The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is this year’s opening night film for the Melbourne International Film Festival. It’s also the debut feature from Melbourne-based and Victorian College of the Arts-trained filmmaker Cris Jones.
Inspired by the writings of Kurt Vonnegut and the big screen documentaries of Errol Morris, Otto Bloom is a genre-bending faux-doco in which Xavier Samuel plays the titular character, who has the strange quirk of seeing time back-to-front.
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We spoke to Cris shortly before the opening night jitters kicked in.
How would you describe Otto Bloom?
It does have this rather unusual concept, in that it’s the story of a man who experiences time in reverse. It’s not that he’s ageing backwards, but he remembers the future and knows nothing of the past.
The story is told as a retrospective, biographical documentary, where we hear from characters in his life, looking back on events.
It’s a story that I like to think is constantly taking left turns and subverting expectations. It starts as a mystery, then a science fiction element is introduced, then it turns into a love story, then it turns into a satire on celebrity.
I like the fact that it doesn’t sit neatly into a genre. I think of it, at the end of the day, as a palindromic love story between a character who is experiencing life forwards and another character who is experiencing life backwards.
Was it a film that took a long time to reach production?
This film actually came together very quickly, but for four or five years I was developing another project, which Xavier was also attached to. It got very close to getting made and then the whole thing collapsed at the last minute.
This one had been percolating at the back of my mind, so it was written comparatively quickly, financed quickly, shot quickly and edited quickly.
Part of the issue with the other project was it was going to be very difficult to make on the $2.6 million we had originally proposed, but fortunately Otto could be achieved on a lower budget.
Do you feel the financial environment for filmmaking has changed?
Very much so. It makes everyone a bit risk-averse, which is a shame because film is a high-risk, high-reward business. There is a tendency for people to retreat into their shells when something happens to the world economy.
People are very much trading on existing brands, whether it’s a comic book or a toy or a board game. Which may not seem like the natural source material for a film.
That’s the career path for directors now, isn’t it? They make an independent film and get snapped up to shoot the new superhero blockbuster.
It kind of astonishes me a bit. There was a director [Colin Trevorrow] who made a little film a couple of years ago called Safety Not Guaranteed. He was then picked to direct Jurassic World.
I enjoyed his film, but there was nothing in it that made me think “Wow, this guy could really make a film about dinosaurs”.
If the offer comes from Marvel, would you consider it?
I’ll let you know (laughs). Gosh. I see some of those films and some of them I quite enjoy. I consider myself very much a writer and it’s usually the original creative ideas that spur me on. I see direction as an extension of that.
I’ve never directed another person’s script, I’ve never adapted anything. I’m not ruling anything out, but I haven’t thought about the Marvel question.
I did the MIFF accelerator program the same year as Taika Waititi [director of Hunt for the Wilderpeople] and he’s doing a Marvel movie now, I hear. It’ll be interesting to see what unique beats he can bring to it.
How important do you think the MIFF accelerator program was to your career as a director?
It was really helpful in that I was fresh out of film school. Apart from being able to hear first-hand from experienced practitioners, it was very much about meeting my peers. It’s a great way to build a lateral network, although network’s an awful word.
Also, to feel so welcomed by MIFF was a very validating thing. I’ve always loved MIFF, so when my graduation film got in, it was the biggest thing in the world. To then be invited into the accelerator thing was just lovely. I learned a lot.
It must be amazing, a decade on, to be opening MIFF.
It’s so exciting. The film was always going to have its premiere at MIFF, because it’s a MIFF Premiere Fund film. We were secretly hoping they might consider us for opening night, but you don’t get everything you hope for.
It’s just the best platform we can have, really. It’s a low-budget film, we can’t afford a lot of publicity. For me, on a sentimental level, the festival has meant so much to me that is just feels right. And a real honour.
- The Death and Life of Otto Bloom opens MIFF on July 28, miff.com.au