Without fear:
Interview with Luke Sullivan

by Bill Mousoulis

Bill Mousoulis interviews film director Luke Sullivan, who at 24 has already made two features,
the latest of which, Reflections in the Dust (2018, 74 mins) premiered at Karlovy Vary Film Festival
in 2018, before seemingly being ignored by the major festivals in Australia, and which was then
released theatrically in Australia by The Backlot Films in March 2019.

Congratulations on your film Reflections in the Dust.  I haven’t seen your debut feature You’re Not Thinking Straight from a few years ago, but Reflections in the Dust is one of the most striking and dynamic Australian films I’ve seen in recent years.  There are actually a number of filmmakers in Australia currently in their 20s who are working on the fringes and creating bold work, so I have some hope currently for Australian cinema, which has been mired in mediocre naturalism for many years now.  Reflections is like a bolt from the blue, more in line with grotesque European art cinema a la Bela Tarr or early Werner Herzog.  Where did this style come from for you?  Are you a fan of surreal, dark European cinema?  Or has this style risen in you instinctively, natively?

Thank you so much! I completely agree. To a certain extent, this film was born out of frustration with how fucking boring and bureaucratic the Australian film industry is becoming. We need the next generation to spice things up and progress the artform! I really do hope this film can inspire young filmmakers to have no fear and push the boundaries. 

Where has my personal style come from? To be honest, I draw very little inspiration from other films or filmmakers. At least on a conscious level. Rather, I like to think of my style as my way of viewing the world. Most occurrences in this movie I can directly relate to real-life experiences I have had... these experiences could range from something I have simply heard in passing, to something much deeper. But it's all from real life, in some way. 

Sarah Houbolt and Robin Royce Queree in Reflections in the Dust.

Every artistic element in the film is razor sharp for me, the cinematography, the acting, the music.  How do you work with your collaborators?  Do you try to “push” them to give you something authentic and bold, or do you give them space to find that authenticity themselves?

If you are looking for authenticity, you need to give your collaborators space, be patient with them and foster a safe environment where they are comfortable to express themselves. Or else it's just you and your ideas; which isn't authentic at all, it's self-indulgent and one-dimensional. This film would be nothing without all the amazing, talented perspectives that contributed to the vision in their own unique way. I could use many examples from the film to show this, but for me the most powerful is how Sarah Houbolt drew from her experiences living with a disability to give life, and perhaps more importantly, truth to a character that finds herself in an inescapable, suffocating situation. It's heartbreaking and beautiful. It makes me emotional just thinking about it. 

Luke Sullivan on location shooting the film.

I love the double-barrelled form of the film, that wedded to the fictional narrative there is a “meta-narrative” documentary interview spliced in between, intermittently.  It’s like a psychoanalyst has plucked the characters from the film, asked them about their lives, and filmed the answers.  It’s an interesting self-reflexive essayistic technique, similar to Godard let’s say, but your configuration is quite unique.  How did you come up with this idea?

This idea was birthed only weeks before the shoot. I found myself paranoid that the story was missing an element of authenticity. I spoke to my producers, actors and family about this, and they all disagreed. They thought the story was perfect and ready to be shot. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing, no matter what I did. Then, when we were deep into pre-production, I had a lightbulb moment - What if, forgetting about the characters they play, I asked the ACTORS about the themes I explore in the story and incorporate their real-life experiences into the film? Essentially, turning the whole piece into this batshit crazy drama-documentary hybrid, where you don't know if what you are witnessing is real or not. Ultimate authenticity. It all sounded completely crazy on paper, and my producers were far from impressed, but ultimately I think we pulled it off. I'm so glad you appreciated it! 

I found myself paranoid that the story was missing an element of authenticity.

Robin Royce Queree's "interview" in the film. In colour, contrasting against the B&W of the main story.

Thematically, your film is cutting.  OK, it’s like many other films about abuse, but there’s an edge to your treatment that I really like – the actors express the nightmare and the violence of the abusive relationship in a very strong way, and the script is magnificent, it is not afraid to delve into the dark terrain. The man and his daughter are so intertwined that it’s like a horror film at times, with no escape for the woman.  Can you describe your scripting process, the methods you use to push yourself beyond all the usual cliches?

If you want to avoid the usual cliches and delve into dark terrain, you need to tell stories without fear. How do I define telling stories without fear? Being authentic and not censoring how fucked up the world is. Too often I come across films that try and delve into serious real-life issues such as abuse, and they fall flat. Why is this? Because they are soft and gloss over the harsh realities of these situations. They just aren't real.

An interesting example from Reflections in the Dust is the use of the word 'cunt'. Everyone who read the script, especially Screen Australia, thought the word was used excessively and to the point of ridiculousness. But I thought that was rubbish. My argument? THERE REALLY ARE putrid and abusive blokes in Australia, like The Clown, who use the word in every single sentence. To that exact point of supposed 'ridiculousness'. All you have to do is leave your Eastern Suburbs estate and go to the local pub or the footy to witness this. Why do we have to censor shit like this just because it is a film script? Why can't we write from a place of complete and absolute truth? I could use many more examples and go on about this for years, but I'll leave it at this. Our industry are a bunch of wimps.

If you want to avoid the usual cliches and delve into dark terrain, you need to tell stories without fear.


Sarah Houbolt and Robin Royce Queree in Reflections in the Dust.

I love all the side characters, these haunted, lonely, loveless drifters, “snatching” at moments with our two protagonists.  The film is nightmarish in that it suggests that neither loneliness or relationships are any good.  How did you come up with these side characters, and, to echo the psychoanalyst’s question to the woman, do you believe in love?

I definitely believe in love. I love my mother, father, brother and girlfriend beyond words. With this being said, I don't think love is always good. Love can make people forget who they are... it can make them paranoid and desperate...  it can even make them abusive and evil. As seen in this film. I think in order to experience the beauty of love, and not let it take you down a dark path, you must first love yourself. Everyone in Reflections in the Dust hates themselves and this is why their relationships are so toxic and ultimately destructive. 

Funnily enough, the side characters are inspired by real-life, bizarre people who I come across from time-to-time. I may see them at the pub, or at the beach, or on the bus. I just have a habit of coming across them and they are weird as fuck. They will never know parts of this film are about them, I don't think. Which is pretty hilarious. 

Sarah Houbolt and Robin Royce Queree in Reflections in the Dust.

You have a bold confidence in yourself, and you have been critical of Australian film organisations and festivals. How do you view Australian cinema currently?  Is there any hope for it to change and become a bit bolder and more interesting?  

It's pretty pathetic and fake. And I'm not only talking about the films when I say that, but also the people. 

There are definitely some legends out there who are producing extraordinary work. I love Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Warwick Thornton, for instance. But in general this country is producing incredibly weak and forgettable cinema. I think it's a travesty that millions of taxpayer dollars can go into one totally bland, generic and hopeless film, when that same money could have funded ten projects like Reflections in the Dust.

The people at the top have no interest in being bold. They are indifferent to taking risks, discovering new talent and progressing the artform. They only care about politics. With this being said, I doubt they will be around for much longer at the rate they are going. Whereas I'm not going anywhere for a very, very long time. So I'm not too concerned. 

Our industry are a bunch of wimps.

Producer Giovanni de Santolo (left) with Luke Sullivan at Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 2018.

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

Published April 13, 2019. © Bill Mousoulis and Luke Sullivan, 2019