Australasian Cinema > directors > Ben Young
Hounds of Love (Ben Young, 2016) wr. Ben Young, prod. Melissa Kelly, dp Mick McDermott; Stephen Curry, Emma Booth, Susie Porter, Harrison Gilbertson, Ashleigh Cummings, Damien de Montemas; crime; WA; 9 AACTA nominations; Emma Booth Best Lead Actress AACTAs 2017
Extinction (Ben Young, 2018) American scifi film
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When Zak Hilditch unveiled his debut feature These Final Hours at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, two filmmakers back in Perth — his former Curtin University classmates Ben Young and Grant Sputore — raised their glasses, as they’d done on more than one occasion.
The trio had been fantasising about international careers throughout film school and beyond. They watched movies together (everything from the classics to the Coen brothers), argued (Wes Anderson versus Paul Thomas Anderson), shared script ideas and worked on each others’ projects (even jumping in front of the camera).
So when These Final Hours was selected from more than 1500 films submitted from around the world to compete in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes, it was not simply a victory for Hilditch. It was an achievement that was savoured and celebrated by the filmmaking milieu from which he’d sprung.
Two years later it was Young’s turn to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight. His first film, the searing, psychological horror-drama Hounds of Love, opened at the Venice Film Festival to a standing ovation and a gondola-load of rave reviews, sparking an international bidding war for his services.
Now Hilditch and Young are anticipating the big-screen debut of Sputore, who is currently in post-production for I Am Mother,which will be released next year. What began as a modestly budgeted sci-fi flick to be shot in Perth has blossomed into Hollywood-backed would-be blockbuster starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, with special effects by Peter Jackson’s celebrated Weta Workshop.
Sputore says Hilditch’s achievement of getting into Cannes was for him a game-changer. “It blew the doors off. No filmmaker from Perth enjoyed that level of acclaim,” Sputore tells STM in the Leederville offices of his production company, The Penguin Empire. “It showed me what was possible, to work in film at the highest level while living and working in Perth. Even though Zak was from the margins of the international film scene and had limited resources, he proved that one of us could be up there with the best filmmakers in the world.”
Hilditch’s achievement was just as sweet for Young, who had acted in one of his classmate’s early efforts.
“A lot of those people involved in These Final Hours are my mates,” Young says. “We’d studied tighter and worked together. So it was a rush for me when Zak’s movie got into Cannes. It showed us the way.”
Sitting down at Sayers in Leederville with Perth’s answer to Mexico’s “three amigos” (Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro) it’s not hard to imagine the energy that drove them during their time at Curtin University in the early 2000s, where their shared passion for movie-making meant scant attention was paid to their other units.
Bouncing off each other like Judd Apatow comedy buds and relishing each others’ success after years of struggle and knockbacks, Hilditch, Young and Sputore are still being pushed along by the love of movie-making that brought them together in the first place.
“For me, film school was way more about the people that you meet and the gear that you have access to than the classes. Let’s be serious: what did you learn from the classes? You learned from actually going out and doing it,” says Young, 36, who was two years behind Heath Ledger at Guildford Grammar and later spent a year honing his skills at the WA Screen Academy on the campus of ECU.
Girrawheen High graduate Hilditch, 38, agrees that film school is all about building relationships: “When you come out of high school wanting to be a filmmaker you wonder, ‘How do you do that?’ When you go to film school you meet other people who want it as badly as you do. They’re the sort of people you gravitate to and end up working with.”
Thirty-four-year-old Sputore had his viewfinder firmly fixed on a career in feature films since his days at Aquinas College, using every spare minute to make movies with the enthusiastic support of his parents (years later they allowed Sputore to use their backyard pool for underwater scenes in his acclaimed debut short, Legacy).
However, the bonds Sputore forged at university laid the foundation for his career as one of the hottest commercials directors in the country. Those bonds will also serve in the coming months as footage of I Am Mother is unveiled at fantasy flick ground zero, Comic-Con, and he emerges as a star of the future.
“I started The Penguin Empire with a mate from uni, Sam Price,” Sputore says. “He was my editor. We bonded over the same love of movies.
“We had the same aspirations for our career and what kind of work we wanted to do. Curtin was amazing. I doubt whether we’d all be doing what we are doing without that time.”
While Hilditch, Young and Sputore are all now in Hollywood’s embrace — Hilditch went on to write and direct the Stephen King adaptation 1922 for Netflix, while Young is in the final stages of the Universal Pictures-backed sci-fi horror-thriller Extinction — they had very different career paths.
Hilditch spent his post-Curtin years working with his father’s biscuit-making business by day and by night made zero-budget features, using the freedom of no financial pressure to learn his craft. In 2005 he stunned the local film scene by making an extremely polished debut feature, The Actress, for an unthinkable $700.
Young, who began as an actor and at 15 co-hosted Channel 9’s children’s cooking show Kids in the Kitchen, spent his 20s in a hyperactive whirl of small and big-screen activity. He made behind-the-scenes documentaries, music videos (most notably the Aria-nominated Only You for the John Butler Trio), made children’s series and directed nine short films (“I was a jack of all trades, master of none,” laughs Young).
Sputore, in striking contrast, went the Ridley Scott route and built an impressive career in the commercial sector. Instead of waiting for government support and being drip-fed money every few years until gaining enough experience to apply for more, Sputore and Price decided to create their own opportunities, making motion graphics, video clips and TV ads.
Sputore quickly evolved into one of the most in-demand commercials directors in the country, culminating in his multiple award-winning spot for St John Ambulance in which a mother without first-aid training pounds on a sheet of glass between her and her son drowning at the bottom of a swimming pool.
“The only way for WA filmmakers who weren’t willing to travel east to build a career was to go to local companies cap in hand and ask for work,” Sputore says.
“So we decided to create our own opportunities and do the kind of work we love and were fascinated by.”
While Sputore was building a business and evolving into a world-class visual storyteller, he quietly nurtured his feature-film career, directing a ScreenWest-funded short, Legacy (2008), that was scripted by his Curtin lecturer Ron Elliott (again, the network and influence extending way beyond graduation).
While premiering Legacy at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Sputore met young American filmmaker Michael Lloyd Green. The pair hit it off (“We had a shared passion for the same movies and the same cuisine,” remembers Sputore) and started writing a Western.
Sputore and Lloyd Green’s screenplay received a lot of attention and a Hollywood producer was attached, but it found no market support. However, it paved the way for I Am Mother, a post-apocalyptic fantasy about a teenage girl, reared in a bunker by a kindly robot, who comes to learn all she knows of the world is a fabrication.
The script by Lloyd Green and Sputore made The Black List, an annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays from anywhere in the world. Previous Black List inductees include Argo, American Hustle, Juno, The King’s Speech, Spotlight, Slumdog Millionaire and The Revenant.
I Am Mother is also much closer to the kind of movie he grew up loving. “When I was at film school I loved arty films, such as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” says Sputore, who admits his early work was “kind of surreal and a bit obscure”.
“It was kind of expected you like these films,” he says. “In the 10 years or so since I’ve been out of film school, I’ve matured and become brave enough to acknowledge that there’s as much artistry in popular films, like those made by Spielberg and the like. Some of Spielberg’s movies are among the best that’s ever been made.”
The Black List anointing led to Sputore being inundated with offers from Hollywood, including one from Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free. Sputore and his co-producer and Penguin Empire partner Kelvin Munro eventually settled on Rhea Films, which had previously invested in the Tom Cruise action comedy American Made.
The Hollywood investment allowed I Am Mother to grow from the low-budget first film that Sputore and Munro had originally envisaged into a $10-million-plus production with potential to reach an international audience, particularly in this era of intelligent sci-fi.
Unfortunately, the expanded scale meant Sputore had to shoot I A Mother in South Australia. “It would have been more convenient to shoot it here because we’re West Australian filmmakers. But we needed bigger studios and Adelaide beckoned,” he says, adding that he strove to involve local companies, such as the ace post-production house, Last Pixel.
The bigger budget and the involvement of Swank also allowed Sputore to draw on the services of New Zealand-based Weta Workshop, which built the robot who cares for the youngster.
“I was star-struck when I met (Weta Workshop co-founder) Richard Taylor,” Sputore says. “I had grown up on a diet of Lord of the Rings Blu-rays and behind-the-scenes documentaries. So getting to meet with the man behind Lord of the Rings and work with him in the flesh, building our robot, was the thrill of a lifetime.”
The arrival of Hilditch, Young and Sputore within the space of a few years is an extraordinary moment in WA film history, with three writer-directors emerging from the same fertile soil to build genuine international careers. Even more remarkably, they’re doing it without the need to leave town.
Young has just returned from a trip to the US where he’s setting up new projects, including a globe-hopping TV series and a project with Charlize Theron. Hilditch is adapting John Grisham novel’s The Confession, and Sputore’s Penguin Empire is shepherding multiple film and television projects that he hopes will bring more local talent to the world stage.
Indeed, all three are deeply committed to living in Perth at the same time as being Hollywood players. Hilditch did all the post-production on the Vancouver-shot 1922 in Perth, while Sputore and Young are happy to operate remotely with their teams around the world.
“The film industry has changed,” says Hilditch, whose partner, filmmaker Alison James, has just had a baby.
“Why would you want to work anywhere other than here? We can now go where the work is and come back and continue on the projects and enjoy a great life.”
Natalie Erika James, Ben Young and Zak Hilditch.
Australian directors working on productions in the US get far more time, money and resources than they were accustomed to at home.
But there’s a downside: Loss of creative freedom.
“I liken working in the American studio system to working on a two-hour television commercial where you have a lot of different voices telling you that you are not allowed to do things the way you want to,” says Ben Young, who directed Extinction for Netflix and was co-directing Clickbait for the streamer when production was shut down.
“In making an American film you have way less freedom but way more support. The level of support and resources you get in the US is amazing but I miss the control I had in Australia.
“What I’m desperately searching for is that middle ground where I can have the toys and the freedom to do what I want with them.”
Conversely Zak Hilditch, who followed his debut film These Final Hours with 1922, an adaptation of the Stephen King novella, and crime drama Rattlesnake, both for Netflix, found dealing with Netflix a far quicker process than dealing with government agencies.
“We had to jump through a lot of hoops and rightly so to get These Final Hours financed. With 1922 it took one coffee at Netflix with my producer Ross Dinerstein and Netflix’s Ian Bricke. The next day we were greenlit,” he says.
Young, Hilditch and Natalie Erika James discussed their craft in Escaping the Real World: Genre and Horror Film, an Australians in Film webinar last week moderated by The Other Lamb screenwriter Catherine S. McMullen.
IFC Midnight will release James’ debut feature Relic, a psychological horror movie co-scripted by James and Christian White, featuring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote, in cinemas and on VOD in the US on July 10.
James recalled getting three notes from Screen Australia on her late-stage cut of Relic, compared with six pages of notes from the US co-producers, Nine Stories Productions’ Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker, but found that was a very collaborative process.
Hilditch was surprised to discover the concept of a script editor was entirely foreign to the Americans he’s dealt with.
Asked when they developed their passion for genre films, Hilditch pointed to watching horror videos such as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London when he was a kid.
James loved reading Gothic literature and dark fairy tales as a kid, which progressed to making supernatural and horror films when she studied at the Victorian College of the Arts.
Growing up, Young loved 1990s thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs but regarded his debut film Hounds of Love as a psychological drama until he kept being told it was a horror movie.
“I would jump at the chance to make something like H is For Happiness or Love Actually because those movies make me feel something,” Ben said.
“Rather than genre, I look towards stories that have an emotional resonance, and fear is an emotion.”
Young tells IF he is co-writing with Victor Gentile The Future is Us, a thriller which follows a colony of people who are living on the moon after the Earth was wiped out and how they long to reconnect with their human history. Gentile co-wrote the feature doc Whiteley with writer- director James Bogle.
Before COVID-19 changed the world Zac was planning to shoot Airborne (formerly Celestial Blue), a prescient thriller about a mid-flight pandemic, in Bulgaria, produced by Dinerstein and Liz Kearney, backed by XYZ Film.
Now he says: “I’ve had to rewrite the entire film because the fantastical virus that happens on that flight is nothing compared to what has actually happened.”
James and White are collaborating on Drum Wave, a folk horror feature inspired by their eponymous 2017 short film which was funded by Screen Australia’s Hot Shots program.
Garry Gillard | New: 26 October, 2019 | Now: 28 May, 2020