Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson Ruin
Cast: Sang Malen, Rous Mony
Directors: Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Running Time: 90 minutes
Synopsis: The first Australian feature film in 20 years to win an Award at the Venice Film Festival, Ruin is the internationally acclaimed drama from renowned Australian filmmaking team Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Hail, Bastardy, Cicada).
An impressionistic fable, Ruin is the story of Phirun (Rous Mony) and Sovanna (Sang Malen) - two young lovers inexplicably drawn together, who escape a brutal and exploitative world of crime and violence in modern day Cambodia. Fleeing Phnom Penh after a murder, they travel deeper into the jungle. As their vulnerable love ebbs and flows along their journey, they wake from the trauma of their former lives and unleash a violent rage upon the world.
Responding to the need for a unique cinematic experience, filmmakers Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody have organised a range of exclusive event screenings to cater for an increasingly discerning cinema going audience.
With Q&A sessions at ACMI, Golden Age Cinema, The Lido Cinema and Cameo Cinemas, Belgrave, along with screenings at the Mercury Cinema in Adelaide and an exclusive live-score performance at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) with renowned composer Oren Ambarchi, this screening programme, which will take place over the next 3 weeks, is a unique opportunity for curious audience members to obtain a range of fascinating insights into the filmmaking process.
Release Date: November 18th, 2016
About The Production
For Michael Cody Ruin is the culmination of many years fascination and engagement with Asia in a number of film contexts. As a Phd student at the University of Technology Sydney he was researching and writing on cross-cultural cinema and documentary with particular reference to Asian filmmakers.
He also spent a period working as a foreign correspondent for APTN Europe's Roving Report and SBS Australia's Dateline programs, primarily producing and directing documentary style programs in Asia. Finally he spent a number of years working in physical production throughout the region. This involved facilitating feature film productions in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand as well as directing his own work, (his short film entitled Foreign Parts was shot in Vietnam and selected for competition in the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival).
After discovering a shared passion for a documentary/drama hybrid aesthetic, Amiel Courtin- Wilson and Michael co-founded the production collective Flood Projects which also includes directors Amy Gebhardt and Justin Kurzel, cinematographers Adam Arkapaw and Germain McMicking, editor Peter Sciberras and composers Steve Benwell and Oren Ambarchi.
After directing twenty short films and three feature length documentaries including Chasing Buddha that screened at Sundance in 2000 and his short film CICADA that screened at Cannes in 2009, Amiel Courtin-Wilson's dramatic feature film debut Hail screened at festivals including Venice, Rotterdam, Istanbul, Seattle, Kalovy Vary, Munich, and Edinburgh- as well as winning the Age Critics Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Fantasia Film Festival, Best Film at the Fantaspoa Film Festival and being critically lauded as the best Australian film of 2012 by critics such as Adrian Martin.
Amiel wrote and directed Hail and Michael produced - allowing them to develop a unique and very exciting production methodology, as well as an intensely rewarding working relationship.
After HAIL had its international premiere at Venice in 2011, Amiel and Michael arrived in Cambodia with the objective of collaborating as co- writers, codirectors and co-producers on a feature film.
At that nascent stage there was no script, story or financing whatsoever and they began Ruin by deciding to employ a similar documentary development methodology to Amiel and Michael's feature film HAIL.
What lies at the heart of this unorthodox drama development and production methodology is that research, writing, production and editing are all able to coalesce- not dissimilar to the way in which a documentary is developed through shooting. Their experience on HAIL led Michael and Amiel to find this an extremely inspiring and fluid way of working- especially when working as co-directors on a project.
In the case of Ruin this involved an intensive period of research in Phnom Penh where they conducted in depth interviews with hundreds of people across a broad spectrum of society; high ranking police officials, homeless drug addicts, market vendors, charity workers, child prostitutes and young business entrepreneurs. It was a harrowing, inspiring and humbling period of months of deep conversation and immersion in various pockets of communities in Phnom Penh.
At the same time Michael and Amiel were transcribing these interviews and working on story outlines and script development. Eventually they narrowed the myriad of stories down and co-wrote a fifteen page story outline from which to devise improvisations.
Simultaneous to this process, Amiel and Michael also embarked upon a comprehensive casting process that involved working with both actors and nonactors. During this time they tested around 400 prospective cast and collected personal stories that in some instances also became part of the project. This entire process was made possible through the tireless passion of the Cambodian executive producer Kulikar Sotho. Kulikar is the most experienced producer in the local industry. A brilliant emerging filmmaker in her own right and with credits on a range of projects from Tomb Raider to Wish You Were Here. Kulikar is incredibly well connected in Cambodia and was able to steer Michael and Amiel towards who they needed to meet for their research, no matter how sensitive or difficult it was to gain access.
Michael and Amiel became increasingly interested in exploring a mythical love story between two teenagers who have escaped mutually hellish backgrounds in modern day Cambodia. They fashioned a very simple fable-like love story road film, examining the way love can temporarily transcend trauma. Working in the nexus between documentary and drama, Ruin has a potency in its fundamental authenticity- laying the foundation for an extraordinary and vital cinematic adventure.
Our Australian crew was augmented with local crew provided by an excellent Cambodian production company and our key relationship with Cambodian Executive producer and filmmaker Kulikar Sotho.
Ruin was ultimately shot in two twenty day blocks a year apart with an Australian crew and the Cambodian production company Hanuman Films. -'It was an experiment and an exercise in sheer will to see if we could will this thing into being, and it's paid off.''
The festive organisation of the crowd must be first of all concrete and sensual. Even in the pressing throng, the physical contact of bodies, acquires certain meaning. The individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the peoples mass body. In this whole, the individual body ceases to a certain extent to be itself. It is possible, so to say, to exchange bodies, to be renewed. - Mikhail Bakhtin
All waits undreamed of in that region, that inaccessible land. - Walt Whitman
We dive and reappear in new places. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
The more perfect a thing, the more it feels pleasure and pain. - Dante
Ruin is the story of two lovers who enable one another to become aware of themselves and the untold depths of their inner lives. The surfacing of this emotional magma unleashes a potent transformative love as well as a torrent of chaos that ultimately consumes them- swallowed whole by their own hearts and the malevolent world from which they have sprung.
The unique synergy between the opaque and enigmatic natures of Sovanna and Phirun and how the subsequent fissures of love, hate, rage and and grief lay their internal emotional tumult bare not only draws you into wanting to know Phirun and Sovanna more intimately but will also ultimately make you desperately want their love for one another to triumph.
Ruin is a lush and brutal love story of mythical proportions- a portrait of two human beings inexplicably drawn to one another and thrust into a series of increasingly chaotic dream like encounters with both the outside world and each other.
Set against the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, Ruin uses the poetics of water to offer a lyrical framework through which to explore themes around the unfinished business of past trauma. Juxtaposing an unashamedly operatic emotional palette with an elliptical, poetic visual language
Ruin is a transcendent story of companionship and love.
Casting / Rehearsal / Performance
With an emphasis on raw authenticity, the casting process for the various roles in Ruin has been intensive and lateral. Our leads were real discoveries; while Mony (playing Phirun) is an experienced actor (our only cast member that is), he is rare in Cambodia in that he avoids the local tendency toward an overly theatrical style. He has an incredible range and makes consistently interesting choices. Melan (playing Sovanna), is a natural. Although she's a student at the Phnom Penh school of fine arts she is not in the theatre department, but rather has trained as an acrobat. We tested a great many young women for this role but were completely entranced by Melan's physicality, ability to stay present in any given moment and the complex ambiguity she brought to the role.
Before casting our leads we engaged them in extended recorded interviews about their own lives. Both had experienced incredibly deep suffering in their immediate families and were open to these experiences being used to inform the fabric of the film. We also met many of our leads real life family, friends and acquaintances, both for research and as potential cast. This exhaustive approach provided a pool of non- professional actors and allowed the casting brief for each individual character to be extremely flexible. The specific physicality of the performers is assimilated into the roles to give the process as much latitude as possible.
In other instances we worked with real people who play themselves in the context of the scene. For example, the metal workshop employees are for the most part actual employees of the workshop that we used as a location. Through the process of making Hail we refined techniques for working with non-actors and these approaches lend an authenticity to the work that is otherwise unavailable. This unique way of working is in effect research, writing and rehearsal all coalescing at once, giving us a chance to work in situ with our actors and develop a culturally sensitive and authentic framework from which to write our script.
Ruin was unlike any other project I had ever come across. In it's audacity, potential and scope, completely unconventional from the first incarnation. It was with a nervous excitement that I jumped on board when Michael and Amiel proposed it to me.
At that stage Ruin was an embryo of an idea, a bunch of notes, a feeling, an energy. No script, plan or schedule. Just a blind faith in a feeling, a hunger to start.
Arriving in Phnom Penh just a few weeks after we had first talked about the project, we started shooting almost immediately. Rather than this feeling rushed or premature, it was actually completely liberating - a kind of live script, story and character development; in situ, on camera. As a cinematographer I felt an integral part of this development, a rare feeling on most productions. Free also from the time pressure of a strict shooting schedule and other traditional protocols, we formed a small but tight team, rapidly developing a visual language, our own on-set methods, and a way of capturing the developing story as honestly as possible.
With minimal resources; a Canon 5D, lenses and a basket of domestic lights, we had a very small footprint. This intimate and flexible way of working, I believe, was a big factor also in allowing us to have almost complete freedom to be spontaneous and reactive. Working off the energy of Mony and Malen and the spaces they we acting in, I felt I was able to take my queues visually from my instinctual gut reactions to each scene. I sensed where the camera should be and feel, in reaction to how the moment unfolded, morphed and resolved during takes that were at times up to an hour long. Shooting on location with practical lights, the crew and the actors had very few restrictions in terms of our movement - if the scene suddenly moved from a room onto the street it was no cause for cutting, we became skilled in crossing roads and navigating obstacles whilst still rolling. Along with sound recordist Steve Bond, we were able to create an environment that allowed both Amiel, Michael and the actors to continue the flow of an idea or the intensity of an emotion with everyone still anchored in the moment.
And so we continued on in this vein, shooting mostly by night, sleeping (very little) by day. We watched rushes and discussed at length, talked about what we felt was the heart of it, what we were drawn too. We spent many sweaty nights in small rooms and balmy roadsides. We threw around ideas, many outlandish, most came to fruition. It was an intensely satisfying methodology, by definition there was a high percentage of the footage that wouldn't make the cut but with that came a freedom and a kind of inhibition - both visually and conceptually we could take risks that would not have been possible in another model of filmmaking.
With us also was 2nd Unit DP Giovanni Lorusso and newcomer Alex Cardy who both worked tirelessly to capture the essence of that time and place. Germain McMicking (Hail) joined us to shoot the ultra-slow motion sequences on Phantom, adding visuals on a whole other level. By my side was Josh Aylett, a multi-talented co-pilot in the journey who covered many roles including gaffer, grip and camera assistant.
Deeper and deeper into the shoot we found ourselves somewhat sleep deprived, physically exhausted, creatively buzzing. It was here that I think we reached something truly innovative and exciting. The ideas, concepts and techniques were deep in the background and in that near totally exhausted state we were forced to act on pure instinct, let ourselves go completely and follow our first, unfiltered reactions. For me, operating the camera, I thrived on this feeling, the rawness of it, tuning in to the actors, the minutia of their movements and dynamics, giving in to the moment, at times forgetting completely that there was a camera between us. After so many hours holding it, it felt part of me, there was no thought process involved in pulling focus or avoiding obstacles. Those hours too built a very close relationship with Mony and Malen. Despite the language barrier, it wasn't long before we had dissolved any sense of personal space and formed a relationship of pure trust. I can say without hesitation that the visual style and energy of Ruin comes directly from my interaction with them through the lens.
Ruin was a labour of love, chaos and blind faith. Watching the film now I feel we managed to truly capture a feeling, a spark - that energy that we first felt back in the earliest days of conception. I hope the images honestly reflect the inner turmoils and joys of the characters, and the darkness and light in the world around them.
- Ari Wegner
Ruin was shot mostly in sequence and in real locations. The crew consisted of an extensive Australian team; allowing us to shoot the script chronologically, which was integral to our priority to create an environment that promoted raw, intuitive performance.
To work in this manner is to liberate the potential for stunning moments of reality that are not available within traditional production models. This highly orchestrated yet ultimately organic approach injects a unique vitality and authenticity to the material that we believe is the life- blood of this film. Rigorous planning, pre-production and rehearsal processes, laid the groundwork for flexibility on set that made truly inventive collaboration available. Fostering this kind of spontaneity was crucial for the energy of Ruin. All locations were either shot with available light or entirely prelit to enable characters to move freely within the space without concern for technical requirements. During in situ rehearsals we blocked out key scenes, giving the actors the freedom to improvise on the day, as well as giving us the knowledge of how scenes would potentially play out.
This method of fabricating a situation and then recording observational moments within that scenario enables beautifully naturalistic details to be captured – the impression of the world of the film is all the more convincing when presented with this scope.
Sound design is integral to the overall style of Ruin and like the restrained sound design in Hail, beautifully bold moments of total silence is juxtaposed with dense atmospheres and diegetic walls of sound. Working closely again with renowned sound designers Rob Mackenzie, (The Grandmaster, Bastardy, Hail) and Sam Petty (Somersault, Animal Kingdom, Lore, Hail) who have amazingly sophisticated sensibilities and who favour coming on board with sound design concepts as early as possible.
Our approach to the visual style of the film was to retain a very restrained cinematic language. Drawing upon influences in both documentary and drama, we wanted to make something minimal in its visual style but still totally visceral and engaging.
We are frequently with the characters in intimate spaces, observing their reactions to each other as they become acclimatised to the rupturing presence of the other. We also experience details of the physical world as they do – absorbed in the minutiae of their surroundings as a strategy to escape the pain of self.
Inspired by the work of Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes with their spontaneous on screen energy, this at times frenetic visual approach drives the pace of the film and mirrors the characters' neurotic states of mind – isolating them from their environments and focusing on the smallest of physical details around them as they ricochet through existence. Shot on 5D, Red and Phantom with prime lenses, the film's organic visual style borrows heavily from observational documentary with extremely intimate floating handheld camera work- inducing a sense of slightly heightened naturalism. Ari Wegner was at the helm as cinematographer and her talent, instincts and grace under pressure made her an absolute inspiration to work alongside.
The pace of scenes within Ruin shift greatly throughout the film – the characters move through periods of action, observation and subjective contemplation and this is reflected in the editing techniques used. By developing this floating non linearity throughout the narrative in the edit there was an extremely rich series of possibilities to explore that reflected the innately fractured psychologies of Phirun and Sovanna in the face of a life of trauma. With over one hundred and fifty hours of material taken from forty days of shooting over a two year period, the films fluidity is a testement to the work of our three immensely talented and committed editors Simon Price, Luca Cappelli & Sally Blenheim.
Having worked with Sally Blenheim on Amiel's documentary Bastardy and Luca Cappelli on Hail we have an established creative relationship that revolves around constant provocation and keeps the process inventive and exploratory.
This feature is our first collaboration with Simon Price but his work on features such as the New Zealand film The Orator (Venice Film Festival 2011) meant that we were able to be extremely rigorous with one another while delighting in each other's instincts and tastes.
It is common practise these days to start editing a film as soon as the shoot begins and there are some big advantages to building an initial assembly out on location. One happy accident is that the editor is given an opportunity to meet the real world setting of the film.
This year I found myself editing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on an Australian / Cambodian co-produced feature called Ruin. Like other international coproductions I've worked on, Ruin was aiming to be released in the local language (in this case, Cambodian Khmer) with English subtitles attached directly to a master print.
When translation is required a script is usually provided in both languages. Ruin however had no script. Neither Amiel nor Michael spoke fluent Khmer. They planned to improvise much of the dialogue on set - translating their instructions to a Cambodian cast through local interpreters and then re-translating their ad-libbed Khmer dialogue back into English through the edit suite. It was an exhilarating and slightly dangerous approach to working in a foreign language.
In the absence of a full script the writer/director team had released a fifty page treatment for Ruin. The schedule was ambitious – shooting seven days a week for five weeks and mostly at night with a cast that included real murderers, rapists, drug dealers, addicts, pimps and prostitutes. It was a chaotic process driven not only by the necessities of budget and country but also by the inspiring wild spirit of the directors themselves.
They listed their influences - Phillippe Grandrieux meets Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog meets Roger Corman, Antonin Artaud. It was a Cambodian 'Badlands". Armed with twenty pages of notes, a hotel address and a yet to be confirmed visa I flew out for Indo-China.
And I landed in a funeral. The Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk was about to be cremated. Millions of Cambodians from the provinces had flocked to the capital- the road was littered with lotus flowers and burnt out incense sticks. The death of the King provided an opportunity for the entire nation to mourn their recent past and share in an unspoken catharsis of sorts surrounding the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970's that saw nearly three million people killed.
With a relentless shooting schedule and no days off everything started to blur after that - the real and the virtual, the English and Khmer. Night and day. The past and present. The edit and the shoot. The crew were working eighteen to twenty hour days, shooting sex scenes at 4am in the room next to where I was trying to sleep, mocking up murders in the laundry down the hall. Other guests complained to management about strange and desperate noises they were hearing in the night.
One of the local cast, Socheat, started hanging around the edit at night. Socheat spoke no English but he would arrive, slap you on the back and then sit cheerfully behind you just smiling sometimes for hours while you tried to keep on cutting. One night at 3am he appeared above Luca Cappelli one of my fellow editor's beds. He smiled a toothless grin and grunted. Luca, the editor, woke in fright and Socheat ran. In the morning Luca's phone was missing. We never saw Socheat again. His performance in the film is simply remarkable- he had never acted before in his life.
The film and the country rushed to greet me. Life and death, an awful past and a flood of rushes on multiple formats that showed an ancient culture, dogs and rubbish, beggars, temples, monks and junkies. We were editing Ruin where we slept on laptops at the Super Star Hotel, a humble institution around the corner from the Royal Palace. The crew were a mix of Cambodian specialists, young Australians, an Italian DOP, an Italian editor and a Californian called Rick Charnoski who flew himself from Hollywood to work on the EPK.
-Editorial' was two double rooms on the fourth floor, just far enough away from the smell of the sewer pipes below. Into here we crammed three editors, a data wrangler, two translators and an assistant editor. Various members of the production crew who were shooting mostly at night would invariably also fall asleep on one of the beds and lie there dead to the world while we worked around them. It was a chaotic process driven not only by the necessities of budget and country but also by the inspiring sheer drive of Amiel and Michael to will this unwieldy beast of a film into existence.
With 150 hours of material and ten weeks to edit with fellow editors Sally Blenheim and Luca Cappelli I threw around the frames in a search for greater meaning but the cut insisted on being way more lyrical than that. In every frame there seemed to be a mercurial kind of catharsis. A trauma. Hope. And desperation. In every frame there was Cambodia. 'Just feel me" it said 'and don't forget."
- Simon Price
Release Date: November 18th, 2016