What to do when I’m dead

LOCAL SUPPORT Shane Porteous in What to do When I'm Dead (Photo: Tracey Schramm).
LOCAL SUPPORT Shane Porteous in What to do When I’m Dead (Photo: Tracey Schramm).

A Writer gets a screenplay produced, finally.

AFTER a few failed attempts to secure funding in Australia with original screenplays, I decided to wait no more and go into production on a short feature of my own.

Like all aspiring filmmakers, I craved experience, which meant getting something in the can without any financial backing whatsoever, and keeping the costs way down.

I have always looked upon such circumstances as a creative challenge, and came up with a concept which I could produce within the resources I had at my fingertips living in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.

With the support of skilled friends, family, and a smattering of recruited professionals, What to do When I’m Dead was shot over four very long days in November 1999.

The low budget meant using the relatively new medium of digital video, and we pushed this medium … in hindsight a little too much. But atmosphere was what I was after, and it’s what I got.

Our acting team was nothing short of miraculous. I wrote the central role of ‘Jane’ for friend and established actor Jennifer Kent. Always encouraging local writers, Mountains-based television icon Shane Porteous agreed to play ‘Paul’ after a read of an early draft.

Josh Quong Tart’s agent suggested he get some screen experience by taking on the role of ‘Matthew’, and we were extremely lucky to have Celia Ireland play the small role of ‘Anne-Marie’, a real estate agent who drops-in with comic results.

Most of the crew, myself included, were rather more emergent – our sound recordist Michelle Irwin was the most experienced amongst us, and she respectfully kept things on track, with the guidance of my friend Judy Keogh, an experienced stage manager who came up from Melbourne to line produce for me.

Filming took place in my home, which at the time I shared with a friend, who let us take over her bedroom for four days and have people pretend to be a dead body in her bed. An emerging writer at the time, Eden bravely wrote an article to promote the premiere screening of the finished film. Her first draft was a bit tame, so I encouraged her to write the awful truth. Her second try was so sharply-observed and hilarious that the local newspaper published it word-for-word.

When the finished result was ready, I managed to get access to two venues for charity screenings – the Scenic Cinema at Katoomba’s Scenic World, and the bistro at the Dendy Cinema in Sydney.

Keen to repay the community which had sent me off to England to learn filmmaking, I donated all the proceeds from these events to the Blue Mountains Palliative Support Network, a local group supporting people to die in their own homes.

At thirty minutes long, What to do When I’m Dead was classed as a short feature, not a short film, and therefore difficult to place in most film festivals. Nevertheless, it was selected to screen at the 2000 Watch My Shorts festival in Melbourne.

A further screening was offered at a palliative care conference at Leura’s Fairmont Resort, where the projection facilities gave the film its best ever technical conditions. Picture, sound and everything else came together so beautifully that day, with a non-media-industry crowd of quite a few hundred conference attendees.

SIBLING RIVALRY Jennifer Kent and Josh Quong Tart in What to do When I'm Dead (Photo: Tracey Schramm).
SIBLING RIVALRY Jennifer Kent and Josh Quong Tart in What to do When I’m Dead (Photo: Tracey Schramm).

Subsequently, What to do When I’m Dead was offered distribution on video by Healthcliff Distribution, through which it found an unexpected audience – healthcare staff seeking insights into the issues faced by families who choose to have their loved ones die in the home.

My film was very simple in the storytelling sense, but I am pleased to reflect that I was heading in the right direction with my screenplay, a distillation of my own experiences immediately after the death of my mother seven years prior.

What I tried to articulate was the difficult relationship between two siblings in the wake of tragedy, and the small yet courageous ways they find to reach out to one another, with the help, both intentional and inadvertent, from others. I had a clear protagonist and antagonist, who ‘did battle’, a climax that was a bit weaker than it should have been, and a dénouement which I remain quite proud of.

The errors I made with video capture could have been made into wins had I gone for a ‘video capture look’, as many other filmmakers were doing at the time. We achieved this only in parts of the finished film.

What to do When I’m Dead polarised viewers. Perhaps it’s one measure of success that this small, ambitious film full of flaws had praise heaped on it by some (an agent was so impressed by digital video that she wanted to know more), and also got its share of critical dumpings (my flatmate’s mother said she could have done a better job).

But the sound recordist said she’d work with me again. There can be no greater compliment from someone who really knows what they’re doing.

I kept a realistic head in the wake of What to do When I’m Dead, and, encouraged by the experience I’d been given by my generous collaborators, I just kept on writing despite the critics.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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