Australian filmmaker Charles Williams has won the coveted Palme d’Or top prize in the short film category at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival, with his 13-minute drama All These Creatures.
The film was selected from 3,943 entries submitted to the short film competition and won the top honour; arguably the highest achievement next to a Short Film Academy Award – for a new director.
The short film jury was presided by Bertrand Bonello (Saint Laurent, Tiresia, House of Tolerance) who commented on his role to Deadline, “What do we expect from young people, unknown filmmakers and early films? Let them shake us up, let them make us look at what we’re unable to see, let them enjoy the freedom, the sharpness, the recklessness, and the daring that we sometimes no longer possess.”
I AM FILM interviewed Williams about his critically acclaimed short film and what’s next; after his celebrated win at this year’s star-studded event.
You have just won the highest honour in filmmaking for a short filmmaker: the Palme d’Or Short Film Prize. Can you describe how that feels?
CW: The experience of being in Cannes, especially with the selectors who were the first audience for the film (they were the first people who had seen the film that hadn’t worked on it); their impression of the film was so accurate to what I was trying to communicate—it humbled me that they cared so much. So, my peak level of enjoyment was already hit.
Everything that has happened after that is going to take a while to process. I know the world thinks this is a big deal. For me personally, it’s an even bigger deal, because I care a lot about the festival. I care a lot about the history of the filmmakers they supported.
What is your short film All These Creatures about?
CW: Generally, I try to think about it as how we try to understand our parents as we get older and how we try to understand their impact on us; regardless of how good or bad that was. This attempt to separate the myths of them that we grew up with; to see them compassionately or humanise them is kind of essential. If you have a parent that is violent, or destructive, or damaging—it’s even more important.
You have to quarantine yourself from the damage that they caused you. And I’m not talking about forgiveness, you know, “Oh, they did their best.” I mean, seeing them compassionately, and seeing them—in their totality—so that you see the person, rather than this kind of mythic, ghost-like entity that caused harm.
Maybe they’re mentally ill, maybe they've damaged themselves. These were the sorts of things that I was consumed by growing up. What kind person am I going to become? You think, “One day, maybe, I’m going to grow up and be this other person.” It was something I was very obsessed with when I was a teenager, and it never went away.
When I found out the news about Cannes, (during) the same week, I found out my brother was going back to prison, and it sort of brought back the subject matter to me again. It’s important that he goes back to prison. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t. He’s done a lot of harm; to me, to everyone. But how much personal blame do we level at someone for their actions? What mitigates that (their upbringing, addictions, chemistry)?
I also think we like to tell ourselves this story that we are more in control of all of our actions than we are. How much can we pat ourselves on the back for things that never attracted us in the first place? That was something I thought about, when the film got accepted.
What lead you to want to tell this specific story?
CW: Just generally, if you have a volatile or violent parent, that leaves a kind of impression that you have to reckon with as you grow older. The only healthy way, I think, is to see them as full people; to understand them, and to not be so self-focused.
And not just parental. If someone has caused you damage, physical or emotional or whatever, it’s important not to just think of yourself and the damage, but to consider, “Who were they?” I don’t mean that it’s all ok or that you automatically forgive, because at the time, when you’re down the barrel of it, what’s the difference? And that’s why the film went from a very elliptical, philosophical story into something more in the moment.
Because there’s two sides: you can’t judge and you don’t know the full circumstances of someone’s brain chemistry and their choices, and then there’s the other side that, even so, you still need to get out of the way.
The lead in the film Yared Scott was born in Ethiopia. What was the reason behind telling the story of an Ethiopian character?
CW: I knew that I needed a lot of very difficult-to-find innate qualities in this lead character. They had to be pre-adolescent and have an important mix of innocence and immaturity—so you could feel them naive in the moment—but you could also feel they were the person wisely narrating the story.
We needed someone who was compelling to watch, think, and react. And that’s very hard to find in a 12-year-old. In order to give myself the right room to move, I thought, “Why would I just make it a white boy?” It didn’t make any sense. I knew I could rewrite the story around the right soul. I looked through around 400 kids; girls, boys, (from) any background. Once I settled on Yared, I was like: “This is the world that this film is going to take place in and I’ll adapt it to this world.”
It had to acknowledge it and it had to talk about it; in the same way you would whatever their background was. So, I brought on four local Ethiopian-Australian advisors who thought the script—as it was—was especially written about Ethiopian Australians.
When I told them it wasn’t, they were like, “No, this is so Ethiopian-Australian; the way they don’t talk about these issues, and the way that they talk to the priest and not the police officers.” Sometimes, when you speak very personally about some issues: they’re universal. I knew I was onto something when I got that reaction – that they had already felt a personal connection.
When you were writing it, did you have a visualisation of what the character would look like?
CW: I don’t think so, no. It was like a dream. I knew the nature of the person whose layers kept changing. I knew I needed a presence that was very—like a really, really, strong presence, that would hold the screen. I thought, “It can be a mother-daughter story, or it could be a father-daughter story.” I would have just changed the dynamic and the voice-over, and made it slightly different. This was a film where the casting was more important, than the specific details of the script.
That’s amazing. So, you allowed the story to happen based on who showed up during casting?
CW: I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Most of the time, I go into a casting and they ask, “How do they look and how tall are they?” And these things don’t really matter. You just need the right dynamic.
What would you say is unique about your creative process?
CW: I went through a process where I worked the actors a lot in advance; to work on their back stories and to make sure they clicked already. For example, I had Mandela and Helen (who plays the mother in the film), write love letters to each other, for a month before the filming. I felt that it was important that they explore the side of the relationship, before it fell apart. Like, why were these people together in the first place?
And then, you get on set, and it makes a huge difference. It changes the production design. It changes the wardrobe. It changes the way she’s going to react to him and not react to him.
The first half of the film are like memories. They’re not the dramatic incidents. In my memories, I tend to remember the pieces around a dramatic incident; not the actual ‘scene’ of the incident. So, you have the dad in the car, you have the dad on the couch or whatever, and for me, they were moments after a traditionally dramatic scene. I would write these scenes that we would perform on set.
We’d have this whole scene where the father was saying something to the mother and it was a more traditional dramatic scene. And then, as soon as the scene was over, we’d roll cameras. There were these moments after the scene, where you catch the residue of the drama, rather than the traditional dramatic element.
Mandela was crying his eyes out for half the shoot and we didn’t record any of it. We’d get up to these moments where we’d record emotional states and you know, he was the crying, and then, I would direct him to contain it and then call, “Action,” and he was exhausted. I just don’t think you can roll action and put people in a scene and go, “Ok, now it’s happening.”
I think, depending on the film, it’s important to have a process where, you’re not seeing the full story.
This is not your first film. You won your first award in 2002 for your Tropfest short I can’t get started and you’ve received multiple honours for your other short films. How did you get your first break in the industry? Has it been easy or hard?
CW: I grew up from a background where I didn’t know anyone in the film industry and we were broke. So, film was pretty out of the realm of what you would think was possible. But I was really obsessed with movies and my mother was like crazy-obsessed with movies and so, it’s just something I was going to try to have to do.
I am only now happy to talk about my upbringing, to some extent, in films. One, because it’s too much for a short film, and two, because you’re kind of ashamed of it all and you don’t really want to be that guy. You want to be like the rich kids. Unfortunately, you see them making these stories, that feel like poverty-porn, but they have no idea what that world is like, and you feel at least a little bit of responsibility to portray that world accurately.
It’s taken me a long time, since 2002, because it has a lot to do with having no safety net and no support.
So, I was broke and you say, “I’ve got to survive,” and then you have some more bad luck. The difference between having a little bit of support and financial background and none—is a lot. You can literally lose years off your life and you’ve got to dig your way out. So, that’s been most of my life, since I broke in.
If you could paint an ideal picture of your future in film, what does it look like?
CW: I want to live up to the Palme d’Or. I think of all this great stuff that has happened with Cannes and the response I’ve had; particularly person-to-person with the jury, and with the selectors. They spoke to me a lot about the film and I think there’s a sense that there’s only one of these that happen every year, and you know, they don’t want to be disappointed. They didn’t say this to me literally, but, it’s not an award just for the short film. It’s like an opportunity and then you don’t want to let them down. So, for me, the perfect thing is that I make a film that lives up to the opportunity that they’ve given me.
What projects do you have coming up?
CW: I have these two features that I’ve been developing and one is clearly the one that I want to do first, because the other one is too big. What it looks like for me is: making a film that continues to deal with my own feelings on some level, but also combine it with a great experience for an audience.
Any specific genres?
CW: I think for me, the thing that I’m attracted to is crime-related stories. I kind of grew up with it; with some kind of level of criminality around me. There’s a nature to people in that world, that I understand very well. Pretty "Working class" kind of nature.
I remember seeing Goodfellas, when I was maybe 13, on TV. I remember seeing a scene from it. It wasn’t violent scene. But, the way the people behaved in the film blew my mind. I’d been watching musicals all my life, because that’s all we were allowed to watch. I was like, “What the hell is this?”. It was like it was happening in reality. It wasn’t big scenes. It wasn’t violent. It was just like you believed what the hell they were saying to each other and it was not unlike my own life—the way the characters behaved—the way they spoke to each other.
I say “Working class”, but, what I mean is; people who don’t come from education. People who are very direct and aggressive. I don’t think I was the same after seeing that film. It made me want to see a lot more films and maybe a lot less musicals.
I’ve been film-obsessed since I was a kid. But I try now not to use them so much. I just let the film do what it’s going to do. This time I was like, “The movie wants to be whatever it wants to be. I’ll just go along with it and I’ll just listen to the film, instead of dictate my own way.”
What is the most important piece of wisdom that you have learned as a new director?
CW: For myself, it’s like what I said before: just listen to the film. You shouldn’t try to put your needs onto a film or try to put your ego into a film. I think you should just listen to the film and try to be faithful to it and be good to your collaborators.
About the filmmaker
Charles William grew up in a country town in northern Victoria, far from anything connected to filmmaking, except for an obsession with movies. Though his household was largely dependent on government assistance, he found a way to make films with equipment borrowed from the local school and, while still in his teens, won the Best Director award at Tropfest Film Festival. Over the past decade his acclaimed films have screened and won awards at some of the world's most prestigious film festivals including Clermont-Ferrand, SXSW, Telluride, Toronto, MIFF, Flickerfest and Sapporo, and in 2016 he was nominated for Best Short Fiction Film at the AACTA Awards. His latest short film All These Creatures has been selected to premiere in official competition at Cannes Film Festival and he is currently developing feature projects The Buzzard and Inside. His latest short film, All These Creatures won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2018. For further information visit www.charleswilliams.com.au.