Between shameless irony and emocional detachment, James Vaughan offers his vision of the millennial generation in his debut feature film, Friends and Strangers. As if it would deal with a isolated character from an Eric Rohmer film, his protagonist remains secluded in the midst of the Australian bourgeoisie, lost emotional problems and an increasing feeling of emptiness.
Your film has been described by the Slant Magazine’s critic Carson Lund as a depiction of Australia being “a country of sleepwalkers drifting along in a placid dream, unable or unwilling to wake up and move forward”. Do you agree?
I think this was a perceptive observation. I did want the film to have a certain drowsiness, even sluggishness. Australians like to think of themselves as very active and energetic people, and in a superficial way this is often true, but culturally and intellectually today we tend to be quite passive. This is nowhere more obvious than with our ongoing status as British subjects. It is 233 years since the ships first sailed into Sydney harbour; in that time we have moved very quickly to dispossess and destroy the Indigenous populations, and to replace their profoundly complex and unique culture with a fairly shallow and materially comfortable society, but in terms of imagining anything beyond that, culturally, we have have been very timid and conservative. If you create a fantasy world you can make these issues magically disappear, and I understand the appeal of that. Life is stressful, and history is something people don’t have time and space for on a personal level when it looms as a negative rather than a positive. But we must find a way.
The film begins in romcom territory and ends as an absurd comedy. How did you find balance among the genres?
The balance took a while. Most of the big decisions were made in the writing (in an additive way), and in the editing (in a subtractive way). As a filmmaker, I don’t normally think in terms of genre. I do begrudgingly when it comes to pitching or promoting a film, because it is unavoidable the way the film industry operates—especially in Australia, which finds it particularly difficult to imagine the medium outside these categories. But at the writing stage I want to be free from that, because it doesn’t help me. That said, I love the things that genre draws from, a romantic interaction, a scary situation, a silly or absurd situation, a tense race against the clock. These are just parts of life and genre doesn’t have possession over them. As a medium I believe film is an extension of life and living—this has always been its special power— and I like films to explore situations organically, whether they are realistic, fantastical, rational or absurd is not of significance, as long as it has some cultural or experiential truth… Rooted in human behaviours, and human ways of perceiving and thinking. But genre is unavoidable, it is a great coloniser.
How do you like being compared to Éric Rohmer?
It’s a huge surprise, and an honour. Rohmer is a master, I love his work. That said, I did not set out to make the film with his films foremost in my mind. And the film that Friends and Strangers has been compared to most, Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987), I haven’t had the chance to see yet. But I think I’ve also likely been influenced by Rohmer indirectly, having watched and loved films made by other filmmakers who came after him and were undoubtedly influenced by him too. Influences are slippery and sometimes hard to detect with precision, things work on you subconsciously. But in terms of French New Wave filmmakers, I was probably thinking about Rivette more than Rohmer as I was making the film.
The millennial generation has been linked to immediacy, and as a result, mostly short stories and graphic novels readers. Did you have this in mind when dividing your film in separate vignettes?
On the immediacy point, I do relate to having a short attention span, and find it hard to get through novels. But I don’t read many short stories either, and don’t think I’ve ever read a graphic novel. I enjoy non-fiction mostly. The vignette structure was not in reference to any particular source material, but it appealed on an intuitive level as a way to explore different moods, tones, and rhythms in one film. It’s the kind of film I like to see, only not when it’s too over-wrought or flamboyant. I like the feeling of a film having internal shifts but the seams not being too visible, it’s important for it to still feel like one.
Not only do you direct and write the script, but also edit the film. How do your three personalities get along while developing the film process?
I have two main parts of my personality, excited and cranky. Since the film has come out overseas and been received well but as a team we haven’t been able to enjoy any of the festivals in person, most of this year I have been very excited and cranky at the same time. In terms of the writing, directing and editing, as long as I can go through each of those stages one at a time without overlap it feels like one continuous process to me.
Young people seeking romantic and professional satisfaction remains an ever-present theme of international cinema. How have you tried to bring something different to this field already explored?
It’s true it’s ever-present, but in Australia this subject matter has almost never been approached in an inspired way. We have an embarrassing number of formula-driven coming-of-age stories set in adolescent years or early twenties. These are usually hyper-focused on an individual and their small social clique, and follows the pattern of a protagonist as victim of circumstantial challenges which they must overcome by the end of the movie. Incidentally this also happens to be a version of our national mythology—the fantasy of the ‘self-made’ person growing up in a confusing, alien environment, battling the odds and eventually coming good. But despite white, educated, metropolitan people (who’ve often had a relatively easy ride through life) dominating the cultural, corporate and political spaces in Australia demographically, very few films have been curious to look at this world with any honesty. It’s another example of affluent white Australians being embarrassed by themselves, if not consciously then unconsciously. We won’t be able to address the challenges we have as a group until we get over the fear of engaging truthfully with all the different aspects of who we are, and that’s got to include the bad or unpleasant things.
You shot over 30 days across 60 locations around New South Wales. Has this intense pace of work affected the final result?
I hope not. I think the results of that are more in what didn’t make the film. There were a lot of scenes or moments that were really rushed on the shoot day, perhaps due to bad weather or other typical set-backs, or were badly cast under pressure in pre-production, and just weren’t good enough to include in the film. We are always wanting the film to have an easy and casual pace, getting that rhythm right in the edit was a huge job, and though it’s far from perfect, and not exactly what I was imagining at the start, as a team we are all really happy with where the film ended up.