The Interiors of Fear

Rino Breebaart snaps and chats with UNSW film-graduate and director, Rowan Woods, about his confronting feature film The Boys.

The Boys works like an unwelcome schoolyard memory rising up into the immediate present. Nauseatingly familiar, it's the feeling of exposed nerve-endings, of Westie will-power: a coupling of social realism and thrillerism where film and fear are commensurate.

Director Rowan Woods presents a little piece of Australia in the Sprague household with the precision of a scalpel, methodically parting the tissues of reality. So how does this very Australian filmic fear compare with the rest of cinema?

"I think one of the problems with Australian films is the need to explain and provide answers and meaning, like in many American films there is this need to resolve and conclude. For me, resolution is a fucking good ending that resolves the story in a truthful, logical way whilst providing bigger question marks about the cinematic world just endured. People go into the story, it feels like a documentary, and once they're in that space, the story can start to manipulate their feelings of tension or contentment. As a director, if you don't deliver first of all the real atmospheres and secondly (but more importantly) the increase in the pressure cooker that is the Sprague household, then you're not delivering on the story, and not delivering philosophically on the nature of the material either." Rowan has made The Boys work entirely in that uncomfortable place in the mind which wants to leave but cannot turn away.

"You want people to go into the story, and you do that by convincing them it's absolutely real. So much tension can be derived from omitting the important story stuff, or removing the viewer several rooms from the action, or by focussing on an ordinary coathanger."

Never before has an Australian home been charged with so much tension. There's always one of three brothers prowling around, or all The Boys in a little pack together, plotting and swearing ya farkin kunt. Brett the eldest is fresh outta jail, full of an inscrutable resentment sans outlet.

"Though in a sense," says Rowan, "The Boys is an ironic title because it's just as much about the women." We adopt the eyes of the women of the Sprague household, and are dragged from one room to another, always in enclosed spaces, with those light fittings, the SF novels and posters, the crappy stereo, the girlfriend hanging on, the Nike earring, all building, compounding into something nasty yet glaringly familiar."

The film's most striking effect is to imbue these ordinary household objects or situations with expectant fear, as the rooms of the house become the bedfellows of claustrophobia and dread. This fascination begins with slow focuses on a mirror, a light timed to feedback swells of the Necks' soundtrack. Then, with a handmade table to show for his time, Brett is picked up (late) from the prison gates by his brother in a stationwagon.

"Every design choice we made came either from homework and research or by playing an au contraire game with an expected, standard choice. Like the car. You'd think they've got a scary shark car, but hang on, the brother is such a dropkick, he couldn't even afford such a car, maybe it's the mother's car. The scariest option is always the most banal, or the least scary in terms of stereotyping. The other contender was an early-80s souped-up Cortina with mags and stuff, and then the station wagon with the roof racks: plain, safety yellow there's no comparison. We went for the plausible and logical."

Rowan's past is in short films, of which more than fifteen bear his name as director. With producer Robert Connolly and Stephen Sewell, he spent about two and a half years developing the original play by Gordon Graham. "Stephen started from scratch with the script, so we had the same landscape of characters, but the structure and a lot of the story elements were now completely different. He writes these incredible cause and effect stories, where if you take a piece out of the jigsaw puzzle then the whole puzzle falls apart."

In what feels like flashbacking, viewers absorb a future scene and are dropped back into the main story. At first the technique seems a little disconcerting but it cultivates the growing realisation that naked violence afoot. "The flash-forwards gave us a good way into the relationship story. They provide an escalating tension and sense of mystery because they don't show the crime, forcing you instead to focus on the lead-up and aftermath. Essentially the story is about what feeds into a moment of horrific violence, and not the crime itself, so we threw in a few red herrings to keep people guessing. The flash-forwards are also useful escape valves, they can turn the heat down and just let you get out of the house, resolve things in a future context, and then drag the audience back into the house and pump it up some more."

With the compounding vertigo of the flash-forwards, the final violence slowly comes into focus. The sequence is of a girl waiting at a bus stop, watched by the brothers. It's not hard to tell that she is young, alone and attractive. And then not seeing her any closer just irritates every fear of the film, like a kind of priapic frustration, or a moral gut sickness, a reminder shot of great cerebral cinema. Unexplained, unobvious, precise and premeditated, with accomplices in theatres everywhere. Hence no detail seems out of place or lacking, everything from the SF jargon to the cigarette of pride is a piece that completes the leadup to The Boys closing in on the girl.

Below: Rowan Woods does Hitchcock
"I don't have a PC problem with violence on the screen, but in this case, if the viewer is to focus uncompromisingly on the story, and take it to its logical extension, then you have to leave the crime out. There's a lot of subtexts and explanatory givens in the story: there's sexual inadequacy, poor communication, drugs and alcohol, a hint of a problem between mother and son (possibly abuse), bad economic conditions all thrown into the mix. But as for answers, we were all clear from the start that we weren't going to be taking a judgemental stance. It's not just inappropriate to provide false answers, it'd be a dumb story move, because as soon as we were seen to be answering questions for the audience about this very serious violence, the imaginative struggle would be halted, their intelligence would be insulted. We'd be dead meat as story tellers. So we sussed things out philosophically before anything else, realised that we didn't have any questions so what right do we have to provide obvious answers."

Given that The Boys is so precise and realistic, it's all the more interesting that no 'quirky' feelings intrude on it.

"I'm not sure whether the feeling of tension is heightened for an Australian audience because they are witnessing characters of their own culture. We got the same pindrop reaction and absolute shock from German press audiences when we premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. But it is more affecting if you can remember a school yard boy or similar situation or family member." With sales in Europe, the States and Japan, Rowan is happily exporting this little piece of Australia to other cultures. Critics have been throwing the superlatives around in response to the film, but on looking closer into the Oz state of reviewing, some quirky critics did come to the fore. "The reviews have been great, but one thing that has pissed me off in some comments here is when a critic has for whatever reason attempted to second guess their audience and their willingness to enter the cinema. I feel it's almost representative of a gut fear of a real experience in the cinema of our own culture. One review asked why would people want to go and see yet another example of urban angst?" I mean, how many real urban angst films have we seen? I think this fear arises partly because we haven't seen ourselves, our culture, in a realistic light on the screen for such a long time, that there are all sorts of emotional feelings getting in the way of proper, balanced analysis."

So what, from the critical understanding up, makes for great cinema?

"The question of cinematic entertainment is simple, and I think the visceral interpretation is probably the best: do you want to go into the screen for the spectacle, the colour and the lights, or for the reality that is suddenly compelling, which rivets you for the whole duration? There are fundamental aspects to the way an audience responds in that darkened space: firstly with the willingness to suspend disbelief and move into the world of the screen, and secondly, when they do that, to let the ride keep them there and affect them emotionally. This makes the visceral experience all the more realistic and suspenseful: If the visceral aspect of the experience is working for you, then afterwards you can talk about it or tell someone else to go, and you can start to discuss the issues if there are issues to be thrown up, or talk about what a fucking great ride it was, regardless of the issues."

Oh, and the car, that yellow stationwagon, belongs to none other than the director himself.

rino breebaart
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