Australia (MIFF 2021)
Director: Aaron Wilson
Co-written by The Slap author Christos Tsiolkas, this affecting period drama depicts a newly-single father’s efforts to weather the turbulence of change – in his life and in the world around him.
Introverted Leo is a steelworker at his small town’s local plant. After his wife abandons him without explanation, leaving him to care for their two young children, he is bereft – barely able to cook a decent meal or keep the household running. So when a recently-arrived Italian colleague suggests that his sister, Maria, act as surrogate homemaker, Leo reluctantly accepts. But can one woman’s warm, nurturing presence fill the void left by another, and can Leo yield to the winds of change?
The accomplished second narrative feature from MIFF Accelerator Lab alumnus Aaron Wilson (Canopy) distils the many upheavals of 1970s Australia – from immigration and post-war resettlement, to urbanisation, anti–Vietnam War protests and the women’s liberation movement – into a narrative about one man’s struggle to adapt. The moody, textural cinematography by Stefan Duscio (The Dry) conjures a rural backwater that is both specific to its time period and almost untethered from time, while the performances by Mark Leonard Winter (Balibo, MIFF Premiere Fund 2009) as Leo, Robert Menzies (Glitch) as his traumatised WWII-vet father and Silvia Colloca (Van Helsing) as Maria inject spirit into a story with loss at its core. Supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund, Little Tornadoes is a portrait of a country at a turning point and the human desire for connection.
The accomplished second narrative feature from MIFF Accelerator Lab alumnus Aaron Wilson (Canopy) distils the many upheavals of 1970s Australia – from immigration and postwar resettlement, to urbanisation, anti–Vietnam War protests and the women’s liberation movement – into a narrative about one man’s struggle to adapt. We spoke to Wilson about depicting the migrant experience of the 1970s, shooting over an extended period and working with co-writer Christos Tsiolkas on his MIFF Premiere Fund–supported feature.
Little Tornadoes is a period film crafted with extraordinary texture and attention to detail. What was your process like for recreating this 1970s Australia, and what led you to set the story in this time period?
Aaron Wilson: I was very conscious about getting the right feeling for the time period – like a memory of that time, rather than making every detail spot-on. For example, some of the combine harvesters we see in the paddocks are not period-accurate, but I decided to include them because they added much-needed dramatic weight and presence to the story and reinforced the feeling of isolation in the world. My production designer, costume designer, cinematographer and I worked very hard to ensure there was a lived-in authenticity and personal intimacy to everything in frame, where growing up in rural Australia means items in the world are very functional, well-worn and well-loved. The film is also set some years before I was born, but it’s still the same world I grew up in and have heard about through many stories. We took advice and guidance from many storytellers and town elders to help shape and refine the look of each scene.
We continued this philosophy into post-production, where my composer and music supervisor embraced instrumentation and songs that evoke a feeling of what might have been playing on the radio at the time. The idea was to seduce audiences into a world that felt like the past, in a romantic way, even though the story and subject matter are emotionally intense.
The film is set in 1971 during a period of great social upheaval in our country, and I feel it parallels what people are feeling today. Not just in Australia, but everywhere. It is a very relevant and timeless story about despair, frustration and a feeling of helplessness in the face of change.
Ultimately, Little Tornadoes is a story of people struggling with change and also craving connection. What drew you to these themes, and do you believe there is a timelessness to these ideas?
The motivation for the story in Little Tornadoes came from wanting to tell a follow-up story to my first feature, Canopy, and thus continuing my exploration of the rural world of my birth. Canopy is set in Singapore during the Japanese invasion of February 1942, focusing on a rural Australian man and the birthplace of trauma that will go on to affect his family upon his physical return home after the war. Little Tornadoes is set 30 years after Canopy, and looks at what might happen to the next generation of this man’s family as a consequence of his war experience. Little Tornadoes isn’t really a sequel – it’s a film about these sorts of everyday regional families that live with the resonant effects of war and how it affects interfamilial communication. It’s a portrait of intergenerational conflict at a time when the country around them is going through great social change.
Underneath it all is a story about the feeling of being stuck and unable to express yourself. This is very relevant for how the world feels today, as we continue to face great change, fearful of an unknown future. The film speaks intimately about rural Australia – and about some of the problems with communication and identity – in a compassionate, respectful and often buoyant way.
There is also an intense craving for intimate connection in the film. It’s a very personal part of the story for me, as someone who has grown up in rural Australia and found it difficult to communicate openly and emotionally about the things that really matter. Communication, especially between men, is often functional and less about our feelings. This means that, in times of emotional difficulty, we haven’t got the words or the ability to cope with emotional problems. Being emotional and vulnerable just wasn’t an option for me growing up, and was seen as a sign of weakness. Males are taught to be strong and tough, and today this is still seen as successful masculinity. Things are made especially difficult for rural Australian men and women who live with PTSD from war and don’t have the skills or the structures around them to deal with or process the trauma in their lives. Little Tornadoes is my way of talking about vulnerability and about the quiet crisis that still exists in modern rural Australia.
The film also depicts the migrant experience in the 1970s. Would you say there are takeaways for the migrant experience in contemporary Australia as well?
Little Tornadoes might be set 50 years ago, but the story is no different to now, when we have new arrivals who bring change and different ways of thinking to our country. The film’s celebration of diversity, inclusivity and cross-cultural connection is extremely relevant for us today. The new migrants in the film are from Sicily, who at the time were certainly seen as different and unwelcome. It’s this difference that I’m drawn to, as something to focus on, be curious about and embrace.
There’s a large portion of the population in my hometown region with Italian roots, due to the influx of Italians after the Second World War. There was suspicion and lack of acceptance at the time of their arrival, and this friction was still evident during my childhood in the 80s and 90s. But, over time, the wonderful colour, differences and energy brought by these new arrivals have helped Australia evolve into a more dynamic, vibrant culture. Italian heritage is now just an everyday part of modern Australia in all its wondrous diversity.
I hope that the film allows us to reflect on a time when we thought of this difference as an obstacle – but, in fact, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to grow. We’re small enough a country that new waves of people effectively change and shape who we are as a society and the way we live our lives: from the food we eat, to the festivals and social experiences we take part in. New peoples have continued to arrive in Australia, and with each new wave comes change that ultimately reshapes our country for the better and makes us stronger.
This project was produced over an extended period, so post-production was key to its realisation. Can you talk about this process?
It took about 10 years to film all of the footage, with smaller shoots taking place over the past few years to help strengthen the landscape as a character. Each time we went back to film, we captured additional important world-building details – numerous seasonal harvests, drone footage of the various environments, activity in the town – that all help to create a strong sense of time and place.
The post-production saw further evolution and expansion of the film and its story, especially in reworking the edit. I also wanted to open up the story to include a narration that could speak more pointedly to the emotional journey of the main character, Leo. He doesn’t express himself with words, so this narration would speak about the world in ways he cannot.
The Slap author Christos Tsiolkas is credited as co-writer on this project. How did this collaboration come about, and what was its impact on the project?
To create this new narration, I wanted to collaborate with a writer. I needed someone with a strong voice and clear point of view. My first choice was Christos Tsiolkas, because I find his writing so intensely intimate and I adore the way he so poetically explores vulnerability in his characters. We were extremely fortunate that Christos responded positively to the cut of the film we showed him. His vision for the narration really intensifies and focuses the film, effectively elevating the Maria character so that the film now has two distinct points of view: Leo, who we observe but who cannot communicate with words, and Maria, whose voice guides us through the world of the film but we don’t see right away on screen.
The process of creating the Maria narration took about six months. Christos and I would go for walks in the park during Melbourne’s 2020 lockdown and discuss possible approaches, and afterwards he wrote several drafts to vastly expand and enrich the canvas of the migrant experience. Following that, my editor, Cindy Clarkson, dramatically reshaped the imagery and story to embrace the new Maria narration. Christos’ contribution as co-writer ultimately extended beyond the narration. It was a rich and rewarding experience for me to collaborate with Christos and Cindy in exploring how scenes should should play out in the edit, to create a film with a strong dual-protagonist, cross-cultural story.
The film’s cinematography is stunning, and really makes the landscape a central character of the film. Can you talk about the cinematography and its role in realising your vision?
The world in which we shot the film is home to both Stefan Duscio (director of photography) and me. Stefan grew up in a town on the south side of the Murray River, and my family’s farm is just across the border. Between us, we have an intimate understanding of and appreciation for the Southern Riverina landscape, from the people who inhabit it, to the textures, light and sounds in the environment. Our goal was to create an authentic and atmospheric world that has an overwhelming effect on the human characters that live there, and in a way that felt new and entrancing for audiences to experience. It’s a rural Australian story where less is said with words, and more is conveyed through movement or placement of characters within the physical world.
We discussed many references from photography, films, paintings and sketches, and decided on a look that accurately captured the time period of the story while also feeling timeless and universal. Exterior spaces aren’t always big, open skies; sometimes, we’re looking down or into the world, so they can feel claustrophobic or mysterious. The interior spaces were lit to make them feel like mini-worlds cut off from the outside, and our sound design helped to further demarcate the interior and exterior worlds and reinforce the emotional isolation that is often felt in these environments. I wanted lingering shots that frame the people like animated paintings, allowing the audience to reflect on their own feelings and connection to the characters. There’s also distinct contrast in the visual tone of the shots, so that some of them feel buoyant and celebratory, while in others there is an atmospheric unease.
The look of the film was further shaped in post-production. We collaborated with colourist CJ Dobson to create a colour space that felt bold and vibrant, and allowed us to see the detail in the murkiness of the shadows. There’s definitely a nostalgic quality at play, though the overriding goal was to create a picture about the way memory feels. The story of the film talks about everyday matters, but our visual approach was to feel the epic in the intimacy.