Filmmaker Kelly Dolen last month completed work on a new Australian feature-length film ‘John Doe’ – a powerful and at times extremely violent body of work about a politically motivated serial-killer vigilante who hunts down repeat offenders that have “slipped through the system”.
Starring Jamie Bamber, Lachy Hulme and Sam Parsonson the film combines issues of social justice with the physiological traumas endured by victims of crime. Think of a classic superhero tale set in a very sobering real-life environment.
Privately financed and filmed across Melbourne the final product looks bewitchingly high-end and is testament to Kelly’s dedication and the skillful performances from the cast, crew and post-production facilities involved.
Kelly has recently set up home in Geelong with his family but due to international sales meetings and festival deadlines we caught up between edits in South Melbourne at Soundwaves Studio where he is continues to work on the sales packages for his film.
We spoke about filmmaking in Melbourne and the tenacity required to succeed – in any profession.
Hi Kelly, thanks for talking to TENANT about your film work. In your speech at the cast and crew screening of John Doe you mentioned that it was two years (to the day) since principal photography had commenced on the feature, and 17 years since you first penned the story idea. 17-years! That’s a long time to focus on a project. Where did the idea come from and what kept you interested?
The idea came from public response to a photograph of Martin Bryant, the man responsible for the Port Arthur shootings in Tasmania in 1996. Nearly everyone who looked at the photograph of him in the papers claimed that “you could see ‘it’ in his eyes” and I thought, what a crock – he just looked like a normal guy on the street.
It got me thinking about the number of criminals that exist in our society who appear, at surface level, as the everyman, the neighbour, the friend etc. It also got me thinking conceptually about threat – and the question as to when a threat is present or past, or in the case of criminals if it is in fact continuous.
That is a big question, one that is very topical right now in-light of the Jill Meagher case, and one that opens the lid on many moral and philosophical debates – discussions that can last for years.
Yes, well in my case it did! 17 years in fact for that spark of an idea to be scripted and conceptualised in the form of a feature film.
A 17-year gestation period for a passion project shows a great level of commitment and evolving interest. What kept you going?
The past seventeen years have certainly not all been about John Doe. I have made other films in that time and done other jobs to fund filmmaking and to learn more about the craft.
During that time I meet other industry professionals who have inspired me to continue through their input and discussion around the idea.
Around 2008 I met Steve Coates who became the writer for John Doe and was able to take the initial spark that I had and turn it into an amazing script; it was an amazing and re-energising process.
In 2009 we finished the script and started shopping it round for funding. We went to the US and after a host of meetings were offered a multi-million dollar studio deal.
That would have been gratifying – and a tempting offer!
It was both, but honestly only to a small degree. After living with an idea for so long and investing so much time into it, you end up with some strong ideas on how it should be made. The deal that was offered would have taken it down a blockbuster path – with well-known and liked actors at the helm. To us this would have killed the idea. The very nature of the film’s hero being a “John Doe” required a little known, but talented actor for role. So we turned it down and came home.
What happened then?
Well I’m not a particularly religious man these days, but I did feel like there was some kind of divine luck working with us at that time. Soon after we returned from the trip a friend told us to contact a mate – a businessman who could potentially invest. We did, and luckily he decided he’d give it a go.
Amen! It sounds like the stuff movies are made of… I mean it sounds like a script itself.
Exactly, it was a hugely lucky break, one I still pinch myself over – and a great story to boot. From then onward it was all about the business of production – casting, crewing, location hunting, shooting and posting.
I think one of the things that people love about films is the comfort of their structure. The hours – or years – that are spent achieving and finessing the structure are so often taken for granted or completely overlooked.
Yes, it is really only people who have worked in film and television, or made their own who can truly appreciate the passion and the process. But I guess that’s true of most professions. I would have no idea how many hours it would take to perform brain surgery!
Very true! So what films have inspired you and what helps you when you feel blocked?
Filmmaking encompasses so many jobs… Aged 11 I was sure I wanted to be a VFX makeup artist, at 18 I wanted to be an actor and at 25, a writer. Now, after trying so many different aspects of the medium I’ve decided that directing is where I most feel at home – perhaps because I get to interact with all of those elements that I love about the craft.
My path has been that of trial and error, of practice makes perfect. I’ve read a lot of books and spoken to a lot of people.
When I started out there was no Google, no digital media, no cheap or instant anything. It was a lot of hard work and investment of my time and disposable income.
Re films that inspire me…there are many. The very first one was Star Wars. I was seven years old and I had never experienced anything like it before. I was captivated and from that moment on I loved filmmaking.
I used to always dream about directing a Star Wars film but after seeing the latest chapters I realised the original films were my spark; inspiration at just the right time and I should allow them to be that and nothing more.
That said I’d love to direct a fun family friendly film; a cross between Indiana Jones and The Goonies. I still love big blockbuster VFX heavy films as much as I enjoy physiological twists and script driven work – long as the characters are good, I’ll take any ride.
I am really enjoying the TV series House of Cards at the moment, which is directed by David Fincher and stars the brilliant Kevin Spacey. Se7en [also directed by Fincher] is another film that inspired me somewhat in John Doe – particularly the way the film uses implied violence to drive the narrative. There is less visual violence in the film John Doe than you might think.
I thought there was a fair amount of both of real and implied violence. I also think the way you combined documentary and drama narrative styles made the violence seem more tangible at points. What reactions have you had from people who have seen the film?
The reactions have been varied, but they have all been pretty strong. I have had a 19-year-old female hug me and thank me for making the film and on the other hand I have had a 50-year-old man yell at me for making it!
We did audience test screenings with an age range from 16 to 75 and the reactions were not what I expected. I had always expected young male adults to engage with it but I had delighted older women chew my ear off after the screening, wanting to discuss law reforms.
I am very proud of John Doe. I think it’s thought provoking, powerful and confronting. It challenges and I think it resonates long after the closing credits. To be able to affect people emotionally and perhaps change their thinking is very rewarding.
Do you think the character John Doe is good or bad? He is certainly disturbed.
Well, that is one of the big questions! What do you think? What do your friends think? What is the conversation after the film? That conversation is one of the things I am most interested in.
Well he and the film definitely inspire debate. Has anything happened to you, or someone close to you, that influenced the way you told this story? The passion is burning.
No, nothing… I have witnessed a few alcohol-fueled arguments in my life, but no, nothing as traumatic as what has befallen the characters is in the film. The passion is really a team effort.
Did you enjoy making this film in Melbourne?
Yes. Absolutely. For many reasons: it is my home town and I have had support from my family, friends and mentors here. I am connected to crew that I like to work with and I am getting familiar with the post-production facilities now too. Film Victoria came on board to assist, which also helped with our decision to film here. All in all I felt very supported in making this film in Melbourne.
What Australian films are you a fan of?
As a TENANT of Melbourne what are some the things you like most about living here?
When I was younger I would’ve had different answer, and I possibly would have said that I did not like living in Melbourne. I hankered to live overseas, probably LA, somewhere with a bigger film industry. But things have changed. I am older, so is Melbourne. I view Melbourne as a truly unique collective and one that is supporting me rather well at the moment.
Where do you live in Melbourne?
I am currently living in postcode 3200 and over the past three years I have been a nomad, juggling work and family so my postcode has varied from week to week. My last long-term home was 3142 and I am a big fan of 3788 – Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. It is a serene, beautiful place to relax and re-energize.
Do you have a favourite word or expression that reminds you of Melbourne when you are travelling or makes you feel at home when you hear it?
I’m not sure it is particular to Melbourne or not, but I always laugh at “Pull your head in!”
If there was anything you could change about change about Melbourne today – what would it be?
Today – traffic congestion. I know a lot of people want better public transport here, but I also want better roads. I do a lot of driving for work and for family and it really kills me that when I am in LA I can get around faster than I can here.
If there was anything that you could change about your industry what would it be?
Aside from a bigger industry here in Australia, I would love to tone down some of the ego I encounter. Filmmaking is entertainment. We are not curing cancer.
What’s next for you?
There’s a few projects I’m attached to but in this industry it’s a bit of “wait and see.” The reality is, you’re only as viable as the last project you did, so here’s hoping John Doe is not only critically well received, but also commercially.
What kind of filmmaker would you like to be thought of or remembered as?
Great question! Who knows? That’s more in the eyes of the beholder I suppose? Right now I guess people would label me as someone who does dark subject matter very well – and I’m happy to wear that as long as the films I make aren’t derivative.
Who would you like to recommend to the community and to be interviewed on TENANT?
Fred Schepisi, a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration to industry.
Thanks Kelly, it would be great to talk with Fed and thanks again for your time. I really enjoyed meeting you and talking about filmmaking; the minutes, or what became hours, flew past! Your passion for film, performance and for story-telling was hugely engaging. Best wishes for the sale and distribution of John Doe – I, for one, cannot wait to see the public’s reaction to this body of work.
Remember to check out this month’s Melbourne Streets image posted here and on TENANTMAG’s new Intsagram page. The first reader to let me know where in Melbourne this was photographed will receive a surprise gift courtesy of a TENANT interviewee. Yippee!