Australian icon Roger Ward talks with talented film maker Noel Vinson about his life and career.
A couple of months ago, after experiencing some very scintillating experiences under the filmmaking expertise of Noel Vinson and his producing partner Abel Robinson, I decided to write a series of articles on the work these two young men are creating.
I have previously come across many young and talented filmmakers. But these two were unique from the outset and spurred our relationship into a friendly but professional union.
It began 18 months ago when Noel emailed an offer to appear in his upcoming Western, 'Dusters.' Noel is American. So was his Star and co-writer T.C De Witt and co-star, Ren Aranda, and his cinema-photographer, John Kline. But the film was to be shot in the desert near Broken Hill, with the remaining cast to be Australian, affecting American accents. The script was a delicately interlaced portrait of America's early West, with an intricate touch of horror and intrigue, and I jumped at the chance.
The shoot was fun as they usually are, and the film has since received accolades and a suggestion it should be a feature, a chore Noel is now executing.
But this article is not about Dusters, but the relationships formed and the evolution of the association since.
Roger/- Hi Noel, a bit of a change, us, sitting in the comfort of a high-rise apartment in a lucrative area of Sydney, overlooking these beautiful surrounds.
Noel/- A pleasant change from sitting on milk crates or dust-covered rocks in the middle of a freezing desert. But thems the breaks, I suppose.
Roger/- I expect it as par for the course, but this pad you have achieved in such a short period of film making is a testament to your success.
Noel/- It is comfortable, but no matter how successful things may appear, the revenue I've received for filmmaking hardly pays the Strata Fees here. My past life, along with marriage, has allowed for this, and for that, I am fortunate.
Roger/- You mean your time as a Rap and Hip Hop artist?
Noel/- Yeah, that, but also my three-year sojourn in China. I'm a bit of a ‘where the wind blows’ kind of guy, and the wind has definitely given me some memorable experiences, but I never, for one moment, could have visualized settling down in Australia.
Roger/- A Rapper in the States, a performing artist in China, now a filmmaker in Australia.
Noel/- Yeah, long sordid story short, my Chinese contract expired, and I met an alluring tourist from Sydney. So, two choices, return home to Southern California or try my hand at Australia's offer of a relationship. Guess where the wind blew?
Roger/- It's pretty obvious. But thank God you followed it.
Noel/- My sentiments exactly. I find myself living my best life because of it.
Roger/- I must say, Noel, even though our relationship as Director/Writer and Actor has blossomed since Dusters. I met a couple of other guys on that shoot who ended up being intricate parts of the Noel Vinson network.
Noel/- Abel and Gordon?
Roger/- Exactly. Abel Robinson, your 1st asst Director, had skills above and beyond those of a 1st, as did your sound man, Gordon Fletcher, who intrigued me with his work ethic and dedication to the perfect sound.
Noel/- It is hard to find devoted people who are compatible and easy to work with, so I grabbed them with both hands. Now we run an unwritten company where we all rank equally as co-producers, executive producers, directors, and writers.
Roger/- I also note Gordon is a very welcome caterer.
Noel/- And Jessica, his wife, has officially taken charge of our recent shoots as a 1st A.D.
Roger/- Yes, I saw that. She does a remarkable job. Was it your intention to form a group where you all collaborated and worked as a team in varying roles to each other's creations, or has it just evolved?
Noel/- Do you believe in magic? Seriously though, all I knew was that when I moved to Australia, it was the opportunity to transcend from music into film. I didn’t know how that was to happen, and for the time I spent in Brisbane, all I had was some gear to show for myself. Once we moved to Sydney, I organically met the cast of characters who would come to define my own Australian experience. And I can’t imagine them in my life for any other reason than they’re meant to be in my life. So, I guess, magic is real.
Roger/- Yes, it does seem a little like that. That film I did with you after Dusters?
Roger/- Yes, it was your third as writer/director, and Abel was again your 1st A.D. I also noted he was Executive Producer, as was Gordon. Then later, when I did Limbo, which Abel wrote and directed, you were Executive Producer.
Noel/- And Gordon's wife Jessica was an efficient and confident 1st Asst Director there as well—her first go if I remember correctly.
Roger/- Right! And the other day, I worked on a film called Ceremony, and you were E P, and even stood in as a Boomie here and there. The script was written and directed by yet another newbie to the group, Luke Agius.
Noel/- With Jessica as 1st A.D. again. But yes, Luke is a very acutely smart guy. He had made his first feature, The Ferryman, a few years back, and being friends with Abel before any of the Axmo stuff, he just fit in perfectly to the goals and directives that we all currently have. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and I see no flaws in our collective. There’s still a lot to learn, but I feel like we nail it every time we’re up to bat.
Roger/- You do! Was it always your intention to encourage young filmmakers? To mentor them, or has this evolved by chance?
Noel/- It's a little like staring at a blank page before beginning a script. Even if you sit and stare for hours, nothing will jump onto that page. You have to lift a finger and tap the key. So, nothing would have evolved with those you mentioned had they not earned what they've become. They’ve raised their own fingers and hit a key. They became indispensable. And it’s not trying to fit square pegs into a round hole, each individual’s strength and weakness becomes a piece that completes the entire puzzle.
Roger/- Your production company has seemingly become more significant than Ben Hur and is punching out short films at the rate of one a week.
Noel/- Well, maybe one every two weeks or so, given the Post-Production schedule as well as our grass roots marketing and branding efforts. Sometimes that’s the stuff that takes the most time, though, with a poster being released, then a teaser a week later, and then the actual film the following week. I initially imagined that the principal photography for these things would be the most involved but learning how to approach this marketing thing and meet our release schedule can be complete rocket science. I’ve even resorted to enlisting the services of a shaman to shift some of that aforementioned ‘magic’ toward our social media presence. Nah, I’m just kidding… but the moment we get that viral spike, you’ll know!
Roger/- Right! But just for the record, and for those readers who have not read your previous interviews, would you mind explaining the origin of your Axmo Deus films. Which, by the way, are all interesting, astute, and thought-provoking.
Noel/-: In 2019, while in Paris, I met a horror film writer from Bulgaria. His name was Axmo Deus, and we had a great conversation about genre film, of which, he claimed, he had written quite a few, focusing on horror in a 1-Minute format. Upon returning to Australia, he sent me a batch of his scripts and his blessing to make them if I felt inclined. I showed them to Abel, and he, like I, thought that we had found the material to keep us content-rich, while maintaining the development toward longer-form Shorts and Features. So, that's how Axmo Deus came to be.
Roger/- Again, for the readers who have not as yet heard of your prolific output, would you mind, in chronological order, list the films you have made?
Noel/- The first film I ever had my hands in (outside of any music video clips I released as VITAL Emcee) was called "I'm Sorry Mommy" (2017). I wrote and produced that one, while Sonya Lowe, a talented friend of mine, directed. We won the Audience Choice Award for Best Australian Short at the A Night of Horror International Film Festival in 2017. Interestingly enough, Sonya also produces a successful true-crime podcast called The Evidence Locker, which I host. Following 'I'm Sorry Mommy", I made "The Malicious," which I wrote, produced, and directed. Amongst a few other awards, "The Malicious" recently won Best Female Performance as well as Audience Choice, – Best Australian Short at A Night of Horror, which makes me back-to-back winners with them. I'm over the moon about that, so shoutout to A Night of Horror for giving me a bit of street cred! Following that was "Dusters," then "Jane," “Limbo,” and now the latest Axmo film “Ceremony”. There are also the other Axmo Deus shorts on every social media platform that Abel and I began to release last October.
Roger/- Quite a workload for someone who considers himself a newbie. Do you have any co-productions or co-written work that you intend to put out?
Noel/- Any future projects will be co-productions with my team. There's obviously the ongoing Axmo stuff we just mentioned. And there are a few other longer-form Shorts that I've written and intend to direct. But if I’m being honest, I’m at the stage where my obsession is working toward that first feature as a Director.
Roger- You’ve been pounding out draft after draft on the feature-length script of Dusters, how many more do you intend?
Noel/- "Dusters" has reached the final draft of its feature adaptation, and I can guarantee it's insane in the best way. I believe that it's everything you'd never expect in a Western… like a Nolan type narrative covered in Tarantino wrapping. Abel, Gordon and I have put together a template budget and shooting schedule, but more work needs to be done as far as pitch materials go. I intend to create a speed reel to sell the Proof of Concept and bridge it to the feature. But "Dusters" is something that needs to be respected in a budgetary sense, and I think I may need to prove myself further as a Director with a lower-budget endeavour before I'll be trusted to command something as expansive. Good thing is I am up for the task and have my angle! But like I was saying earlier, any of our future slate will be a co-production. That's why I’m still working on adapting "The Malicious." I’m also on the 6th draft for another feature that I'm quite excited about called "Aorta," which is a whole gumbo made up of Chinatown, The Exorcist and Dante’s Inferno. Maybe I’m just fucked because these things still feel like they’ll cost north of 1-Million, but if the Gods remain as crazy as I need them to, we'll see these through without the limiting checklists and agendas of bureaucrats who nowadays seem to be too embarrassed by genre film… but I suppose that’s their loss!
Roger/- I understand that you have another as yet unwritten feature besides the above. You call it ‘Locust’ and you're looking to raise a doable $250,000? Will that be enough to shoot it how you want?
Noel/- If I can raise that sort of money, I'll definitely make it work. A perfect world will find it being done for about $500 though. But luckily, a lower budget would lend itself to the film’s aesthetic and come across as production value. I intend to shoot it in St. Kilda, as well as Melbourne proper, and I have my targets with who I am aiming to attach in order to create some equity for the project, but “Locust’s” subject matter is quite sensitive. Because of that I’m currently working out how best to approach things without sacrificing the heart of the story I want to tell. Fortunately, I have been put in contact with a consultant who also believes in the characters as well as the narrative, and she has become a Godsend in strengthening this particular project. As far as I’m concerned, this could very well be the property that ends up stamping myself as a feature film Writer/Director.
Roger/- But first you have to write it. Any qualms or roadblocks, or do you know you'll come out the other side with precisely what you want?
Noel/- Well, irrespective of who may be writing, my team respects each other's creative souls. I like to think that I am in a continuous process of becoming a better filmmaker because of those I choose to surround myself with. Abel helps me translate that vision into a more precise sense through shots and edits and Gordon helps to build the world in a sense of strategic sounds and subtleties. I won't pretend I know exactly how things need to be, but film work is teamwork, and dammit, I'm thankful for the team. With the “Locust” idea, I know the journey I want my characters to take, but because one of them is transgender, I have to respect the thought processes and concerns of that community. As such, certain aspects of the script may need to be updated, augmented or changed, but at the end of the day, I do know what I want the film to be and I know the aesthetic I want this film to have, so in the pursuit of authenticity, I can’t compromise the overarching vision of the story I have chosen to tell.
Roger/- I note that whenever I work with you, Noel, you capture everything written on the page. A dream for most filmmakers as something always crops up, or an idea diverts them, but seeing your finished film, I note it is almost word for word and angle for angle what you nominate on the page. Do you write a rough outline of what you intend, and then visualize and transpose that mentally to film, and then write the shots, or as you register, do you see the vision you want and add it to the script?
Noel/- I'm a bit of an open book when it comes to that. My mind's eye is always dictated depending on the material. Sometimes I'll know what I want from the get-go; other times, I need to collaborate with the team to see how best it can be executed in-camera, and as I’m finding, certain projects open up that collaboration circle further. My strength pertains to narrative and dialogue, so I know how I want my talent to deliver. Yet, despite this, I let my actors interpret the scene the way they feel, and it either aligns with what I'm looking for, or it doesn't. The trouble is, it takes collaboration to get those stars aligned. But I don't aim to control the talent. Same with my D.P., I'll make a shot list that nets us the necessary coverage, but because I believe the D.P. knows more about his craft than I do, I allow their creativity to "fuller the vision" and hope it aligns. All I hope to do is tell my story the way I want to tell it.
Roger/- Well I’m here to tell you Buddy Boy, you know how to tell a damned good story. I just recently finished reading Aorta and Man, what a scattered jig saw puzzle you expertly completed. And don’t let me start on the Dusters feature. Those two gave me palpitations.
Noel/- How do you think I felt, creating them?
Roger/- I know how you felt! We had some midnight discussions, remember?
Noel/- I certainly do.
Roger/- Okay, so “reading between the lines,” you’re satisfied that you chose that sliding door moment. The one that lead you to Australia, a happy marriage and a defining career?
Noel/- “I am a very fortunate man in that I still have a definitive desire. I’m fortunate to be in Australia amongst legends such as yourself. And I’m fortunate that, above all else, I’m still fucking hungry. In my 20’s, this hunger revolved around making music, but now, that same appetite has been augmented toward film and has become famished. Instead of going where the wind blows, I’m now charting my course and that’s why I’m grateful for people flying the flag like Destiny who was gracious enough to grant me a second interview on her platform. Keeping things like that in mind, I can confidently say that the work I do will be known so... watch out!”
Iconic actor and writer Roger Ward is a regular contributor to The Australian Short Film Network Journal.