Shoots The Port Arthur Massacre

by Mike Retter

Mike Retter interviews film director and actor Paul Moder.


Film director and actor Paul Moder has embarked on a cinematic retelling of the Port Arthur Massacre, which goes into full production 2019, under the title of WASP. But unlike the current wave of "true crime", Moder attempts to unpick the official version of events and create a rare piece of Australian revisionist-history cinema. Well before it's made, WASP is already very controversial, but it continues a lineage of pessimism and historical revisionism that started in late 1960s with films like Blow Up, Parallax View and reaching crescendo with Oliver Stone's JFK in 1991. 



Mike Retter: You starred in one of the most operatically violent Australian films, Mark Savage's Sensitive New Age Killer but the film you are now making is a very different kind of gun violence. What is WASP and what drew you to the subject?


Paul Moder: I generally take issue when people accuse a film of being gratuitously violent. In any film where there is gun violence, the filmmaker still needs to address why a character picks up a gun in the first case. With Sensitive New Aged Killer for instance, the character is a hitman by trade, but the film’s conflict stems from his desire to follow his hero (The Snake, played by Frank Bren) and reconcile his career ambitions with his complicated personal relationships. It’s really a metaphor for anybody with extraordinary ambitions trying to balance that with a normal, personal life. It’s the same for any film where there is a catalyst for any form of conflict, as conflict forms the basis of all drama. Usually when somebody criticises a film with gun violence they inevitably mention Quentin Tarantino or John Woo. These are two disparate and stylised filmmakers. Tarantino is known for his dialogue play and messing with the narrative and Woo’s style is an almost balletic depiction of violence and thematic exploration of friendship and loyalty. The gunplay, though prolific, takes a back seat to storytelling and directorial style in this regard.


WASP is very different again. Much of my writing, filmmaking and theatre, is about holding up a mirror to the audience and shoving their face hard up against the glass. It’s brutally confronting and painfully truthful, which is why I’m not a popular artist. With the tragedy of the Port Arthur Massacre, I recognised it for what it was, madness. The movie as a result, will not be a ‘movie’ per se, something you can fit into a neat little entertainment box and walk away from unaffected. My intention with this film is to put madness on the screen, which to me, is what art is, madness in a frame, barely contained. In this, the story appeals, because it will be a cinematic experience unlike any other and will permit me a channel into a deeper core of creative endeavour. 


Martin Bryant.. Or is it?

My understanding is that WASP will not be telling the Port Arthur Massacre's official version of events, but will be much more ambiguous. Are you suggesting Martin Bryant was not the gunman?


Anyone and I do mean anyone, who wants to look beyond the mainstream story, will discover that the event is full of ambiguity. I’m also not just talking about the ‘tin foil hat’ conspiracy theorists so readily decried by those desperate to stay within the bubble (though some of these do take too great a leap into conjecture). I’ve dug deep, deeper than most, spoken to the police directly involved, the victims, survivors and inmates who were inside with Bryant and there is ton of factual circumstance on public record, anomalies, legal improprieties and supported evidence (witness statements, etc.) that suggest there was more to Port Arthur than the lone nut scenario. Trouble is, you can’t prove it. It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove. There is the remainder of a thirty year seal on the hard evidence, so until that is released, the only thing that put Martin Bryant away for life was his confession. Is a confession enough? Do your research into the case, then ask yourself that question, but don’t dare criticise anyone for asking questions until you do. I’d strongly suggest Noel McDonald’s ‘A Presentation on the Port Arthur Incident: Prelude to a Royal Commission’, which is a solid start, it’s very scientific. I cannot get in to see Martin Bryant. The hammer came down hard before I even formally applied and was sledged by a succession of appeals to the prison board and various corrections ministers. Do he do it? I don’t know for certain, I certainly think he was murderously culpable and capable to some extent. Was he set up and ‘helped’? Once again, I don’t know, but there is a deluge of evidence (albeit circumstantial) that suggests this was the case. Finally, was he guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Absolutely not. There should have been a coronial inquest and open trial and firm determination of this. Why? You ask, why would some shadowy component of our government murder men, women and children for something as politically puerile as gun control? It’s too weak. You’re right. Firstly, governments and their military/intelligence arms, throughout history, can and do commit murder in the name of the four primary motivations for crime. Money, power, control and influence. Secondly, innocent people can and have been convicted of crimes and imprisoned and later found to be innocent. Don’t believe me? Do your research or stay in the bubble and trust in the powers that be.


I’ve received death threats and much criticism. - Paul Moder



I managed to see a proof-of-concept trailer for WASP at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in October of this year. It was actually one of the most well-received things that screened there, generating a huge audience reaction. But what has the wider reaction been with screen funding bodies and elsewhere? What have you encountered on your journey into production?


I couldn’t have picked a harder film to make. The trailer was a small taste of the madness I spoke of earlier. The overall feeling that you don’t quite know what you’re looking at, but something’s not right and it’s something you don’t want to look at. This is the film Australia doesn’t want made, for all kinds of reasons, some of which I understand. I don’t want to distress the first responders, good people of Tasmania, or those affected by the tragedy, as I have the utmost respect for them. By its nature, this will be an independent film. I’ve taken it to the US, UK and some of our main local players responded with interest, but a wary ‘no’. I’ve received death threats and much criticism. I have taken various forms of ‘insurance’ in the remote chance something occurs to thwart my attempts to make this film. Call it paranoia, but if, IF there were other forces at play that horrendous day, then my life is worth little by comparison. And IF something transpires, I urge all to look deeper as it will not be what it seems. The journey is ongoing and I have other projects on the go, but WASP WILL be made in 2019. I’ll be posting the trailer in due course, so keep an eye out for it and check out the facebook page WASP The Port Arthur Massacre for updates and info.


Image from WASP proof of concept teaser

How and when was your life threatened over this project and what happened exactly? 


Immediately after the press release on my intention to make the film. There was a storm of controversy. There was a lot of support from those who wanted the story told, but a lot of fury and outrage as well. I weathered the storm from LA at the time where I was shoring up financing and it got worse when I got back. I started getting hate mail on the Facebook page, including people threatening to find out where I lived and 'pay me a visit' One person sent a message suggesting a scene for the film where the director is filming in Tasmania and someone shoots him from afar, stopping the film from going ahead. I also had a lot of messages from people purportedly in the know, warning me to 'watch my back'. Some of these were ex police and military. I took it all in my stride and stated that whoever brings that to my door will unleash Hell, as I'm no namby pamby filmmaker and quite capable in other regards. It got pretty heated and I upgraded my security for myself and loved ones as a result. 


Being a filmmaker myself, I’m aware of the madness that comes with artistic obsession. But what happens when you are researching a topic like this and discovering radically different points of view that may make you question reality as we know it?


I made that leap a long time ago. It’s not reality, it’s the perception of reality. I know madness, death and the dark core of us all firsthand, up close and personal (came close to death on a few occasions and know violence through various quarters). There is only the thinnest veneer of control over so called civilised life. I remember watching a night footy game in Melbourne where the power failed during the match. In a matter of minutes, the crowd rioted, set fires, pulled down the goal posts and committed assault. Remember the football stadium after Hurricane Katrina? The LA race riots? It’s all good in the bright, cheery light of democracy, when the lights go out and the control goes, people will eat each other. As for madness, I’m tethered by a few remaining sandbags and gradually, I snip these away til one day, the balloon will float off to Lala land, with me grinning like a happy loon at the gas valve. Or, in the immortal words of Gonzo journalist, Hunter S Thompson, “It never got weird enough for me”. I’m joking of course, or am I?


Waleed Aly tried his best to box me into the tin foil hat corner, but I ripped him apart instead. - Paul Moder


You were interviewed by Channel Ten's "The Project" about these issues, how did that go? Were they interested in this alternative point of view? 


Ha! I’m a little more media savvy than most think. The media are like a pack of rabid Hyenas, throw 'em the occasional lump of blooded bone and they’ll nip at each other’s heels and surround you with happy, slavering jaws. But sometimes, they’ll turn on you and rip you to pieces in the scrum. I knew what The Project (that paragon of journalistic integrity) would do before going in, namely butcher the interview, which they did. So, I wisely went online beforehand and heralded this. Sure enough, they cut the interview from fourteen minutes to one and a half. This because Waleed Aly tried his best to box me into the tin foil hat corner, but I ripped him apart instead. It was worth it to see the crestfallen look on the panel’s faces at the end of the segment. Reassuringly, most of the media came out in defence of me, or at least neutrally reported the story after the attempted hijack. I think I pissed Waleed off as I once described him as ‘one of the legion of bleached teeth infomercial salesmen masquerading as journalists’. That’s just mainstream media hooey. MSM is dying a slow and pathetic death. They need to get ‘emselves buried, they’re walkin’ around dead, they just don’t know it yet.


What is your advice to filmmakers who have stories that Government arts bureaucracies don't want told?


Easy. Make the movie anyway. As a producer, my creed is, be like a terrier on a rat, don’t let go. On set, it's ‘Get the shot, no matter what’. Ultimately, they can’t stop you. By all means, be savvy and careful and back yourself up, but hey, it’s just a movie or doco, it’s not a terrorist cell ... (depending how you make it). I know how they’ll come at me, if they do. Wait and see huh? 


WASP - The Port Arthur Massacre


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 November 20, 2018. © Mike Retter and Paul Moder, 2018