Otto is ready to bloom

The chronicle of the life of a man experiencing time in reverse will soon be shared in Australian cinemas as The Death and Life of Otto Bloom opens on 16 March.

In the lead up to its release, we chat with VCA graduate, Writer and Director Cris Jones on his triumphant feature debut.

The Death and Life of Otto Bloom burst onto the festival circuit with a world premiere screening at the opening night of MIFF 2016 … how does that feel as a first time feature filmmaker?

 It was such an incredible honour, I can’t tell you. And it was the best possible start we could have imagined for the film. I’ve had a long relationship with MIFF through my short films and the Accelerator program, so it was such a thrill to be chosen for opening night.

It was also the first time that any of the cast and crew had seen the film, so it was such special night for all of us, even if it was a bit of a whirlwind.

How did you stay on top of continuity and consistency considering the intricacy of the plotline which plays out in reverse chronological order?

 I think this is one of those areas where it really helped that I was also the writer. When you’re writing any project, you’re constantly obsessing over all these tiny details until you literally know the thing backwards, no pun intended. 

When I was writing the film, I had to be able to look at the story both chronologically and also from Otto’s point of view, which is essentially reversed. It had to make sense both forwards and backwards, and so I plotted it out in both directions to make a sort of palindromic narrative.

When it came to shooting, the challenge was more about communicating this reverse chronology as clearly as possible to the cast and crew. At some point, Xavier and I came up with something that we called “the Otto Threshold”. This is the point at which one's brain starts to melt from thinking backwards for too long.

Was it a difficult task to re-create 1980s Melbourne? What was your approach to achieving this?

Re-creating a period is always a challenge, particularly when you’re on such a tight budget. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be working with an amazingly talented group of people who performed miracles every day. The art department, the costumes, the hair and make-up were all extraordinary and brought a real authenticity to the period, without ever over-doing it. 

Even though a lot of what we remember from the eighties comes from films and pop videos, the truth is that not everyone looked like Cyndi Lauper. So I looked at a lot of documentaries from the time and decided to go for a more dialled down, 'eighties-lite' aesthetic.

We also used a lot of archaic shooting formats (Super 8, analogue video, etc.) which added another layer of authenticity to the period. 

How did you find the experience of wearing both writer and director hats? Did you ever find yourself second-guessing decisions you were making and how did you overcome that? 

Actually, it was quite the opposite. For me, writing and directing have always felt like two sides of the same coin. When I’m writing, I’m watching the film play out in my head and then I’m constantly re-writing on set and in the edit. I love collaborating with the cast and crew and am always looking for a better idea, no matter who it comes from. 

If anything, this collaboration is made much easier by the fact that I’m also the writer. When someone suggests an alternate line or a different way of playing a scene, I don’t have to worry about whether it is messing with the writer’s intention because that intention is tattooed on my brain. 

The only downside of taking on both roles is that it does create a lot more work for you during production. I’d often find myself squeezing in re-writes during lunch breaks or visits to the laundromat.

What was your most memorable moment on set and what did it teach you as a filmmaker?

One of the great moments for any first-time director is arriving on location on the first day of the shoot and seeing this team of people who are there to help you make the film you are trying to make. Coming from a short film background, this was the first time I’d had that kind of infrastructure in place, and everyone was so generous and supportive.

I remember thinking that no matter what happens, these people are going to make sure we get through each day, so I just need to concentrate on doing my job and getting the most out of every scene. It seems obvious, I know, but when you’re not used to having that kind of support, it’s such a joy... and a relief!

What’s next for you?

I find that after completing any project, I invariably want to go in a completely different direction with the next one. So, the film I’m writing at the moment couldn’t be more different to Otto. Where Otto is unashamedly romantic in its worldview, this one is much darker. It’s kind of an existential horror, in a way.

It’s still very much a film of ideas, but this time the philosophy is couched more in the subtext of the story. It’s less literal, more ambiguous, and perhaps hews more closely to a familiar genre. And that’s probably about as much as I can say at this point!

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