Film Interviews

The Big Heat: An Interview with director Robbie Studsor

There can be great mystery in filmmaking, one solidified in the annals of film noir and historical film movements. There were stories hidden amongst the cigarette lit shadows and fire and ash, protagonists whose motives lay hidden behind sweat and reflection, and the echo of dialogue shrouded in the black of night. These are seemingly forgotten traits of modern film, blasted into yesterday by the intolerance of leaving more to the imagination and an impatient audience.

Filmmaker Robbie Studsor is not one to partake in such beaten paths. Having studied film’s great past and the many great filmmakers whose craft was deeply coiled in mystery and imagination, Studsor is taking Australian filmmaking into new and unfamiliar territory. Little is known about his feature film The Burning Kiss, and from its beautifully detailed and richly painted trailer, we can see that mystery and suspense is a big part of its existence. Officially described as a “hallucinogenic summer noir cocktail spiked with surrealism”, The Burning Kiss aims to give Australian cinema its much overdue neo-noir revitalisation. We talk to Studsor about the film, his motives behind its creation and perhaps, a small revealing of what we can expect when the film opens in 2014.

We’ve also got an exclusive still from the film which you can view at the end of this interview.

I was immediately taken aback by the trailer for The Burning Kiss; visually stunning. But it was both revealing and secretive at the same time. How important is it to the film that you’re not revealing too much about it?

Very important. I tend to agree with Roman Polanski’s sentiments from a few years ago that the modern film experience essentially has no regard for mystery or surprise, particularly in terms of promotion. I don’t think I’m alone in the sense that I appreciate film promotion that respects posters, trailers and the likes as pieces of art on their own terms and not even necessarily something that has an obvious connection to the film. I’m very fortunate that my VFX artist Josh Weeks is not only incredibly gifted and original but also very imaginative and completely open to experimentation. He understood the concept instantly, which at the time we were actually calling a ‘moving poster’ rather than a teaser.

What can you tell us about the film in regards to its narrative?

Without giving away too much, the film exhibits a range of different influences and inspirations in its narrative. It essentially combines a character structure you might find in both gothic and southern gothic fiction (archetypes like a stranger, a tyrant, an ingénue etc) with a crime subplot maybe somewhere between Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion by Elio Petri and This Man Must Die by Claude Chabrol. It’s also got elements of surrealism, mystery and psychodrama, which make it a very, very wild ride.

There is a distinct visual and aural tone to it; can we expect the film to continue what the trailer has teased in that regard?

Absolutely! This first teaser was designed to communicate a particular mood of the film and it certainly gives a glimpse into what to expect. The music for example is a small sample of a very unique score that is almost impossible to describe. Our composer, Christopher de Groot, is incredible and has created something that falls somewhere between Les Baxter, Delia Derbyshire, John Zorn and Bernard Herrmann. It’s a sci/fi, exotica, noir nightmare and I think people are going to love it.

tbkplaybillWhen can we expect a full trailer?

Mid next year, however we have lots of cool things before it that I’m excited about getting out there. There will be a couple more teasers, more artwork and other cool stuff by a very talented designer based in Perth, Western Australia called Ash Pederick, who has handled all our artwork so far.

Tell us a little bit about your directorial history and how the idea of The Burning Kiss came about?

The Burning Kiss is my feature film directorial debut. Prior to this I was lecturing in film and screenwriting at university and working as a co-writer with a super talented Australian genre director by the name of Sam Barrett, most recently on his film Sororal, which is Australia’s first neo-giallo film and something I’m very proud to be a part of.

It’s hard to tell how the idea came about to be honest, I do remember being very fascinated by the opening titles for the film Lady in a Cage and wanting to do something with the same vibe. It creates this menacing, summer atmosphere in about 2 minutes. It’s like Weegee meets Saul Bass or something. If you haven’t seen it, check it out! I put it up there with the opening of Blue Velvet.

You cite Chabrol and Mario Bava as some of your influences, is there a period of historical film you can say is your favourite or most influential to The Burning Kiss?

Well, firstly let me say that growing up in the 80s and 90s means some irreparable damage has been done to my brain. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I’m doing something reminiscent of Les Biches or Les Diaboliques but it’s actually more like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female if you know what I mean?

That aside, I certainly love a lot of cinema from the 60s and 70s, but let’s face it, who doesn’t? It’s pretty hard to argue with the output during those decades.

The Burning Kiss absolutely draws from those decades, but we were very determined not to be ‘retro’ and were more interested in capturing a certain mood, emotion or sense of style from a specific set of influences. I actually spent about a month before pre-production searching through photography books and capturing screen grabs from films which I then turned into these crude ‘mood reels’ which I would show to the key creatives and actors. There are a variety of influences outside of film that informed the look and style of the film from photographers such as Martin Parr and Clifford Coffin to painters such as Clovis Trouille and David Hockney.

What were some of the benefits of shooting in Western Australia, in terms of the visual elements you wanted to achieve in the film?

Western Australia has some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, which obviously doesn’t hurt the look of a film. Sometimes it feels like if you just point the camera in one direction you’ve got Paris, Texas and if you point it the other way South Pacific or something. That being said, filmmaking is equally difficult to do wherever it goes down. Even considering all the advances in technology, I think when it comes to actually creating a film and telling a story, it’s no easier than it was in the silent era. There are a million problems, anxieties and difficulties that have little to do with what kind of camera you’re shooting on.

The film has quite an ambitious scope and the production was extremely fortunate to have dedicated and helpful contacts that helped us shoot in some very obscure and interesting locations.

The film is slated for release in 2014, will it be aimed at the festival circuit or will it be out on a much wider release?

Definitely the festival circuit at this stage. As we are still in post-production it’s difficult to predict what will happen in terms of distribution although there has been some very positive early buzz which is very exciting, so I don’t want to jinx anything!

I like the idea of presenting a “different kind of Australia”. Why do you think so many Australian films have yet to do this?

I’m sure they all do in their own way. I love Australian films, we just used that description to hopefully pique some interest as the film has genre elements, yet stylistically it isn’t connected to Animal Kingdom or Chopper nor is it Ozploitation. So in that simple sense it is different. In terms of drama and design it’s quite expressionistic and fun which I think people will respond to. A bit more “Ken Russell” than “Ken Loach”.

Our team basically just used influences from European to American, to Australian and arrived at a style that excited everyone associated with the production. It’s not like I’m using the film to apply for residency or anything so I don’t feel the burden of trying to prove my ‘Australian-ness’ onscreen. I do live in fear that the film might be declared ‘un-Australian’ and there will be a rushed Kangaroo court (pun intended!) hearing and Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson will come to my house and personally kick my arse! The last thing I need right now is a beat down at the hands of Doug from Cocktail.


The Burning Kiss opens in 2014. Check out an exclusive still from the film below.