Taking Tanna to Hollywood: Interview with Bentley Dean and Martin Butler
In an Oscar year with three Australian films in line for top honours, we spoke with the co-directors of Tanna as they head to Hollywood to talk about the film, its stars and the possibility of taking out Best Foreign Film.
Congratulations on your Academy Award nomination, how are you feeling?
Bentley Dean - It is slowly sinking in but it’s not quite there, it’s suitably surreal when you consider how the whole project started - no story, we didn’t have experience making a feature film, no trained actors, no electricity. We certainly weren’t thinking that one day Martin and me would be strutting the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
Are you getting a lot of calls?
Bentley Dean - It has been crazy from the very moment of the announcement at about 12:30 in the morning. It has been nonstop phone calls. After the nomination Martin and I spent two days straight on Skype or on the phone. I was away in Lorne at the time and drove back to my home in the early hours to West Footscray to find the ABC’s outside broadcast van there in my driveway. It has just been nuts, and this is what you want for your film, because we are a small production we don’t have a huge marketing budget and the Oscars gives you so much free press.
Has the nomination opened up new markets for Tanna?
Bentley Dean - According to our sales agent, Visit, in the US, it has. Our agent is confident that every single territory in the world will be sold to, including those that were ambivalent for a while. Everyone has been ringing him up, so it’s a brilliant outcome in that sense.
How has the community from Tanna reacted to the nomination?
Bentley Dean - As soon as we got the news we phoned them up. We called Lingai whose house we lived in. It is a bit difficult to explain the significance of the award is because they don’t really care about such things. But when I explained to him that according to a lot of people Tanna was one of the best foreign language films of the year, in fact in the top 5 films in the world for the year, he was proud. He is also excited about the prospect of going to Los Angeles to the awards ceremony, with his daughter and JJ Nako our cultural director.
What do the coming weeks look like for you?
Bentley Dean - I will be going with my partner Janita Suter who was the location producer on the film. We are going to go early and check out a national park or two before the crazy week starts. Martin and the cast will be going on the 21st and the awards are on the 26th.
The most exciting thing about the awards week will be to meet some filmmakers whose work I’ve been inspired by.
Can you tell us about working with your fantastic producer, Carolyn Johnson?
Carolyn has always been up for an adventure - Tanna being the third and possibly most adventurous project we've embarked on. She has always been open to, and incredibly supportive of, our sometimes unorthodox production practices.
Is there anything else you want to share with us?
Bentley Dean - It is a great year to be going especially with so many other Australians, it’s a lovely feeling and we hope to enjoy the experience and share as we have always shared it with the the folks from Yakel.
Tanna is a truly unique film as it is based on true of one of the last traditional tribes in the South Pacific, the Yakel people of Tanna, Vanuatu. Can you tell us what inspired you to tell their story?
Martin Butler - After finishing First Footprints Bentley wanted to live with his partner and two children, aged two and four, in a remote location to give them a sense of life beyond Melbourne’s suburbs. He suggested we use this time to make a feature film. We had been inspired by Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes and thought our filmmaking experience made the immersive and collaborative style a viable option for us. We had never made a drama feature before and we had no money so it was always an extremely ambitious plan.
A central part of our approach to the village of Yakel was to stress the collaborative process. We wanted the story to be authentic to their life, so we spent months in a crash course in learning about Kastom and social mores before forming the structure of the story and starting the filming. It was in these discussions that we learned of the role and critical importance of arranged marriage.
The script for Tanna is derived from the tribe’s song about a young girl who runs away from an arranged marriage to join her lover, triggering a tribal war. Can you tell us how you collaborated with the community on the script?
Martin Butler - We started our discussion with the tribe by suggesting that all elements of the film (story/dialogue/characters/settings etc) should be authentic to their Kastom life but also emotionally engaging to a cinema audience. On our first few days in Tanna we were taken to a major public meeting in another village where a young couple had fallen in love but she was promised to another tribe in an arranged marriage. Debate raged throughout the day, passions flared, but a resolution was reached with exchange of pigs and kava. They could stay together but a woman was still owed to the tribe. We subsequently learned about the lover’s song from the 1980s, which became the core of the film.
Two years ago the Yakkel people hadn't even seen a movie. Now they're starring in one. How did you inspire such a traditional living tribe to embrace a new way of storytelling?
Martin Butler - They are natural storytellers and public orators. We worked very patiently with the actors, fully explaining the scene, dialogue and emotional arc of each day's filming. We filmed multiple takes to allow plenty of opportunities for improvisation. We explained to them the role and importance of cutaways. The atmosphere on location was laid back with much teasing and laughter to make everyone relaxed in their roles.
To make this film you spent many months living with the community in their village without electricity and using solar panels to charge your equipment. How did you plan for this?
Martin Butler - To live and work at Yakel was a huge challenge. Apart from needing somewhere to stay, we had to find clean water, medical supplies, food and power to make this work. The first turned out to be relatively easy. If we could provide $300 and a 6kg bag of nails the tribe would build us huts to sleep and cook in. With a fancy water filter and a lot of planning on medical supplies and food we were ready. We bought solar panels in Port Vila for power. Early on we learned to trust the community to help us. They can fix, find, build, repair and re-work just about anything.
With the community and your co-director and producer you have created a truly intimate and pared-back style of filmmaking style, can you tell us a bit about that process?
Martin Butler - Bentley and I have always worked as a two-person crew - him on camera, me on sound. Both of us are close friends with the actors, having lived with them for several months. Our kit is deliberately small and portable. The lack of strangers or distracting equipment certainly makes for a more comfortable environment for our cast. We also showed them rushes, discussed performance and engaged them in the process wherever possible.
In a previous interview you mentioned that there were problems with another tribe when you were filming. How did you get around that and can you tell us a little about the unique production issues that came up filming on a remote island?
Martin Butler - Astonishingly, the men thought the enemy tribe, the Imedin, should be played by the tribe with whom Yakel were having a real-life bloody land dispute. They saw great potential: just as the enemy tribes come together in the film, so too will they. Our host, Lingai, went across the valley to ask. It didn’t go well. Their chief flatly refused, calling Lingai a bastard – which is the worst possible thing you can say to a Tannese man as it implies he has no right to his land. Lingai beat him up, and several other men when they tried to ambush him. The film nearly ended before it began but all was eventually resolved by a meeting where pigs and kava were exchanged. They decided it would be better to cast Supreme Chief Mikum and his people as the Imedin. With a real-life nickname, Tangalua (Snake), he couldn’t have been more menacing.
Many of the scenes in Tanna are shot on the top of an active volcano, and it looks remarkable in the film. This is the kind of action you can’t plan; do you feel your background in documentary opened you up to the unscripted moments that make Tanna feel so real?
Martin Butler - Absolutely. We’ve learned over the years to always be ready to catch moments of magic that might appear anytime. Bentley has an uncanny ability to be pointing the camera in the right place at the right time. We also shoot hand held much of the time, which if you’re good at it (and Bentley is the best), it can really engage you in the flow of the action and dialogue.
The two leads are stunning and captivating to say the least. In fact none of your actors speak English or have any acting experience. Can you tell us a little how you induced the raw performances from the cast?
Martin Butler - Culturally they are very expressive people and often they were playing themselves, or at least playing situations that were absolutely real for them. We worked hard, to ensure that everyone understood the context of the scene. We encouraged spontaneity and improvisation. The romance scenes were harder but with patience and lack of pressure we managed to find the right chemistry. The other crucial factor in the quality of the performances is the brilliant editing of the incomparable Tania Michel Nehme.
We understand that the Chiefs of the Tanna were the first to see this film, and they have told you that they consider it their own. They said it reflected the truth and would keep their culture strong. How do you hope this film will reflect on the people of Tanna?
Martin Butler - We feel the Chief's verdict is the best review we’ll ever get. They are immensely proud of the film and feel it reflects the truth about Kastom. We hope that it enables many people to experience this very vibrant culture.
Do you think there is a risk that the film could expose the community in anyway?
Martin Butler - Yakel is only a half hour drive from the nearest town. Their decision to remain true to Kastom is by choice not isolation. They know about the outside world. There may be a few more tourists visiting the village but they are used to that and know how to handle it.
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