Identical twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig took the genre filmmaking world by storm in their first directorial outing with Undead (2003), a zombie horror comedy long before all the other zombie horror comedies (even “Shaun of the Dead”), followed up with their breakout vampire film “Daybreakers” (2010) starring Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe.
This time tackling time travel, Mandy sat with down with the brothers when they were in town for the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) to talk casting an actress to play two genders, filming in Melbourne, benefits of working with your twin and the lost middle ground in filmmaking.
Congratulations on the film opening MIFF. You’ve come a long way from blowing up teddy bears in your backyard. How was it to have Geoffrey Rush be the one to introduce you?
Peter: It was fantastic, we heard most of Geoffrey’s speech and it was pretty funny. It’s great because it’s a 2,500 seat theatre and it was full. A little intimidating but I think it went really well.
Do you stay in the room to see how the audience is reacting or do you prefer to disappear?
Michael: A bit of both, it depends. I wanted to sit in this one because a lot of family and friends were there and half the crew were there. It was such a fun family night. I’m interested to see people’s reactions to this film and at what point things start to click for them. It’s interesting to see if some people get it and other people are like, ‘What? What are you seeing?’ It’s interesting to watch the back of heads [laughs].
And you filmed it here in Melbourne is it nice to be back?
Michael: It’s great to be back! I love shooting in this town. And we used locations like Abbotsford Convent which was basically a backlot for us. We shot in 20 different locations or something – the RMIT building we used, we used some areas on Collins St. We really shot around this town.
Peter: And the Docklands studio.
One of my friends who saw it with me came out of the film and was like ‘I thought they shot this in Melbourne – I couldn’t recognise anywhere’. You definitely set up the world so well that it wasn’t identifiable – even to locals [laughs]. The way all the shots were framed were incredible. Tt seemed like so much detail and planning went into it, and the whole way through you had an exact vision of what you were trying to achieve. Is that a big focus for you?
Peter: Sure. It’s a combination of Michael and I having a pretty clear idea of what we want, but then we work with a great DOP, great cinematographer, great costume and production designer, and they all work together to get that look.
Michael: And we like to storyboard a lot. We storyboard everything and we do the animatics and all that stuff. So we plan a lot and you have to plan a lot because when it’s technically complex, especially when you have an actor in the same scene playing two parts. It’s also the planning makes the film more affordable because you’re not as wasteful.
I imagine some big blockbusters spend a couple of days sitting around while they figure out some technology thing and the actors are just hanging out in their trailers.
Peter: And that’s no joke that really does happen. There is a tremendous waste of money.
Michael: I can’t say we’ve ever had a moment like that ever [laughs].
It is unfortunate that there isn’t a lot of funding for films in Australia but I suppose it does make you more efficient.
Peter: And it makes you come up more creative solutions to problems rather than just throwing a ton of money at it.
Yeah like ‘oh we’ll fix that later in post with special effects’. So planning a time travel film this would be quite complex. How do you work it all out – do you have a board with a whole lot string connecting timelines?
Michael: In the original short story “All you Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlein there’s actually a diagram online that shows you, like a chart, it shows you how it all works. And we absolutely had to do that. Not only did we have to do that – pin the whole thing up on a wall – we actually arranged it in a linear fashion so you could actually follow birth to death. We would have constant meetings because it was hard, not just following the characters, but also when you make a film you have to follow wardrobes and styling and everyday it was just trying to track what goes where and how does it reveal this. It was very complex [laughs].
I can imagine! But it all worked so brilliantly. The joke about the chicken and the egg was that in the original short story?
Peter: No it wasn’t.
Michael: Heinlein’s quote we included was “Never do yesterday what should be done tomorrow.” And he also had the snake biting its tail forever and ever. Those were his.
It was a beautiful letter that Ethan Hawke prepared for the opening night as he couldn’t be there. This is the second film you’ve worked on with him. How did you begin that relationship and what is he like to work with?
Peter: It began on our previous movie and that just happened the way you would think it happens – which is you send him a script, he gets excited and wants to meet, and then says yes. And that’s what happened with “Daybreakers” and we had such a good experience working with him on that. As soon as we finished writing “Predestination” we thought this was right up his alley. We know his genre sensibilities. We sent it to him on Thanksgiving and he literally contacted us the next day and said ‘tell me when and where, I’m in’. From there, it’s just one of those things in that it takes a long time to work in people’s schedules and work out financing and all that kind of stuff.
Michael: Ethan was on his tenth year of “Boyhood” at that point. [laughs]
And now it’s finished…
Peter: Well it’s funny when we made “Daybreakers” he was telling us about it and that was six years ago.
I’m seeing that at the festival as well so I’m very excited.
Peter: It’s amazing.
Michael: It’s such a great film.
Casting for Sarah Snook’s character would have been difficult I imagine because you’re looking for a lot of different qualities. How did you go about it and what was it about Sarah that drew you in?
Michael: We basically saw every actress in the country. And there was so much talent out there. The big decision at first was whether we should actually try to do this – are we going to try this actress playing two genders. We were hesitant about it right up until we saw Sarah. And a big part of the decision was well, one, she’s amazing, and secondly Sarah has sort of a tomboy quality about her. And she really projected that into the male character – and also the female character as well. She’s just incredible.
She was, and I’d only seen her briefly in “These Final Hours” previously, but she really struck me as having a Cate Blanchett chameleon quality where she can just transform herself so easily.
Peter: I think her trajectory is definitely heading that way.
You’ve done a few genre based films now covering vampires, zombies and now time travel, is that what you want to continue doing?
Michael: That’s kind of a hard one to answer because this film is very much a drama as well as a sci-fi/thriller/action movie. I just look for good stories but I definitely think the genre thing is something we like because genre – whatever that really means – it’s a very freeing thing I think. It’s very limitless when it comes to possibilities and the worlds you can create. And a lot of things that are actually happening today, this sort of dystopic world. I love the genre. And I love the short story. It’s amazing this was written over 50 years ago and you can imagine how controversial it would have been back then because even by today’s standards it’s still kind of ‘out there’. That still blows my mind that that story has been around for so long. That’s a testament to the mind of the author.
It was such a great feeling as an audience member when they’re at the bar near the beginning and Sarah’s character says ‘I’m going to tell you the most amazing story you’ve ever heard’, because I just had no idea where it was going. You see a lot of films and get a sense for the story beats, you know, oh they’ve introduced this person now so it must be important later etc, and I just had absolutely no idea what her story was going to be or where it was leading. Obviously I haven’t read the short story so that helped [laughs]. I also wanted to call out a scene that really resonated with me which was when Sarah says ‘You’re beautiful. Someone should have told you that.’ I thought that was such a beautiful moment and she did such a good job with it.
Michael: And particularly for Sarah it was hard not for her to laugh.
Yes was she just talking to air or was there someone standing there?
Peter: There’s a double standing there, and that’s the thing of it, because you’re only doing one side of it, then get her into make-up and do the other side. Trying to get the emotional beats right hours later when you’ve changed into a different gender…
Yes, not just a different character…
Michael: We would rehearse that in a very basic way. We had doubles – good actors – so Sarah had something to work off. We used the back of the heads of the doubles in shots and then occasionally split screens to put the two of them in together so it looked like the same moment.
Peter: But it’s a testament to Sarah too to really know or remember what her performance was on the other side so she can match and give the right emotional beats back and forth. It’s a hell of a thing to do.
I imagine it’s hard enough with one character. Did you do one scene – one side then the other – or was it more ‘okay you’re this part for today’?
Michael: No we did one side then she went away for two hours and then we did the other side.
I’m interested to know a bit about how you work together. You seem very in tune – obviously being twins and having the same background probably helps – but do you have a short hand that you can use to speed up processes?
Peter: We’ve been doing this for a while now. We started out making short films together so there is a shorthand. But Michael and I, with the planning that we do, going onto set it’s very clear on what we want to achieve. We don’t get there and suddenly Michael has a different idea to me. It doesn’t work that way. It’s quite bizarre we’ll see a take and we’ll go ‘that’s the take’ and we’re done and we’ll move on.
Michael: Sometimes when we get desperate and we’re running out of time we’ll split and I’ll shoot one thing and Peter will shoot the other thing
Ah, definite benefits when there’s two of you!
Michael: Yeah producers love that [laughs].
Wow. And what was it that made you choose Melbourne to film or was it where the support was?
Michael: Lots of reasons. Film Victoria was great. I think locations. We’ve directed commercials here, we’ve been here a lot so we know what’s around. It just felt right for this type of film – it’s hard to explain. It just has the right look, the right textures, the Abbotsford Convent became a backlot for us and we used every corner of that place.
Peter: And Docklands studio and all that stuff. Everything that we needed was here.
Michael: And the other major incentive for us is there are a lot of actors in this town – there’s a lot of TV, a lot of theatre, and the quality of actors you can find is amazing.
That’s good! And I think they’d love more projects to be filmed here. What’s happening after this for you?
Michael: We’ll be touring around for the release of the film. Australia’s actually the first country to release it – and that’s very rare.
Yes that does not happen often! I know with your films you’re very involved with the writing and directing and producing which can be very time consuming – working from start to finish – do you already have your next projects lined up?
Peter: We have a number of projects, one of them has been announced, and it’s a film called “Winchester”. It’s about a place called the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, a lot of Australians might not be, but it’s a very famous house in the US and Sarah Winchester is the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. And she believed she was haunted by all the people that had been killed by the Winchester rifle. So she built this house to appease the ghosts and also trick the ghosts and keep them away from her. And it’s a real place, it’s a true story.
Michael: She literally built this house for 38 years. Non-stop. Round the clock.
Peter: And she was a multi multi millionaire.
Michael: It’s an awesome story and a true story.
How do you find stories like that – just do a lot of reading?
Peter: Yeah we read a script and Sony who have “Predestination” for the North American release want to do another movie with us so they would send us material and we reacted to that one. And there’s two other projects that we’re working as well that are in various stages.
Michael: As a filmmaker you’ve got to always be thinking ahead. You’ve always got to have a few things floating because that one you’re really passionate about, the one you want to do, they sometimes fall over and it’s heartbreaking.
Absolutely and I’m sure it happens more often than anyone would like.
Michael: It happens to every single filmmaker in the world [laughs].
I recently spoke with Hossein Amini who directed “The Two Faces of January” and that was a passion project for him which ended up taking 25 years…
Peter: That can be rough when you’re so passionate about it and it takes forever.
Michael: There’s a joy I think sometimes in making a film quickly, and getting it done and out there [laughs].
It seems a lot at the moment there’s a lot of independent films, and a lot of blockbusters, but nothing in that middle ground which is such a shame, and I thought this film was fantastic in that we just haven’t seen a film like this in so long.
Michael: The middle gap has eroded away. It’s now sort of like, the low budget caps out at $15 million and under, and then you go into $100 million and over, and the middle ground of films has gone. And part of the reason for that is that studios have a certain amount of money that they spend on releasing a film and the middle ground budget is a weird one for them. They’re not sure how much to spend on promotion.
Hopefully there’s a solution. Video on Demand maybe…
Michael: VoD is massive now and VoD is a very legitimate way – particularly for indie filmmakers – to get their stuff seen.
“Snowpiercer” has done well with that recently.
Peter: Yes very well.
Hopefully the studios will feel more comfortable if there’s another revenue stream for them to get their investment money back. Thank you so much for your time, loved the film and please come back to Melbourne and film again!
Michael: Thank you.
Peter: We will!
“Predestination” opens in Australian cinemas August 28.