Mark La Rosa on
My Friend the Moon

by Bill Mousoulis

Bill Mousoulis interviews film director Mark La Rosa
about his 2nd feature film My Friend the Moon.

Phil McInnes and Petra Glieson in My Friend the Moon

Bill Mousoulis: Firstly, congratulations on completing My Friend the Moon, your 2nd feature in a career spanning over 30 years now. You work in a meticulous manner and always without government funding or investors/sponsors. What drives you on as a filmmaker, and what are the benefits of making films completely independently?


Mark La Rosa: Thank you. I was fortunate to receive an arts grant from the City of Melbourne to complete this film, so I can no longer say that I have always been entirely self-funded. But the grant did not impose any restrictions on me regarding the film itself. And the project was nearing completion anyway, so I was left alone to make the film I wanted to make. That is the benefit of being largely self-reliant - you are free to realise the vision in your head without constraint. Even the modest budget is not really limiting because I choose stories that are logistically simple to realise on film. In the case of My Friend the Moon, it involved two characters in a landscape, the same formula as my last film. What could be simpler than that?


So the freedom is the main benefit. Another might be the confidence of knowing that all the toil involved in writing a script will be rewarded with a finished film somewhere down the line. That often does not happen when you need the approval of others - investors or funding bodies - to get to the next stage. I consider myself a very free narrative filmmaker. I don’t answer to anyone and the experience of making a film is a pure and largely uncompromised one.



I was initially startled, but then pleased, by the muted, desaturated colour scheme you use for the film. And even the film footage that the characters shoot is further in that direction, being monochrome. How do you reconcile these stylistics with the natural colour and resonances of the volcanic landscapes? (Your 1st feature, Boundless, for example, had the landscapes in their natural colour.)


The colours of the landscape in the south-eastern corner of the country are fairly muted. Within this limited palette, there are many shades of green and brown. The film is not far off in reproducing these colours, but it is desaturated, as you say. In fact, I initially experimented going further in that direction, trying for a tinted black and white. That did not work, so instead I went for a combination of a film LUT and a bleach bypass look, combined with a desaturation of colour. In a metaphorical sense, this brings the audience closer to sharing Elsa’s subjective experience of the world. I had no choice with the 16mm footage, as the lab I was using could only process black and white stock. But I knew this beforehand and recognised early on that it would only enhance the film overall.


I’d like to point out that my last feature, Boundless, had colouring that was very much exaggerated. The blue, blue sky and the red, red earth are not something you would find in that part of the world. Not like they appear in that film anyway. They are more in line with something that might appear in a tourist brochure. The characters in that film look as though they have overdosed on carotene.



You are very disciplined in this film with the focus on the two main characters, middle-aged siblings Elsa and Martin, with no other characters entering the frame. It's a very probing psychological portrait in the end, of both characters, a deep and bleak portrait of troubled minds and what Thoreau called "the quiet desperation" of life. It reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's cinema in a way. When writing the script, did you push yourself more and more to get this depth in the characterisations?


I always set out to make the richest film I possibly can. By rich I mean containing currents and cross currents of ideas, as well as a metaphorical or symbolic layer to everything. And then to work out how to communicate these ideas across the length of the film, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. To get there I take my time writing a script. Many months of writing. Even years. Sometimes you need to sit with something for a while before the ideas surface. Often you find yourself going backwards, as ideas or themes are discarded. It’s not a straightforward process. My Friend the Moon took me eighteen months to write, though I had lived with the rudiments of the story in my head for a while before that. That is quite quick for me.


Ideally, what I am trying to reproduce is the depths I see around me, or at least to hint at those depths. The film is based on the premise that the world - the real world - and the people in it are bottomless and ultimately unknowable. Hence the many scenes of Elsa pensively smoking. We don’t know, and will never know, what she is thinking.


The Thoreau quote might be applied to Martin’s plight, stuck with a job he finds unfulfilling, but the difficulties that the siblings are experiencing stem from something very specific - their treatment by their father, who could be regarded as a third character in the film, often talked about but never seen.



The two main actors, Petra Glieson and Phil McInnes, are superb, their performances are very grounded and resonant for the characters they are playing. Glieson in particular, in portraying the insomniac and depressed Elsa, is extraordinary with her face and body, it is one of the most unselfconscious performances I've seen in a long time. Was there was a lot of preparation, with rehearsals, before the shoot, and then ample time during the shoot, for you to hone these performances?


We rehearsed in the two weeks leading up to the shoot. That’s when all the essential preparation took place, ensuring we all grasped the characters and the story/backstory. There is never ‘ample’ time on a film shoot, but there was enough time to give the performances the attention they needed. It helped that the rehearsal time had enabled the actors and myself to be on the same page. All that was needed was small adjustments here or there.


Directing actors is not an exact science. Sometimes you need to suggest something, other times you need to hold back and wait for the actor to arrive at what’s needed. Sometimes you have a little discussion about what’s happening at that moment in the story, which seems to focus everyone’s minds. It’s helpful to always go back to character motivation. I rely not just on the actor’s talent and skill, but also on their own life experiences. Is what’s written in the script credible? Does it line up with what you know through your own experience? Acting, like writing, makes use of everything you’ve ever thought and felt, and what you know of other people.


I should mention too, that initially I had planned to photograph the film myself, but after the first day of shooting I realised that my camera assistant knew more about cinematography than I did, and so I handed that responsibility over to him. Freed of that duty, I could concentrate more on the performances. That helped a lot.


I won't give it away, but the ending is beautiful and totally transcendental, and appropriate for a film about filmmaking. You have spoken about the influence "transcendental" filmmakers like Ozu and Bresson have had on you. What does this mean for you, to have a "transcendental style" in your cinema, and what is the relation for you between life and art?


The idea for the ending came to me very late in the writing process. It was one of those ‘eureka’ moments. A rare thing for me. I remember feeling quite happy at finally being able to bring together the two strands of the film - the drama and the mock documentary. I think the ending resonates and lingers in the mind. That’s the ending you want!


Is it ‘transcendental” though? My understanding of transcendental is that it points to something outside of the familiar world that we all experience and suggests something spiritual. I don’t see any of this in the ending, or anywhere else in the film. My Friend the Moon is grounded in everyday reality. Nowhere do I see any indication of something more. The characters are psychologically drawn. I think this makes it the antithesis of a so called ‘transcendental’ film.


I don’t see Ozu’s films as being transcendental either. One of the things I most admire about his work is that it is set in the everyday world, amongst working people with ordinary jobs and families at home. The films do not stray from these commonplace settings. The style is exquisite, but no other reality is hinted at or implied in it that I can see. There is no escape. Likewise, I think the story of My Friend the Moon is realistic in that something like what the characters are experiencing could, and probably does, occur everyday.


I am curious to know Paul Schrader’s definition of ‘transcendental’. I read his book decades ago and I can’t remember any of it. What evidence does he offer for Ozu being a ‘transcendental’ artist? Bresson and Dreyer maybe, with some films. But Ozu?


What is the relation between life and art for me? The question is too big to answer here. I can say that I feel compelled to comment on Life as I experience it. The world comes to me in a flux of sensations. Art creates order and meaning. That is as good an answer as I can come up with on a lazy Sunday afternoon.



You are in your mid-50s now and seemingly in the prime of your filmmaking career. Do you hope this film of yours can get a bit more attention than your previous works? Maybe through some international festivals? Do you have any hope for Australian cinema, or is it doomed to always favour basic genre films and quirky comedies?


One always hopes for as many screenings as possible. You make the film to be seen, after all. But getting into this or that festival will not make My Friend the Moon a better film. And the inverse is true also. I believe I have made a good film with the resources available to me and I am happy with that. I have no expectations. Each screening is a bonus.


I don’t see enough Australian films to have a view. Most of the ones I see are arthouse. I can’t remember being disappointed with any of them. There’ll always be a hunger to make films in this country and there will always be good films made here. My concern is more a global one. Cinema - meaning watching films in a purpose built cinema where they can be properly appreciated - is being displaced by other technologies. It is no longer as prominent in the cultural landscape as it once was. The money is moving away to other platforms and other forms of moving image. Where will AI take us?


I don’t mind genre films. They are able to draw an audience because they present variations within a familiar container. They are the backbone of the industry and provide employment. But narrative film - which is itself one slender band of a wide spectrum - is an open art form as far as I am concerned. Genre films are merely points on a vast landscape with a distant horizon. We tend to follow well worn routes, making familiar films because they attract a sizeable audience and deliver the admiration and validation that we crave. On the other hand, to head off for that distant horizon in a new direction is something special. With each step taken, narrative film expands. It’s a difficult journey, a lonely journey, but one worth taking.



My Friend the Moon
has its World Premiere screening this Friday, September 8, at 8:00 pm in Melbourne, at Cinema Nova, with an extra screening on September 10 at 4:00 pm. Both screenings are free and you can book a seat through here.

Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker since 1982, and occasional writer and programmer.

Published September 4, 2023. © Bill Mousoulis and Mark La Rosa, 2023