From the young Australian director behind Bastardy comes Hail, a visceral tale of the experiences of ex-prisoner Daniel Jones and his partner Leanne Letch. We speak with Ameil Courtin-Wilson about illuminating ignored stories.
Amiel Courtin-Wilson is in an airport lounge when we call. It’s become something of a second home for the filmmaker, who has hardly had a moment’s rest since his new film Hail started doing the film festival circuit. And the film is about to be given wide release in Australian cinemas, things are only going to get busier.
A visceral tale that takes the form of a fictionalised version of the experiences of ex-prisoner Daniel Jones and his partner Leanne Letch – each of whom play a version of themselves – Hail explores the pair’s love for one another love through visual sensation. The film defies an Australian crime drama typecast, assuming the guise of a tragic love story – a reading that, gladly, Courtin-Wilson concurs with.
Hayley Inch: I’d like to start by getting a little bit of background on the genesis of the film, and how you came to know Daniel (Jones).
Amiel Courtin-Wilson: I met Daniel Jones back in 2005, when I was helping to make a documentary about Plan B, which is a theatre group for ex-prisoners. I actually later found out that on the day I met him he’d only been out of prison for a day, and I’m pretty sure being part of the theatre was part of his parole conditions. He immediately had such an elemental power as a performer. It was startling. He was mercurial and fascinating and had this talent for pulling others in. I knew from that day that I wanted to make a film about him.
HI: I was particularly struck by the visual style of the film. It’s very tactile and haptic, and many of the scenes looked so much like something out of a Stan Brakhage film. Was experimental film an influence for you in creating the film?
ACW: I’m glad you said tactile! Stan Brakhage is one of my favourite filmmakers, so yes, his influence was key. I also looked to the films of John Cassavetes, and to Tobe Hooper’s original version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m really interested in films that offer visceral immediacy, where language falls down around sensation.
HI: My overall interpretation of the film is that it was taking stories and people that are generally ignored in mainstream society and also in artistic discourses, and giving them a quiet beauty and sense of dignity. Is that something that was deliberate, because it was quite powerful.
ACW: I really wanted to explore the ambiguity of a world that you haven’t seen on film before. There’s a tendency in Australian films that focus on criminality, to err on caricature, and that can be very reductive. I wanted to highlight the acerbic humour of these people, their mercurial intelligence. I didn’t want to romanticise it and instead focused on the intimate dignity of the situation and this couple’s amazing love for each other. And that’s what ultimately pushed the shift from documentary to drama. I kind of hate the idea of it being perceived as a doco-drama hybrid; it has too many earnest overtones to it. It’s a movie, it happens to have people playing versions of themselves, but it’s scripted and rehearsed. What I’d hope the audiences respond to is the authenticity of the love story and the minutiae of that; it’s innately real enough that the audience can run away with those experimental nuances.
HI: The style itself may initially seem to some viewers like an odd fit considering the subject matter. How receptive was Daniel Jones to having elements of his life portrayed in this way?
ACW: Funnily enough Dan and I have the same film tastes. He’s very interested in anything that provokes strong reactions in people. He wasn’t at all interested in doing the film unless it was truly distinctive and born of real risk, which I think is testament to his sophistication and courage. He’s actually just come back from filming a film in New York for a director he met in Cannes. It’s called Young Bodies Heal Quickly, where he plays a bedraggled Vietnam veteran.
HI: That’s so great to hear, because he really is the emotional centre of Hail and has such presence. It’s good that that’s being recognised by other filmmakers.
ACW: It really is an affirmation of his skills as a performer. And combined with Leanne in the film, who herself has such gentleness and compassion, yet she also houses a lot of rage, it just results in great interactions. That’s the film’s core, this demonstrated love that becomes a tragedy.
Hail is showing in cinemas now.