An Interview with Sam Voutas – By David Stephenson

 Firstly, could you tell us a little about yourself for our readers?

I was born in Canberra, but really call Melbourne home. My folks shipped me off with them to Manila when I was a boy, and from there we moved to Taiwan, then to Beijing. About every three years I’d return to Australia for more schooling. Growing up overseas you really get used to being the outsider, so I guess it’s natural that I’d have a knee-jerk reaction against fitting into things. Ever since I was small I was always drawing cartoons, performing in front of class, and day-dreaming. I think what I do now is just an extension of that same drive.

What got you involved in this whole film-making lark? Any particular influences / people who helped you along the way?

I went into uni, at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, keen to major in theatre. I was studying two traditions in first year, Japanese and modern European. But I wasn’t really enjoying the performances and found myself going outside of the school and searching for acting roles in student films. But I couldn’t land the roles! I think I got one role that I auditioned for at my entire time at uni, and when I finally saw that one they’d accidentally had the flashing "low battery" light recorded to the final print! I reckoned that I could make a better film and act in it as well. Or at least I knew how to prevent the low battery light from recording onto the final print!  So I started enrolling in more and more film classes. At that point, I met Jim McElroy, an American editor who had worked on "The Golden Girls", "Fame", and a bunch of other classic TV shows. He really encouraged me to just go out and do it. His philosophy is that hands-on is the best way to learn.

Is there anyone out there on the scene today who particularly inspired you into this line of work? Or perhaps there’s any unknowns you’d like to recommend our readers keep an eye out for the future?

If I go way back to when I was a kid and then a teen, I’d have to say two comedians: Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. And Jim Henson, all those guys just possess enormous imaginations. In university the guys I got a real kick out of were Salvador Dali and Alfred Jarry, this wild absurdist playwrite with a tendency to carry loaded firearms to theatre events. In terms of up and comers, I’m currently getting loads of inspiration from the web series "We Need Girlfriends", a great job done by some guys in Brooklyn. It’s well written and well acted, and that’s the toughest bit to achieve, budget or no budget.

I recently saw a flim called Crash Test which you directed – could you tell our readers a bit about this film?

"Crash Test" was a very small, guerrilla DV production that I shot in Australia when I was 23. Even though the script, which involves multiple car crashes, demanded a budget, I was extremely restless and itching to just go out there and tell a story. The film was really a bit of an experiment in itself. Will we crash and burn or will this work as a film? Of course, some people say the film’s a car wreck, while others like it, often for the same reasons that other people hate it.

Is Crash Test available to buy / stream / download anywhere? How can our readers get their hands on a copy?

"Crash Test" is available at Netflix as well as a whole range of retailers, ranging from Amazon, Barnes & Noble to MTV Online. At the moment there’s only the NTSC version from our distributor SRS Cinema.However, it appears someone naughty has got their hands on a copy from our Chinese pay-per-view release and put it online (you may have to read Chinese to see this):  http://v.baidu.com/dtl.php?mvid=78208

For a detailed list of who officially stocks it just go to:
http://www.crashtestmovie.com/buy.htm

What was your motivation to make this film? What exactly gave you the idea of human crash test dummies?

The grain of the idea was very simple. I passed by an art store and saw a marionette in the window. It looked a bit like a crash test dummy to me, so I thought, why not? At the time I was hugely influenced by the "Tetsuo" films by Shinya Tsukamoto, films of style over substance in which you’re no longer really sure where the protagonist begins and where the machine ends. I really like absurdity, and to have a character who’s life is to repeat an action, in this case a car crash against a wall, over and over again, well, just when do you say enough is enough? Just when does such a crazy action seem mundane? It’s sort of a twisted Sisyphus tale now that I look back on it.

In Crash Test you play a normal guy who gets surgically transformed into a living mannequin. How does someone prepare for a role like that?

Sounds ridiculous, but the hardest preparation was learning how to run towards and jump into walls. That’s how the dummy prepares with the concept of collision before the actual car tests. We all have an innate sense to protect one’s self, so I’d find myself trying to hold back just before hitting the wall! That’s why we put in the scenes where he jumps at mattresses first for practice. In the end we got some good takes, though I did take a few knocks. Had a massive cartoon-style bump on my head for a while there.

There’s a lot of underlying themes going on in the film – is there a singular message that this film tires to portray? Any warnings for the future perhaps?

I put a lot of my Philosphy 101 learnings into this film. One of the big messages is that humans are lulled into an illusion that the world is safe, when it is actually anything but. We think, well maybe it’s not safe for that guy over there, or for the people in the news, but for me I’m safe, because I live in a logical world, I’ll be alright. It sort of harks back to Sartre in that the world is absurd, and we are all in denial. I guess there’s also my innate suspicion of monolith corporations in there too.

In this film you both star and direct – do you find it more difficult to perform in more than one role? And which of the two would you prefer?

Having directed and acted in this one, I’d have to say the performance certainly suffered as a result of all the energy that simply goes into directing. There’ll always be things that I wish I could go back on. I reckon filmmaking is really a learning experience. You make one, see the parts where you screwed up, make another one. I don’t believe in all this he or she’s born-a-filmmaker stuff, give a holy baby a camera and it’ll make "8 1/2".

As to which role do I prefer? Depends on the project, and most importantly the character. I think bad guys, or supporting characters, the kind say Steve Buscemi plays, are far more interesting than the leading man roles. There’s much more room to maneuver outside of the mold, and just play with expectations really.

The film is shot entirely in black and white – what were your reasons for choosing this path?

"Crash Test" is based on a short film I made in 1999 that was shot on black and white 16mm. That film was even more low-budget than this one. One day I put the film canister in my backpack and went and did my chores around the city. When I got back to the steenbeck I found the whole print was all scratched up. Every frame had marks. Great! That really made the film look gritty! I thought it looked like I’d put the actual film canister through a car crash, and I really liked that idea. I wanted to emulate that in the feature by taking away most of the colours, trying to make it look as dirty as one can when working digital.


 There’s a few scenes in the movie where you strip the colours down to pure black and white (kind of like the effects in Sin City) – how did you create such striking effects, especially on a limited budget?

Glad you liked the effects. But they really are super simple. I just de-saturated the colour in post, so that only five percent of colour leaks into the frame. I found pure black and white just too boring, I wanted colour so subtle that sometimes you’re not even sure it’s there.

As with all indie cinema, raising the cash to finance a movie must have been hard work – how did you go about this, and what advice would you have for anyone else wanting to embark upon such a journey.

As "Crash Test" was such a tiny production, I didn’t even bother with finding funding and just funded it myself. It really didn’t cost much at all. Most of the money went into getting the music rights for the film, and that was on the back-end. On "Shanghai Bride", a documentary, we raised half of the cash through a large festival pitching competition, while on a new project we’re working on, a television station is buying the broadcast rights which has gotten the ball rolling. Keep an open mind. If you can get stuff in-kind, that will bring your budget down. Ultimately getting financing is a thing of experience, starting’s the hardest part. So once you’ve started and gotten rejected by 100 companies, at least you know that it just gets better from there.

Crash Test received quite a lot of underground critical attention – do you find this new acclaim has changed things at all? Is it easier, for instance, to get films funded, or to get juicy roles?

"Crash Test" was interesting in that it was the most successful festival film I’ve had, and it’s done the best with the indie critics. That said a lot of the public think it’s pure and utter crap. I think a lot of people might be expecting something more like a Hollywood film, definitely not a contemplative non-linear DV film. Regarding acting, now that I’ve got a few feature film roles under my belt, and especially television stuff, it’s easier and easier to actually get to the auditions. Getting the role is another thing altogether.


Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What’s the future look like for Sam Voutas?

A few years ago I made the decision that it was, under the current climate, just too tough to go on trying to make it in film in Australia. I wasn’t really progressing. So I sold most of my possessions and used the cash to fly to China, where I’d spent many years growing up. China is a really bustling, unpredictable place at the moment, everybody’s got a plan and everybody’s optimistic. So you get the sense of possibility and market force, two things I felt were lacking in Australia. For people like me it’s the new wild west. So my future I think is definitely Asia-focused. I’m doing fewer films in English, more in Mandarin, and slowly learning about how Asian films are financed and distributed.

What made you choose China, rather than more traditional movie-holes like (dare I say it?) Hollywood? What’s China got that other places don’t?

Well, don’t get me wrong, I did consider giving LA a go. But deep down I had to think, over there, what makes me different than the next guy getting off the greyhound looking to break in? I didn’t really want to be a waiter with an acting problem either. So I thought about China, which is the new wild west in my books. China’s this massive part of the world that’s in the process of opening up, transforming, trying to settle it’s feet. So in terms of the entertainment biz, it’s a very exciting game of "what on earth am I going to be doing tomorrow"? The fact that I first went here to live in the mid 80’s didn’t hurt the move either. I know the place from way back so it’s familiar territory.

What have been the reactions to your work in China? Is it any easier to break into the business over there?

In regards to breaking in, the fact that I can speak alright Chinese is pretty key. And to be honest I’m no linguist, I’m always chugging away at learning it. I reckon without the language this place could very much feel like a void, a sort of transit stopover, in which you lose yourself for a few years before waking up with a hangover. As an Australian, obviously we’re coming to terms with a new-self identity, Australia as Asia as it were, and I think me moving over here was very much a part of that transition, as in realizing that as an Aussie perhaps I should focus on filmmaking in my region, instead of, say, Hollywood as you said. Now Bollywood, that’s not so far away from here either!

Have you noticed a big difference in the way films are made / work is done over there? Can we expect to see any Chinese influences in your future films or performances?

There’s a huge difference between the way Chinese crews and Western crews operate. For the Chinese crew, there’s no mandatory day off, no 10-hour day, these guys just push it like you wouldn’t believe. But the grips are really gung-ho young guys, with dreams of their own of one day directing. For them, this is like going to LA. Also here, you need 100 extras for today’s shoot, no problem, just call an hour in advance and it can be arranged. Crazy stuff. Yeah, I think my future projects will definitely be sinocentric, and more and more of the roles I’m getting to play I’m doing in Mandarin.


You worked on a film we reviewed here at Rogue Cinema – ‘Watch Me.’ Why not tell our readers a little about that one?

"Watch Me" is a project I’m very excited about and have been behind since the get-go. It’s an indie Aussie horror feature with lots of Asian elements. It was my first chance to bat as producer and has been doing well on the horror fest circuit. I’m really looking forward to when it gets a DVD release and can get seen by even more people!

How did you get involved with that project? I noticed (as with Crash Test) this is another collaboration with Melanie Ansley / Scopofile Films. Can we expect more from this partnership in the future?

Yeah, Melanie and I really work well together, and we’re both the type of people that when we work with a team that works, we stick to it. We were all part of a group that formed the Melbourne indie street film press Scopofile in Melbourne years back. You’ll also find that a lot of the names that are in "Crash Test" are in "Watch Me", and so on. This year I’ve really been flat out with the acting thing, there’s a show on the movie channel here that’s up and running "Laowai Lai Le", and Melanie’s been working on loads of shows for the networks, NBC, Discovery, so on. We’ve discussed a number of projects, pretty much all of which I feel have to be made in some form or another!

You starred in and wrote that one – what were your influences? Is this one where Asian cinema came into play?

Other than the obvious headnods, I’d have to say Takashi Miike’s "Audition" played a part, just in regards to unique perceptions of good and evil, and plot twists that only Miike is capable of. Certainly "Audition"’s torture element played into the Taku role of th
film dealer. I think Melanie and I were really trying to take the J-horror style plot and twist it up, make it more unpredictable. Thus the sudden re-emergence of Taku after you think he’s gone from the movie, and all the games he plays.

 You played a porno connoisseur with some rather… interesting tastes. Could you tell our readers more? What preparation does an actor do for a role like that anyway?

Well, I looked at it more like how a drug dealer operates. For a dealer, this is a cold business, you don’t want to get too involved with the merchandise because you never want to lose control. So I looked at Taku very much as a guy who knows what sells to the university crowd, and just goes out there and sells it, no scruples. I thought he was a fascinating character in terms of morality. Most people would probably look at this guy and look down at him, but he’s got his stuff together, and most of all he’s totally honest with himself. He doesn’t have to go shyly knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the night to get his fix.

I read someplace that you’ve been working on CultureLink’s Dragon Sons, Phoenix Daughters – could you tell us a little more about this? When and where can we catch a glimpse of this?

Working with Culturelink Media was an experience. I wish them the best of luck on all their projects in the future. As for the film, I’m not sure when it will gain a wide release as the company is handling decisions on that front. I’ll just leave it at that.

I hear you also have just finished work on a film called Foreign Devils – what’s all that about, and when/where can we expect to see it?

"Foreign Devils" was a great ride. It’s an indie US feature that was shot entirely in Beijing this year. In a nutshell, it’s about two friends and their last day in the city. A sort of "Before Sunset" only with buddies. I play the American friend, a student who’s arrived in Asia haphazardly and lost his purpose. He’s stayed so long he doesn’t want to go back, and he doesn’t want any of his friends to go back either. It’s a great story about foreigners in a strange land behaving badly, thinking they know everything, when really they’re just a cocky bunch in various states of denial!

Finally, there’s a lot of budding film-makers and actors who read this site. What advice would you pass on to the masses, based on your own experiences?

First of all, it hasn’t all been done. That’s just something people say when they’ve run out of ideas. But even if you’re doing a genre or story that has been done, what you bring to the table will always be different. You’ll always have your own point of view based on your up-bringing, preferences etc. So don’t pay attention to the people who say you can’t do something, because those are the same people who set the rules. And who the hell likes rules anyway? Only the people who make them.