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An Interview with Russell Southam ("Black Heart, Red Hands")

Russell Southam is a writer, producer, and director born in Sydney, Australia to English parents. Russell entered film by chance after applying as an extra on the award-winning short The Telegram Man. While on set he met and discussed working in film with the legendary Jack Thompson who urged him to convert his skill as a Technical Writer to a Screenwriter. Russell has completed several diverse genre scripts for shorts and features as well performing many roles both on and off of numerous indie film sets. As an avid crowdfunding advocate, Russell has been directly involved in more than 120 projects across the many crowd sourcing platforms and actively promotes these projects to his network of #supportindiefilm followers.

Russell's directorial debut, "Black Heart, Red Hands", tells the story of a first-time killer, who is about to be shown what it really takes to pull off the perfect crime.

"Black Heart, Red Hands" won Best Thriller at Top Shorts (March 2020), and was nominated for two annual awards: Best Thriller and Best Crime Film of the year.

Russell, please tell us about your background. Is it true that you got into filmmaking after your role on the set of The Telegram Man? What were your first steps into the world of filmmaking?

I’ve worked away from home for two to three weeks at a time and during the weekends I was away I started looking for extras work as a way of passing the time and avoid missing my family. After being an extra in a few film school graduation films, I got a role as a background extra on the multi award winning short The Telegram Man and it changed everything for me. I got to meet some Australian icons of the screen, one of which was Jack Thompson. This legend of Australian film and television questioned me on my involvement and after hearing I liked to write, suggested I should try writing for film. I left him with a desire to begin a journey of self-discovery into the maddening realm of the screenplay. This is how my relationship with film began.

As an avid crowdfunding advocate, you’ve been involved in over 120 projects across several platforms. What made you passionate about that, and how did you get involved?

As a new writer and wanting to examine how and why screenplays became films, I stumbled across the fairly new idea of crowdfunding through Kickstarter, and saw small indie films asking and getting funding. I would scour the site for interesting ideas or stories that resonated with me and felt compelled to help a fellow indie filmmaker out so they could realise their dream. To me it was genius; instead of trying to convince one or two people with a studio to finance a project, why not simple let fans who want to see the end product fund the project.

When did you form your production company, Little Big Film Company, and what does the company focus on?

I formed the company primarily to aid with the legal side of potentially selling screenplays but after a while I incorporated my love of film into the company to make it a brand, willing to collaborate with others on worthy projects. Little Big Film Company attempts to assist artists with business knowledge as well as assist in raising the bar in production levels. Obviously we are not a multi-billion dollar player in the arena of film but after reading a script or listening to a concept, we try to find ways to lift production values and attract a wider audience base.

You’ve produced and associate-produced numerous projects - you must be incredibly busy. How do you normally pick which projects you wish to work on?

Well, I’m not obviously wanting to give out an open invitation to be bombarded with requests for help, but I typically search all the major crowdfunding platforms for well put together pitch packages. I look for exciting or novel ideas by passionate artists that I feel I can approach individually to help them realise their concept and develop working relationships with many of these talented cast and crew members. If an idea for a project, story behind the concept or a truly invested team’s pitch resonates with me then I try and jump in early and make sure we get over the line. An example would be the project I came across on Greenlit which was Ecstasy a powerful personal story from a talented filmmaker whose father suffered from Parkinson’s. The story revolves around research that the drug can inhibit the physical impairments of Parkinson’s. In this story a son attempts to secure a pill for his father with Parkinson’s to allow him to dance with his mother once more. A great team and cast that had been impacted by disastrous rain and were in jeopardy of losing a key location due to redevelopment so this campaign was time critical. Rather than risk it failing after coming so far and hearing the real life connection that the director had with the story, I just had to get involved.

Let’s talk about your directorial debut, Black Heart Red Hands, which won Best Thriller at Top Shorts. How did you first come up with the concept? Can you please run us through your creative process? I assume this story is not based on real-life experience.

I came across a news article that I vaguely remembered from the time of a killer loose in a National Park here in Australia, who successfully evaded capture by police and even the army for seven long years. The killer used his bush skills and was living off the land as well as entering holiday homes bordering the park to survive, always remaining just out of sight. We have had a number of high profile killers using the wide open spaces here in Australia to conceal their crimes and their victims.

Audiences know that an individual driving into a forest is doing one of two things, something positive or negative. So when a crime of passion ends in violence, a killer has to hide his guilt and victim, a nearby forest offers the perfect place or so they think. My idea was to examine what a seasoned killer would do if someone came onto their ‘patch’ and saw an opportunity to test or play with this amateur. Like a new prisoner coming into prison, the seasoned criminal tests them and may use this new criminal for their own pleasure. The idea of pitting two killers against each other was based on the well-known fact that while you may think you are good at something, there may always be someone else out there who is better. I imagined a small shark hassling seals in the shallow water but out in the deep water a great white is circling and waiting.

The premise was formed and I have the intention of making this into a longer format and expanding on the lead up to the crime of passion, the events that lead the first time killer into conflict with the serial killer and finally the police investigation and assumptions to close the case prematurely.

What was the casting process like? What qualities do you look for in an actor? Are hiring decisions based on pure talent or are there other factors you consider?

We did an open casting call and ran through some scenarios relating to who the characters were and how they may interact with other characters in quick improve sessions. Characters had character sheets prior and a brief description of the setting. What came next was some stand out performers able to breathe life into two dimensional characters very quickly and improvise dialogue and actions as the scene progressed. The reason for this was we were actually travelling to an isolated location and we had a lot to shoot in a short space of time. The ability to improvise if necessary but stay on story was key given it was a one shot deal given the limited availability of both cast and crew. Once the auditions were over, I gave some more insight into the characters but then offered the actors to live, breathe and become them over the coming 12 months with informal Q&As and meetings over lines and interactions. The actors owned their characters one hundred percent and I was so thankful for their hard work.

I selected with my casting director a mixture of new and experienced talent from New South Wales and Victoria. We had actors swap in and out of ensembles until we found the right mix in three main groups of killers, victims and law enforcement. When we were conducting table reads and saw thick folders of character background information to draw upon, notebooks out on tables being scribbled in while we hammered out details of interactions and method actors bringing to life the characters< I was very happy. Each actor knew how their character would act in a hundred different life situations so when the camera rolled it was like seeing actual people walking and talking not something fictitious that I had created. In some cases it was quite unnerving to be stalked by a method actor around the edge of a scene you’re shooting as they prepared to drop into the mind of a killer but magic to witness on camera. I owe a lot to my casting director as well as my actors who gave me everything I asked for and then some more.