The next several months should be an interesting turn of events for filmmaker John Balazs. His last shortfilm, Dancer, was a tremendous milestone for his production banner, Prima Lux, and though it proved to be taxing, needless to say, the choice to go forth into another venture wasn’t as challenging.
Thus, here we are discussing the new action crime thriller, Night Shift. A Fall online premiere is expected and as such, officially inaugurating up-and-coming actress Adele Elasmar in the action genre as a viable leading lady. I’ll be sharing Q&As with the star of this new project in due time while we now follow up Balazs in this, our second interview this year.
Greetings John and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. It’s been three months since we last spoke as you’ve been in post-production with your new action short, Night Shift so far. How is it going along?
Thanks very much for the support. It means the world to us. We have been busy lately with post production on Night Shift as well as development for future projects. When Night Shift wrapped I promised myself I’ll take some time off. That never happened and I ended up cutting the whole film together in 2 weeks. So now we’re at the polishing stage with post sound mix, vfx etc.
Tell us about Night Shift in your latest follow-up from Dancer.
After we finished Dancer, Marlane and I were on a high. We felt so incredibly validated as filmmakers and finally made something that we were truly proud of. As you know it had an amazing run in the film festivals and we got a lot of praise and made some really great connections through actors, directors etc. It was so thrilling at the premiere to see everyone enjoy the fruits of our labor. It’s so addictive. I stared playing around with the idea of doing another action to really cement our abilities in the genre. I wanted to expand on what we experienced during the making of Dancer by trying out new fighting styles, having a more compressed storyline and different filming techniques.
However Dancer financially kicked us in the head and cracked a couple of ribs for Marlane and myself so we both agreed that we could not and would not spend a cent on this from our own pockets. Our family grew by one between the two films so priorities were the central focus. Marlane also made me promise to keep it compact and tight. No more than 20 minutes as Dancer suffered from eligibility in many festivals due to its run time. I knew that wasn’t possible but I obliged her. We ended up with a 40 minute film…again.
I wanted to keep things tight so I made the story about an ordinary police woman who was thrown into an extraordinary situation. Because Dancer was so macho, with males as the lead, the villain and having the damsel in distress element play so heavy in it, I wanted to completely reverse everything here. I wanted to have a female lead, a female villain and a female end fight scene. I wanted to show that girls can kick ass just as much as the men can.
You’ve had some amazing things to say about your star Adele Elasmar back in April when we first traded Q’s and A’s, and her depiction of Bianca, I think, is really sexy and rather intense in her stoicism. Talk about your approach in writing her character, because you could probably pick from any number of action movie heroine tropes and ideas and come up with any number of ways to approach her.
After working with Adele on Dancer for those short scenes she was in I wanted to explore her abilities a bit more and see where I can take them. I wanted to get to know her professionally, personally and artistically in order to get something raw out of her. The idea for Night Shift came very quickly after the Dancer premiere so I approached her early on to see if she was interested in collaborating again. Of course, she jumped at the chance. It was after that discussion that I wrote the script.
It was easier once I could put a face to the character. We did some early test shoots to see mood and attitude through some mock posters. I could see what she could deliver so I wrote around her. To be honest I really didn’t think too much about “like characters” and modelling her on any certain film portrayal of equal intensity. We just kind of figured it out for ourselves. She was at the time studying acting however I found that her methods were sometimes over the top, very theatrical and too expressive. I had to remind her that it’s a movie, the lens picks up every movement and your face is blown up to a 40 foot screen. So the slightest twitch, eye movement and breathing is enough to convey your thoughts and motivations as a character. I had to keep reminding her to strip back and throw away all the unnecessary elements, to bring it down a few levels and to trust the camera. For that reason, I kept taking dialogue out for her. I removed huge chunks of writing and replaced them with silent emotion. I wanted to let her character tell emotion though showing us rather than having her express all her thoughts and motivations through dialogue. It was a conscious effort to have the first 5 minutes of the film dialogue free. That whole opening is about her yet she doesn’t utter a single word.
She went out of her way to speak to real police officers and researche so much into this role. Sometimes her researched changed the script as she would come to me and tell me that the real cops do this and that they think like this. She met with battle hardened police officers who told her about the emotional toll the job takes on their personal lives. We added those elements into the script. So, in a way as she grew to understand what the real people went through, the script continued to grow to a more realistic depiction of the men and women on the frontline. I think she did a fantastic job and the film is better for having her as the lead.
She had never done any fight training before. She was a clean slate and clay block ready to be molded and shaped. From day one, she learnt and absorbed so much. She was prepared driven and ultimately delivered. We spent 6 moths getting her ready for camera and she dedicated and gave so much of herself to the training and the role. It was very admirable to see such dedication. It made me want to do right not only by her, but by all the others who were training with us.
Talk about casting Stephen Degenaro to play Tony and training him up for a fighting role of his own. Was he just as new as Adele or does he have a background?
I saw Stephen in a film called Solus and really admired his acting abilities. There was just something so raw and passive about the way he came out on screen. He’s abilities as an actor just looked effortless and that was something I kept an eye on. Funny enough we both connected on Facebook after both our feature scripts were selected in the Action on Film festival. From there I could see through his social media that he had some sort of martial arts back ground. Whether it was a disciplined and graded style or just picking moves up from the films he would watch, the guy could move. I was impressed and reached out to see if he was interested. I was excited to work with him as the more I mentioned his name around the filming circle here in Melbourne the more I learnt that he was someone who was respected very much for his art and craft of acting. Once we got him into training I could see early on where he needed work and Dan Ginnane immediately went to work in developing any areas that were lacking. The thing that we needed to work on the most with Stephen was stamina and endurance. These fights were take after take with very little pause in between them. I knew this but had to convey the importance of fitness to him. In hindsight, I think this was the best thing to happen to him because he conditioned his body and mind to become battle ready for the shoot days.
You also reunited with Liz Conrado who previously appeared in Dancer. What brought her back on board?
We needed an antagonist that had a strong presence on screen and someone who could kill you with their eyes. I knew Liz obviously from having cast James (her husband) as the lead in Dancer. After having met her a few times, seeing her ambitious nature and seeing her showreel, it wasn’t a question of why cast her but why not? Both her and James are the most humble and hardest working individuals I know so having her on this production ensured that we would get nothing but 110% from her.
The original script called her to have the end fight scene between herself and Adele, however during the first 2-3 sessions I could see that something was wrong. She had her wedding and her business to think about which were major events in her life, so I don’t think her head was in the training as much as she was wanting it to be. I had to make a very difficult call to her to say I’m replacing you for the end fight scene with someone else.
At the time I felt awful but now I can see it was one of the greatest decisions we could have made together. She simply stole the show from day one. At the very first table read my heart practically jumped out of my chest the second she opened her mouth. She just got the character down so well. She went ahead and really made the character of Jo her own, even going as far as creating a unique backstory, going out and getting jewelry, thinking about how she would wear her hair etc. No stone was left unturned. Again, this comes down to her readiness to become an actress, her dedication and can do attitude. We lucked out with her. Liz is just a case of natural raw talent, drive, ambition and dedication. Of course seeing her and James on screen together thrilled me. Its also a bit of a knock to Dancer as in this one, James is playing an actual Dancer.
Talk about sharing fight scene duties with choreographer Dan Ginnane and the overall vision for the action, because looking at it, clearly it dervives its style some from The Raid and as you might know there’s always someone with an opinion about that sort of thing.
When I saw THE RAID for the first time it was the most intense and refreshing action film I had seen in a very long time. It thrilled me so much to see this kind of action and combat on screen, I had never seen this much intensity and violence before. It was also the first time I saw what Silat was and how it was used on screen. I fell in love with it straight away. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to do this…somehow I have to do this” That’s what sparked Dancer’s choreography but with Night Shift we explored it so much more. You’ll notice more elbows and knees in this one because we were very conscious of the small enclosed spaces we were filming in as well the similarities both story wise and character wise to the Raid.
We were fortunate enough to have Dan Ginnane come onboard and choreograph the fights with me. He really understood the vision I had, the intensity and speed I was after. He really took on board what my desired outcome was to be then went away and added his own flare, his own style and methods. Our visions just gelled. He was so open to collaboration, ideas and really exploring why characters were doing what they were doing. I really respected his opinions and voice. He had this ability to really break down an actors strengths and weaknesses and to bring the best out of a performer. He also had incredible physical abilities himself so he could very easily show an actor what he wanted by demonstrating how to move, the speed in which to execute movements and the reactions that they need to ingrain into themselves.
His approach was very modern, MMA driven and practical. My approach to the choreography was to always respect and keep traditional disciplines throughout every fight. I would incorporate wing chun, kung fu and ninjutsu as much as I could without making it look too staged. I think Dan and I had a great working relationship where we would bring different ideas together to form a coherent fight scene. I enjoyed his company a lot. Near the end he had to go to Canada so his availabilities were thinning out. I basically added or modified what we had already laid down however by that time the majority of the fights were already finalized. On the shoot days it was another hat I had to wear on top of directing. But I’m grateful for having met Dan and really admire his passion and drive for life. He’s definitely someone to watch out for.
It was also a reunion of sorts because most of the guys who worked on Dancer came back again. I think the world of these guys and they are my brother. They are just there when you need them. Theres never any ego, no conflicts and they all want to give 110% at all times. People always commend me on the amount of time I spent in choreography, 2-4 days a week for 5 months whilst having a 9-5 job, 2 kids and other commitments. They don’t seem to realize that these guys were there also. They also gave 5-6 months of their lives to this. Without people like Tony Kotsopoulos, Kristian Vergamalis, Zoran Bravo, Matt Theo, Adam Rowland, Stephen Degenaro, Jacob Moore and Zia Kelly, there’s no way that we could have made the film the way it is. It took dedication and discipline and once again these people didn’t disappoint. I owe them a great deal.
I loved how beautiful and heartwarming it was to see genuine friendships come out of this experience. Adele came into this not knowing these guys. But they embraced her like a little sister and taught her so much. It was like we were adding a new member to our little tribe. Each one of the performers taught her something. Whether it was how to react, how to kick, how to fall etc, they took her under their wings, protected and guided her every step of the way. Once again, there was no ego, just a bunch of people coming together to make a movie. Of course people are going to have opinions on the fight scenes and that’s perfectly fine. I’m not expecting everyone to like what we are doing. And I’ve learnt from past experience that an audience only cares about what’s on the screen and not the effort that went into the behind the scenes. I’ve grown thick skin and take criticism well. I use it as fuel for my next projects. But for 5 days of shooting I think we did an awesome job.
Seeing as how this was a crowdfunding effort and your campaign on Indiegogo fell short, how do you get over that kind of shortfall in today’s atmosphere for independent filmmaking?
The thing is, we actually didn’t fall short. Half way through the campaign we decided to stop using the portal to avoid the fees that we would be charged. We needed every cent we could get. We actually hit our target down to the penny through private funding. I remember Adele giving me envelopes of cash she collected from friends and family. Half the film was funded by my bosses. My 9-5 consists of me being a video producer at a company in Melbourne called C2 Capital. They saw me huffing and puffing around the office and they called me to see if I’m alright. I told them that we are running short and they instantly said they would back me. Peter Terrill and Sunil Kumar have been my mentors since I started here. Its like I’m getting an education in finance every day and I’m taking their teachings and applying it to the film business side of things. Peter basically taught me a valuable lesson which is “just ask”. Its that simple. Just ask and you’ll get 3 answers, YES , NO or Maybe.
Matt Theo also contributed a very large amount as well as Zoran Bravo for our post. I think its important for indie filmmakers to swallow their pride and just ask. Its also important to show that you are willing to go out and hustle for funds. I’ve always said that making a film on no budget and being proud of a $300 film is something that is counterintuitive because it shows a lack of ability to convince someone to part with their money to trust in your vision. So on the outside it looked like we failed but in fact it was a very successful funding campaign for us. I also was able to keep my promise to Marlane.
Is there a written version of Night Shift that provides a more feature-length take if you were somehow able to tack on another, say, forty minutes to an hour? And would this be realistically applicable if the opportunity were there?
I think this works as a short and is more impressive as a scaled down compressed film rather than a full feature. The story was structured for a short and was almost cut in half. The first half is the lead up to action but as soon as the action kicks in it doesn’t stop. This wouldn’t work as a feature nor do I think we would be offering anything unique to the indie feature market by adding to this. The really impressive thing about this film is just how it all flows together with tight action to create a somewhat short and dynamic story. I’m aware that its considered a long short by short film standards and that’s my inability to restrict myself with time. I find myself saying the story will be as long as it needs to be. I’m not going to compromising or force anything. I honestly thought we had 25 minutes until I started cutting. I’m ok with where it is as I know it will find an audience just as the 53 minute Dancer did.
You have a new film in the works from Prima Lux with one of your Night Shift co-stars, Matt Theo, for Rage. Tell us about that and what your plans are?
During pre production Matt and I were talking about how he had trouble launching himself into a role that has depth and challenging enough for him to show off 8 years of acting classes. I was venting to him how I had so many film ideas and stories bottled up that were constrained by the lack of funds available to make them. We decided to collaborate and a few days later I sent him 3 story outlines that I had written in 2010. He picked the outline for a really heavy and dark drama that deals with the consequences of infidelity, a home invasion, rape and revenge. The script is currently being written by an amazing script writer from the Bronx and we are in full swing once we finalize the final version. We’re hoping to expand our catalogue and genre output and really establish ourselves as the go to indie production company here in Melbourne who can actually get films made and do them well. I also wanted to show an audience that I’m more than just action and martial arts – there’s a serious and artistic filmmaker in there somewhere.
Any final thoughts on Night Shift before we close?
I like to always say that a director is only as good as his cast and crew and once again I struck gold with team. Without people like our DOP Paul Puccio who’s love of action films and genuine enthusiasm really helped me explore so many options that I myself didn’t think about. He is a great collaborator and I enjoyed working with him a lot. I would like to publicly thank Vikki Blinks, Stephen Wolfe, Ahren Morris, Tom Evans, James Stephien, Julijana Ristovska, Phillip Grapas and Brian Phommachanh for their incredibly hard work. And of course Marlane who is simply the spirit behind everything we do.
As for what’s next, there are feature films In the pipeline and we are planning on getting Night Shift into as many festivals as we can to once again show the world that we are here. I keep saying that this is the last action short we are going to make however recently I have found myself looking at military costume and gun hire a la ‘Call Of Duty’. Now I just have to convince the producer. But as we both like to say…lets keep making film, even when its hard.