Interview with Jaydon Martin: “As a filmmaker, I never want to get into that territory of being a moralist”

Jaydon Martin. Photo by Lu Pennel

It barely ever happens that critics agree in their verdict on a movie, especially if it is a possitive one. After the first press screening of Jaydon Martin’s debut feature “Flathead” at Rotterdam International Film Festival, the rumor of “that bonkers, strikingly well-crafted docu-fiction” was already making rounds resulting in huge interest for the official screenings, filling the movie theaters.

When “Flathead” won the Special Jury Award at IFFR, it didn’t come as a surprise, and considering the film’s warmth, the succsessful blend of documentary and fiction, and its striking beauty, we will hear much more about it in the next months to follow.

The story follows a seventhy+ Cass Cumerford on his journey back to his hometown of Bundaberg, a small town in Queensland, Australia, where he is trying to deal with a recent tragic event. Upon his return, he connects with the blue-collar community in simple, honest interactions, letting them speak and hear the stories of his life alike. He is quite an unusal character, to be classified under “this is what young at heart actually means”, and you can not escape his charm even when he is talking about things that raise eyebrows better than any plastic surgeon would ever do. At the end of the day, can you think of your granddad talking about the eroding quality of drugs on the market, instead of the usual “the prices of bread and milk have increased, where is this world coming to”?

On the other hand “Flathead” doesn’t care to schock you. It just points out at people whose cards were dealt differently than ours.

Along the way, another lead protagonist gets introduced – Andrew, a second generation Chinese immigrant, a man that can not be more different than Cass; hard-working, soft-spoken, fitness aficionado, with only one thing in common with our charismatic anti-hero – grief.

“Flathead” is the exploration of the working class community of rural Queensland, given through the eyes of two radically different men who mirror its diversified scene. Both genuinly fascinating, they shape the film by lending their stories, adapted to the script, that has been re-written along the process.

Ubiquarian had the great pleasure of being the first outlet to speak to the Australian helmer, shortly before the film’s world premiere in Rotterdam.

Your cast is fantastic, but Cass Cumerford is someone you can not forget. How did you find him?

Thank you. I first met Cass online, on Facebook. He had posted some videos of him just talking to the camera. So I reached out to potentially work with him on a project. And then he sent over this amazing autobiography of his whole life that he had been writing for the last 50 years. So, I read through it, and it was vivid and so amazing. I asked him if he would like to make a film that kind of incorporates his story, but in such a way that we fictionalize it and make it into something more. I told him that we can capture the emotional truth.

I think, that the documentary-fiction is a beautiful playground. Your actors or the people depicting their lives feel safer in that environment. They can be themselves or an exaggerated version of themselves, they can really kind of let loose, and you can feel their subconscious and real emotional truth come through more than in any sort of formalist documentary kind of constraints.

In case of Andrew Wong, we came to him through our associate producer James Latter who made a documentary on the busy B Fish Bar, a short film called “World Famous in Bundaberg” (2019). I saw it and I thought that Andrew was such a beautiful soul. I went up to Bundaberg and met up with Andrew and his father Kent. And then I kind of fostered a relationship from there. It’s amazing to be able to be let into Andrew’s life and share his life experiences, and those really big life changing events with him. I can’t say how much of a privilege that is to be able to do that and document and celebrate these kind of events with him. Actually, not just celebrate, but to be there with him while making the film. And it was just so emotional, particularly with the passing of his father, which was something that came up during the filming. We were able to shoot a scene with him. The last time you see Kent, is when he is closing up the Busy Bee Fish Bar, It was actually the last time he went there to close up. He left left that place that he’d been in for 40 years and where he’s spent his whole life. So, yeah, I was getting quite emotional.

Speaking of the passing of Andrew’s father, the footage of his funeral is the only one we see in color. The film was shot in black & white, and it’s amazing that somebody’s passing is something that gives color, and that kind of celebrates the life of the deceased.

Yeah, it’s beautiful, and it breaks that reality. You’re observing all those things in monochrome, and then you kind of break that reality and it’s so real and the colors are there. It’s just when we did that and watched it through for the first time, that we became aware of how powerful it was to use that kind of technique.

You open your film with the title cards that tells us about the problem of the shortage of working force. It’s a very interesting opener, and it takes a while to realize what you’re doing in the film by sending Cass to this road trip. Can you tell me something about your idea to chronicle the life of workign class in Queensland through this kind of approach?

Yeah, definitely. You see, I’m from Queensland and I’m from a working class family. I was brought up in that community, and I really wanted to explore the life there, but through the lens of working class, which I think is very important. You don’t particularly see that kind of culture being elevated into the medium of film, and particularly in the independent cinema. It’s important to show that culture that’s been maligned for years and kind, to embed ourselves in there and to look at where the monocultures left behind in Australia, left out on the fringes. I wanted to celebrate them and celebrate this vast picture of all these people in the community.

The fact that you’re coming from Queensland and from the working class is also the reason why people in “Flathead” are so approachable and they’re so relaxed in front of the camera. What I also really like about the film, you do not romanticize. You do not take sides. You just present the life as it is.

Yeah. And that was a big point for me. I think, as a filmmaker, I never want to get into that territory of being a moralist. And I think that depicting those people’s reality from their own perspective is very important. Some of the behavior may be confronting, some parts of their lives may be confronting. But it’s seeing all that and then seeing the other side of connection, a kind of sweetness and trying to put those things together is crucial. It’s not all black and white.

Although it is, technically speaking.

We spent a lot of time up there living with these people you see on screen. And it was very important for me to make sure we had a small crew, but also that when we were filming, to keep an eye contact with the people. All our cameras were at the chest height. It was almost like we’re a part of the scene together, that we were in there with them. We were not just coming in and documenting them. We were experiencing exactly what they were experiencing on screen. And that was very important even to the creative process, with how the cinematographer Brody Poole shot the movie. And he did a fantastic job. I can only speak highly of it. He’s also a wonderful filmmaker of his own (“General Hercules”, 2022). He really captured the essence of the working class culture. The feedback we’ve been getting during the editing processes was mainly about how everything felt so real, and that we’ve captured this emotional truth that it’s quite memorizing. You really do get a sense that this is the place and this is how these people live.

But there is also something else that I found quite refreshing, and unique in “Flathead”. The working class people in front of your camera are in no way judgmental. They are just listening to each other and interacting. They are not surprised by anything. They have been through a lot and you can tell it.

Yeah, it’s one of the most beautiful things about going off into the regional Australia. Within five minutes of chatting to someone at the bar, they’re telling you their whole life stories, and very intimate things, and you’ve only met them once and you don’t even know their names. And it’s that beautiful quality that I wanted to bring to the film. We were up in Bundaberg doing post production and meeting people, and that kind of cemented for me how we approach the film and how we bring their non- judgmental ways and this connection they have up there. People kind of look at the working class as somehow rough, or look down on them, but when you’re out there, they’re the most emotionally open people that you would ever come across. And to be able to tell their stories is such a privilege.

When I started watching your film, I was briefly thinking of Sean Baker, and then I stopped and I said – no, it’s not that. You cannot really tell when something is constructed in your movie. Also, there is a genuine interest and love for the people in front of your camera. . I would like to know how you are working on the script around these people because it’s such a great mixture of both.

We went up to Bundaberg with a script and we chatted through all these scenes, but then we were pretty much writing while we were filming as well. “Flathead” is a big collaborative effort, and we would be shooting stuff, and whenever we felt the artifice creeping in, we kind of stopped and just moved away and let it be. No one’s going to see that in the film. I really wanted that authenticity of a kind. I never wanted to make my hand as a writer known for the script, because if you are just depicting life, it’s so easy to move into pantomime of a kind of of malign cultures. And then when you move off into that domain, and when things become unreal or inauthentic, there’s no pure emotion in that. I have also got to give it to Cass and Andrew. As a collaborative partnership, they pretty much put their souls into my hands and trusted me enough to make this film, and to tell their stories. It’s all fiction. And they came up with the fiction about themselves. So it’s like they’re writing a heightened version of their own stories. And that’s beautiful. Cinema in itself is a really beautiful way to blend fiction and reality. Drawing that line and being in that world and the medium itself just lends its hand to do it. That’s the magic of it. Even by cutting stuff, you’re heightening something also in an observational documentary. And if you go down that line, just through editing and music, it becomes fictionalized. So you kind of make things happen in the editing process. So, why can’t we bring that formalist approach to the filming and blend formalism and verite together?

Can you tell us something about the role of the evangelical church and the actual score, which consists of spiritual songs sung a cappella, and about your idea to explain how spirituality is born in people?

I think a big kind of thematics of a film is this idea of the colonization of grief through spirituality. Evangelism, particularly in Australia, is cropping up these kind of non traditional churches in regional Australia. So it’s important to see the shift from traditional Anglo-Christian- and Catholic cultures that Australia was influenced by when it was colonized, but now it’s moved on to something a little bit more extreme. And I think that’s important. Particularly in grief, people are searching for that kind of connection. I’ve got some friends who are in AA which is tied up in Christian beliefs, but it works for them. And it’s hard to be cynical about things, because it’s working for them. Whether it’s good or not, they seem to feel their grief and their connection to their own spirituality growing. That dichotomy is really interesting to me. And I think through the film, we try not taking sides, just presenting things as they are. I would also like to touch upon Anghard van Rijswijk ‘s score vocals throughout. It was just amazing, because theses kind of songs are traditionally sung in big groups in churches. She stripped everything back to one singular voice which makes you think about how deep the longing for the spiritual growth can be.

Let’s speak about the decision to shoot the film black and white. Was that your intention from the beginning?

We shot the film in several blocks over two years. So after the first block of filming, we kind of looked through the rushes, and we’re trying to blend the reality and fiction together. When we stripped back the color of the picture, it helped so much with that blending of the two. When you do that, you really are focusing on the emotions of the scene. It’s really an amazing medium, because it heightens the emotional truth that’s going on in front of the camera. You’re just thrown into that character’s perspective. And then there was a lineage of the kitchen sink dramas in Britain depicting working class cultures. Ken Loach’s “Looks And Smiles” (1981) is one of my all time favorite films. Also, Charles Burnett’s “Killer Of Sheep” (1978). All those films that depict working class life in a very real way, black and white, have something beautiful about them. Once we knew “Flathead” was going to be in black and white, we kind of shifted towards thinking about framing and about how we can shoot all the open landscapes. As soon as you see those landscapes drained of colour, it is something else. It’s all thanks to Brodie Poole and our cameramen James Latter, Ethan Bourke and Brodie Rocca who were able to capture it beautifully. But also, we used documentary cameras which was important.

People like Cass and Andrew are impossible to invent. What I am interested in is their synergy. How was it working with two of them together? They are so opposite, not just in age and character, but in their life style. One lives a very unhealthy life, the other one is treating his body as a temple.

We filmed separately scenes with Cass and Andrew, and we didn’t even know if the two things alone worked really well. So we brought them together, hoping it would work. And luckily it did. It’s amazing that even if they are radically opposite, when they come together, it’s that connection itself. I think what works really well is just those scenes are just being around each other. I think the moments are silenced and made a big point when they’re there together, to be sitting in the room together and to show that care and that love for another human and that wanting for connection. And I think that’s the most powerful thing. It’s just, especially if you’re going through turbulent times, just to have someone there in the room, you don’t have to say anything, but they’re connected. So, yeah, we got really lucky that it all worked. I think when you’re moving in that direction and the train of the film is moving that way, you kind of have to give it up to the filmmaking gods to be like, all right, I hope this works.
)I think it works because we had the sincerity, all of us making this thing together, and I think that sincerity comes through and you can feel it. I think that’s a really important thing when they come together, the sincereness of it. You can feel it.

How easy or difficult was it to make so many people join in, and participate in the documentary?

It actually wasn’t that difficult. We went up there before we started filming anyone. We met them, we had a beer with them, we spent time together for them to feel comfortable. And I think people just wanted to share. They’re so giving up there. We couldn’t have made the film without the Bundaberg community. They are the film, and they were so welcoming. We were welcomed into people’s houses straight away, and you got that connection instantly with them. I think that the working class people up there have so much to give to this world, and we wanted to depict that.

There probably have been some really surprising moments during the shooting of the film, and I am dying to hear about them.

Yeah. One is particularly standing out, which is when we were with the shamans and the hippies, which was done on the final day of filming. It was just before we were leaving, and I got a phone call from Jason, who helped us out. We filmed on his farm. He digs driveways for a living with an excavator. He gave us a call and he was like: “I’m digging a driveway for these hippies. They’re far out. I think you should come down with a crate of beer, meet them and film with them”. So we’re like, this is perfect. We got a case of beer and we went to meet them, and they were like, super chill. We agreed to come back the next day and film them doing these healings on the cast. All of a sudden, we’re in that hut and we are observing what they are doing. Brody and I were just shooting that day. We were passing the camera back and forth, and finally I was filming as Cass was getting kind of hooked up to that machine. And then Brody, the cinematographer tapped me on the shoulder, going: “Look outside!” I looked and they were burning a real boat. We were like, whoa.

We got a perfect ending. Magical. I’ve never walked away from a day of filming feeling more that we nailed it and got something really beautiful. Because sometimes during the filming, you can go through days where you’re pulling teeth. You’re questioning the project asking yourself if this is going to be anything worth the effort. So when you get a day like that, it’s amazing. When we’re driving back to the hotel, we’re like: “Oh, my God, that was pure cinema”