Director Jon Hewitt is a man who likes to do things backwards. His Sydney-based erotic thriller X is about to have its Australian premiere at MIFF, but has already been screened internationally after being snapped up by distributors in the US and the UK. It’s no small achievement for a film to woo overseas interest before anyone at home has clapped eyes on it, but the former Wodonga boy says other Australian filmmakers might benefit by forgetting the home crowd and targeting foreign shores.
“Everyone makes judgements about Australian films based on how they do at the Aussie box office, whereas for the business life of the film that’s pretty insignificant really,” Hewitt says.
“For me, the international market is the most important for the films I make.”
Unlike most local filmmakers, who can spend years kicking a script around and trying to find an audience, Hewitt says a background in distribution led him to focus on getting bums on seats before worrying about words on pages.
“I have the poster for a film before I have a script, most times,” he says.
“I come from the back end of filmmaking, from 20 years of selling tickets and making choc tops, so everything I do is informed by the idea that making the film is only 50 per cent of the task. A film sitting in a can is useless if no-one comes to see it.”
Hewitt knows all too well how hard it can be getting Australian audiences interested in seeing Aussie films. Take Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, which reportedly cost $10 million to make but took a mere $70,000 on its opening weekend. Transformers 3, by comparison, made more than $12 million in four days.
“The reason Australian films don’t do as well as we’d like here is that in Australia, we speak American,” Hewitt says. “Our competition is Hollywood and Hollywood won the war 50 years ago. It’s insane to think that an Aussie movie can do the same amount of business in an Australian cinema as a Hollywood blockbuster.”
Overseas, however, our films might have a unique advantage. It’s a common complaint that American audiences don’t understand films set beyond their shores, but Hewitt says the “Australianness" of his films is seen by international distributors as “exotic”, rather than unfortunate.
For X, he has an even simpler marketing hook: sex, and lots of it.
The story of two prostitutes – one a high-class escort, one a teenage street walker – forced on the run after witnessing a murder, X is by no means perfect. Curiously for a thriller, it puts character before plot, with the action only truly beginning at the halfway mark. Still, what it lacks in incident it makes up for in unabashed nudity. Knowing Hewitt’s background in marketing, I suggest this determined focus on sex could be seen as a cynical way to win a crowd.
“Oh yeah, absolutely! Sex always sells, even in times when it doesn’t. When people say ‘oh sex is so last year, it’s all about mechanical robots now’, sex still sells. It might be prurient and voyeuristic but I’ve never seen those terms as pejorative. Cinema is about seeing, just going to the cinema is an act of voyeurism on some level.”
He admits, however, that not every actor will feel comfortable with that level of exposure.
“Me there, with my dick swinging in the wind, I’d find it incredibly f--king uncomfortable,” he laughs.
"It was important to me to say ‘You know what, we’re going to see your breasts and your bare arse, but we’re not going to linger... probably’. It’s important that they could trust me, because you know in this day and age that, if you’re naked on camera, it’s going to be on every bloody format in every country in the world, forever.”
Hewitt credits a “great” script, co-written with wife Belinda McClory, with providing the motivation for his two leading ladies to give “fearless” performances. Newcomer Hanna Mangan Lawrence, who starred in Hewitt’s last film Acolytes, is particularly impressive. As she struggles to come to terms with life on the streets, she lays bare enough heart – never mind skin – for us to care whether she comes to a sticky end.
Given its alluring naughtiness and success overseas, Hewitt is optimistic the film will do well at MIFF and beyond. Ultimately though, there’s only one person he needs to keep happy.
“I’ve made films where I haven’t been happy with the end results and had to live with that. The first film I made was a dumb-arse exploitation film from the late 80s. It didn’t pretend to be anything else than a crock of shit but still you go, ‘Oh I could have directed those scenes a bit better’. As long as I can like the film myself, than everything else is cool.”
X, 9pm August 4, Forum Theatre
MIFF runs July 21 - August 7