Face to Face is a powerful and compelling Australian drama based almost entirely in a single setting: a mediation room in which a group of irate colleagues air their grievances. Adapted by Queen of the Damned director Michael Rymer from a David Williamson play, the film is an expertly told gab-fest that cleverly realigns the audience’s moral perspectives as the story unfolds (you can read my review here).

Shortly before Face to Face’s theatrical release I sat down for a chat with Rymer. Melbourne audiences can attend a Q&A screening with Rymer, Sigrid Thornton, Vince Colosimo and the rest of the cast at the Classic Elsternwick and Cameo Belgrave on September 8. The film opens nationally the same day.

Firstly, congratulations on the film. I saw Face to Face in the middle of the Melbourne International Film Festival and it was a highlight for me. Not just for the festival ,but for the year so far.

I appreciate that. It was a fun one to do and it was nice that it worked out. Some of them don’t. It was done with love and I feel like it shows.

For me the great thing about the film’s screenplay — the part that really sold me — is that it took a simple no brainer situation: a man beats up a couple of colleagues, he gets fired, he doesn’t deserve his job back. Then as the story pans out you flesh out the grey areas and add perspective and the audience is challenged to comprehend other variables while their moral parameters shift. That’s the element that really won me over.  What about you?

That’s exactly it. People say was it the subject matter? No. Conflict resolution is actually not high on my list of exciting subjects. I picked up the play. I started to read it and thought “I don’t know if I am going to be interested in these people.” But ten pages in I was hooked and by the end I cared deeply about every character and what happened to them. There is a series of very well executed surprises and it’s really good storytelling that catches the audience off guard. The heavy lifting was done by David Williamson. I read it and thought “this is a movie. This is a great story.” I wasn’t too worried about it being too static or claustrophobic because I sort of knew how to get my way through long, long dialogue scenes. I had a few tricks to keep it interesting.

Given Face to Face is so contained in a physical sense, there was a real emphasis on sustaining the pace and tempo of the film through dialogue, through the bounciness of the performances, and so forth. What was it like on set? Did you use any particular techniques to keep that rhythm alive?

The technology made it possible to shoot very quickly. Normally during a movie you take on two to four pages a day and a good chunk of that time is spent realigning the set from other angles. Because the Canon cameras we used are so fast, and so able to shoot low light levels we had a really good location — big windows on both sides, the bar at trades hall, which has a lot of texture — so we were able to keep moving very quickly in a way that you couldn’t otherwise. You have to give credit to these cameras, which made that possible.

Having said that, with such a limited amount of time and a whirlwind shoot of 12 days did you ever think whoa – we’re going too fast?

No. I was always trying to get ahead. Every day there was a negotiation with the cast. The trouble with shooting in order is that the first scene people see is the first scene you film. In a perfect world you would shoot the beginning of the film when everyone is really warmed up and peaky. So I was always trying to get ahead to buy myself a day. I’d say “let’s do 15 pages” and the cast would throw up their hands and say “are you crazy? You can’t expect us to do that!” I’d go “OK OK let’s do 12 pages.” We’d negotiate. And then on the day I’d never call “cut” so they’d keep going anyway (laughs).

That’s the wrong way around! Isn’t it usually the director who says “slow down, let’s do it again!”

I think with such an intense dialogue piece you want to keep it moving. You want to keep the energy. In general everybody wants to go slower and darker. I said let’s keep the energy up, you don’t have to sell anything, let the story tell itself and trust that we’ll get your reaction on camera. And to a large extent they did that. We actually slowed down the rhythmn a little bit in the editing room. I’d rather do it that way than have to tighten up any performance that is dragging. The only scary part about it was that there was no buffer. There was no margin for error. Getting ten actors to show up in a room every day was the hardest thing we had to deal with.

The most controversial cast member you have is Matthew Newton. How did he become involved with the project?

We were looking for someone to play the facilitator. I’d worked with Matthew Newton on Queen of the Damned so we had a relationship. When we shot Queen of the Damned I said that I owed him a proper part, because the part that he played got pretty mutilated as we were shooting and wasn’t terribly well written. So this was the pay off.

Matthew was bringing so much intelligence in his eyes and his reactions, he became sort of a chorus for me. When I wanted to know how I felt about a particular revelation or reaction or moment I’d cut to him and he became the sort of subtextual guide for the audience.

Newton, like the rest of the cast, does a really good job. I know I’m not the first person to pick up on this but there is a bit of an irony with him being cast as a domestic violence mediator, isn’t there? I assume none of his off screen baggage factored into your decision to cast him. Is that right?

Matthew is a complete professional and as I was saying made a lot out of very little. On paper Jack doesn’t look like a very interesting role at all. He embraced it and brought it to life. Matthew brings an edge with him into the room, partly because of the personal stuff. Giving that character, the social worker, the facilitator who is nurturing everybody along, a little more edge actually I thought worked very well.

When Face to Face was in post production, David Williamson’s latest play Don Parties On came out and generated a large amount of negative reviews. Given Face to Face is based on a Williamson play, did that have any bearing on you?

In January this year we were preparing to go to Santa Barbara film festival and someone at The Age wanted to do a story on me before I left. They called to say that David was in town for the opening of Don Parties On. So he ended up joining me and it was exactly the day the abuse began. It didn’t have any impact on the filming, for sure, or anything really. David is a very tall poppy in this country so he gets attacked quite often. He’s a bit of a target. The only pity to me is that David Williamson is, in my opinion, our most preeminent playwright. No one touches him by a long way. I said to him “in twenty years history will bear you out. Nobody will remember what some snide critic said.” David is very prolific. I think he’s realistic enough to know that you win some, you lose some. Some are going to work better than others.

What sort of release is Face to Face getting? How did you go in terms of securing screens and the like?

We had shown earlier versions of the film to some of the distributors and we didn’t get a terribly position reaction. We had some offers, we had a plan, we were going to move forward. Then we premiered the film at the Melbourne International Film Festival and screened it at Dungog as a sort of private preview. The reaction was so ecstatic that the founders, Stravros and Alana, who run Dungog and are also distributors without the Australian Film Syndicate said hey, we love this film, we’ll distribute it. They happened to have a hole in their schedule. This all happened very quickly in the last two to three months. I really agreed with their strategy, which was basically not spend too much money, not go too wide, get some good support with positive reviews and feature stories and whatever we could accomplish. To try and hold the screens and keep this screen averages up as high as we could. If you can hold the screens, then the film has a chance for the word of mouth to actually kick in.

I had the opposite experience with Angel Baby, which had better reviews and more awards than anything I’ve done since but it didn’t translate because there were too many theatres. There were multiplex theatres at Chadstone that were empty while everybody was watching Dark Knight. But if you open judiciously, with what they call a platform release, if you can keep the screen averages high that encourages exhibitors to hold the screens, and there’s the hope it can snowball. We don’t have a lot of money to throw at the film with TV ads and newspaper ads, and I think we’re all a little bit cynical about their value anyway.

You’ve certainly made this film outside of traditional mechanisms but of course you’ll be vying for screen time in a difficult filmindustry. What are your thoughts about the way you’ve made this film and the market it will fall into?

The way we raised the money and the way we’re doing this whole thing, we’ve shaken a few things up. If it works I’ll be encouraged to raise more private finances. I think others will too. If more films like Red Dog come out, more Australians will start trusting Australian films again. We’ve made enough films to make the Australian public pretty wary about how they spend their entertainment dollars and time. It’s just a matter of making better movies.