“There are two things I really care about when I write something,” Kieran Darcy-Smith says from beneath a baseball cap and over a glass of red wine. “The first thing is I need a ball kicked up straight away and I want it to stay there. I want to keep turning the page because of the plot, the characters and the themes. I don't want the audience to fall away. At the same time, I really want them to care, to be there from the point of view of the character so that it's not just a sequence of events.”
Sydneysider Darcy-Smith is the writer and director of new Australian movie, Wish You Were Here, a gripping psychological drama/mystery centred around the disappearance of a holiday-maker in Cambodia. Coming from a musical background (his band once supported Wendy James' Transvision Vamp), and with a fine career as an actor and directing/writing shorts, it is his first full-length feature as a director. Starring Joel Edgerton, Felicity Price and Teresa Palmer, the film's fractured timeline tells of how four friends head off to South East Asia but only three return, and is inspired by Darcy-Smith's fascination with the whole idea of disappearance. “I knew we could kick the ball in the air pretty early with the mystery. I wanted the audience to have that overhanging framework... the suspense... but that it only operated to keep that ball in the air and the real thing that people were interested in were the characters and what they were going through. So it was about drip-feeding little bits of information to keep them wanting to know what is going to happen, but to allowing enough room to really get to know the characters and what was at stake for them.”
Thrown into a world of turmoil are Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price, Darcy-Smith's wife and the film's co-writer), a middle-class married couple with two young children. “Ultimately it came down to how we pitched the character of Dave, more than anything. The film is from Alice's point of view. She doesn't really know what is going on and the audience is just a little step ahead, getting clues, and we are kind of wary of Dave but it doesn't compute because he seems like a really nice person. So it was just about balancing that whole thing. You just have to innately judge what to give and what not to give.”
As was Darcy-Smith's intention, the connection that the audience feels with Alice and Dave is vital. This is as much a story about people's frailties and relationships as it is about solving a mystery, and it is the weaving together of both these elements that makes Wish You Were Here so utterly gripping. “The relationship was always what we wanted the audience to invest in. We wanted them to go through an experience with a couple, to fall in love with these people in a sense and to care when it got to the point where they were going to fall apart. But, while the relationship was at the forefront, I knew that an introspective naval-gazing relationship story was something that no one was going to see, and I've always loved good drama that utilises genre elements, so the word 'thriller' was just always hanging around. I wanted to shoot it with little thriller cues that you could play on which would have a profound effect on the audience and also with the rhythm of the whole piece.”
Originally, the plan was for Darcy-Smith and his wife to rent a house out in Sydney's Gladesville, live there for a year as Alice and Dave, shoot the film and make it for $150,000. However, when producer Angie Fielder came on board, she told the real-life husband-and-wife, "No, it's too good, let's do it properly.” And so Darcy-Smith's best mate Edgerton was brought in and Gladesville was ditched for the seaside. Tamarama to be precise. “I've got a thing for borders and coastlines, there is something about the drama there,” Darcy-Smith explains when asked about the location of Dave and Alice's home in the film. While Wish You Were Here stands alongside the likes of recent Australian classics Snowtown and Animal Kingdom in its tenseness and in the compelling nature of its gritty drama, it does so in more salubrious surroundings. “I wanted to show a fresh, contemporary, I guess... middle class... Sydney. You don't often see it. Let's not lie about this, most of us who go to the cinema, and who go to drama school and university are generally middle-class people.”
Contrary to the initial idea of the entire story taking place post-holiday, as the film grew, a large chunk of the action was shot in Cambodia, allowing the narrative to jump between the present and the past as the mystery begins to unravel. As one might expect, filming over there wasn't without its share of problems. “I knew Cambodia was going to be difficult but it was harder than we thought,” the director recalls. “All the locations we had scouted a month earlier had gone. Buildings had been knocked down and beaches had been wiped away. I fell into a sewer on the first day and we realised within five minutes of shooting that no-one on the crew spoke English, so we had to get translators in. We had a huge schedule to get done in seven shooting days. We had our two tiny kids there with us and Felicity was still breastfeeding. I got really sick. I had flu and dysentery and was vomiting. Every problem you could throw at us was thrown at us. It was like being in a war but at the same time is was incredibly fun and I'd do it again.”
The affable Australian goes on to admit to having suffered pretty heavily from anxiety his entire life. He talks about there being a lot of things about directing a feature film that made him "curious as to whether I was going to handle it." However, the finished product is a fine, beautifully-crafted piece of work that intelligently tells the story in a truly page-turning way and such anxieties surely served him well in the creation of it, as the film uses the emotion to push the narrative forward. “One of the thing I have always been interested in is the human condition. Behaviour and psychology. It was an opportunity for us to put ourselves in the shoes of these people and consistently challenge ourselves. What would you do in this situation? How would you feel?”
Wish You Were Here is in cinemas now. Interview by Bobby Townsend.