Dry Winter

by Mike Retter

Sometimes the best things come out of a sense of crisis. Crisis forces change. When in Adelaide recently, the most prestigious university film degree had no honours applications, Flinders took the radical decision to produce feature films during honours year to entice new interest. The first round of completed feature projects has already spawned an excellent art-film called Dry Winter ... A collaboration between Flinders honours students and some young residents of the regional South Australian town of Cowell. It stands as one of the most promising Adelaidian cinematic works for several years, stylistically harkening back to Kriv Stenders’ Boxing Day and striking the tone of Justin Kurzel's Snowtown


I spoke with the creative gang-of-four behind the film in an On The Run service-station, right as the coffee machine was broken and Fleurieu Milk Company ice coffees were being opened. I asked how much of this film was written and how much was off the cuff... 


Bridget McDonald (writer): At the start of development we began to describe our leads as the “last kids left in town,” and in our first day in Cowell, we were told that the town’s area school had only three students in year 12. Travelling around and getting a sense of the landscapes and lifestyle of the place helped with both visualising the action and understanding the culture and rhythm of the town.


We had such a strict, tight timeline for this project that the bulk of the writing had to be done before we had cast our leads, let alone met them in person. As far as I know this is quite unusual for this style of filmmaking, as you would normally aim to spend more time with your cast before writing. Our collaboration with the actors really began in earnest on set. The final draft of the script was complete when we went down to Cowell to shoot, and I had tried as best I could to let our brief meetings with our leads, Courtney and Andy, inform their characters. As the shoot went on and we got to know Courtney and Andy better, we modified scenes to better suit them as people, and let them be freer and more comfortable in front of the camera. They suggested ideas for their scenes to us, and the script mainly served to ensure that all the story beats and emotional logic remained intact throughout these changes.


"There’s lots of people and movies and books and even if their ideas clash they still have unique ways of working." - Kyle Davis




Mike: What kind of aesthetic influences were there on this project?

Kyle Davis (Director): Nick Godfrey (Flinders lecturer) showed us Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail and Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side at pretty much the same time and while different a lot made sense. I like directors who work in interesting ways, of course it has to be matched by the actual work but to see people approaching process with the same passion they’d have for actors or cameras is always nice. I’m sure everyone does this in their own way, but not all of them are worth paying attention to. People like Werner Herzog seem to treat productions as feats. Roberto Minervini has some small and strict rules for himself and collaborators. Robert Bresson has a whole book of ideas that you can at least think about when you’re going to make something. Larry Clark puts non-actors in films. 

There’s lots of people, movies and books and even if their ideas clash they still have unique ways of working. It was important to keep to our own thing once we’d compared ourselves and defined the sort of movie we wanted to make. People in Cowell showed us a lot of videos and photos. As soon as there was a methodology we could just focus on making the movie, rather than thinking and comparing to other filmmakers. By keeping the crew small and keeping consistent with camera and no equipment it was easier to focus on the right stuff. By the time it came to the shoot, it felt like the work was ours. 

Starting out on a shrewd budgetary condition makes for lean filmmaking says producer Michael Harpas ...


Michael Harpas (producer): We were very lucky that Flinders looked to introduce a feature filmmaking option into their honours program as we were reaching the end of our third year. We knew we had to be frugal with our spending, but we were able to develop a production methodology to suit the budget. We also had to meet a turnaround time of around 10 months. Concept development started in February, and delivery was due in November. This meant we didn’t have time to slacken off. We were committed to working hard each day to ensure we would get the film finished by the deadline. It made for a very busy year during which we naturally became very attached to the project. 


We kept things basic, and made the most of the resources we had available. Once we got to Cowell and began getting to know the town and what it had to offer, a whole range of new resources and possibilities became available. We are very grateful to Cowell. 


Mike: Shooting on location is often difficult and costly. Dry Winter was filmed in the regional South Australian town of Cowell. What about your production methodology was efficient to get this film over the line? 


Everyone was very kind, they almost thought it was strange we asked to shoot there. I guess it’s because filmmaking isn’t something country towns are often exposed to. Some people found it really interesting and wanted to know all about the project, others weren’t too fazed but were happy to help nonetheless. Because Cowell is located around five hundred kilometers from Adelaide on the eastern side of the Eyre Peninsula, travel and accommodation costs were a concern. We opted to shoot the film over a 20-day block in July to avoid the expenses associated with traveling back and forth. 


In terms of our crew structure, we kept it light. We couldn’t afford a large crew, and it didn’t suit the production’s methodology anyway. As part of our documentary-style approach, we planned to use only natural light, as well as a consistent camera set-up using a shoulder-rig and single lens throughout the entire shoot. This meant less crew members were needed and those on set were able to undertake dual roles, constantly crossing over departments and helping out in different areas when needed. 


".. the perfect action or nuance is worth more than perfectly exposing or keeping the camera steady .." - Gere Fuss




Mike: There are moments in the cinematography that break "rules" in terms of excessive camera-shake and over-exposure, but they tend to be the strongest visual moments in the film. Were these moments found on location and was it always your intention to break these rules? 


Gere Fuss (Cinematographer): I suppose I don’t really think about rules when handling the camera. Excessive camera shake and over-exposure are just a result of capturing the moment. I would much rather do that than not get the shot, especially for a movie like Dry Winter where the perfect action or nuance is worth more than perfectly exposing or keeping the camera steady. For example the shot of Jake in the back of the ute is excessively shaky because the road was incredibly rocky and I couldn’t keep the camera still on my shoulder but I still needed to see the emotion in his face. It has always been my intention to capture each shot as best as I can and as true to my surroundings as possible. 


Mike: Some of the mise en scene looks directly from life, like the way the dogs enter the yard and circle their owner while she puts out the washing. As a cinematographer, what’s it like to just run with it, almost unscripted?


These are the best moments. I never knew that one puppy, let alone three puppies, would enter the bottom of the frame as I was shooting. A lot of it is keeping your calm and remaining focused on keeping the shot nicely arranged, but seeing something in front of your eyes play out so well can make it hard to remember to keep some sort of composition in the shot. The mise en scene in the film is entirely directly from life. 


Taken from the upcoming Cinema Now Zine 2019


Mike Retter is a film director, of the indie feature Youth On The March, creator of the zine "Cinema Now", and the Podcast "Meat Bone Express", and part of the Port Film Co-op.

Published May 18, 2019. © Mike Retter and Dry Winter, 2019