Perth director Martin Wilson has finally hooked his debut feature film, after three decades in the movie industry. He chats with Mark Naglazas about filming Great White.
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Movies love bright young things – directors who make masterpieces before the age of 30 (Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, Steven Soderbergh with Sex, Lies and Videotape), impossibly young writers (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with Good Will Hunting), actors who get Oscars while their contemporaries are still at school (Tatum O’Neill for Paper Moon, Anna Paquin for The Piano).
The precocious few, however, are the exceptions that prove the rule: making it in the movie business is a long, gruelling journey in which many talents deserving of success routinely fall by wayside. They don’t call Hollywood “the boulevard of broken dreams” for nothing.
Few have struggled harder and longer to make it than Perth director Martin Wilson, who after almost three decades shooting television commercials and shorts will make his feature film debut with the open-water survival thriller Great White.
“If someone said to me when I began that it would take this long to make my first feature I would have dug a hole and crawled into to it. But I’m glad I stuck around long enough to realise a life-long dream,” said Wilson just before stepping on a plane to Sydney for the East Coast unveiling of Great White.
“It’s a heartbreaking business. You spend years working on a project and you get this close only to see it fall apart. But I just loved movies since I was a kid so kept at it where many of my contemporaries packed it in,” explains Wilson, who is as relieved as he is overjoyed to now be able to call himself a feature film director.
The delay had its upside, however. The years Wilson spent making commercials enabled him to hone his craft. Commercials are an extremely concentrated form of filmmaking – every shot has to count, every moment needs to engage an audience – so it was the perfect preparation for making a stripped-back genre movie about a group of people on a lifeboat stalked by a omnivorous shark.
Despite Wilson’s vast experience shooting commercials and shorts making a movie about a rampaging shark proved as difficult pull of as you’d expect. “Shooting on water is a challenge because you’re in the elements. You can’t control the tides, the wind, the rain, stingers that come floating by and bite one of the actors who have to be taken off set and sorted out,” recalls Wilson of the 25-day Queensland shoot.
“And even when you’re shooting in a tank it is slow-going because the actors are holding their breath which causes another kind of stress. You’re always losing time which you have to claw back the next day.”
Great White is as skilfully made as anyone familiar with Wilson’s polished oeuvre would have expected. A long-time student of pure cinema – the Murdoch University graduate counts Alfred Hitchcock amongst his biggest influences along with visual maestros such Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Peter Weir and George Miller – Wilson cranks up the tension and delivers the jolts with the skill of a Hollywood action-movie veteran.
Indeed, Wilson’s passion for mainstream storytelling is the best explanation for why his transition from commercials to features has been delayed. Quite simply, our government funding bodies tend to seek out and promote more serious-minded work, dramas and occasionally comedies with something significant to say (it is why the Western Australian film industry is underpinned by Tim Winton adaptations). It is, Wilson suspects, why he failed to get into the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
But he was so determined to be part of the film industry Wilson brushed aside that disappointment and headed into the commercial sector at the same time as making a series of impressive short films. This lead to a slot in the 1997 shorts anthology Bed and Desire, which was produced by Monster With Two Toes, a Perth-based commercials company lead by Neal Kingston.
Ironically, it was Kingston’s current company, Thrills & Spills, which is dedicated to genre films (they did the hit action flick Black Water: Abyss), who recruited Wilson to make Great White.
“Neal and Michael Robertson of Prodigy Pictures were following my career and sending me scripts over the years. The planets eventually aligned with Great White. It’s funny how things work out. Commercials were my fallback but my advertising contacts enabled me to make the leap into features,” says Wilson, who has undertaken the same journey as Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and fellow Perth first-timer Simon McQuoid (Mortal Kombat).
While Wilson continues to work in commercials and in the not-for-profit space – he is behind the Danny Green-fronted Coward’s Punch series of ads – the focus is now features. Wilson is currently developing a series of genre-oriented projects, including a Stand By Me-like horror/thriller about the legend of cats released into the Australian bush who have grown to be panther-sized.
“It took a lot of hard work to get where I am right now,” says Wilson, “but you cannot rest on your laurels. It is always a struggle. But it’s who I am. It’s what I do. I am a filmmaker.”
It will be available to buy on all major digital platforms including Apple and YouTube Movies June 30, and on Blu-ray, DVD and digital rental July 7.
Pictured top: Martin Wilson is the director of ‘Great White’. Photo supplied
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