Filmmaker & Cast Talk Aussie Neo-Noir BURNING KISS!
BURNING KISS, the enthralling neo-noir thriller out of Western Australia, defies any easy description. The film’s plot sounds familiar: “Years after a hit-and-run kills his wife and leaves him crippled, a bitter detective is bent on vengeance – but when a young stranger claims responsibility for the crime, he concocts a complicated and dangerous plan for retribution that puts his daughter in terrible danger”. But even this description does little to convey the gorgeous style, believably complicated characters and wonderfully off-kilter world the film presents.
BURNING KISS was written and directed by Robbie Studsor, and it’s hard to believe that this is his directorial debut, so confident is his visual approach and understanding of character. That last element is particularly important, as the film is basically a three-hander between actors Liam Graham (Max Woods), Alyson Walker (Charlotte Bloom) and Richard Mellick (Detective Edmond Bloom).
We sat down with Studsor, alongside stars Liam Graham and Alyson Walker, to gain a better understanding of this beautifully surreal, and strikingly violent, sun-drenched dream.
“I struggle with this on a daily basis!” Studsor admits when asked to describe the film – even the title itself is left mysterious. “I took the title from a particularly explicit moment in the book Story of the Eye where someone receives a ‘burning kiss’. For some reason when I read those two words together it lit me up like a pinball machine! It’s also said in the voice over of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS by Cecile B. DeMille. The sun, hot weather and desire all feature in the film in different ways and the title has a pulp, noir, melodrama quality that’s immediate and fun”.
Studsor has no trouble listing his extensive filmic influences, “Lynch and Polanski are certainly big heroes of mine. KNIFE IN THE WATER (as it’s a psychodrama with three characters) and BLUE VELVET (with its extremities of light and dark) were definitely references. Mario Bava and Kenneth Anger were inspirations for the pop art aesthetic, Ken Russell for his approach to visual effects and general madness, there’s some Nicolas Roeg type techniques in the editing, European Hitchcockian filmmakers like Rene Clement. . .the list goes on and on!”.
Star Liam Graham has similar difficulty summarising the work: “The film has been described as a Summer Noir, Southern Gothic, Pop Art, Surrealism, Suspense, Mystery, French New Wave, Acid Noir. . .”. Part of the difficulty in narrowing down what the film is comes from the aesthetically unique vision of Australia it presents. “I let go of depicting ‘normal’ Australia quite early in the process in favour of taking a more expressionistic approach” says Studsor, explaining that he drew from diverse media across other films, photography, paintings and music. “I even wrote little phrases that would try to evoke an atmosphere like ‘broken cocktail umbrella’, ‘midnight rendezvous’ or ‘knife at a pool party'”. The result is a visual style like no other: bright blues and reds pop out of the frame, violent acts are beautifully represented and the omnipresent heat positively sizzles out of every scene.
One thing that is without doubt a major influence on the film is the tradition of the Southern Gothic. “The film has a Southern Gothic setup with archetypes like a tyrant father and an ingénue, but it’s a bit more comic book and exaggerated. The actual plot of the film definitely deviates from those types of stories. That said, if you have hot weather and deal with themes like guilt and sexual repression you will probably step in the footprints of things like CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and IGUANA.”
Noir and other genre films also greatly influenced the cast’s performance. Graham admits “I drew on films including WAKE IN FRIGHT, REBEL and CASABLANCA amongst others. Reading the script, I realised that in addition to watching noir films I had to look into many other genres, as the world Robbie had created was complex and multidimensional”. Female lead Alyson Walker’s performance drew on famous noir and crime characters, including “Giulietta Masina in THE NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, Isabella Rossellini in BLUE VELVET, Nastassja Kinski in PARIS TEXAS, Sissy Spacek in BADLANDS. I used various traits of these female leads to create the complexities of Charlotte”.
The musical score also greatly contributes to the film’s ‘otherworldly’ texture. Studsor describes the main musical style as: “a genre of music called Exotica, popular in the 50s and 60s, which is basically lounge and big band composers making ‘world music’ you can listen to on your home stereo while drinking cocktails. It’s very lush, escapist type music. I saw the character of Edmond as having created his own little paradise where he is king, so I thought a score with elements of this ‘fake paradise’ music was appropriate. Of course, there’s also different genre elements to the film so the composer got to go completely off the leash and basically mix exotica with all kinds of weird sounds and instruments. It’s a really fun, different score”.
But more striking than even this distinct score are the wonderfully surrealist sequences that jolt the viewer out of their comfort zone. Characters grow devil horns, leak blood, catch fire and laugh maniacally. “Dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties find expression in our minds all day everyday in all kinds of imaginative ways” says Studsor. “I thought it would be fun to give this expression within the film, and not even necessarily imply that the imagery belongs to any particular character. It all swirls in together with the character voice-overs and story and was an opportunity to have fun with editing, form and visual effects”. This visual ambition payoffs handsomely: not only does it provide some memorably insane imagery guaranteed to stick in the mind, it lets us get a profound glimpse into who these complicated characters are.
All three of the principals in BURNING KISS are not who they first appear. Take Charlotte Bloom, ‘innocent’ daughter of Richard Mellick’s tyrannical detective. Actress Alyson Walker first portrays her as “an energetic free spirit who has been crushed by her father and is somewhat childlike’. However, as the film progresses, the viewer discovers: ‘There’s a femme fatale element to her character. She can be cruel and indifferent to suffering – she’s trained herself to be an ingenue as a means of survival. She’s not a docile lamb, but an excitable rebellious type forced to hide her true nature”.
This believably multi-layered nature of character carries through to the male lead – the mysterious Max. Graham describes his character as “a solitary lone wolf type who’s bemused by the world. A lost soul, hard to work out”. Initially he seems like a dissolute, immoral drifter: but his complicated backstory leaves the viewer sympathetic and conflicted. “Any character in any genre needs to have their humanity and vulnerabilities revealed’, Graham says of his character’s moral journey. ‘No person in the history of the world has only one side to them”.
The other major character of the film – the disabled yet tyrannical Detective Edmond Bloom, played by Richard Mellick – rounds out the cast of believably complex characters. Both Walker and Graham emphasise the importance of their chemistry with Richard to the finished film. “Richard is larger than life and a great actor“, Walker explains, “but on top of that we both needed to understand the complexities of our characters because our relationship is so layered. There also needed to be a certain level of respect between us for us to create the realism in our ‘not so pleasant’ relationship”. Graham echoes these points: “The hugely different approach we take as actors kept us wondering what the other’s next move was going to be. What you’re seeing on screen between Edmond and Max is often a very real reaction to an unexpected choice made in the moment”.
But it’s the relationship between Charlotte and Max that anchors the film – something Walker and Graham were highly aware of. “Liam and I spent a lot of time getting to know each other before we started shooting”, explains Walker. “We discussed our characters in a lot of detail, we spent time just talking and figuring out how and why our characters behaved and reacted to certain situations in the way they did”. Graham provides another perspective: “We discussed in depth a lot about our personal lives and similarities we both had to each of our characters. Alyson has this aura of innocence about her, but also an unexplainable, complicated magnetism that made my job quite easy in what eventually unfolded on screen”.
The film is ultimately about the swirling, interconnected and constantly changing moral relationship between the three main characters. Studsor credits this as his main motivation for making the film: “I was intrigued by the theme of guilt and how it can both be internalised to torment the self and used as a weapon of control. I wanted to have an incident that all the characters were victims of in one way or another and then explore the ways the characters use guilt on themselves and each other”.
Studsor gave BURNING KISS its unique visual style and narrative flair because “I really wanted to take some risks and give it a bit of a midnight movie vibe”. His ambition, coupled with some stellar performances from Alyson Walker, Liam Graham and Richard Mellick, has resulted in one of the most distinctive and exciting Australian genre films in recent memory.
BURNING KISS will Premiere in its hometown of Perth as the Closing Night Film at MONSTER FEST TRAVELLING SIDESHOW on Sunday October 21st 7pm and will later play its Victorian Premiere at MONSTER FEST VII: THE HOMECOMING on Saturday November 24th 3pm.
Interviews conducted and feature article written by David Churack.