Interview: ‘Surrogate’ director David Willing on succeeding in Melbourne’s film industry

Interview: ‘Surrogate’ director David Willing on succeeding in Melbourne’s film industry

Credit: Andy Railton
Words by Staff Writer

We spoke to Melbourne director David Willing fresh after the release of his first feature film, 'Surrogate' about the joys and challenges of making films in Melbourne.

Ghost-horror film Surrogate hit Melbourne screens on April 6, proceeding to sell out its run at the Sun Theatre Yarraville – selling more tickets than The Batman and Morbius combined thanks to a strong grassroots campaign – where it will finish its run on May 13.

His feature debut has been a long-time coming. Willing’s spent over 15 years teaching screenwriters and filmmakers and many of his shorts, including My Little Life – a comedy mockumentary set in the world of competitive miniature dollhouse making – and Collier Brothers Syndrome – depicting two brothers suffering mental illness – have been ravely reviewed. Yet producing fantastic work is only half the challenge.

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“The toughest part at the moment is getting your film into theatres, it’s not like the 90’s where independent films are regularly screened,” Willing expalins. “We were very lucky for the support from Sun Theatre in Yarraville.  Marketing manager Kristina Jannson really liked Surrogate and was very enthusiastic about making the film work for their audience and it was very successful there. Subsequently Thornbury Picture House picked up Surrogate, which performed really well in their market too.

“However, this is rare, very few independent films have any sort of theatrical run aside from festivals, it would be great to find ways to make this happen a bit more.”

There’s no shortage of film festivals in Melbourne, ranging from the global scale of Melbourne International Film Festival (one of the oldest in the world) to the local focus of St Kilda Film Festival. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Fantastic Film Festival focus on obscure gems, and similar festivals devoted to French and German works exclusively.

The hardships aspiring feature directors face largely stem from the immense challenges independent film theatres face in the streaming era, battling the plethora of high-budget foreign content.

Those challenges in securing a wide enough release are then juxtaposed against Melbourne’s own burgeoning industry for making foreign films, with huge projects such as NBC’s Metropolis reboot and Robbie Williams’ biopic Better Man coming to Docklands Studios. Willing, while broadly supportive, is practical about the importance of Screen Australia’s recent pushes for local content quotas on streaming services, noting “Australia can never compete with the marketing budgets of Hollywood so our films need some extra support to get exposure. Quotas are a good start but it would also be great to see the industry focusing on different audiences in Australia and offering them films that entertain them.”

He says, as is the case in all minor markets, the Melbourne industry is a rollercoaster.

“The local film industry is broken down broadly into three sectors, government funded productions, international films (predominantly from US, China and India) and independent productions,” he says. “Surrogate fits firmly into the independent sector of which Melbourne has always had a great history and enthusiasm for these type of privately financed and made films.

“The great thing about international productions is they provide well paying jobs for production crews. The downside is the cost of production can get pushed up, especially wages or hiring equipment, which charge premium price for Hollywood.”

“Having said that, you can always find a good price for an independent film and many places will accommodate your budget, it just takes a bit more time to secure such deals.


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“I’m not sure there is anything uniquely challenging about Melbourne compared to any other western city to make films in. Like all films, no matter where you are based, you are always fighting against the clock and budget irrespective of what amount of time and money you have. On Surrogate we were lucky that everyone involved in the film was supportive, of course problems pop up completely out of your control, but a big part of filmmaking is problem solving on the run.”

Ultimately for Willing, it comes down to the support of the people involved. In a city with a proud history of making dynamic, confronting and exhilarating films (think Animal Kingdom, Romper StomperDogs In Space), there’s rarely a shortage of people willing to sacrifice time and effort to help create something they believe in.

“I’ve found on every film I’ve made, people providing locations are always extremely helpful in making the project happen,” Willing continues. “We secured some incredible locations for Surrogate and every one of them were accommodating, generous and enthusiastic about having us. I’m extremely grateful, as it made production easier and resulted in Surrogate having an incredible and unique look.

“The two most important things to do are watch a lot of films, and do a lot of the discipline you want to work in; whether that be directing, cinematography, writing, editing. It’s important to watch a wide variety of films. Growing up I was obsessed with horror films but also fell in love with Italian cinema from the 1950s-70s.  When I was at film school I watched films from all decades, genres and different countries – exposure to different types of storytelling techniques is the best film school possible.

“Influences in Surrogate as broad as Japanese, Spanish and Italian cinema from the 70s-90s. On a practical level, practice, practice, practice at your chosen skill is paramount to hone your talent.

“More importantly, it shows people what you are capable of doing, they don’t want to hear you’re a director, they need to see that you have directed something.”

New Melbourne paranormal horror film ‘Surrogate’ coming to Thornbury Picture House

Surrogate finishes it’s theatrical run with a novelty screening this Friday May 13 at the Sun Theatre.