Monkey Puzzle is one in a recent slew of technically adept Australian features made completely independently, without a shred of assistance from film financing bodies. It follows the story of a group of young adults who go camping in the Blue Mountains in search of a rare tree but their plans go badly awry, paving the way for an interpersonal drama about getting lost literally and metaphorically. Making the film was a labour of love for debut writer/director Mark Forstmann but also a steep learning curve. Last year Monkey Puzzle had a very limited cinematic release – opening in just two cinemas – but is now widely available to rent and own on DVD. Forstmann sat down for a chat with Cinetology about making and distributing his first feature film.
Before you started making Monkey Puzzle you must have realised how hard it is to make a lasting impression in the Australian film industry. Even if you create a really decent feature there is a good chance very few people will end up seeing it. Did you start production of Monkey Puzzle with this attitude in the back of your mind? Was it discouraging?
I’m an eternal optimist. I knew the facts and figures but I thought I’d go for it because I want to make films. It’s like if you’re trying to write novels. People write many novels and leave them in their bottom drawer. So I think you’ve got to approach filmmaking with the same foolish endeavour, as it were. The other thing is, you can hope for a hit but you can’t expect it. But the film is going well and Monkey Puzzle is doing very well on DVD. It’s also been picked up by Qantas and only two Aussie films were on Qantas in the January/February period as far as I know. There was December Boys and Monkey Puzzle. So for an independent movie to get there – and also for Movie Network (pay TV) to pick it up – I think it’s very good and I think it’s a success.
Monkey Puzzle played in only two cinemas but I know you tried to get it into more. Did you approach all the distributors first, get knock backed, and then crowbar it into a couple of cinemas? Is that how it worked?
We made one mistake which was going to the distributors too early. We went at rough cut stage. We showed the film too early and people couldn’t see through the cracks, so when we had a finished film we couldn’t get back in the door to those distributors. Having said that, Madman saw it and they liked it. They were happy to see it again and then they took it on. I approached a couple of independent cinemas but I can’t really give their names. A couple of them were very impressed but they wanted a distributor and a marketing budget. A lot of them thought Monkey Puzzle was between an art house film and a multiplex film and they thought it warranted probably a 30 or 40 screen release, but they weren’t going to take it on because we had no marketing money and we couldn’t afford the 50 grand or so that was required. So they wouldn’t show the film at these independent cinemas because they thought it was too risky.
Next time, taking into account the lessons you learnt while making and distributing Monkey Puzzle, will you wait until you have a spit polished product before you show it to the distributors? How will you change your approach?
I’d do it two ways. Either go with the script to get money or, failing that, if I was to do another low budget movie I would finish it completely and then go a distributor. It’s interesting you know – if you sell a film like this to international distributors and airlines you can get your budget back, know what I mean? You don’t need a cinema release…for films made for 500 grand or less, with Qantas plus other airlines plus DVD and TV around the world you can get your budget back.
Are you happy to talk about how much the film cost and how you went about raising the money?
It cost 700 grand. I raised it from private individuals.
Everybody knows that Australian films are unlikely to make much money at the box office. How do you convince people that investing in Monkey Puzzle was a good idea?
We raised the money a couple of years ago. It was probably three years ago now, when the economy was really buoyant, so there was spare money. I think we would really struggle now. You sell the hope as opposed to the pragmatic scary story of Australian films…you sell the smell of the barbeque, not the burnt cinders of the sausages.
In regards to the response the film generated, can you name the best and worst responses you received – either from critics or from audiences?
The best response I got was from Rob Lowing from the Sun Herald who thought it was a great debut and scored it highly. I had a couple of bad reviews, or indifferent reviews. Actually I took them a little personality. Well, not exactly personally…as a filmmaker I think you get hyper sensitive to any negative remarks. So I reckon I had reviews ranging from very good to indifferent. I got a good one from Filmink and from Urban Cinefile, they really got it, they liked the sort of mysterious, haunting, provocative qualities of it. The negative reviews, they thought the plot ambled along too much. See, because the film is about getting lost, getting lost is not a black and white thing. It’s an uncertain thing and it’s not an easy plot to transcribe. It’s about losing your way. It’s about threads falling apart, so it’s a tough narrative to embark on.
I understand that when you work really hard on something and you have to face criticism of it, that can be difficult and challenging. However that is par for the course of being a feature filmmaker and filmmakers encounter it from the smallest of films right through to the largest. So in that way I guess the criticism doesn’t discriminate.
Yeah. Critics are tougher on larger films, they’re tougher on well known directors and they’re tougher on the people who are starting out. I’ve had some good reviews, some very good reviews and some very indifferent reviews. I’ve gone OK. I understand that what someone likes somebody else didn’t like and that’s cool…Look, there’s a tonne of things I’d do differently but it’s done. If you’re a filmmaker or a writer or a painter or whatever, the work stands for what it is at the time you made it. You don’t want to be a revisionist and say I would have done this that and the other. There’s no point.
The thing that struck me about the way Monkey Puzzle begins – and I don’t know if I’m the only person who picked up on this – is that the opening act reminded me a lot of horror movies. The characters are on the road, they go to a remote location, they lose the map, there are tensions within the group. Are these similarities with the horror genre coincidental or did you…
No, it was purposeful, but because of that I have received some criticism. Some people expected it to be a horror film. Or they expected it to be a genre film, so when it doesn’t turn into the typical genre film some people feel let down. Others feel quietly pleased. I think it’s like a slow burning suspense film…The interesting thing is, I don’t know how else you would start this type of film. If it’s about friendship and getting lost, how else would you start it? Is the fact that a bunch of people go into the bush code for horror films therefore you just can’t possibly start that way? I dunno. It’s a hard one. Some people who watch a lot of films are looking for all the little codes that tell what genre they’re watching. Other people who don’t watch so many films just take things at face value.
The idea that these so-called genre codes only belong in a certain kind of story is pretty silly, so it’s definitely not a criticism. However the film certainly has some similarities to the horror movie set up and in that case it’s almost like Monkey Puzzle is subverting a genre.
The editor Ken Sallows loved it for that. He thought it was great how it toyed with genre and didn’t go there, but still kept tension the whole way.
The film is based in fairly remote locations in the Blue Mountains. Were you camping during the shoot?
No, but I wanted to. The film was shot in May and it’s damn cold in the Blue Mountains. It’s like zero degrees in the morning. It also could have been very wet. It only rained one day out of the 27 days we were shooting but it could have rained a lot and that would have been a disaster. To get into those canyons, you’ve always got to walk at least half an hour and on two days we had to abseil the entire crew in, which is pretty full on. Thankfully nobody was injured.
Was it difficult to abseil the equipment and everything in there?
Yes it was but everybody was up to it. No one complained and everyone enjoyed it. I think they were all excited by the adventure.
Monkey Puzzle is now available to rent and own on DVD.