Once upon a time, psychologist Robert Carter was content to write novels. He started with The Sugar Factory and then what he calls "a few more", including the prose version of Thirst.
He switched to screenwriting when he decided he wanted some company, enrolling in film school in 1990 on a special attachment for writers. He turned The Sugar Factory novel into a screenplay for the course, with a plan to direct it, despite the usual cynicism.
To prepare himself, he completed a short directing course and embarked on a short film called Kid in the Bin. His next short film was the very beginning of Thirst, which then became a play, then a novel, then a full screenplay, which he used to rewrite the novel. He was happy to admit that he hates writing treatments, but it could be argued that with that kind of preparation, who needs them?
Although The Sugar Factory took about ten years from conception to film, he loved the process. With directing, he was able to find all of the joys of writing novels, but without the downside.
He’s been in the US, “on and off at different times,” and the first time he was there, had a literature studio at Yaddo in upstate New York. He was also the recipient of an AFC fellowship to LA. He’s now been there a few times, but it’s “not a place I’d want to live.” He was fortunate however to make some interesting contacts while there.
He describes LA as a place made for cars not people, and “its people have the attention span of a traffic light.” It’s all about who’s hot and who’s not and “every taxi driver has a script under their arm.” He agrees with the oft-mentioned idea that no-one in Hollywood ever says no. “They stop taking your calls but don’t say no.” Despite this, he finds LA to be an exciting place, “as long as you don’t believe it.”
When The Sugar Factory won the Gold Award at the Hollywood Film Festival in 2002, he was surrounded by offers. One particularly well known agent called to say it was “Awesome. Love it. Haven’t seen the film yet.” As Robert describes it, “only in LA!”
As a result of his festival success, he was attached to a couple of films which never eventuated, and was sent many scripts, mostly in the genre realm. He didn’t take up these offers, aware that he is “happiest in arthouse and writing his own stuff.”
In Hollywood, many films have multiple writers attached, a phenomenon which he believes works best in the genre area. With arthouse, he suggested that it needs a strongly held individual vision.
He also spent a year in Hong Kong working for Salon Films, where he worked on a promotional film for the Hong Kong Government. This was later shown at a conference with Deng Xiaoping and Bill Clinton in attendance. According to Robert, Clinton later said that it was “the best thing at the conference.”
With a huge list of awards to his name, including the New York Film Festival, Galaxy Awards, and the Sydney Film Festival Short Film Award, Robert admitted that he enters “just to promote the work... It’s all about being taken seriously.”
Asked to deploy his inner psychologist on himself, and explain why he re-worked the one Thirst story into so many different forms, he explained that the work comes out of “a concern that I need to examine or understand. The work is my effort to make sense and construct meaning.”
He wondered about the meaning people find by “stripping away everything man-made.” In order to apply this construct, he knew that the action needed to take place either out in the desert or at sea, “an environment where people had to make life and death choices and cut through the bullshit to find out what life is all about.”
The premise is that there are four people trapped in the desert with a limited amount of water, all likely to die very soon. They are all isolated in four different ways, and each needs to work out how to make sense of the world, give meaning to their lives and decide what to do.
Despite the premise, “it’s not so grim. It’s funny. It’s a love story. It’s about dropping defences and redeeming choices... The underlying metaphor starts with a woman in the desert searching for something and digging holes.” This metaphor flows through to the rest of the film. One of the four protagonists is also a wannabe comedian which helps to lighten the mood.
Robert self-financed Thirst from the sale of his house, even though everyone warned him against it. “Every asset I had is gone. It was foolhardy, but I’m glad I did it...Why not keep going with the impossible?”
He worked with casting agent Peta Einberg and they put the actors through “a rigorous casting process.” They were very happy with the way the actors responded. The film stars Myles Pollard, Tom Green, Hannah Mangan Lawrence and Victoria Haralabidou.
It was shot about an hour out outside broken Hill, “just ahead of Mad Max.” He expected a three week shoot for Thirst, but in the first week, they had “highest rainfall in living memory and couldn’t get to the location as the bridge had washed away.
With 30 highly paid people waiting to work, Robert was almost forced to shut down the production, and he admitted that his tension level was high. They contacted Screen NSW to find out if anything could be done about the bridge, and whether by good luck or good management, a roadworks crew were soon there to make the repairs.
The shoot turned increasingly Biblical, assailed with flies, storms, floods, stink beetles, moths, dust-storms, heat and distance as you can see from the remarkable hereproduction stills. He took comfort from the casting agent who told him that “all of the films that have a hard shoot are the great ones.”
It was shot in March, a warm time of year but cold at night, and with the travelling time back to Broken Hill each day, it ate into their shooting time. He realised what he’d done in retrospect, but “naivete and ignorance are a fabulous way to start a film I think.” He might never have done it otherwise.
They’re “just finishing grading now.” People stumbling into the grading suite have been commenting on how beautiful it looks. Cutting Edge edited the film, with the post, grading and VFX being done at Chaotic Pictures.
Having been in the game for a while, he’s aware that the industry contains a mix of business people and filmmakers, and filmmakers make all the difference. They are the ones willing to give a little bit more, and to work on deferrals, and he’s very grateful to those who helped on the film. “We call this the impossible film that got made.”
There’s yet to be a distributor attached to the film, but that’s part of their strategy. They’re planning to get the film into overseas festivals and hope to win an award. If they’re successful, then it means more attention for the film, and gives them more clout in negotiations with distributors.
Robert believes that the film will have particular appeal for Europeans due to the exotic locations and the arthouse storyline, and hopes that the interest will flow back to Australia as well.
He’s well aware of the challenges though. He recently heard that Sundance receives 10,000 entries each year (including short films) and knows that competition in such festivals is fierce.
Another of his books, The Collectors, could soon be in for the film treatment as well. “It’d be a great animation.”
With motion capture equipment now more affordable, and its technique and technology more widely available, he’s keen to look into it. He noted that after the tough shoot on Thirst, he was keen to shoot in a five-star hotel, or at least inside.
In The Collectors, the “collectors are like cockroaches. It’s a spiritual quest.” He mentioned Kafka and Animal Farm as references, and said it was filled with metaphor and allegory. His interest such elements is more natural than trained, and he found his own way into “relating to the work narratively and symbolically. I read a lot too.”
He can’t help his psychology training coming into play as well. “When people are using them without knowing...that’s the most thrilling.” On lecture tours, he’s also found people “telling you what you think about your own work.” It’s often full of surprises to him.
His friends call him “Metaphor Man.” He jokes that he should have a costume like a superhero. “Just when you thought it was safe...”
Anne Richey After several different roles in Screen Hub, Anne Richey has been welcomed back as our productions editor.