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.
How did you prepare for the shoot, in terms of directing? Was it any different from previous shoots?
This was my first shoot as a director and to have sixty cast and crew all looking at you on the first day for answers is quite daunting. I wanted to challenge myself with a sizeable project to see whether I liked the role of making my vision a reality or whether I should just stick to writing and let others tell my stories.
Most of my on-set role was as a decision maker and I took each decision as a challenge presented and either made a simple judgement if I knew the answer or consulted with my team to get the best answer or solution right then. It kept us moving along and I never see compromising as a failure to win over others, I see it as a chance to learn there are always different ways to achieve the same aim. You leave it to audiences to decide whether it worked for them and try and not repeat the same mistakes, audiences have long memories.
I worked on my story and vision for a good two years leading up to when we went into production. By the time the cameras rolled, I had seen the film in my head a million times playing over each scene and a sense of how it would unfold. My creative side likes to add way too much flowery and colourful narrative to my scenes and so when I saw my shooting script dripping in red ink, I wondered how I was going to get a story from the fragments. That said both the AD and Editor could see the foundation of each scene and knew how collectively it would string together and for that I am so thankful. I stared at the footage not able to determine if there was a film in the footage or not, but their experience saw it from the word go… a lesson on storyboarding was gained after this moment.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
The scale of the production in an isolated location and managing a budget along with learning while shooting is a major risk for a project with a new director. This is where the cast and crew members belief in your story, support in you as the director and willingness to invest in the process as a whole. My might have made a film but we also made a strong film family that we all still belong to now. As we all go on out different pathways within the industry.
Can you talk about your collaboration with consulting producer Owen Elliott and producer Adam Spinks? How did you divide the responsibilities between you?
At the start of the production I leaned on Owen who I had met through a film festival in the small town of Dungog to the North east of the Hunter Valley where his feature Bathing Franky was shown and there was a Q&A with afterwards. It had a great production feel to this indie feature and I was keen to get some insight into the process as I wanted to potentially go with a feature after making a small proof of concept to be used in pitching the project. Knowing his feature was shot around the Hunter Valley, we began to chat about me needing a location to shoot my short film somewhere in the area where he had contacts and we began our search. He was very active in the pre-production stage before he moved to the US with his family and working hard on his new projects as the focus switched to gearing up for production. Owen was great in listening and sounding out ideas and feedback from initially cast and crew members and helping develop my strategy at the very start.
Adam came in just before production primarily as an editor but then producer and I had already worked with him on other projects either as a producer and friend offering supportive feedback. His skills at seeing the story and developing the initial cuts were invaluable as he saw that we need a couple of additional scenes to strengthen the main protagonists story which we were thankfully able to shoot quickly. Adam can always tease out the missing element from me when I know there is something I am struggling to identify being too close and then a couple of minutes on the phone and I have it. He introduced me to a lot of my UK post production stars and has a wealth of indie and studio of experience as well as being an educator. Adam has been a staunch ally in what feels like the cauldron of battle when editing and through post production wrestling with a gigs of data to shape a timeline of events only to slide and refine further the final edit. Involving the post production team early was a good move as all were able to grow with the project and the more I spoke of my vision the more they came to recognise what it should look like from all the many components we had to work with.
Is this the first time you're working with composer Sarah Playford? What was the scoring process like?
Sarah was recommended by Adam who was blown away by her natural talent on one of his projects and I was working my way through a list of very capable composers when he sent me some of her work. I knew immediately that having Sarah score the spectacular footage of the idyllic and introductory scenes of the National Park before shattering this image with what transpires was going to be something quite special. With fast turnarounds and having that investment in my idea I think came through in the score that we delivered with the film to lift the emotions and then drop these when necessary. Jamie Gamache and Sarah worked seamlessly threading sound design and score across the film and I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Both Jamie and Sarah just understood the concept and what I wanted to be delivered and did this and then some I am sure you will agree.
Were there other crew members whose contribution was instrumental to the film?
There wasn’t a single person who didn’t put in 110% and every single member of the cast and crew deserve to be recognised for all their hard work on set but also their support and encouragement well after the cameras went off.
I find the fact that some of the festivals do not have categories or recognise some aspects of production a little frustrating. Some miss out or overlook the work of Lighting, Gaffers, PA’s, Hair and Makeup and their practical FX all of whom stand for hours on set or work for months leading up to the production. Even the Armourer who shoulders a lot of burden with the sole responsibility for safety as well as dealing with government regulation and compliance is often overlooked. Anyone who has wanted to fire a firearm on set will no doubt know the amount of work involved and the degree of authenticity it brings to a scene. Let’s not forget the Costume/Wardrobe team members, who shop or create costumes from scratch for productions and ensure actors are ready to go each day. The AC’s, 2nd and 3rd AD’s, extras all the way through to Craft Services, Drivers, Location Managers and Runners. There isn’t a credit on our production that wasn’t instrumental, by having people take on these roles and do them well gave me the confidence to get up and lead the cast and crew each day. So it’s these individuals that gave me the opportunity to do the job of directing so I must acknowledge and thank all of these wonderful people as I will continue to do when discussing the success of the project. I would hope a couple of extra categories could be added by festivals with little cost so that we may nominate these wonderfully talented but rarely recognised crew members.
How was the film received so far?
I have had to quickly learn everything that a project will require for entering into festivals which was a steep learning curve. I found the film festival platform of FilmFreeway an absolute saviour when it came to researching, selecting and hosting our project. I can’t thank them enough and they even responded to my suggestions as a first time user which shows an investment to make it better by the creators. We have had a fantastic festival run to date and while not every festival we entered selected our short, we have an idea of what the festival was looking for when we see what projects were selected so we can target our festival budget next time.
I never imagined that the response to my first film would be so amazing and it’s now made me anxious on how to follow up on the positivity of my first film. I guess it’s good to have a benchmark to aim for and go beyond.
You're obviously on the right track! What advice would you give to our readers who aspired to follow in your footsteps?
My experience on set prepared me somewhat to witnessing some of the challenges all indie productions will face when it comes time to shoot. I would always suggest helping out on other films with a similar budget, cast and crew size, or complex stories or multiple locations to see how others plan and execute their films. I think giving your time to observe and learn is a great investment in yourself before you ask for and potentially squander other people’s money making a film that had little or no planning, especially if this is your first time.
This was my first time as the Director so I made sure I had a very experienced 1st AD and cinematographer to ensure we stayed on time and got the most from each scene and we got some variances in stylistic shots. Both brought all their knowledge from their collective past experiences with them so they can educate me and spare me wasting time on things that hadn’t worked on past productions. I will be forever indebted to both Peter Dunlop and Derek Abel, each were invested in my project and wanted it to succeed and just didn’t see it as another paid job to show up and put in and go home. These two guys, as was the case with the rest of the cast and crew, all wanted the best possible result and while I made some mistakes as a first timer, I cannot fault the work of our film family.
My dot points for others thinking of joining me in the asylum are:
• Observe others and what worked or didn’t work for them.
• Network the hell out of every opportunity if not for now but somewhere later down the line.
• Learn from your mistakes, they are part of the process, there is always something of value to be drawn out of these no matter how small so look hard at the lesson being taught.
• Always try something that may come to you when it’s economical to do so, look for ways to build these opportunities into your production and stretch your skills.
• Gather seasoned crew members around you in key roles, listen to them and be smart in knowing they speak from witnessing too many amateurs unable to listen, collaborate or compromise – don’t be that person or else why hire them only to ignore their advice and experience (much more than yours typically).
• Offer opportunities when able or allow people to observe without compromising the project. Being on set and seeing how things operate is better than any book or video.
• Get the project finished and be at ease with the result. Don’t get looked into a self-doubt spiral as a wise editor told me once.
• Keep writing, something is better than nothing and never be afraid to collaborate with others.
• Aim higher and work harder than the next person, else be content going nowhere.
Who is one actress and one actor you'd like to work with in the future? And why?
Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. Both can assume so many different characters and own their roles with apparent ease after giving themselves entirely to the mastery of their craft. I would have loved to have been in a position to have been able to contribute in some small way with Mad Max: Fury Road but I hadn’t completed all the hard work at that point but maybe one day…
What are you currently working on?
I shot a gritty love triangle which was around 70% completed before the pandemic impacted upon our plans to film interior scenes but we are hoping to finish it later this year. I am excited to bring this to audiences as I believe it will highlight my growth as a Director since Black Heart Red Hands. I am shooting a small psychological horror shortly with a very small and local cast and crew which fingers crossed will be ready before the end of the year. I have a feature set in the outback and a short sci-fi film both of which I had pencilled in for the end of the year but looks like that is at the mercy of the pandemic too. Next year I will be adapting one of Stephen King’s short stories into a short film that I was given permission to make and looking forward to putting my creative eye across Mr King’s great work in a new and exciting setting.
I also collaborated on a number of feature scripts, currently in competition, that I am seeking in funding assistance or making them available for option and each have received awards or interest, so promising news there potentially.
Is there anything you wish to add or someone you wish to thank?
I would like to make a shout out to all those that scoffed at my ideas and my lack of formal film training, those that commented on my lack of visible experience and those who refused to believe in my long term plans to become a filmmaker. They ignited the fire that drove me onwards and made my resolve stronger than ever to succeed. If it was easy then everyone would be an indie filmmaker hence why not everyone is. Some expect quick results and while some may get these, they are in the minority. It’s taken me just under nine years to get where I am in the world of filmmaking and I feel like I have only just started with so much more to do and learn. I am thankful I didn’t quit and persevered when so many others left with regrets and I am humbled by the audiences and individuals who support me in my work. Thank you.