths of Glory (1957), a war film.”

An art house director you’ve been compared to around the time of your first film Beneath Clouds was Tarkovsky. I think they were talking about the way you shoot space and landscape but also the contemplative, spiritual mood…

“I don’t think my interest in the contemplative has come from any filmmaker’s work. It’s a part of me. I was a quiet child. An observer. It’s probably connected to my Indigenous heritage. It’s probably connected to the basics of the medium as a form of expression as well.”

You have a reputation for working fast. Can you tell us about that?

Loveland was shot in nineteen days. We could have done it quicker.

“A lot of the directing is already in the script. A lot of the non-verbal stuff. As far as discussions about character – that happens in email form well before the shoot. And those conversations inform further drafts. I wait till the day we shoot to rehearse. That time before we shoot is the most important because everyone is focused. The space is very important. I work with the actors on a totally empty set while the crew waits outside. I don’t lock anything down until the actors feel comfortable.

“Then we call the crew in; they watch the rehearsal. After that we are ready to go in about ten minutes.”

As with your other pictures you are ‘multi-tasking’ once more on Loveland. Writing, producing (with David Jowsey and Angela Littlejohn), directing, cinematography, music and editing… we hope we didn’t leave anything out?!

“[Laughs] Maybe!”

Tell us about your practice, what’s the philosophy?

“I don’t think of them as separate roles anymore. It’s getting a chance to paint a whole painting; you are not asking anyone ‘can you do that corner over there for me?’ You are looking to match the whole work and they put a big bit of yellow in there! [Laughs].

“There was a turning point after Toomelah and before Mystery Road when I was going to give the DOP role to someone. That person was requesting gaffer trucks and gear and I thought ‘that’s all a waste of money’. I thought I’ll make a stand, always shoot my own work.”

In a way it sounds as if it’s a continuation of your art school training. Flat artists have collaborators but, in the end, they control the work they produce in a very hands-on way [exceptions acknowledged, of course].

“Yeah, there is a connection. I went to Art College in Queensland. I studied photography. And as a photographer you are a writer and director telling a story with a camera; I learned photography as a pure art form. That laid the groundwork for what was to come for me.”

Do you get asked to perform crew roles for other projects?

“Yeah, aside from writing and directing offers, I get asked to shoot, do music… but I have a lot of stuff going on. With writing… there is no guarantee that a script will get made. Why would I spend my time and energy on something I have no control of? As a producer, it’s important for me to control the work because then I know it’s going to get made. If I had of said yes to something a few years ago there would be no Loveland.

Was Loveland the first time you worked with SFX?

“Yes! First time working with green screen. We did a lot of background plates. First time working with composites; combing actors, green screen, actual locations. From now on I’ll always carry a green screen with me. [Laughs]

“I know now how to shoot things in such a way that it will make it easier to replace the sky [if I have to]. The story world is an extension of now. I know Hong Kong quite well. I’ve always been drawn to it – there’s something about its texture. It’s a hybrid city. And I’m a bit of a hybrid [Laughs]. I feel comfortable there as a mixed blood person.

“Before I went, I knew I wanted to make a film there. When I arrived it just confirmed everything I ever felt. I was blown away by the place and it was more than I hoped. It was just a matter of writing the story which took ten years while I was making other things. The Loveland script influenced other things especially Goldstone. The whole outback noir thing is drawn from the Loveland script.

“All my films come from the location. The world [of the story] is everything. All our shooting locations were practical.”

It has huge crowd scenes.

“Extras were real people. Can’t do that here [laughs]. [The look] was all about textures. So, it’s about shooting at a certain time of day.”

That also involves selecting the architecture you feature…

“We shot in Mong Kok. The buildings there have been recognised as the origins of Cyber Punk.”

Can you talk a bit about the story?

“People often talk about what it is to be human. But there’s a lot of bad things about being human, in human traits. This is dealing with the erosion of those connective traits like love and trust. [The story is about a struggle to preserve these feelings] in a world that wants to dispose of them. The setting is a future world of extreme competition.”

Like your other pictures Loveland offers optimism… hope, if you like?

“Love is… one thing closes, and another thing opens. That’s the nature of life. When something closes it allows something else to be seen. In your mind, you feel that something has opened… But it’s always there to be opened. But actually, you are not paying attention to it. Because you are connecting to something else. When one connection closes you become conscious of the possibility of a connection that you weren’t looking at before. I suppose Loveland is an expression of where are we headed as a species.”

Loveland is screening at the Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival, June 24 – July 2, 2022

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