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Lift-Off Filmmaker Interview: Claire Harris

Australian feature “Zelos” will screen at Sydney Lift-Off Film Festival on Wednesday 22nd November at 5:45 at Dendy Newtown. We interviewed writer-producer Claire Harris to hear a little more about this film’s journey, and her path as a filmmaker.

Interview by Sneh Rupra

Tell us a little bit about how you started your career in film.

Believe it or not, Zelos is my first film! I rather ambitiously chose to produce a feature film without ever having stepped on another film set – though this is not the approach I would recommend… I studied filmmaking at university and I always enjoyed writing screenplays, but then I went travelling for almost ten years and got distracted with other forms of writing. It was only when I returned to Australia in 2013 that I decided to pursue screenwriting and I went to the Australian Film Television and Radio School where I met Jo-Anne, the director.

What inspired the story of Zelos?

I first wrote Zelos as a novella while I was in a long-term relationship. The story didn’t happen to me the way it does in the film – but I drew on my own experiences and those of friends. I was interested in the way that every relationship has to grapple with infidelity in some form, whether it’s real or hypothetical. The Greek word zelos is the root of both jealousy and zeal in English, and I came up with a narrative that explored the boundary between those two emotions as well as, more broadly, how we navigate relationships in the modern context of casual hookups, online dating and endless possibilities.

Shannon Ashlyn and Ben Mortley in “Zelos”

What is it about film as a medium that draws you?

I’ve always loved film, but for a long time I thought I would be a prose writer so it was sort of fortuitous that I came back to filmmaking in my thirties. The challenge of film as a writer is how to tell a compelling story and get the audience to care about the characters in a relatively short period of time – but that’s also the beauty of the medium. I’m much better at writing dialogue than descriptions so it was amazing to watch those words come to life in a visual way imagined by the director.

How did you and the other filmmakers go about casting the roles?

We held a public script-reading before going into pre-production, so we found some of our supporting cast that way. Not having the resources to hold auditions, we did what any self-respecting filmmaker would do – trawled online showreels and stalked people through social media. We would send the script and, if they were interested, we’d ask them to send us a self-tape. We were really lucky with Ben Mortley, our lead. He’s Perth-based so he didn’t come up in our online searches, but I happened to see a short film he’d appeared in with Shannon Ashlyn (our lead actress) which was made by a friend of mine so he put us in touch.

Shannon Ashlyn and Ben Mortley in “Zelos”

How much did you discuss the more philosophical aspects of the script with the actors?

As the writer, I stayed out of the discussions between the director and cast as much as possible. But I certainly held long conversations about the themes of the script with Jo-Anne and I imagine she probably did the same with them.

Did anything change drastically from script to screen?

I think change is inevitable and it’s probably the hardest part of being a screenwriter – especially watching some of your favourite scenes and characters end up on the cutting room floor. But as I was also producer, I was part of the film as it evolved and I was giving my creative feedback during the edit as well, so I could see where it was going to end up. You have to learn to let go a bit and remind yourself that it’s no longer your screenplay – it’s a collaboration between everyone involved.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?

Every day had some sort of unexpected challenge. We had a really small crew so everybody was playing multiple roles, which meant there wasn’t necessarily someone who could run and grab something that we needed in a hurry. We shot for ten days in an apartment and we didn’t have anywhere else to put our equipment or catering unit, so it was a matter of constantly shifting things around the flat to be out of the way. At one point, the downstairs neighbour knocked on the door late at night to let us know the plumbing in our bathroom was leaking through his ceiling. So there was always something new and exciting to deal with.

Shannon Ashlyn and Ben Mortley in “Zelos”

Do you have any advice for those wishing to pursue a career in scriptwriting or film production?

Firstly, that it’s a long process – it took me two years to finish the script and another two to produce the film so you really need to be prepared for the amount of your life that it’s going to consume. Along the way, plenty of people will tell you that you can’t do it, and some of those people are the very ones who should be supporting you. It’s important to have enough confidence in yourself to ignore them or better still, tell them to f*** off and then prove them wrong. Finally, be very very selective about who you work with. You need people who care about the film absolutely as much as you do, are willing to put in the hard work right until the end and won’t bail when it all gets tough.

Finally, who are some of your filmmaker inspirations?

I would have to say mumblecore filmmakers – such as the Duplass brothers, Lynn Shelton, Jill Solloway, Noah Baumbach – as well as other directors who write great, naturalistic dialogue like John Cassavetes and (early) Woody Allen.

Tickets are now on sale for Sydney Lift-Off, where “Zelos” will be screening.

Buy tickets here.