Australian filmmaker Darcy Yuille has had quite the festival run this year with his debut feature film One Punch picking up a number of wins across international film festivals, all having kicked off with his Best Feature Film win at SF3 Smart Fone Flick Festival’s seventh edition back in February. Since then, the brooding urban drama has picked up best film gongs from Berlin Independent Film Festival, Dublin Smartphone Film Festival, San Diego based International Mobil Film Festival and Spain’s coveted Cinephone – Festival Internacional de Cine con Smartphone. In addition to the film’s growing list of accolades Yuille himself personally scored Best Director and Best Cinematography wins from the African Smartphone International Film Festival.
An industry veteran with over 20 years’ experience, Yuille has been progressively exploring the short film format while actively honing his skills on a number of high-profile series (The Lost World) and film productions (Pitch Black, Burke & Wills) as something of a jack-of-all-trades, with credits ranging from first and second camera assistant to clapper loader, focus puller and now as director, writer, cinematographer and editor on One Punch. In short, as Yuille preps for his sophomore follow-up Jade Dragon, it’s quite apparent the Melbourne based filmmaker has paid, and certainly earned his dues.
In fact, Yuille has quietly established a nuanced trademark of immersive, character driven drama, deftly playing tension against revelation with affecting results as showcased with the emotional hit delivered via One Punch. Set against the pressure cooker of adolescence, the story follows Matt (Alex Arco), the son of a suburban Italian Australian gangster, as he faces his 18th birthday and is forced to confront the violence of his family’s legacy as it threatens to corrupt his accession into adulthood. Handled with a lowkey domestic realism, the short film nonetheless manages to deliver a rich, complex narrative, raw with inflection and supposition. Qualities further elevated by superb performance from its young cast headlined by Arco and his co-stars, newcomers Jessica Osrin and Nicholas Jaquinot. However, perhaps its most surprising attribute is One Punch’s impressive production values, with Yuille taking having shot the feature film entirely on an iPhone 8+ in response to a stagnant budget impending his ability to work with more traditional filmmaking equipment.
“Yeah, it’s been hard to actually get people to watch it.” Mused Yuille as the subject of shooting on a mobile device inevitably arises. “I think they hear smartphone, and they go ‘Uh, you know, it can’t be that good?”
“To be honest, I’ve been a filmmaker for 20 years, and I just wanted to make a film. But I felt like if I took something like a BlackMagic or a smaller camera out into the street, people are going to jump on us and go, ‘What are you doing? Where’s your permit,’ all that kind of stuff. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get what I needed, which was to be in the middle of real situations.
“And so, when we started to shoot in the city, we got permission to be in this burger restaurant, but only because we said, ‘it’s just a phone. It’s a phone and a mic and that’s it.’ We were able to get onto a train because it was just a phone, and we didn’t have all this gear drawing attention to us. So, I think the phone on one hand, gave us the freedom to go to these different locations. It gave us the ability to be un-intrusive.
“But there was also something about it that gave me permission within myself. I’ve worked on films before and when you get the camera and the gear, you think, oh, okay, I’m really going have to do this properly. And “properly” means longer shoots, more lighting and more tweaking. But I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to make it. And I knew I couldn’t afford to make it any bigger than what it was.
“And as filmmakers, I think we wait for permission from funding bodies or distributors or other people to make films. Which is absolutely as it should be because there needs to be a market. And as a filmmaker, I didn’t want to spend 5 million dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money learning mistakes. I mean, I would’ve loved to, but I didn’t get the opportunity either. So making that call to shoot it on the phone, was like ‘Okay, well we’re just doing it? Fine. Let’s go do this.”
But while the decision to step out of his comfort zone, and face down his own prejudice toward the format has proven beneficial to Yuille’s resume, the newly minted Best Director winner elaborates on the unexpected benefits, and personal insights gained by going mobile to shoot a feature film.
“I don’t know if prejudice is the right word?’ Muses Yuille “Because I come from that traditional filmmaking background, there was a part of me that just didn’t think a smartphone could do it. And then I saw I saw Sean Baker’s Tangerine and I went, oh yeah, okay.
“You can’t treat it like it’s a Michael Bay film. It’s never going look like a Michael Bay film, but you can treat it like it’s an art film. Looking at films like the Kevin Smith’s Dogma, films of the late nineties, those films were really like festival films, and honesty it just didn’t matter what the camera was. It’s great actors in front of a lens and good sound. So, I won’t say prejudice, I’d say there was a desire for toys. We all want to have nice toys, and we know what a nice lens looks like, but I think the desire for telling a story was, and is more important.
“Also, you could take advantage of any singular moment. If there was a really beautiful piece of light, you could just go over and shoot it. It was definitely relieving us from those pressures of perfection. A lot of 16mm filmmakers, and even French New Wave filmmakers, they’d just go out onto the street and shoot stuff. I remember reading about Dennis Hopper on Easy Rider, the film with Jack Nicholson selling drugs across the United States, how they just took a camera and off they went.
“I’ve been a camera assistant for a long time, and so I know that side of big filmmaking. You shoot something and it looks naturally beautiful because it’s film. If you shoot it properly. And I think these [phone] cameras are the same. If you frame it properly and light it in a certain way, maybe chuck a deep grain on it during post. And while I don’t think I succeeded all the time, I think there were certainly times when it did look really beautiful.”
To view One Punch without context is a revelation in the quality achievable from smartphone films, a testament of the tools and technology readily available to a new generation of creatives. And qualities reflected in the rise and prevalence of smartphone festivals across the globe, which continue to grow in popularity for both filmmakers and audience alike. However, while the emerging format offers a number of challenges and possibilities for new and established filmmakers, as Yuille has noted, there is an argument to be made that the soul of any narrative comes from the performance and commitment of the actors front and centre of those lens. An aspect of smartphone filmmaking that looks to reinterprets the relationship between director and actor, allowing for a more naturalistic and intimate performances. Organic attributes further amplified by Yuille’s unique prep for One Punch’s young thespians.
“Absolutely” Jokes Yuille regarding his ensemble cast “They found it really weird, for many reasons. They didn’t even really know what the film was about up to about a week before we shot. All they knew was their character, who their character was and who their relationships were with. They knew some of the other actors as people, but they also had to know them as their characters.
“I do a bit of teaching and have a relationship with an acting school, 16th Street Actors Studio in Melbourne. And so my students were shooting some pieces with their actors, I actually wasn’t there on the day, but I came back and watched the footage they shoot of Alex [Arco], and I’m like, ‘This kid’s amazing.’
“There was just something about him. he wasn’t afraid to be wrong as a character, just not be the perfect character, which is often really difficult, I think for actors, especially young ones. He made really interesting choices.
“And then Jessica Osrin, I had shot with before. I’d seen her process and when I’d shot with her, and I just wanted to see what she would do next. She was really hardworking and committed.
“But they had both, I think, done a class with the guy who taught me about character-based improvisation, a guy called Robert Marchand. The process of which is to basically explore a whole bunch of people that you know from your life. We talk about them. We single out one person that has interesting traits, interesting problems, interesting personalities. And we choose that person as a base character. They then go and look at that person, watch them, they follow them around, they observe them and then we build the character off that sort of personality. But then we completely delete the real person, and we give them their new character name and slowly build this character up. But they don’t know anything about the story.
“I think a lot of the kids, if not all of them, had literally just graduated. And this was their first gig straight out of acting school. They went from year and a half of intense school, straight into three or four months of improvisations, into making a film. I think it was a really beneficial experience for them.
“Sometimes when you put a big camera in front of someone, they freeze up or else they start to ‘perform’. Whereas after a while they really sort of fell out of that; that sense that they were being watched. They were all very dedicated actors, all focusing on their relationships and what their day to day, moment to moment lives were. It was really interesting.”
With One Punch winding up its impressive festival run, Yuille looks set to capitalise on his success with a few projects currently in early development, including the aforementioned Jade Dragon. However, while One Punch marks a milestone for Yuille’s career trajectory, the idea of returning to smartphone filmmaking remains a double-edged sword for the director, a device borne of necessity rather than preferential choice.
“We’ve won probably eight awards around the world, most of them have been smartphone festivals. But it’s actually been really hard to get One Punch into traditional festivals, I think because people go, ‘oh, smartphone’ and push it off to the side. It’s a real shame that it didn’t get into Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. But you know what festivals are like, ‘lots of films this year. Thanks for applying’. But from the people who have been able watch it, it’s been very well received. But I would love more people to be able to watch it.
“I’m pragmatic enough to know that it’s not a perfect film, but I think it’s a film that does what it says on the tin. it’s definitely an arthouse film. It’s not a commercial film in that way.
“Now I’m doing another film and there’s a big part of me that goes, ‘oh, I wish I could shoot this on an ARRI Alexa or something’. But I don’t think we need to necessarily, especially If we look at this as a genre. The lens is the same. It’s a lens on the world and it’s a view of the world. If you have good performances and structure the story a bit better, then I think it shouldn’t matter.
“So yeah, I’m actually sticking to my guns and making this next film on a smartphone. If I go back 10 years when I graduated from film school, or 20 years ago like my masters, if I’d turned around and shot a feature every year, or every three or four years on a handycam, I’d be a much better filmmaker now.
“I started shooting One Punch on the iPhone 8+, which I bought just to shoot the film with. And about a month later, the iPhone 10 came out with an even better camera. I was like, Damn! And so, I’m actually just waiting for the next iteration of an iPhone just so I’ll be using the best phone that’s available.”
“So many people say ‘I’ll wait, I’ll wait’. But just go out and make something because it makes you a better filmmaker. We all use our phones all the time. It’s the main way that people interact with each other now to a large extent. So it sort of feels like it should be more ubiquitous.”