Joseph Sims-Dennett: the therapy of Observance

In Joseph Sims-Dennett’s nightmarish Observance, grieving Parker (Lindsay Farris) moves into a dingy apartment to  surveil a woman, Tenneal (Stephanie King), who lives opposite, even as he begins to doubt both the motives of those who have hired him, and his own perceptions. The film is both occult ghost story and psychodrama, in which we’re never quite sure which past that haunts Parker is the more toxic – his own personal tragedy or his employer’s dark history. It is also one of the very best films that I saw last year. Here is a lengthy interview with the polyhyphenate filmmaker when he was about for his film’s screenings at the London Film Festival 2015. Be warned: here be spoilers.

Anton Bitel: What was the impetus for Observance? Where did you get the original idea?

Joseph Sims-Dennett: Josh and I – Josh Zammit, he’s the co-writer and producer on the film – we both worked in TVC [a Sydney-based television commercial production company] before, that’s where we met, and Josh ended up moving into our apartment, just because it was close to the City, and we both found ourselves very unemployed. That was way back at the end of 2012. I’d been pushing to go back to long-form. I really needed to make movies, and I was like, “Look, I’m young enough to be a poor piece of shit again and just follow my dreams.” So I focused on making another project at that point in time, and it just suddenly went under, and I was like, “Man, I really just want to make something, and I feel like time is just passing by.” Then the night that that film had just fallen through, I was falling asleep, and I started getting these visions and ideas, and that was literally just of the lead character Parker – just this man in the darkness, watching a woman across the street through a camera – and just the sense of him doing it, because he has to, he’s been told to, but he doesn’t know why. He’s just sort of monitoring her. And in a way that really was an idea that resonated with Josh and myself, because I told him the next morning, and it kind of became an interesting metaphor for our lives at that point in time: of just aiming and striving for something, but not being able to get there, and just feeling like it was impossible – the power was in everyone else’s hands. And we decided to make a film about those exact things – the powerlessness and paranoia and manipulation – and that is where it all started.

AB: How far did this film meet the vision you had in your head before you made it?

JSD: I think it was pretty close. We hadn’t even really properly finished the script before we went into production – and a lot of it really was made in the edit, and we did go back and shoot more, and then there was stuff to do with the lead character Parker – his son has recently died – and a part of the story was trying to figure out why his son died. And we did have this big sequence that resolved that, and then we didn’t get around to shooting it, I was just like, “Oh, we’ll wait and do it in pickups – because we’ll probably have a weekend where we can get the camera and do pickups.” Well we did in the end, but we ended up changing that into a sequence – the scene where he knocks himself out in the bathroom and then wakes up fishing on the rocks with Charlie [Parker’s brother-in-law, played by Benedict Hardie] – and that was a scene that we had to write after we had shot the original photography. There were a lot of details as well: the plot in the script did resolve the actual mystery all a little bit clearer, and then in the edit it felt too clearcut. You can still figure it all out, it’s all still there – but the overall ending of the film should be more about the feelings of Parker being manipulated and left in that enigmatic space. I found that that was much more meaningful to me. That is something that also differed a lot from the script before we went into principal photography.

The shoot was this fucking nightmare. We kind of ran into it, and it turned into this big shoot, it was way too over-scheduled. We shot it all in 11 days, and it was 11 days straight, we were doing 17-, 18-hour days of shooting, like hour-and-a-half sleep a night. On top of that, it was the biggest heatwave that’s ever happened in Sydney. Inside the apartment it was reaching 55 degrees Centigrade, and so people were sort of swaying in the air, and I was waiting for everyone to start hitting the decks. The strange thing about it is that the shoot did fall into this delirium. We were just trapped in this foggy apartment, just trying to figure out this film, and just trying our very best to get it in the time that we had, with hardly any sleep. We didn’t have a first AD either, we were running the set ourselves, we had a crew of about 10 people. It was just madness, it was the worst shoot I’ve ever done in my life. I think most of the people on that set agreed. But everyone worked really hard together. It created this real strong feeling on the set. It was completely driven by anxiety and a lot of strange – I dunno, that strange place that you go to when you’re just absolutely exhausted, and you think that you’ve fucked up as well, like it’s all been for nothing.

AB: Did that actually in the end become a strength for the film? Did that play into the look and the vibe of the film?

JSD: Yeah it did… it found its way into the tone of the film, you see it in the look of the film, and especially with that sort of burnt light coming through that big window. For a lot of the film with Parker we had six hours every afternoon – there’s a big window in the living room that we shot a lot of the film in, it had this coffee coloured glass on it, it was disgusting, but anyway, for some reason every afternoon we’d get all these hours of this really powerful sunlight, this burnt sunlight coming straight through that window. It was this strange presence, and the feeling of being there on the set, it really did work its way into the fabric of the film. If we had properly designed and scheduled the shoot, I feel like we would have lost out on that. It would have been much more formulaic, and much less of an emotional experience. As hard as it was, I am very grateful for it, and I don’t regret it at all.

AB: This is an Australian film, and your cast is Australian – and yet Observance is set somewhere in America. Why?

JSD: A lot of people do this in Australia, and you get a lot of shit for it. The reason why it was shot with North American accents is because –  this might sound really ridiculous – if it was set in Australia, to me, it would be a very a specific place, and you would lose a lot of that sense of ambiguity as to where they are and what’s happening. Really, it wasn’t a financial decision at all. I wanted it to feel like it could exist anywhere. I mean, a lot of European filmmakers do this – you know, Lars von Trier and a number of others – where it just exists in this kind of collage of western culture, and for me it really did just feel right for this story to exist in that space. And I felt like if it had’ve been Australian – and I love Australian movies, and I will continue to make Australian movies – but with this particular film it felt wrong for it to be in such a specific place. Sydney, or Melbourne, or even if it was like Chicago or San Francisco, it’s like, “What street is this on?” I didn’t want any of that, I wanted it to exist in this ambiguous place.

AB: While the film’s events take place in an anonymous American Anywheresville, the specific address of Parker’s and Tenneal’s apartments is, expressly and rather pointedly, Overlook Street. Parker is from a broken family that consisted of himself, his wife Rachel and their young son William. Is this The Shining relocated and retold from the husband’s point of view?

JSD: I guess that’s sort of a way of seeing it. To be honest, I’ve never thought about that before. I mean, I called it Overlook Street, mainly because I was like, “Yeah, that would be an interesting word and context to place this apartment in.

AB: So you didn’t have The Shining in particular in mind?

JSD: We did watch it when we were writing. But whether it was ever – with this, I was trying not to be too referential, I was trying not to reference anything at all.

AB: But for me, Observance is haunted by allusions to other, much older films – The ShiningRear Window, Polanski’s apartment trilogy, The Conversation, even Un Chien Andalou – even if it ends up doing something different from them. Is filmmaking for you a sort of raising of ghosts? And how, in this stir of echoes, do you do something new, when you’re stitching together stories that have been told many, many times before?

JSD: There is a process to making a film – you have to hit certain beats, it has to be within a certain length of time. Plus we’ve been conditioned for our entire lives as to what a film is. But for me, filmmaking is therapy. It’s me looking really deeply at myself, and trying to figure myself out, and that’s what makes it a meaningful process to me, and makes it as exciting as it is, because you kind of delve into yourself in that way, particularly when you’re writing. That’s why I never want to be directly referencing any kind of film – but there’s movies that I like, and I watch a lot of movies, and I’m really moved by them, I love them. I guess any movie that you’ve seen does filter through you in some way when you’re actually going and making one, and you do find yourself making those sorts of comparisons – like particularly with the sound design in The Conversation and the sound design in Observance. I watched The Conversation in the last couple of months since we went back from the US, and it was like, “Oh yeah, this is pretty similar in a lot of ways.” I mean in terms of the whole surveillance thing, and how terrifying – and misleading – technology can actually be. You feel like you’re not trusting something, and it really is like whether you’re trusting your own interpretation of the information that you’re receiving.

AB: Do you regard Parker or No. 128 Overlook Street as the main character in your film? Or are they indivisible?

JSD: They’re the same, yeah. I don’t like to talk too closely to the metaphors in the film, because I like to leave it to the audience to dream about it themselves.

AB: Oh boy, you’re going to hate my next question, then…

JSD: No, I’ll give it a shot, because I can already tell that you’ve gotten into it, and this is very exciting for me – but yeah it was, they’re indivisible.

AB: Is the rocky coastline that we see in the film’s opening sequences and in several dream sequences afterwards – a coastline buffeted and eroded by endless waves – a metaphor for grief? for depression? for a marriage on the rocks? for madness? Or what? What was your thinking?

JSD: The idea of the dark ocean – that was interesting to me at the beginning. I mean, all that sort of stuff, it draws on so many things. I think for me the whole idea of the dark ocean, and of it bleeding through the walls of the apartment, eventually rising up through him – I mean, he’s throwing it up out of his stomach – is a metaphor for his anxiety building within him. Again, bringing it back to those scenes where he is talking with Charlie, there’s that sense of grief. On the rocks, it’s a very sort of meditative place, and the whole ocean, and the rocks up against each other, it’s just so brutal and harsh – and simple – and him constantly being drawn to that place. But for me it is about him standing on the shores and facing his own anxieties, and it overwhelming him, and again that relating to how Josh and I felt about our lives at that time.


AB: Black bile features in abundance in Observance – seeping down the walls of No. 128, collecting in a jar in protagonist Parker’s temporary bedroom, vomited copiously from Parker’s mouth, and even seen, in a nightmare vision, pouring from the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of Parker’s dead son William. Black bile is also a literal translation of the word ‘melancholy’. Is Observance a film about melancholy?

JSD: Yes, I guess the central theme of it is. You can cover powerlessness, a feeling that you’re being manipulated, and paranoia – it all sort of collects under melancholy and depression. And that metaphor of the black liquid, in all the places that you see it, really is a direct metaphor for that. And it is slightly threatening. I wanted to give the film a sense – we spent a lot of time on the sound, creating a sense that the apartment is slowly descending downwards, and that this liquid is rising upwards through the apartment, and through Parker, and obviously into the jar as well, and that he is almost being possessed by this sense of anxiety,

AB: As Parker spies on Tenneal in the apartment opposite his, and becomes variously intrigued, aroused and troubled by her, we are constantly watching him watching. Indeed, as its title suggests, Observance is preoccupied with seeing, with the eye (and the mind’s eye), and with the male gaze and where that can lead. It even includes an injunction to “Stop watching”. Do you regard the film as confronting us with our own voyeurism?

JSD: Um, absolutely. In terms of the way that I shot it, particularly with Parker, I blocked the scenes with Lindsay [Farris] to show just the narrow perspective that I felt that the audience should see. I felt that the audience shouldn’t be able to see the full thing. And so you do see in a scene that the character walks in and out of frame, and the perspective that the audience is given is very restricted, in the same way that Parker’s perspective of Tenneal is very restricted, but every one involved, whether it’s Tenneal or Parker or the audience themselves, does get an overall sense that there’s a greater power controlling the frame, that is controlling and manipulating all of them, and that it’s all being used for a greater unknown purpose. And that’s something that I’m very interested in. The way that we are aware that there are these darker forces – not darker forces, but these unseen forces – it’s very subjective, but unseen forces that surround our lives making us do things that we don’t want to do, but we never question it or really address it, and I wanted to really introduce that into the film in a very visual sense. They mainly do come into context in the way that you feel like you’re not able to see the full picture of what’s going on. But the important thing there is that you feel it, and you’re aware of it in the back of your mind, and you’re being slowly forced to address it in some way.

AB: We think of the ultimate arbiter and authority in filmmaking, the unseen power that manipulates and controls what ends up onscreen is the director and the writer and the producer and the editor, and in a way you are all of these things. And you cameo in the film as Walter S. Moore, who’s the groundskeeper, but he’s also a cameraman and a killer. Presumably it wasn’t just random that that is the part that you ended up playing – you did carefully select that role for yourself.

JSD: The reason why that character exists is that the same thing that happens to Parker also happened to Walter, and so they’re both twin spirits in that way, and they’re directly connected, in that, as Parker is going through this experience where he is very much in touch with the afterlife in his own mind, whether he constructed it himself or whether it’s real, he is very drawn to the person that it happened to before. I don’t know why I put myself in this directly, it just felt right. Not that this happened to me at all, but perhaps you’re correct in saying that, that I’m the director and the author of the piece, and to kind of place myself in that character, as that character, it felt right and very interesting to me, to have this flashing moment of this distant spirit, way back in the past, that Parker’s drawn to, and eventually he’s destined for the same fate as Walter. Overall, I don’t think I ever thought about exactly why I did it, it’s just something that felt right when we were making it.

AB: You just alluded to a deep-seated ambiguity in the film. We’re not sure whether what we’re seeing is Parker’s perception of events or whether it simply is what is happening. In general terms, do you think that truly ambiguous horror is making a return now? Because it’s something that I don’t really associate so much with genre films of the last decade.

JSD: Yeah, I think it’s very relevant. The whole Snowden era, the government spying on us – people are really starting to question why we’re living the way that we do. And there’s a general theme of distrust, particularly with political figures and the system that we all exist within. I think that just having these gored-up bloodfests – they’re not scary anymore. I do think that, beyond film, we are returning to a similar feeling within society of what, when you go back and look at the films that were made and the way people spoke about society back in the 70s – that’s when these films really did come forward, and I do feel that these sorts of stories are becoming more relevant, and they speak much closer to people, and people get a much richer experience seeing these sorts of films.

For Josh and myself, it was really like we needed to tell that story. It was almost like it was bursting from us, just like, whether we liked it or not. We really did feel an intense need to express how we felt, and I am grateful that we did get a chance to go and make it, and we forced ourselves to go and do it.

AB: What are your thoughts on creative independence? Do you strive for it? If so, how?

JSD: Yes, absolutely I strive for it, and the way I have generally been doing it is making my own little films. You just do it for a lower budget, and people seem to let you get on with it. I’m just trying to break into that whole more critically driven genre world, where there’s a lot of really great distribution companies all over the world, but particularly in the UK and the US – they’re all about director-driven stuff. And so it really is a matter of them seeing if the idea does have that breakout potential. It has kind of gone back to that whole director-distilled, director’s vision kind of thing which I think is really exciting, but it’s still very competitive. It’s all just about ideas, and less about that kind of LA director-for-hire gory genre crap.

AB: What’s next?

JSD: At the moment Josh and I are working on a film called Cry of the Hunters – and that’s a real-life story of a man who thought his wife had demons inside of her and performed an exorcism that eventually killed her. A very tricky story, because it is based on real events, and draws on a lot of sensitive themes, but we really do love it, and that’s the one that was falling over constantly leading up to Observance, and we gave that another go, yeah, and we’re sort of giving it another crack again now, because this story seems to be getting more and more relevant as well. And there’s another film that I’m working on as well, called Raptor, which is more of a surrealist drama about a life coach who’s spreading this hedonistic message around the world, this philosophy called I Love Me, and one of her other clients commits suicide in her apartment, and she starts to talk to it in her delirium and tries to break out of her own oppressive existence, and to get away from this character that she’s created for herself to play. So those are the two that we are aiming at next.

© Anton Bitel