With a strong reception at the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival, Perry Lam’s latest short feature Tony has proven a strong ambassador of independent Australian filmmaking. Local delights are hard to come by, and this film boasts interesting visuals, promising direction, and polished cinematography. It begs the question: in little-old Australia, with a notoriously difficult film industry, how did Tony‘s filmmaker get to international film festivals and a partnership with a streaming website? I had the opportunity to discuss this with the man himself.
So, Perry, any film student knows the struggles of trying to make a short film in Australia. How did you do it?
Short filmmaking is tough. Well, really all of filmmaking is tough—not just shorts. When it comes to short filmmaking, the most important thing is to make something that people would love to watch. Know your audience so you won’t get disappointed. When I made Tony, I did keep in mind that this was a personal passion piece for me, that I want to share with everyone because I believe so strongly in it.
To get things off the ground, the first thing is—what am I making? Then, logistically, you gotta plan, man. You need to make sure your budget is on point, and you need to pay your cast members. If it’s a volunteer situation, make sure you feed them and pay for their parking, at the very least. It’s all the basic things and making sure that the environment that people work in allows them to present the best work possible. The director’s job isn’t to be right, it’s to make a good film. If someone else has a great idea, it’s their job to take it. That’s what I think a director is—they get everyone together and make sure they do the best work they can do.
In the case of Perry’s crew, their best work presented an atmospheric and personal sci-fi short, with some rather interesting cinematography. I asked Perry about his inspirations for the film, and he discussed with me his fascination with using aspect ratio to tell a story.
What was the first thing that made you think, “Okay, time to make this film”?
I always wanted to use aspect ratio as a storytelling technique without making it gimmicky. I feel like when I was doing the short film, it gave me leeway in allowing more room for experimentation. What I found out about aspect ratio is that you really have to plan ahead before you can shoot anything. Each aspect ratio has different visual considerations—if you look at the 1:1 aspect ratio, everything in the composition is central. 4:3 has some more space but it’s still constrained, and with the widescreen you get to see everything, and you get to really play around with that environment. At the same time, if you are trying to show someone in a really constrained environment, you have more to make up for because it’s not as claustrophobic and tense as the others. When it comes to using the aspect ratio in the way that I did, you need to make a lot of tough judgements. It was a refreshing change to start the film with this technique in mind because it gave us a starting point to what story we could fit in to the different frames.
4:3, also known as the ‘VHS’ ratio, has given the film a ‘retro sci-fi’ vibe, despite the film being set in the future. According to Lam, this was a deliberate choice.
The film has an obvious retro vibe. What is it about the 1980s that is so ‘on trend’ for filmmakers at the moment? Do we feel connected in some way—is history repeating itself?
Really, I always wanted to do a sci-fi film—do something in the ‘80s cyberpunk aesthetic. At the same time, I wanted to make it more modern. I wanted to give it a fresh coat of paint.
In a way, I think the ‘80s, with capitalist economics and the governments of the world, the free market has just evolved to the point where ‘80s films are still relevant today. If anything, it’s more relevant than ever. You look at Blade Runner, you think—this is now, just without the flying cars or Harrison Ford killing robots. However, the living situations, the populated world is something we live in. Everyone is lonely. Society evolved, and capitalism has a more ruthless effect on people. That’s not that it’s purely a bad thing, it’s just our lives are more central to how we work—not how we live. An essential theme in the ‘80s is freedom, and it’s a theme I love to explore. When it comes to Tony, freedom is something that I always picked up on when researching this film. Look at Blade Runner, Terminator, or the Rocky sequels, it’s all about being free. They want to get out of what society thinks they are. The replicants want to be free of their lifespan, Sarah Connor wants to escape from the consequences of the future; I think it’s an idea that has accelerated. Issues of freedom are something that we are always faced with. Look at social media, for example—we have freedom to post, but not freedom of consequences. When it comes to Tony, he works his entire life. He has to press a button every twelve hours. That’s his life, and that’s his job. When he finds out who he is and literally expands his horizons—as shown through the aspect ratio—there are still consequences to the choices he makes.
For a film set in the future, influenced by the past, Lam made it clear that he wanted to tell a very modern tale.
It’s a film about millennials—it’s a story about millennials in society, told in a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic way. Millennials are seen as very replaceable, in a sense. You can be stuck doing the same job—pressing buttons and sending emails from 8–5. It feels like no matter what you do, there’s a sense that it really doesn’t matter because you are still put in your position and, even if you escape, there will always be someone there to replace you.
After speaking with Lam, it was clear he had a passion for the films of his youth, spilling into the making of his own films. Tony, while low-budget and independent, is a film that obviously had a lot of heart poured into each of its frames. Despite not boasting the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Australia is breeding its own kind of filmmakers—people who are experimental and passionate. Our local film industry does not promise success or profit, but as shown through this film, does possess a sense of freedom and exploration. Well, that’s if we are not all replaced first.