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Talking With Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price of "Wish You Were Here"

Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price

Curled up in leather chairs by a sputtering fireplace, Kieran Darcy-Smith,Felicity Price and I had a chance to talk about their new film Wish You Were Here. Director/screenwriter, Kieran, and leading lady/screenwriter, Felicity, worked together to make a distinctly Australian film that is also universally human and, with each other's help, found great success.

With acting as divine as it is challenging and confident, unsettling directing from Darcy-Smith, Wish You Were Here has taut and introspective independent flair. For our full review of the film, click here or read on to learn more.

From Kieran talking about falling into a sewer on day one of the shoot to Felicity recounting her youthful experiences as a traveler, this husband and wife duo really highlight the truly collaborative nature of their work and serve as an inspiration for working couples in the film industry today.


What was it like for you guys as a husband and wife duo working on the film? Was it at all taxing on your relationship or was it a fun experience to work together day-in and day-out?

Kieran Darcy-Smith: It was the best thing that could’ve happened to our marriage. It was doomed prior to that. (Laughs)

Felicity Price: Basically, it was marriage counseling.

KDS: A lot of people anticipate that we would be admitting that there were tons of arguments and difficult but it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been more positive on a creative-level and a relationship-level. We’re kind of joined at the hip and the thing about this film is we were coming from exactly the same place. We had the same intentions and ambitions with it and things that we wanted to commit to and felt obligated to do so we were on the same wavelength which is important. Often, when you’re working collaboratively with someone you might be kind of jostling.

FP: I’ve attempted collaborations before and the projects very quickly kind of cave in because you’re just not seeing things eye-to-eye and you realize you’re making a different film. For us, it was the opposite of us fighting all the time. For people who are a couple and one’s in film and one’s not, suddenly they’re surrounded by how all-consuming it is and the other one is left out and also you’re surrounded by this kind of family that becomes your everything. For both of us, because this was Kieran’s feature debut and it was my first lead role in a film, it was both of our first produced feature length film so it’s been a wonderful journey to go on together. We’re also both sort of people who like to get completely absorbed in whatever kind of creative project that we’ve involved in so we are exactly the same in that way so we could talk about it all the time. It meant that we were brainstorming together and didn’t have to call up your writing partner on the phone.

All you’d have to do is turn next to you and there they were. So when you guys were writing this, were you, Felicity, always going to be Alice or was that something you figured out as you were going?

FP: No, I put her in the story from the beginning for myself. I had the idea for this treatment and when we sat down to write, we thought it was gonna be low-budget and I wanted to make it within the next 5 years rather than 10. So we knew it needed to be low-budget so we could raise the finances and I knew that I wanted a role for myself. Those were the two starting points.

KDS: Originally, the intention in the beginning was to make this film for 100,000 dollars. We were somehow going to scrape together five grand per friend and I was gonna play Dave and Felicity was going to play Alice and we were gonna rent a house in the suburbs.
FP: We were gonna rent the house, live in the house while we wrote the film and then shoot the film in the house. I was pregnant with our first child so we were gonna have Alice pregnant in the film and that’s where that kind of came from. In the film, I wasn’t pregnant but we originally were going to use the real pregnancy. It’s probably even harder to raise five grand from each friend then to raise the finances the way we did which was through the Australian government. Australia is a country where film is subsidized by the government so we were financed largely by Screen Australia.

In the opening shot of the film, we have Alice and Jeremy sitting on the beach and you ask the question, “If you could stay anywhere forever, where would it be?” and he says, “Here, or somewhere near here. Somewhere in Southeast Asia.” So had you guys been in Southeast Asia beforehand and is that what inspired you to set the story there?

FP: The inspiration for the film was kind of inspired by a true story that happened to a friend of ours. Kieran had gone to drama school with this girl and she knew the story fairly well and for me, it was something I vaguely knew. But this girl, probably about 20 years ago now, went traveling to Southeast Asia with her boyfriend at the time and another couple and the guy of that other couple went missing and to this day, he has never been found.

So it wasn’t as definitive as the ending of your film?

FP: For a couple of drafts, we also didn’t know where the character of Jeremy went but I think the thing is Southeast Asia is very close to Australia so a whole lot of Australians travel to Southeast Asia. Over there, your dollar is worth a lot so you come into town and you’re a king and you can stay in a nice hotel and dine out all the time and party. It tends to be a first port of call for young Australian travelers.

I lived in Thailand for a year and you would see Australian travelers on the beaches and all around more than any other nationalities. What made you guys want to set the film in a country like Cambodia rather than Thailand or Indonesia or these other highly visited tourist destinations?

KDS: We looked at everything. Originally, it was Bali.

FP: It moved around in the script for a long time.

KDS: Then I had a bit of a personal connection with Cambodia because my sister actually lives over there with her family. They’ve only been there about five years so they’d only been living there about a year before we started to write the movie. I’d been there a couple of times researching another movie and I’d always been incredibly attracted to the Cambodian history and was interested in the conflict there. When I first went there in the mid 90s, the war was still on but it was very quiet and sort of still a peaceful place. Phenom Penh was just a village with bicycles.

FP: It still is one of the wilder places of Southeast Asia.

Yeah it’s got a very different feeling from night to day in Cambodia even up around Siem Reap, where I visited.

KDS: When I went to Siem Reap the first time, it was a dusty little tiny village without a building over two stories.

Now you go down to the main drag and there’s just so many bright, neon lights that the electricity pops off every night.

KDS: And massive hotels, it’s changed so much.

FP: When I first went traveling in Thailand and Bali, it was such a different thing and now it’s really changed. It used to be so cheap but now it’s not, especially in the more high profile areas.

Cambodia does seem somewhat like the last refuge in everything being so dirt cheap.

KDS: There’s also a darkness there. There’s a tragic history and there’s a lot of lurking reminders of that. But on the flip side, you have these extraordinarily positive people who are letting all that go and just recreating their country. It’s a wonderful dichotomy. I think it’s as alluring as the first time I went to Thailand back in the 80s, it’s still maintained it’s danger and mystique. It’s slightly untapped, there’s been a couple feature films shot there over the years but not the many.

FP: Also shooting there was gonna be easy to get in and get out. We had a friend who was shooting ads there and in Vietnam. If you’re gonna make a film and you want to do it cheap, Cambodia is a great place to go. We had all the permissions to shoot in the areas but there’s not many permissions you need to get. It’s kind of just shoot whatever you want. You can use the whole country. It’s not like every street you shoot, you have to get a release form.

KDS: It’s very free. You just go over there with a camera and grab anything you want.

FP: Even in Thailand, they’re much more savvy about that kind of thing now.

Where did you guys shoot in Cambodia?

KDS:  Phnom Pehn and the travel down there- that little montage down the road. We thought that the cast would basically step off the aircraft in costume and we’d be rolling. We just shot everything we could all the time.

What was the biggest difference shooting in Australia compared to Cambodia aside from the expense?

FP: So many. Every time you shot even the side of a building in Australia, you have to have permission from all of those people.

KDS: There’s no real infrastructure in Cambodia. There’s not even really a local movie industry.

FP: Nor do they have very experienced film crews. These guys are like farmers coming in and swinging a light around. They don’t have that sense of pace. We didn’t take a make-up artist when we went to Cambodia and we got one there, who was probably the best in Cambodia, but he was so achingly slow. Also, the aesthetic was very different because their sense of television and movies are very different but we wanted to go for something realistic with hardly any makeup.

KDS: Everything was shot on location and things were just constantly evolving. Something would be pulled down and something new would come up. We’d been over there on a location scout a couple months earlier and locked in all of our locations and guaranteed they were gonna be fine and when we came back they were all gone and no one knew why so we had to start from scratch on locations. In Sydney, we were shooting with a very light on its feet crew so we could keep things small and flexible and spontaneous. Your camera department in Cambodia has about 30 people standing around.

FP: When you’re shooting in Australia, there’s always someone on your back about hours and regulations whereas in Cambodia, it was us, actors, heads of department, and we were all super keen about shooting whenever. It was more like everyone having a great time and being on holiday.

KDS: We had all local gear too. The lighting and everything was just old and falling to pieces plus we were really sick while we were there. Incredibly ill from dysentery. I fell into the sewer up to my neck on day one. I couldn’t even get washed down, I was covered in you can’t imagine for ages.

Kieran you said that originally you were going to play Dave, how did you wrangle the great Joel Edgerton into the production?

KDS: Full disclosure, he’s my really close friend. He was the best man at our wedding and is the godfather of one of our kids. We went to drama school together and then we moved into a house together so I’ve known him forever. Even when we decided to make this properly and go through all the hoops with the Australian government to finance it, we needed to get someone on board to play the role properly. I never considered that Joel would want to do it because it’s a low budget Australian films and at the time, we was filming these monstrous movies out in LA and I didn’t want to be rejected or put him in a position that was difficult. I was discussing with him all these other actors and he said, “Dude, what about me?” So he kind of volunteered himself. 

FP: Joel had seen every single draft of the script as a collaborator too.

Being his friend, what was that you for you Kieran to direct him and for you Felicity to act against him?

FP: He’s just such a great actor so it was so much fun.

KDS: As a director, I’m really big on performance. I’ve taught a lot of acting as well and I know that all good performance comes down to trust. If your actors trust you and you trust them and you have that total faith in one another and you have faith in the material then you’re gonna get a spontaneous environment where you’re gonna get great stuff. They’ll break their back for you but they’re not gonna do that if they don’t trust you. The great thing with Joel is we’d spend three years in drama school together, had lived together, had been in each other’s short films together. We knew each other intimately and what each other were capable of so trust was just there. Felicity also had trust in me purely because she knew me and I knew what truth was for her. I’d worked on movies where there are like five or six people in the lead and the actors weren’t trusting the director and so all the actors were directing themselves and doing their ego-driven version of the film.

So there is no singular direction.

KDS:  Exactly, you have seven actors trying to make seven different movies. I understand that, you want to feel safe and don’t want to come off with an egg on your face with everyone watching you. So if you have that trust, you have everything.

FP: I think the familiarity between Kieran and Joel and I really helped the film. In the movie, we’re not a couple that’s in the throes of love but in a fairly worn in relationship. Familiarity really helped because there was a leap that was already made that otherwise you might do through rehearsals. We only had a 25 day shoot. We did a week or something of rehearsals, I had a six-week old baby, we did it at our house, it was just Joel and I and we were just working though some scenes. We would go out to lunch and pretend we were a couple. Also, Joel knew very much where the story came from because he knew us.

The title of the film, ‘Wish You Were Here’, has been stirring in my mind as I try and figure out exactly what it’s referring to because it seems intentionally ambiguous and could go a couple of different ways.

KDS: Yeah. It was an eleventh hour decision and we went through many different names but we weren’t happy with the title that we shot under.

What was that?

KDS: It was called ‘Say Nothing’. It was more thriller-esque and generic but I knew there was something more evocative that had these other layers. I’d always been attracted to films with titles taken from a song lyric or album cover. Something with some familiarity. The Pink Floyd song ‘Wish You Were Here’, I’d grown up playing on guitar.

Which is equally melancholy.

KDS: Yeah, the great thing about it is that cliched sign off on the postcard “Wish you were here.”

FP: It’s the irony of that.

KDS: So there’s that reference and also it refers to, more than anyone, wishing that Dave was here, back with her.

FP: And on a more on-the-nose level, wishing Jeremy was back.

KDS: It referred to all of those things and seemed to encapsulate all of it. I knew not everyone was gonna like it but for me, it was the first one that had the musicality and cross meaning in its substance.

In the film, you paint Cambodia, as well as Southeast Asia in general, as this alluring place that also has this really seedy underbelly. In part, it does have the beauty of a postcard but there’s also this footnote where this is a cautionary tale.

FP: I don’t know how much this reaches the news here but there’s been these sad stories about dumb Australians who’ve got into trafficking drugs between Australian and these countries where you get the death penalty as a penalty. You would have to be insane to do it. 

That last scene really spoke to me when you flashback to the Cambodia guy who is asking them if you want marijuana or girls because that really is what it’s like in Cambodia when the lights go down. You have these people coming up and really pushing you towards.

FP: At night during the shoots, we would see these 60, 70 year old white guys with these young beautiful 20 year old or younger. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff and it’s just awful.

KDS: That last sequence that you’re talking about is all the real deal. It’s at the back of the port, this little strip of dust called Chicken Village and it’s just madness down there. It’s where the poorest of the poor fisherman and dockworkers go to procure working girls and often the working girls are 20. It’s all mafia run and is dangerous and sketchy as hell. You couldn’t go there without permission but everything you see is real and everyone we used in the movie are all non-actors.

FP: In the writing of the film we were interested in this stuff. For me, I’d traveled in Europe as a young woman on my own and some guy would come up and say, “Do you want to do this?” and I’d go off. Now I go, “The things that could have happen”. In Southeast Asia, it’s often that guys will drink too much and people will see it and think the amount of times that they’re come that close. The difference is luck. You just didn’t meet the wrong person. We were exploring that idea that when you go on holidays, you don’t have as many inhibitions and you let yourself go a little bit.

What are you guys going to work on next? Do you have anything in the pipeline already?

FP: Yeah, we’ve moved from Australia to LA and we’ve got a whole array of things that are going on. Kieran is attached to direct a couple of films that he didn’t write that are really beautiful as well as directing one that he has written. I’m in the second draft of a psychological thriller. We’re about to start writing another project together for another director.

KDS: There’s an awful lot going on and right now it’s just juggling plates. Nothing is in production really. We’re all in various stages of casting and financing really so we don’t know what will go first. We’re really, really busy.

FP: I’m now going out as an actor for a lot of things.

Are you attached to anything so far?

FP: No. I got a green card just recently so I’ve only had a working visa since February.

KDS: I will formally attach you right now to a role.

Breaking news. Felicity is now cast in Kieran’s next film.

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