Look Both Ways

By Nancy Harrison

look-both-ways-sarah-watt-1.jpgLook Both Ways, 2005

An interview with Sarah Watt, director of Australian independent film Look Both Ways

Look Both Ways is Australian director Sarah Watt’s debut feature. An innovative combination of live action and animation, the film is a chronicle of a blistering hot weekend in Adelaide, with an interlocking narrative of a group of people whose common point of reference is a railway accident. The winner of multiple awards in Australia, the FIPRESCI Prize at Brisbane International Film Festival and the Discovery Award at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, the film confronts the ways that people face crises in their lives and our attitudes to mortality, tackling potentially morbid subjects with wit, warmth and optimism.

Nancy Harrison: You were previously known for your animated short films – how did you find the transition to writing and directing live action?

Sarah Watt: The writing wasn’t the big problem in it was probably the reason I shifted, as the writing I was doing for the animation was becoming more and more like narrative drama, and I was writing a lot of emotions rather than action – animation works really well when you are talking visually, and I think that my writing was becoming more about real people. It was almost like animation was starting to become the vehicle for the scripts. Live action directing was a little bit harder.

NH: Look Both Ways was also your first feature film – how did you find the experience?

SW: With animation, you can do it all yourself. It’s a megalomaniac’s – a shy megalomaniac's – form of filmmaking, because you don’t actually have to talk to anyone, and you can wait until it is perfect before you show it to anyone. So I had to dump that personality and take up a collaborative one. And it was fantastic to have access to, and work with, actors, and not to have to draw hundreds of drawings. In a lot of ways it was easier than animation.

NH: And was it difficult to raise the finances, as it was your debut feature and the film was a hybrid of live action and animation?

SW: My producer (Bridget Ikin) did find it difficult. She did some wonderful things, because her track record is very good, with things like An Angel at My Table, and as an executive producer she has a great CV, but funders would kind of look at me and think “but why this project? It's about life and death, and it’s got animation, and what makes you think you can do it?” It was actually really hard, and any of the people who did come on board are so wonderful – they backed a hunch and they backed the innovation in the script.

NH: You use different animation techniques to illustrate the thoughts of the Nick and Meryl – how did you choose what styles to use?

SW: Meryl’s thoughts are very similar to my short animations, and it should have been even more similar except that I couldn’t actually do most of it because you get so caught up in doing all the rest of the stuff. But I had worked with animator Emma Kelly on my previous two films where we did half the drawings each. Nick’s animation I always wanted to be an organic thing, rather than taking it out of the narrative, so as he was a photographer, it had to be a photographic sort of style. I had done photographic animation before, and a lot of the photos were ones that I had taken, but another guy, animator Peter Webb, put it all that together for us. So it was quite good to work with other animators. But it was a bit of a gender thing as well – Meryl’s animations are more emotional and Nick’s are fact based, and I guess it is a bit of a male – female way of looking at things.

look-both-ways-sarah-watt-2.jpgLook Both Ways, 2005

NH: Did you have specific actors in mind when you wrote the parts?

SW: I am married to the lead actor (Nick – William McInnes) – so it was easy to cast him – and he came very cheaply! He’s a TV actor, and he is well known here in Australia for TV. The rest of the actors aren’t that well know (Internationally) and it was as good for them to get a break in a feature as it was for me to get a break in to making it. So everybody was really keen to do it and to work hard and just be a part of it. It made it just not only low budget, but low ego – everybody was a team and mucked in together.

NH: Some of the characters – particularly Julie and the train driver – are virtually wordless parts, and yet their performances speak volumes – did you find this difficult to achieve, or did your background in animation – telling stories with pictures – make this easier?

SW: Those actors are brilliant – they are so natural and I give all credit to the actors. But the point of having it like that, and why it works, was that we are not supposed to really be with those characters, because the film is about the fear of death, not about the actual deaths. Those characters are always meant to be perhaps like your neighbours – you know there has been something happen, and you probably have all the details, but you don’t actually know them well enough, you’re not really in the drama. Those characters are always seen behind a wall, or you are looking through a doorway or a window, just to try to keep that removed-ness from the audience – there were a lot of things going on to help create the feeling that there was some distance. Ultimately, though, they were great performances.

NH: The film deals with mortality, death and disaster and how it reflects on our everyday lives. Train wrecks and cancer are pretty serious subjects, and yet the film is both optimistic and funny. Was it difficult to get the balance right?

SW: Yes! But that was the aim the whole time. The wider point of the film is that it is a study, or a meditation, or thoughts on mortality, and the absurdity of why we are so in fear of death when it happens to all of us. And I think that when people are in those dire situations the humour is often released anyway because the fear is gone. Because once you have been diagnosed with cancer and you have got it, it is kind of not something that you worry about getting anymore.

NH: Trains have a significant role in the film, both the big train crash and the local train accident. Were they acting as a metaphor or purely as a linking device?

SW: It was more a linking device, at the beginning, in that I just wanted to say that these are any people, in any city, in any part of the world that could be having things like this – overreaching dramas, wars and disasters, and then there are little dramas. The whole train thing – you are sitting there with all those other people on the train and you don’t know what the other people on the train are going through, whether they are going to a funeral or wedding or and whatever – and I have always been fascinated by that: the lack of connection, and yet we are all together. But I also think that they do have a nice ability to be a metaphor for a lot of things that the film speaks about. Whether you stay on the train or get off…

NH: Are you working on another feature, or are you back to animation now?

SW: I am trying to write another feature – I really enjoyed working with Bridget and the rest of the team and we all want to work together again because we had such a great time. But I must say I am also tempted to just go back to my cupboard and make another animation…

Look Both Ways in on general release in the UK.

Nancy Harrison is a freelance writer and a film producer specialising in documentary.