Interview with Daniel Monks: Pulse
Your film Pulse has been selected for the inaugural Screenability program at Sydney Film Festival - Congratulations! How do you feel having your film screen at such a prestigious festival?
Beyond thrilled and also being a part of the Screenability program means so much to us as well. A lot of the impetus for making the film in the first place was that as a person living with disability growing up and as a teenager with disability, I felt like I didn’t see any stories that reflected my experience, and I felt really alone in my experience of being disabled. To be able to tell at least my unique experience as a young person living with disability, was a large part of my motivation for making Pulse. The fact that this is part of a Screenability audience, and hopefully a lot of our audiences will be people with disability, is just a dream and the reason why we made it. We are incredibly, incredibly excited.
Great. And your film Pulse, it’s a sci-fi that tells the story of a gay teen with a disability who discovers two of his straight best friends are dating each other and then undergoes a pioneering medical procedure and then puts himself in the mind of a young, able-bodied woman. These themes are really robust, confronting and original. Can you tell us the inspiration for the film’s story? Was it your own experience?
I acquired my disability at age 11 and at first I was temporary quadriplegic, then I became hemiplegic, which I am to this day. I went back to school in a wheelchair and I remember going to school and feeling like my body wasn’t my own. I remember a boy in my class who I had a massive crush on dating a pretty blonde girl and I remember thinking if I looked like her, he would look at me the way he’s looking at her. He would want to kiss me and want to be with me. At the time I didn’t think about making that experience into a film, it’s more in hindsight that I had the idea, which was the first genesis for Pulse.
I spent 11 years with one body and since then 17 years in a body, those times were different, so I’m very interested in how much our bodies make up who we are – not only because of the way that we see ourselves but the way people treat us because of our bodies.
As a student at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) I made a short film where the device was a body swap. Instead of using the body swap device as a broad comic approach, my film was looking at the story more authentically, asking what it would actually be like. What would the ramifications be? One of the teachers recommended that I look at expanding my short into a feature, and when I did I just thought immediately there has to be a teenage boy who’s in love with his best friend and changes into a woman. The idea just popped into my head. That first short film was made when I was 20 and now I’m 28, so this has been a long, long process.
As micro budget filmmaking always is! It also took time because the film’s director and my amazing film partner, Stevie Cruz-Martin, really wanted to make the film authentic to the experience, we wanted to tell the story without compromise and that meant that we had to go down the independent route, which always takes longer. That’s why it’s taken so long to finally screen and we’re really excited.
As Pulse is about two underrepresented minorities, GLBTIQ and people with disability, do you feel that created more challenges for your funding pathway?
Yeah. It was very hard. We were actually recommended early on to either make him just gay or just disabled, but that felt inauthentic to my experience, because I am intersectionality, being gay and living with disability. I felt that bodies and desire all play into sexuality. It felt like the same sphere for me. In terms of getting the money, we did crowdfunding and we had quite a successful campaign. People were incredibly supportive. That support enabled us to fund the film shoot in addition to putting up our own money. For post-production we really struggled to get funding, but fortunately Sandbox Post Productions invested in the film and did all the final post work for us as an investment, which is really generous and incredible of them.
Sci-fi drama is becoming increasingly popular at the moment. What attracted you to telling the story in this combination of genres? How did you manage to stay true to both elements of sci-fi and drama within the film?
Pretty much my favourite film’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and my favourite screenwriter is Charlie Kaufman, he’s incredible. In my writing, I have always wanted to explore real topics, but through using fantastical devices, which have allowed the stories to be more heightened and can be explored in a fun and creative way - that was always the intention with Pulse - to mesh genre like Eternal Sunshine. Pulse has sci-fi elements but it’s more of a drama in my eyes. It’s exploring relationships, as opposed to exploring the sci-fi. When I was writing the script keeping that drama intention was the most challenging part. In the body swap scene, I needed it to be clear enough that the audience suspends their disbelief and goes along with it, while also making the story not about the procedure; not bogging it down in the sci-fi; allowing it just to serve the characters and the relationship story.
The film also has two well-loved Australian actors, Caroline Brazier from Rake, and Scott Lee from Home and Away. With your micro budget how did you attract such a well-known cast to the production?
I met Scott Lee when he was still living in the country and driving into Sydney to go to acting class, and we did acting class together. He actually shot the film before he even started on Home and Away. He got Home and Away right after. Fortunately, we had a feeling he was going to be a star before he became one, so we’re very proud of him.
Then Caroline! My mum is a casting director in WA, and she cast Caroline in a kids’ TV series in the mid-2000s, and she’s been a friend with her for a while. Very fortunately Stevie and I have managed to ask Mum to approach Caroline and she really responded to the story. We had a meeting with her and just really clicked. She’s been so generous to the film. In Pulse I also act opposite her and I learned so much. Caroline is the most generous acting partner. She gives so much to the other actors, is always present and makes everyone around her do better work.
You mentioned that you and Steve Cruz-Martin have been long-time collaborators. Can you tell us how you partnered up?
We’ve been film partners and best friends for eight years now. We actually met in a film school and we were working together for a while and with a lot of our short films. I was writing and directing and she was doing cinematography. At some point I realised that I really wanted to act and at the same time she was really wanting to move more into directing, so it just kind of worked seamlessly that now the combination for our projects, I write and act and she directs and does the cinematography. Stevie was the best decision made in this film because of what she brought to it.
As I was the scriptwriter for the film I was really close to the material. So much of the film is steeped in personal experience, and it was important then to also have Stevie, to make sure that it had an outside eye, an objectivity to make the story empathetic and accessible to audiences who aren’t gay or aren’t disabled or haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced. Stevie is incredibly empathetic and just a wonderful director. I love her – she’s also my best friend. I’m a bit biased.
This is your debut feature. What did you learn and most enjoy about the process?
Acting in it. It was my first real experience of acting all day every day for four weeks, and because I was in pretty much every scene it was just really, it really cemented for me how much I love acting. Since shooting the film, that’s what I’ve been pursuing the most. I just really love it.
What do you hope audiences at the festival will take away from watching Pulse?
I hope that audiences will take away an affirmation to accept our differences. When I was a teenager, when I became disabled, I also started puberty and was also realising that I was gay.
Those were the two things that I remember. I had two secrets that I thought I was going to take to my grave. One was that I liked boys, and the other was that I wear diapers, and am incontinent. I remember thinking that those are the two things I would never tell anyone, and those were the two things I most wanted to change about myself. I used to go to bed, dreaming that I’d wake up and it’d be different.
And now, those are the two things that I’m the proudest of. It’s so easy as a disabled person to think that disability, that often means impairment, to then think that impairment means there’s something wrong with you, that it’s something bad. Having pride in your disability and having pride in what makes you different is really, has been a learning process for my entire 20s, but I feel like it’s a really good lesson to learn, and hopefully one that’s communicated through the film, and that hopefully disabled people can see themselves in it and find pride in themselves.
Congratulations are also in order. This month you were nominated as a finalist for the highly competitive Health Ledger Scholarship.
Can you tell us how you made your application stand out?
I’ve applied before and I didn’t get anywhere. This time, I was doing a play and I was performing two shows a day, I saw the deadline was coming up and I thought, “I’ll just submit it”. Usually when I’m doing applications, I really read over everything, and I really obsess about every detail. This time I just vomited the words onto the page and just submitted; I didn’t even really think. That application was the one that got me into the finalists. When I read back my application after I found out I was finalist, it was quite disarming how honest I was, and just really emotional in my application, really talking from the heart. I think that maybe is why I was successful – along with my show reel and my work, which might have been what struck a chord. I could not have been more surprised.
I’m so excited. I’m so, so excited.
You were also successful with your application to Screenability NSW, run through Screen NSW. As part of the initiative you will be working with Goalpost Pictures in its Writing Room. Has that started yet?
No, it hasn’t. I’m waiting for it to start – that’s going to be in the latter half of the year, just because I’ve had different stuff on and trying to find the right time. I’m very, very excited.
And is there anything else you want to share with us?
I’m really so grateful that Screen NSW have pioneered the Screenability program, because for so long as a filmmaker and actor with disability, me and other filmmakers living with disability and actors in industry have been trying to gain entry and gain access to this historically inaccessible industry. To be able to get this support is just so great. I’m just incredibly grateful, and also incredibly grateful that not only Screen NSW are doing it, but that they’re blazing their own trail; not waiting for other people to do it and for it to be tried and true, but to really be pioneers in filmmaking who have a disability.
For screening times of Pulse check out Sydney Film Festival’s Screenability Program on this link: http://www.sff.org.au/2017-film-guide/screenability/