Interview: Director Aaron Wilson on ‘Canopy’

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Interview by Lily Davis.

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Canopy marks the feature film debut for director Aaron Wilson. The film follows Australian fighter pilot Jim, who is shot down during the Japanese invasion of WWII. He awakes suspended in the trees of the dense and unfamiliar Singaporean jungle. It’s an engaging story about navigating foreign landscapes, and above all, human survival. We got a chance to sit down with the director and speak to him about filming on location in Singapore, how he conceptualised the film, and what he hopes audiences will take away from Canopy.

Canopy premiered in the discovery program at the Toronto Film Festival and is currently in limited release in Australian cinemas. Visit the film’s official website for more information.

The Reel Word: This is your debut feature, how did you enjoy the process compared to making short films?

Aaron Wilson: Gosh, a totally different kettle of fish, really! Well, we started approaching it kind of in our heads, let’s just imagine it’s a short while we’re in the shoot but we’re just shooting for longer. We quickly realised that there are so many other factors involved in a feature that are just more complex and detailed than making a short. Also in post-production, where you’ve really got so many different factors working on a film that requires such intense sound and visual effects. Then once you’re releasing the film, the marketing for a feature is so much more intense than it was with any of my short films.

The Reel Word: How did you first come across the idea? What drew you to it?

Aaron Wilson: The idea came to me not as a clear ‘this is something I must do’ but as a consequence of speaking with some veterans of WWII. I was making some documentaries in about 2006 and it lead me to be working with a few veterans who were actors in my film. When they got talking about their experiences in war there seemed to be a connection between all their experiences. Whilst they had different outputs in different arenas of war, they all talked about moments when they were quiet, by themselves, and there was something very vulnerable as individuals. And that was something for me, as someone who’s never been to war, that I could connect with. The idea that individuals were cast away in a foreign world and had to negotiate the landscape– they didn’t know what was going to happen at any given moment. And it felt like something that I wanted to explore as a film. It started like that and in the end it just kept growing into a script that was basically something that I wanted to make into a feature.

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The Reel Word: The cinematography in this film is incredible, and the location really gives life to that. Can you tell us a bit about filming in Singapore?

Aaron Wilson: Yeah, look it was a very special location and it was always imperative that we film on the location where the story is set. I spent a bit of time in Singapore before I wrote this film so I knew that world quite well, and I knew the general spaces that still exist to this day in Singapore. So I wanted to explore that world, not just as a backdrop, but as a character. That extended into the way we shot the film. My cinematographer Stefan Duscio and I, we went across months before we shot, and we came back weeks before we shot. We spent hours and hours in the forest approaching angles and frames; trying to create almost like a character for the jungle. It has different personalities, or different parts of a personality. We gave it different textures, almost like rooms in a house. We shot in the mangroves, then moved into the Southern mangroves, then into the jungle, and into sparser jungle where there are a whole lot of lizards around the undergrowth, just to give a different texture to each part of the film. So as our human characters move into the world they’re affected by the different textures and different parts of the jungle. We created that through the way we framed angles, sometimes we were overhead, sometimes we were front on, sometimes we were in wide, then in close, just to play with the orientations and disorientate the audience throughout the film.

The Reel Word: Did you encounter any major difficulties during the production process?

Aaron Wilson: There were difficulties. It was quite hot, humid, sticky, and being in the jungle that’s exacerbated I guess, especially in the mangroves. We were there at night, putting up lots of lighting in the distance because we wanted to be able to see into the distance in the shot, not just have the actors and the jungle lost in frame. For the lights in the background, we had guys running up and down trees and branches to hang lights, and then all of a sudden there would just pour down rain for three hours and it would destroy everything we’d built. So we had to stop and pull everything down and just wait under tents until it stopped raining, which just played havoc with our schedule. We were fighting with nature most of the time to try and get the shots we needed without rushing the actors, because the film is not a rushed piece. We wanted to make sure we had time to let the actors perform in the spaces.

The Reel Word: So were you working with a relatively small crew over there because you were shooting in the jungle? How big was your team?

Aaron Wilson: It wasn’t that big. We had about ten to fifteen people, sometimes more. Some of the big nights, for instance, we had up to five assistants with the lighting and they were building scaffolding and putting lighting all over the jungle, just so there were textures and frames that would help create some of that great, dynamic lighting in the film — because we lit all that at night. Then sometimes we had a very minimal crew. There was a very intimate scene in a tree trunk, we just had a minimal crew for that. We got by with as little crew as we could, a mix of Australian and Singaporean crew members.

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The Reel Word: How did you find your cast members?

Aaron Wilson: Casting happened separately for our two main actors. With the Taiwanese actor, I was in the Hong Kong film market a few years ago and looking at actors and trying to speak to actors for the role. I’d just seen this Taiwanese film and the lead performance was outstanding. I went back to the Taiwan film market and said, “Where can I find this actor? I’ve just seen this film and he’s fabulous!” And they said, “Well, he’s standing right behind you.” He was meant to leave that day but he stayed longer and we talked. By the end of the week he’d agreed to come on board and began researching the role of the character and got to know more and more about the Australian involvement in Singapore.

For the Australian actor we did a casting call in Australia. We basically put each actor into a room by themselves, and asked them to imagine they were in a foreign space or a jungle where the surrounds were quite overwhelming. I wanted them to imagine they were in that space, not to say anything, not to act, just to see, and I let the camera roll for about 20 minutes. It’s fascinating what happens to people, they forget they’re being watched or they get completely anxious about the camera rolling for so long. With Khan he just went to a magical space, where I just thought, this is someone I can watch for a long period of time.

The Reel Word: Canopy is almost completely without dialogue, can you take us through some of the strategies you used to convey meaning and narrative in the film?

Aaron Wilson: I think I was really interested in body language and gesture, the idea that we communicate non-verbally anyway, we just don’t think about it too much. A Chinese-Singaporean and an Australian character meet and become close, relying on each other for survival during one night, the connection between them is just through gesture and body language, and they come to rely on each other without the need for dialogue. And I think you read that quite well. In the scene where there is dialogue spoken, say in Chinese, we don’t subtitle that because again you can understand the gist of what is being said by body language. So I wanted it to be visual, and what dialogue there was, I thought, it’s not really telling the story, it’s just there, it’s really about body language and gesture for me.

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The Reel Word: Your film is a visceral experience, I felt really immersed in it and the sound, especially, had that effect. How did you go about achieving it?

Aaron Wilson: Yeah, sound. I concentrated quite a bit on post-production sound on my short films and that was a sort of testing ground for me in terms of playing with sound and how far can I push sound designers. My short films, as a consequence, have gotten quieter and quieter in terms of dialogue. Not deliberately to get rid of dialogue, but I find myself making films about individuals alone in spaces, by themselves, sort of feeling vulnerable and having to negotiate those spaces. Whether it’s an asylum seeker in a detention center, a father grieving over the loss of a daughter, or a farmer on a rural property, it’s spaces where people are by themselves when their defences are down. It’s what happens when no one’s watching. It’s quite interesting to me. But as a consequence they’re not going to be talking to themselves.

I sort of want to let environment come in as a character, and it is environment that is able to shape the human characters. I grew up on a small country town farm where you were very aware of the environment around you, the sounds, and nature being a dominant force, so I just want to, in my films, really convey that sense of environment as character. Wherever we are in the world, it plays an important part in our lives, and very much in Canopy, the jungle itself has a lot of sounds. If you were to stop to listen, it’s quite diverse. And it changes from day to night, it changes from mangroves to deeper jungle. So [the characters are] moving through this world, knowing that there’s war going on around them, but it’s sort of buffered by this jungle, which has this incredible layer upon layer of sound. And as day turns to night you can imagine that it would play havoc on the minds of these people. They’re wondering, “Hang on, was that a sound of war or was that a part of the jungle?” Things can be quite scary, and someone who’s in a sleep deprived state would maybe misinterpret it for war. So as the story goes on, we start out as the war being the threat, and the enemy, but we progress to a point where it’s almost like the jungle is a bigger threat to their survival than the war itself. That’s what we tried to recreate in the sound design.

The Reel Word: I often think exactly that with a lot of Australian films, like Picnic at Hanging Rock, how much the landscape acts as a character. Obviously this is a completely different landscape that you’re working with but that sense was still really strong.

Aaron Wilson: Well Picnic at Hanging Rock is a good example, because, while it’s a very different film, it still focuses on people that come to this land thinking they know everything, but really the landscape is an overpowering presence. It still has an ability to mystify and confound us, it’s almost like the character that we interact with is something magical and mysterious. And I really wanted to infuse this jungle character with a sense of that as well.

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The Reel Word: What are your hopes for this film? What would you like people to take away from it?

Aaron Wilson: For me, as a director, the most interesting thing about making films is to see it with an audience. I love making cinema. You have the ability to lump people in a dark and a communal space where they react to what’s going on on-screen with who’s around them. They can’t go anywhere. So you can really influence peoples’ emotions. You can take them on a journey and immerse them in an experience, that when they leave has potential to stay with them. That’s something I very much wanted to do with Canopy, to take them on a journey that these soldiers went through. If they can even glean an understanding of what that must have been like then that would be rewarding for me, because getting people to see the film is why we do this. We do this for audiences. So I guess to answer your question my goal would be to have an Australian audience see and appreciate the film. We’re releasing nationally at the moment and I would have loved to have strong audience attendance throughout the country.

And then the Q&As that we’ve been to are really exciting because it allows you to interact with audiences and engage with them. I find, depending on where you are in the world, or where in Australia, you might find that some of those questions are quite consistent. People around the world have the same feelings, they have the same responses and they feel the same way when they see certain things because there are certain things that are universal. That’s something I’m very interested in, making films that are about Australians, but that are also relevant to a wider audience. It’s the sort of film that, if people are willing to go on a journey, allows them to immerse themselves in that world and go on a journey with these characters. For me, that’s something really exciting as a filmmaker, having an audience member say ‘I was totally taken and immersed in this world’.

The Reel Word: Just to finish up, do you have any upcoming projects you could tell us about?

Aaron Wilson: Yeah, we’re actually working on a follow up film to Canopy. Canopy was part of a grand vision in my head of a story that’s about someone going to war, experiencing the war, but also returning home and having that war legacy follow them and affect their relationship with their family. That’s something I’ve very much felt growing up in a small town in Australia. That people went away to war and they came back, and that legacy came back and affected not just the family, but the community. So the second film we’re going to be doing, which we’ve shot a fair bit of already, is going to be focusing on 30 years later, once this man has returned home to his family, and we see the effects on his family and the relationships between them.

– L.D.

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