An interview with The Nothing Men writer/director Mark Fitzpatrick
WRITTEN BY MATTHEW PEJKOVIC
The Nothing Men has gone through quite a journey.
One of the first films to be shot with the Red One digital camera, The Nothing Men created a stir when it made its unofficial premiere to an audience of Hollywood execs back in 2008, who took to the story of a group of workshop employees awaiting their redundancy payments in an empty factory, as boredom, paranoia, and cruelty slowly manifests itself.
2 years after doing the international film festival circuit, The Nothing Men is finally in Australian cinemas.
The following is my interview with writer/director Mark Fitzpatrick, who took time out from his busy schedule to talk about the film.
Where did you first get the idea for The Nothing Men?
I’m an actor and I took my hand at writing. The Nothing Men is my second film script. I have been writing for 16 years and I have 18 scripts waiting in my draw ready to go. I’ve directed a couple of plays and I wanted to direct my feature film. I wanted to be a writer and director, so I knew a low budget film is far easier to get up then a big budget film, so I decided to write a low budget film called The Nothing Men...well, I didn’t know what it was called, but I didn’t know what I was going to write either.
But then I turned the TV on and I saw these guys in Melbourne sitting in an office doing nothing. They’re playing cards...apparently there was a whole waste of Government money, and they were getting payed to do nothing. They were from the Melbourne water board. So I thought “Hang on, a few guys waiting for their redundancy. How can I make that dynamic?” So I thought of the work shop, the heat of the workshop, the redundancy...lots of things, and then the whole idea just started manifesting. So I thought “This is it. I’ll make it wordy, and do turning points, and put some surprises in there, and plant some seeds”. So that is how I came up with The Nothing Men.
Did your short film The Gas Man, which you shot in a maximum security prison and cast Australia’s most notorious juvenile prisoners in key roles, influence the mentality of your characters in The Nothing Men?
No, not at all. Completely different. The Nothing Men characters...I’ve know those type of characters. I’ve known guys that are like that, and I’ve worked in the workshop environment too. But when you think of an idea, and you think of the beats of the plot, you just work around that and these (characters) just come at me.
Something I took from the film was that a man without work is not a man. That these guys are going crazy sitting around and doing nothing. Would that be a correct assumption?
Totally! People have come to me from all angles with what they feel about the film, but only 1 or 2 have come from your angle, and I’m so glad because you are absolutely right. I mean, how worthless do men feel when they’re not working, and they just feel like they are not providing for the family, or they feel like they’re letting the family down?
If these guys have been doing this all their life...I mean, they’re tradesmen. It’s their job and they love their work. Now after suddenly being there for 15, 20, 30 years, here are these real company men, and suddenly the company is gone and left these guys behind. They’re gonna get their money sooner or later, but they are doing nothing. They are going crazy. So what do they do? They start drinking, playing cards, things that are not allowed. But what else have they got?
Then of course these personalities become one. No matter how contrasting their personalities are, they soon become one hanging out with each other. They all talk the same, think the same, act the same, and they become medieval in a way (laughs). Primeval. That’s how these guys work. They were basically one person.
But you’re right. Men feel worthless when they are not working. I agree.
"How worthless do men feel when they’re not working, and they just feel like they are not providing for the family, or they feel like they’re letting the family down?" - Mark Fitzpatrick
I want to talk about the role of religion in the movie, especially in regards to David Field’s character, who seems to be of devout Catholic stock. Does his religious faith exert a positive or negative influence on his decisions?
You know what, quite possibly. Personally, he is this man who is educated, he takes his child to Shakespeare plays, or he used to...this man is well educated and well versed. He is religious; he goes to church every Sunday. He’s just a quiet family man who adores his family and adores being with them.
I don’t believe anybody from any creed, religion, or whatever, has any right to...but I just wanted the contrast to be there.
The violence in the movie is particularly disturbing. Do you find that these days violence in film has become so passe, that the only way to shock an audience is to take it to the next extreme?
My intention wasn’t to shock the audience. My intention was to show how inhumane people treat each other, and how wrong it is. People think it is nothing to see someone in a movie get shot and die. Or worse shoot 50-60 people in a movie. But we just go with it. The loss of life is tremendous!
But when we see someone teasing somebody, and we’re in there with them, and they’re teasing them so antagonistically, and it’s malevolent...I mean, that’s more shocking then seeing Chopper shoot someone, and they’re dead, and that’s part of the film.
When you see someone confronting people like this, in a real environment and a real situation, particularly when we know about (David’s) poor son, the damaged boy...I’ve seen people being teased, and we don’t know what that person is going through, what personal problems he has. “Stop it!” you know? It’s all about that. It’s all about issues like drink driving, and drug taking, and owing up to the things you have done wrong, and suspicion, and greed, and all of that in one place. Planting the seeds for the people.
I want the audience to sit there and...I’ve sat through screenings and saw people look away at points, particularly when David is being teased. And I’m thinking “Please look. I know it’s terrible, but this is how people treat each other, and worse”. You’ve got Hitler during WWII. We all know that. People get treated a lot like the nothing men treat David every day. But we don’t hear about it.
David Field and Colin Friels have been best mates for a long time, and share a really good rapport on screen. What was it like directing two of Australia’s best characters actors?
(Laughs) Fantastic, Matt. David and Colin, as you said, have fun on set even though they’re two contrasting characters. They’re nemesis. But you’re right. To see the other actors sitting at the table just milking and absorbing everything... Colin delivers so powerfully, that these guys can’t help but bring their characters and reply to what Colin’s giving them.
Then David comes in with his character, and the chemistry was just sensational. It was just fantastic. Me as a director didn’t have to direct hardly at all. I’ve got my camera shots ready, I had a shot list ready to go, and I told them “Look, I know you know these characters.” We had a lot of rehearsals, and when things weren’t quite, sure I stepped in, but they had the answers before I stepped in most of the time, and I just let them go. I just watched basically. It was just a treat.
Personally, I’ve seen Colin in pretty much everything, and I don’t think he has been as good as he was in The Nothing Men. My opinion.
I have to agree with that, and David as well. It is one of the first times I have seen David in a lead acting role.
Exactly right. David Field, in my view, is the best actor in the country. You have all of these other people getting the accolades, but you put David Field in a huge Hollywood blockbuster as the lead, and you see what he can do. I’m only saying Hollywood because that is the pinnacle...you know.
When I wrote the film script in 1997, I had David Field in mind, that is why I named his character David. Everything time I had that character and thought of him, I had in mind David Field. He’s just delightful to work with, he’s a delightful actor, and he delivers all of the time, every take.
People typecast David. For instance, in Chopper and The Oyster Farmer, he’s this rugged guy, sort of blokey. But I’ve seen David emotional in plays, and I said “This guy is perfect for David”, and he was.
"My intention wasn’t to shock the audience. My intention was to show how inhumane people treat each other, and how wrong it is." - Mark Fitzpatrick
You shot the film with the Red One digital camera. Does the constant upgrade in filmmaking technologies give independent filmmakers more opportunity to bring their vision to life, or is will it always be a slog to get an indie film up and running?
Most definitely easier. I mean, you’ve got 35mm which is the standard in filmmaking. That’s film stock. But when you’ve got alternatives like the Red One...but there are more advancement from the Red One, you’ve got the Epic, and the Scarlett, but any kind of alternative to film that looks as good as film...and let’s face it, by the time you’ve shot your film with the Red they blow it up to 35mm anyway. But this is how the Red One worked for us...we were the first in this country to shoot with the Red. We were the second in the world behind Steven Soderbergh, who just beat us (with Che).
But through the Red One camera we were invited by the Red people, Ted Schilowitz, to LA and he filled out the Frank Sinatra Hall at USC (University of Southern California), with around 350 people. They all went to watch the Red camera, to see how it performs because we were one of the first to use it, and we got a standing ovation.
In the Q&A afterwards, people were telling us that they went to see the Red camera, but after 5 min they were just taken away by the film. Ted said that The Nothing Men was the perfect film to show Australia how the camera works.
But we were so fortunate, because in the audience was a guy who was in involved with 3 Oscar winning films as a producer...In the Line of Fire, Unforgiven, and The Green Mile. His name is David Valdes. He tapped me on the shoulder and I’ve got a Hollywood deal for my next film!
So it all turned out brilliantly for using the Red.
The film screening was back in 2008, and has been doing the festival circuit. How does it feel with the Australian release a week away?
It feels so good, Matt. In fact it should be more exciting for me, other than the fact that we had to do it all by ourselves. I got a grant for the script in 1997 and 3 grants from the Australian Film Commission, and that’s as far as we got. They wouldn’t give us any additional funding.
I’ve been through 5 producers and they couldn’t get the film up. It was 10 years until we finally got it up, and it was really hard to go through all of that. But now I guess it’s all worth it. I’ve got a bit of a career happening now, which is good. They say you do your first film for your second film, and your second film sets you up for your career. So I’ve got my second film coming up via a Hollywood producer, and I’m really happy about it.
Can you let us in on what you’re working on next?
Yes. This next film could be a coup too, because while my first film sort of took place in one room, my second one takes place in 3 continents. It’s about a struggling Aboriginal dance group, who travel across 3 continents to enter the World Cultural Dance competition, in Seoul, South Korea.
Out of 78 countries they win it, and the fact that it’s a true story, and I’ve got the rights to it and it’s already written, they really love the concept and this is why they’re on board. I don’t know how many Aboriginal films are backed by Hollywood, but we might certainly be the first in that realm as well.
Is that Descendance?
Yeah. Just like descendents, but called Descendance. It will really be a cinematic feast.
And is that still in production for November this year?
We are hoping. Yeah, we are hoping.
The Nothing Men is currently playing in cinemas through Anchor Bay Films.