Spotlight on Film Maker Abel Robinson
Australian icon Roger Ward chats with film maker Abel Robinson.
A couple of months ago, I interviewed Noel Vinson and Abel Robinson, both are young, talented, and producer/director/writers, who, I am sure, will make a significant impact on the Indie Film Making World. It was to be a two-hander, with Abel and Noel answering the same questions, allowing us to learn their inner-thinking and approach. However, with individual answers being enlightening, intelligent, thought-provoking, and different, I decided to split the interview and make it into two.
ROGER/- Hi Guys, nice to see you again. I have now worked with both of you on three projects, all within the space of a year, our first,' Dusters,’ a unique Western set in America, written and directed by Noel, but with you, Abel, as an efficient First Asst. Director.
ABEL/- Yes, we all met on Dusters. I'd never worked with either one of you before that day. I will say, as an aspiring filmmaker in his 20s, it was an incredibly daunting experience to be in the same room as you and Noel. I came on as an Assistant Director, which made it a bit more stressful. I can remember vividly thinking to myself, "I'm running the set here, but I'm in front of Roger Ward, who has more years of experience on film sets than I've been alive. Although you were an absolute blessing to work with as I stumbled through the role.
ROGER/- Thanks Buddy, but there appeared to be no stumbling from where I stood.
ABEL/- I'm pleased no one noticed because, besides you, there was Noel, a clear-cut visionary who has been Grammy acknowledged. That's when I knew I had to do whatever it took to stay in this room. It was the only way I was going to learn more about filmmaking.
ROGER/- And learn you did, although I have a sneaking suspicion you had a hell of a lot of knowledge before stumbling across Noel.
ABEL/- One never stops learning in this field, so throughout shooting Dusters and getting into post-production, Noel and I bantered over our similar tastes. As passionate filmmakers, we discussed our favourite films, actors, and genres. But our mutual obsession for horror, thrillers, and psychological dramas is what solidified our friendship. It was an organic process with conversations based on film pursuits and aspirations. We bounced ideas and gave and received feedback to such an extent that it became apparent we had to collaborate to solidify these thoughts. Give them life, share them with an audience. It was never about a label or company; it was just about making movies.
ROGER/- And make them you do. My second film with you both was 'Jane’ with Noel directing and you, Abel, as that brutal Asst. Director. But a week or so later, I got the call, you had written, and were directing, a short, and was I prepared to take part? Hold me back! But it seemed to come from left field. Had you been preparing it for long?
ABEL/- No way, it was a whole lot of manic fun as it was a spontaneous decision to enter a competition to film a short for Koala Beddings, Halloween Sale. I had to pitch a 3 minutes horror film, using their products within the theme of Australiana. If selected, they would fund the movie. It was a total scramble, even a nightmare, as the process of writing to the delivery of the finished film was under two weeks.
ROGER/- Two weeks? That is amazing.
ABEL/- It was a test.
ROGER/- A test you passed with flying colours; I was extremely impressed with the production value you managed and the unique story you wove to supplement the requested storyline.
ABEL/- Thank you, I’m pleased you enjoyed it. And what a great way to service the Australiana brief by having the iconic Roger Ward who led the era of Ozploitation cinema, way back when.
ROGER/- I was bloody pleased to do it, and I must say, I was impressed by your dedication and style of directing. Your handling of cast and crew. No wonder you won the title.
ABEL/- Five of us were selected from a squillion submissions, so it was a feather in my cap, especially having to deliver under such extreme conditions.
ROGER/- For such a short film and prepared in an equally short time, it had a lot of insight.
ABEL/- I doubted I would win the pitch, so I wrote an outlandish scenario knowing it would either be thrown out in disgust or grabbed with both hands.
ROGER/-. Of course, they were going to accept. It was a unique concept and shot equally so.
ABEL/- The brief; to utilize a product sold by the client gave me grief until thinking it through while on the comfort and coziness of my own; I remembered they sold beds, and I thought, that’s it. A BED! And I revolved everything around it as, for me, having too many options is an absolute detriment. I work best under restraint. So, I confined the narrative to the bed and hinted that is where people feel safest. BUT what if the very thing you ran from when you were awake also chased you in your dreams? Would there be no escape from the fear?
ROGER/- Great thinking. And from such a simple concept. It would have stumped me and left me languishing before a blank page. But you cracked it from go to woe in two weeks! Unbelievable.
ABEL/- It was a stretch and certainly a learning curve, but that’s what this profession is all about.
ROGER/- It certainly is a stretch, and the rubber band I’ve been using has lost its elasticity. But for you, it’s straight out of the box. So, if it does misfire, it’s nubile and ready for the next. But let's start at the beginning. You’re of Indian descent, but you were not born there. How come you’re in Australia?
ABEL/- I was born in Dubai because at the time my old man worked there. But the entire family moved out here when I was barely one year old. And I’ve called Western Sydney home ever since.
Roger/- Okay, then what drove you to achieve greatness in one of the hardest of all professions?
ABEL/- Most of my creative passion comes from my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother was a ballet and dance instructor, and my mother a theatre and dance instructor. The title of my production company, Anima Roadshow, is a homage to them as they inspired me to chase my creativity. Anima means the feminine personality within a man. It also means “breath,” which Abel also means.
ROGER/- Your Grandmother and Mother must be interesting dinner guests.
ABEL/- They certainly are, but if there’s a torch, don’t turn it on. They’ll think it’s a spotlight.
ROGER/- They’ll start tap dancing?
ABEL/- Are you kidding? There’s no holding them back. But what an influence they’ve been. I grew up on and around a stage. And like many filmmakers, I wanted to be an actor, so Mum put me in every play she ever did. Usually, as the comic relief but like all classic clowns, I wanted to be the leading man. Although, as many of my mother’s productions were religiously based, being the leading man didn’t mean I got the girl; it meant I played the good Samaritan. Hahaha.
ROGER/- Did you pursue it to television and film?
ABEL/- No, I realized I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. Much work goes into that, and I was swamped with creating and telling my own stories on film. A medium that was a massive influence on me as I grew up. Particularly during the school holidays when my parents, who both worked, left me to my own devices. But to prevent the possibility of me burning the house down (a distinct possibility, haha). They introduced me to the Civic Video rental store, right below our apartment. I would grab 10-15 movies at a time and binge-watch while they were gone. I built such a fantastic relationship with David, the store clerk; he gave me free rentals, let me borrow overnight movies for a week, and gave first dibs on any new flicks. I was getting the Event Cinemas Gold Class treatment, even, at the age of nine, I was given R18+ movies, the first being, “I Spit On Your Grave,” which I think was banned in Australia at the time. Sorry, David, I’m not throwing you under a bus, but you are the reason I love horror films today.
ROGER/- So horror is the be-all and end-all?
ABEL/- Pretty much, although two other films, not entirely horror, although horrific, do stand out in terms of what inspired me to pursue a career in film. The first was Jurassic Park that blew my five-year-old mind. I would be the scientist who brought back all dinosaurs and spent the next ten years telling people that I would be a Paleontologist. I could barely spell my name, but I sure knew how to spell Paleontologist. Then, when I was sixteen, I saw an iconic film called “Inception.” That's when I realized it wasn’t Dinosaurs I was into; it was movies. All I wanted to do was make something remotely close to that masterpiece. Ever since then, I’ve been chasing that dragon.
ROGER/- Speaking of unable to spell, I note you and Noel have a pen name under which you write collaboratively. But unlike you with Paleontologist, I can’t pronounce it, let alone spell the damned thing.
ABEL/- Are you talking about Axmo Deus?
ROGER/- I certainly am. What caused you to create such an unusual name?
ABEL/- We didn’t, and we’re not writing under that name either. Axmo Deus is a real person. Noel met him in Paris. He’s a writer and filmmaker and creates excellent but short genre pieces. He gave us carte blanche to shoot them. We love doing them and churn them out, sometimes weekly. His work needs to be shared.
ROGER/- That is an admirable gesture from all of you.
ABEL/- It’s collaborative; I think that is the way filmmakers have to go.
ROGER/- You and Noel are certainly the benchmark for such an ideal. I also note that Noel is trying to raise finance to shoot Dusters as a feature. Do you have feature plans, or are you happy to work in the shorter format?
ABEL/- I definitely have plans. But I actually shot my first feature when I was twenty-two. It was entitled, ‘Kick Ons.’ I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ‘Kick Ons’ but more to do with the bureaucracies of filmmaking than the film itself. Although that old proverb, ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ does ring true on this one. It is an interesting concept that follows multiple characters in a Western Sydney party where drug-induced young adults converge on pseudo-philosophical conversations. It’s a dark comedy/drama heavily inspired by the film ‘Kids’ by Harmonie Korrine and ‘Slacker’ by Richard Linklater.
ROGER/- Sounds interesting; I’d love to see it.
ABEL/- It is a bit of a recalcitrant child, and the battles I fought while making it took a massive toll on me. Doing a feature is a considerable investment and does take up your life. Especially if you are twenty-two and have only ever directed shorts. Although, I’m super grateful for the opportunity because that was my film school. I was never formally trained and learned what I know through experience and YouTube. I have graduated in Marketing and Finance though, two necessities if one is delving into the production side of things. However, the lessons learned through making a feature are invaluable and were something no film school could have ever taught. Especially the stress one faces outside of directing, like managing the budget, scheduling, and appeasing the Executive Producers. I look back now and realize I was very un-equipped and ill-experienced. I am now over the fear that besets many first-timers that their first feature needs to be a masterpiece. Let's be honest; it was never going to be. I guess jumping over that hurdle has, in itself, motivated me to continue to create.
ROGER/- From where I sit, Buddy, you’re taking the right pills. You impressed me from the get-go, so whatever you’ve done to get there, you’ve done the right things.
ABEL/- Sometimes I wonder if I’ve taken the right path because, despite my desire to direct narrative, I did take a backseat following my feature and focused more on music videos and producing films. It was only at the beginning of this year that I felt mentally attuned to direct narrative again. The two-year hiatus was invaluable, though, because it allowed me to see how other directors worked. Now I’m in the hot seat with ‘Limbo’ being the first film I have written and directed since the feature. But with that under my belt, I am rearing to go and am already prepping my second feature. A beast I hope to tame within the next year or so.
ROGER/- I noticed, no matter your official position, you have intense conversations with your director during shoots, and when it’s all over, you leap into Post Production with great enthusiasm. You obviously love your work.
ABEL/- I do, it is my life passion, and despite who may be directing, I am heavily integrated into the process of filming. And regards post, I feel it is better to have an additional person to review the edits. I mean, decisions, coming from the standpoint of two directors', two sets of eyes, helps with re-thinking on the sequences. Noel can envision a sequence utterly different from how I may see it. Regardless of who directs the film, I believe from an editorial standpoint, collaboration is imperative. It becomes increasingly tedious to be the sole person looking at the body of work. And over time, the person editing may find it difficult to realize a specific scene drags or flies by too quickly. Hence, I like to review films collaboratively from every possible angle.
ROGER/- I notice you like to dramatize your work with music, and your selection is always perfect for the visual. Does selecting music take up a lot of your time?
ABEL/- The right music sting is imperative to me. Most of the movies that move me have been because of a synonymous relationship between the emotion on screen and the feeling provided by music. Especially with the films I grew up with, they all had recognizable themes that I still hear in my head today. Music is another form of storytelling. Certain chord progressions and melodies play into a character’s leitmotif. Likewise, playing the same melody at a higher octave or chord can invoke different feelings in a character. A lot of how I write and visualize scenes in films is based on music that may have inspired it. I have played the piano since I was seven, so I guess that is one of the reasons why music is important. Also, my fellow Executive Producer and sound powerhouse on my past few productions, Gordie Fletcher, has made me re-evaluate how I approach sound with music as well.
ROGER/- Now that you are being noticed on the short film circuit, winning awards, getting acclaim, and with your second feature being prepared, it may not be long before you’re in the big league and dealing with a cross-section of actors you may not have the luxury of handpicking. How do you feel about handling controversial or less co-operative actors?
ABEL/- Fingers crossed it won’t happen too often, but I have already had my fair share of difficult talent. But realistically, to me at least, that is a small part of the problem, and stepping onto a film set is a blessing, regardless of one’s position. I know of so many films stuck in development hell. Being on set and seeing something that was once plain paper becoming life is pure bliss. At its core, it should be a whole lot of fun even with the stress and high pressure; at the root of it all, it should be enjoyable. Everyone in the cast and crew needs to be respected, regardless of how big or small the ship is. When a person's job becomes hindered and a chore, then we have a weak link. In the case of Dusters, my take is no matter what your job or how important it is, the moment it hinders someone else's ability to do their best work, it's no longer about the film but about you. Movies are a collaborative effort. Not about one person. Even if they’re the biggest actor globally, it's also about Becky or Steve the runners. The issue I have with less co-operative actors is, their bad behaviour has the propensity to prevent the Makeup Artist to do her/his job correctly, or it may affect Continuity, the AD, or in the case of Dusters, the director. Hence, it's no longer fun because the fun is stolen by irresponsible, selfish behaviour.
ROGER/- Yes, you’re so right, I’ve never condoned undisciplined actors, but I’ve never looked at it in the manner you have just described.
ABEL/- Don’t get me wrong, I love actors and know they bring a lot to the table, but it must be a collaborative process. I'm not even a stickler for sticking to the script regards dialogue or wanting it delivered in a certain way, as there is beauty in not knowing what a performer may bring from the words but whatever they say or do should serve the overall narrative. A prime example of this happened in production for a film I directed for the Axmo Deus series called ‘Scorn.’ The scene called for a heightened argument between a couple that would ultimately turn physically abusive. Initially, it was written and directed with the main character, played by the phenomenal Naomi Sequeira, as passive. This was while her abusive partner, played by the remarkable James Mitry, would berate her. Naomi came to me and said, “I’d like to try one take whereby I’m not passive. Because if this was happening, I would speak up and stand up for myself”. I respected her request, and we went for a take. It was absolutely brilliant! I realized only in the edit how important that choice was because it reinforces the redemptive arc the character goes through at the end. Thus, we must allow for spontaneity and room creative changes as they always have their strengths.
ROGER/- Some directors would have taken the high road and pissed her request off, especially if time was against you. So that story is a learning curve for everyone.
ABEL/- Yes, it’s fortunate that I've learned to bounce with the actors, find out what they want and give them the resources to fulfill their creative desires. In the case of Dusters, I think communication was the key; we figured out what the director and actor wanted and collaborated to that end. The moment a deviation happens, one must re-evaluate and communicate. A film isn’t built on the performance of one person but a culmination of collaborators in front and behind the camera. Staying true to the vision and sticking to his guns, Noel pulled brilliant performances from all of the actors. It may have been a rough ride through hoops and over hurdles, but the outcome is impeccable.
ROGER/- As is all of your work, Abel. You’re a dedicated, thoughtful young man, and I can only see your star not only rising but shooting upward like a Cape Canaveral rocket. Can I tag along?
ABEL/- Haha! Of course! One of the reasons I’m rocketing is because of you, Mate, so I wouldn’t want it any other way!
Iconic actor and writer Roger Ward is a regular contributor to The Australian Short Film Network Journal.