Writer/Director Stuart McBratney reflects on some of the daily challenges during the making of Pop-Up.
Pop-Up’s first draft was written in four days in 2008, based on a scene breakdown I had prepared months earlier. Determined to make a film quickly after my first feature Spudmonkey took 8 years to be released, I decided to make something I could fund myself. That decision guided every aspect of the production from conception to completion.
The film is made up of three separate yet interlinked stories. Here’s what inspired each of them:
1. A man finds a camera containing a single photo of a woman’s face. Smitten, he tracks her down.
When I lived in Berlin in 2007 I was signed to a Romanian production company as a director, and I often pitched ideas for music videos. This story was one of my rejected pitches, and for some reason it stuck with me.
2. A woman makes pop-up cards for everyone she knows and hand delivers them.
I used to make pop-up cards for my family as a kid, so I combined this with the idea of an immigrant being sad and alone, and seeking an outlet for her feelings. I also took inspiration from Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes where a girl in Hiroshima believes she can survive radiation sickness with the help of origami.
3. A theatre director seeks deadly revenge on a critic.
A critic rated my first movie Spudmonkey a mere 2 stars out of 5. I now feel this was well-deserved, but at the time I was indignant, so I decided to channel my frustrations onto the page.
To combine these three stories, I had the option to intercut like in Love Actually or Short Cuts, but I felt this might be frustrating - just when the viewer would become immersed a story, it'd shift focus. So instead I opted for the triptych structure used in films like Amores Perros, The Place Beyond the Pines, and The Three Colours trilogy.
To create a linking point between the three movies, I needed a moment for all three characters to be in the same place at the same time. I wanted something kinetic, visually engaging, and which could be achieved on a shoestring budget. I came up with a guy running down a steep street dragging luggage, then colliding with a pedestrian. I felt this would be a striking image, and would be cheaper than blowing up a helicopter.
Pop-Up’s three lead actors all deliver brilliant performances. Here’s how I found them:
The character of Rada was originally to be played by Romanian actress Laura Vasiliu, star of the Palme d’Or winning masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Then the Australian government refused to issue her a Visa. I was extremely disappointed, but almost immediately afterwards Clara Voda was offered a distinguished talent Visa to move to Australia. She was perfect, and better matched to Eugene Gilfedder anyway. Luckily I was able to cast Laura to play Rada’s sister Adela in the Romanian scenes.
Clara brought great warmth and complexity to Rada, creating a welcome answer to the manic pixie dream girls saturating our screens.
When I studied theatre in high school in Brisbane, class excursions took us to the La Boite theatre, where we were all in awe of Eugene Gilfedder’s performances. A few years later, he was my drama teacher at Griffith University, where I attended film school.
A decade-and-a-half later in 2009, I noticed he’d appeared in a play with an actor I’d recently cast in a tv commercial. I re-established contact, sent him the script, and he loved it. 4 years after that, we were filming in Newcastle.
Eugene’s ability to give depth to a character is summed up in the film’s opening shot. Like a scene from a Michael Leunig cartoon, the joyfulness of the kid on Mick’s back belies the struggle wrought to shield her from his woes. His portrayal of Mick is captivating, portraying a complex inner life, and bringing true gravitas to the film.
Greg Powell was the lead role in Spudmonkey. I must’ve had him in mind when writing Neil, because he inhabits the character so perfectly. So when it came time for casting, I didn’t look at anyone else. Greg reminds me a little of Paul Giamatti – they both do comic intensity brilliantly.
One of the best things about working with Greg is the work he puts into developing a character. In the scene where Neil begs his mother for money over lunch, Greg suggested that she list his previous failed business ideas. This resulted in their memorable dialogue about his “decaf café”, “chess boxing club” and his ill-fated attempt at scuba diving in Greece.
Greg's work as a professional musician lends his dialogue a musical rhythm, and his boyish vulnerability provides the perfect counterpoint to his character's frenzy.
No sets were constructed for Pop-Up. With only a meagre budget to cover the entire production, sets were found which already had the necessary elements in place. Additional set dressing was a last resort.
In an early draft, Mick's landlord Barry (Greg Sullivan) was building his art installation from old machinery in their lounge room. This proved impossible without money, so we scaled it back. Instead of him being a sculptor, he became a painter who paints cats, justifying the use of public domain cat pictures to adorn his lounge room wall. We found a bunch of boxes too, which added to the scene without costing a cent.
The frustration of the tenant - feeling his landlord was impinging upon his personal space - remained intact. Like the sheet outside the convenience store in Clerks, the compromise was written into the script.
On one occasion we did use a set – for Neil’s play Metamorphology. In this case, it had already been designed for the Newcastle Theatre Company. Knowing the available set was a ramshackle Berlin apartment on the eve of World War 2, I wrote the Neil’s play sequences accordingly.
Despite being exhausted every night after long shoot days, I still forced myself to storyboard the next day’s scenes before bed. Craving sleep, I kept things simple, which meant we weren’t bogged down by complexity the next day.
I knew that extremely long hours would result in mutiny. We planned to shoot a 12-hour day each day, including a break for lunch. Only on two occasions did we go overtime, and never for more than 30 minutes.
As usual, we had to overcome problems during the shoot, and find creative ways to work around them.
Greg’s phobia of submerging his head under water made his swimming scene a tad challenging, so we put him in the kids’ pool to depict him “floating” instead. He still struggled, but we got the shot.
We had to depict Rada driving around looking for Sam, but Clara can’t drive. So we made a fake steering where on the passenger side and flipped the image.
The production kept to a tight schedule. Without the time nor the temperament to record a large number of takes, we averaged 4 or 5 takes per set-up.
Without permission to shoot, the threat of council interference loomed. Fortunately, the officers don’t seem to work past 5pm, so we faced no resistance during night scenes.
This was not the case, however, during the film’s crucial collision scene, during which we were asked to leave, or I’d be fined. I wonder why?
With a production that stretched to two years, my small budget was not going to last for its entirety. By the time we were filming pick-up shots, I was down to my last few dollars.
At one point, I couldn’t even afford nail polish remover for our hand double during the card making scene. Sometimes I wonder how this thing ever got finished.
Towards the end of the shoot, I’d run out of money, so I couldn't afford catering. A friend at a sushi bar came to the rescue, and I procured their daily leftovers. Again mutiny was avoided. Luckily, so too was salmonella poisoning.
While most feature film productions have a separate director and editor, or even a team of editors, I edited Pop-Up myself. Over 18 months, I battled insufficient processing power, and slowly whittled the footage down to a two-hour rough cut.
Some scenes came together easily, while others required meticulous craftsmanship. The latter often resulted from mistakes – directorial lapses caused by the urgency of on-set decision-making.
Neil's proposal video is a good example of this. When almost no extras turned up to be dancers, I had to recruit half of the crew. They couldn't dance, so the resulting footage was lame. But that turned out to be a good thing as the video was supposed to be inept, having been made by Neil. I made it even worse with cheesy transitions.
Pop-Up's first edit dragged – scenes which felt important at script stage went nowhere. Fellow filmmaker Evan Olman, who plays Richie, suggested I could remove 30 minutes. Initially horrified, I eventually came around. Now down to 90 minutes, it really hums along. I simply had to “kill my darlings”.
In paraphrasing Leonardo Da Vinci, the quote that “a movie is never finished, only abandoned” is typically attributed to George Lucas or David Fincher. This sentiment rings true. A movie is completed at the point where the director concedes that nothing else can be fixed, and that he’ll just need to live with his mistakes.
The edit was eventually finished/abandoned around April 2015, at which point we transitioned into sound mixing.
While a studio film might have a multi-million dollar sound budget, a government-funded Australian film might still have a budget of $250,000 for a sound mix. By the time we were at the sound mixing stage, I had nothing.
Luckily Australia’s version of community college, TAFE, helped out by providing their facilities plus two of their best students. Both were studying sound mixing, and worked many long hours over 4 months to record and mix Pop-Up’s dialogue replacement and foley.
The TAFE guys used Pro Tools, then exported layers for me mix in Final Cut Pro at my University of Newcastle suite. I’m not sure how many features are mixed in FCP, but I loved it. Mixing in 5.1 surround sound is awesome.
In the final stages of mixing, there were jackhammers literally right beneath the suite. We had to raise our voices to speak over it. All I could do was laugh.
As Pop-Up’s composer, I chose fingerpicked guitar as the main style of music, simply because that’s the instrument I can best express myself with. Luckily I didn't play tuba.
I felt, however, that such music was incongruous to a sunny beach setting, as it connotes central Europe, specifically the Balkans. My solution was to write myself into the script as a busker, Hamish, to justify its use. Subsequent usage of the music didn't seem so out-of-place, as a context had been established.
The guitar was recorded during a single session by Aria Award-winning producer Rob Taylor, who was also undertaking a PhD at the University of Newcastle at the time. The music was largely improvised around a few pre-written motifs.
During Neil’s story, I opted to include some electronic music. Most of this was written on my laptop during my weekly trips to Sydney to teach film production at the New York Film Academy. As this music featured multiple tracks, they could be spread around the 5.1 sound map giving a greater sense of space.
The score also incorporated music I had written previously under the Mischief Engine moniker in collaboration with Berlin-based DJ/producer Chopstick. I later remixed one of our tracks, My Oh My, to play during the film’s resolution, just prior to the end credits. The new version incorporated live violin, which was a pleasure to work with.
From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, from the mountains of Transylvania to the beaches of Australia, Pop-Up has been one excellent adventure. As it begins to find its place on the world stage, we're all curious and excited to see what the future holds. And if you enjoy the movie as much as we enjoyed making it – well, you’ll probably be tired and cranky, but having the time of your life.