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Mark Savage & the D.I.Y. Aesthetic
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
February 6, 2007 - 9:26 AM PST

"I am proud of my early films because I was working with nothing."

Australian-born Mark Savage, 44, is a true D.I.Y. filmmaker, having begun making scads of short films while in his teens. He eventually graduated to features, shot on the cheap with lots of exploitation elements. He is also something of an expert on Hong Kong action cinema, having directed the "making of" documentary on Jackie Chan's Mr. Nice Guy (1997). But like a restless artiste, he is always experimenting with formats and ideas, such as shooting one feature, Defenceless (2004), without dialogue. Subversive Cinema has recently released a box set of Savage's films, including three features, Marauders (1986), Sensitive New Age Killer (2000) and Defenceless, as well as several short films, extensive production diaries and other extras.

You've taken a lot of care to document all your movies, the thoughts and processes that went into them and even the afterthoughts. Are you thinking of posterity, or perhaps inspiring more young filmmakers? In what way would you like to inspire someone?

I have kept production diaries of my films because I like to document the process. It is a complex one. If other filmmakers benefit from my experiences, that's a positive thing.

Which of your films will best stand the test of time?

I don't know which of my films will best stand the test of time because time does strange things.

Unlike most big-budget action movies, Sensitive New Age Killer has really exciting, well-shot action sequences. You have all the basics: a sense of space, clean editing and a snappy, sustained pace. Most directors can't seem to handle all that. Could you say something about how you pulled it off?

I appreciate your comments about my action scenes being clear, clean and snappy. Preparation may be the reason why they work. As a cinephile, I have seen more than three thousand movies. I'd like to think I have learned something from them. Action scenes can be chaotic, but, for me, it is important to establish and re-establish the geography of the scene during its progression. Too many close-ups become claustrophobic. They become wallpaper.

Action can be beautiful, like ballet. Often, it is best appreciated from a distance. You don't watch ballet from the stage; you watch it from a distance. Naturally, the camera lens allows the action to be magnified. It brings it closer to us. But I am a believer in carefully deciding what needs to be close and what needs to be seen at a distance.

In Sensitive New Age Killer, I shot video storyboards of the two major action sequences. This showed me what would work and what would require serious re-consideration. I shot with three cameras, so the third camera acted as a backup. It gave me choices I had not consciously factored into the planning.

You shot Marauders on Beta SP video all the way back in 1987, when video was a fairly young medium. Can you talk about that format versus the new digital video - in terms of cost, ease of use, editing, quality, etc.?

Personally, I don't like using the small cameras. As an operator, I like the weight of larger format cameras such as the Viper (HD) or the F900 (HD). Back in '87, I shot Marauders on an Ikegami E camera. It was a tube camera, but a very good one. It was analog, of course. Whether you are shooting analog or digital, the video, that is, non-film medium has its own issues. When shooting video, your exposure/contrast latitude is less than that of film. It is best to underexpose video. If you allow the camera to auto-set the exposure, the result is very unattractive. You also need to be more mindful of elements such as white skies with video.

Marauders was recorded on a portable 1" tape machine that was made by Ampex and Nagra. It was called the VPR-5. It was built to be portable, but it was impractical in the field because it was too fragile. To edit, we struck VHS copies with time code displays off the masters and off-lined on two machines with a controller. We made the cuts and wrote the in and out time codes down. When we were ready to on-line - edit off our 1" tapes - our recorded time code decisions became the EDL (Edition Decision) list. We read these out to our on- line editor and he assembled the movie.

Digital video formats, such as Digibeta, Mini-DV and DVD-Pro, are reasonably straightforward to edit. Of course, you need a lot of hard drive space to digitize Digibeta because it is uncompressed. The professional HD formats are a different kettle of fish. A special HD monitor is required in the field and digitization is not so straightforward.

How did you come up with the idea for going without dialogue in Defenceless? Was there ever a point that you wished you could slip a line or two in there, to make things easier?

I liked the challenge of making a film with no dialog. Defenceless was conceived to be that film. Exposition is usually delivered with dialog, so we were hamstrung by our decision when exposition was required. I cheated by using magazine headlines and text messaging to communicate particular information. Mostly the experience was freeing. The strokes are broader when you are shooting without dialog; the audience has to work harder. At the same time, the film is more open to interpretation.

What did you learn on Defenceless about framing, angles and what-not, in other words, how to tell a story visually? What did you bring from that film to your subsequent films?

Every film is a major learning experience. Making Defenceless reminded me of why I was attracted to filmmaking in the first place. I loved the visuals married with the music. I'm not sure what the film taught me about composition, but I experimented a great deal with exposure and with color filters. I tried to achieve visual simplicity. My follow-up piece, Stained, was a dialog-heavy crime drama, but there are several dialog-free passages that were directly influenced by my rehabilitated approach to storytelling that was inspired by Defenceless.

Your movies are mostly based around "genre" elements - gore, violence, nudity, etc. On the one hand, they're a purely visual form and they make it easier to sell low-budget movies, but on the other hand, they won't be taken seriously by the mainstream.

Genre elements such as gore, violence and nudity are a mainstay of exploitation and even Hollywood films these days. On their own, they are not taken seriously, and I can understand that. Ultimately, whether any genre film gets taken seriously will be determined by the way the elements are integrated into the story. It is a matter of context. I make genre films because there is a renegade, defiant quality to them. They take me out of the mundane. They are unconventional. I tell stories that are personal to me, but instead of making my point through music or opera, I choose genre films.

For example, Sensitive New Age Killer has a lot of shooting and bloodshed, but it is about the folly of blind ambition. Defenceless is a brutal piece, but it is about self-sacrifice and the importance of fighting for what you believe in. Both films are genre films, but genre films need to be about more than blood, guts and nudity; they need to connect with an audience's emotions. You do that by making the issues personal.

I read somewhere online that you're considering making a children's film?

Some of my greatest influences are films about childhood: Forbidden Games, Spirit of the Beehive, The Elementary School and Fly Away Home. Even Defenceless has an entire section devoted to a relationship between a child and the film's main character. It is a natural for me to do children's movies. I have a close connection to that part of life. I have already been in production for four years on a children's film that will take ten years to complete. It is called Tess's Journey. The actress, quite literally, ages from eight to eighteen during the course of the movie, which only takes place over three days. I am also developing The Orphan Factory, a children's movie in the Roald Dahl vein.

From the Australian film people I've interviewed over the years, I get the impression that there's a strong sense of community; everybody has worked together and they're all friends. Do you find this is true, or are you working in a different arena?

The Australian film industry is a small one, so there are less than six degrees of separation between most people. The main film centers, Melbourne and Sydney, are quite different. Sydney has always had a more international flavor, while Melbourne has been the home of the indie scene. I'm generalizing, of course, but the two cities are quite different in terms of film culture. I worked in a small arena for many years because my films were always privately financed, so I wasn't closely aligned with the government film bodies until recently when they funded script development for me on my children's movie. The Australian film industry, until recently, was not focused on genre films; that has changed because government investment in genre films such as Wolf Creek and Storm Warning has been profitable. I would not say that everybody is friendly in Australia, but it is certainly a close-knit creative enclave and the rules of karma apply.

I admire your courage in including your early short films in the DVD box set. Not that they're bad, but nearly every artist is embarrassed by his early work. What do you think of these films today?

I am proud of my early films because I was working with nothing. They were my first film school and I made mistakes that I have learned from - hopefully. Almost all of my early works were edited in-camera, so they were very economically produced.

The Internet Movie Database has you credited as the director of "The Making of Jackie Chan's Mr. Nice Guy." Is that correct? What are those jobs like? Do you re-invest the money into your own features?

I did direct a Mr. Nice Guy making-of for Golden Harvest. It was a 90-minute warts-and-all documentary on Jackie and the film that was cut down to a short promo piece. I have heard that the long version is available, but I don't have a copy. I did use the money I earned on the Jackie project to partially finance The Masturbating Gunman, a black comedy I did for the Japanese market.

The Jackie job was an interesting one. I shadowed Jackie for almost six months and was privy to a lot of the star's private life. I spent a lot of time with one of my heroes, Sammo Hung, and formed a friendship with one of the co-producers, Dick Tso, and exec producer Chua Lam, a wonderful guy. I have also directed more than a hundred commercials, some rock videos, and mountains of industrial films early in my career. It has been an exciting ride so far.

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"I am proud of my early films because I was working with nothing."

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Jeffrey M. Anderson
Author of our primer on the Iranian New Wave, Jeffrey M. Anderson has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Las Vegas Weekly and is a frequent contributor to Cinematical.

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