David O’Donnell: Moved by Memory in Picture Wheel

April 19, 2017
Written and directed by David O’Donnell, and produced by David O’Donnell, Alex Russell and Tom Fox-Davies, the short film Picture Wheel posits a world where we're not just haunted by our past, we carry it with us in the form of photos of our memories affixed to our heads by a bizarre device, the images of our regrets ever hovering in our field of vision. It's an example of greyscale surrealism reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, following an office worker who cannot escape the memories of his ex. Following the film's recent premiere at Cinequest Film Festival, we caught up with O'Donnell for a quick word.

Where did Picture Wheel come from?

I was thinking about memory as sort of clutter at the time. The past as something that we sometimes grasp onto and hoard and carry around as defence. I think often we get very sentimental about the past, and assign identity to some pain or experience, or great importance to things that are often ultimately unimportant. At the time I was thinking how often this stuff can be junk – not to be kept around like musty old furniture. And that was the first concept of the film – a hobo dragging a cart full of old memories down the street, like they were old cans and bits of hub caps. Aesthetically, I liked that idea and it basically built from there.

How did it come together?

Given how design heavy the script is, the first person I wanted to find was the right production designer. I wasn’t even sure that it was going to work cinematically, so I wanted to make up some headpieces and do some camera tests. After speaking to several people, I was recommended to a young designer, Carly Larson. She’s only 27 years old, her work is incredible. After seeing a mechanical leaning house she built, I knew I needed to meet her. We hit it off and started riffing on how we were going to put this thing together. With the help of her company Blk & Ginger we started honing in on what the look should be. She is a real bad ass. She could take a concept or rough sketch and realize it beautifully. Basically she can build, fabricate, put together anything.

Often in lower budget/ indie projects the Art Department is shortchanged – not given proper attention and preparation. We vowed that we wouldn’t do that on this project, we would try to give ourselves the time and space to make interesting, thoughtful design choices. And that helped later, as we were getting cast and crew attached. People liked the script, and could see we were serious by the designs we had cooking .

What about the casting process?

Originally, Alex Russell, one of my partners at Five Lip Films, was going to star in the film. We were going to shoot while he was on a break from shooting a studio film he was doing at the time. But he had to grow a moustache for the studio film. As it turned out, this was no ordinary moustache. This was a thick, bushy, 70’s beast of a mo. He sent me a photo of it, and there was just no way around it. It was not going to work for the character. We had to recast. Luckily, James Hoare (the upcoming Picnic at Hanging Rock) stepped in. Though I’ve known of James’ work before, working with him more extensively on this was phenomenal. He brought a beautiful truthfulness to this absurdist world. He’s wonderful.

How was the experience of making this film?

I had a great team which made it a pleasure for the most part. It’s a lesson I learn again and again – choose your collaborators wisely. That way you can get valuable input at every stage of the process that may get you to look at something in a new way, or show some other facet of the story. I get input on my projects from my team at Five Lip Films. We’ve all got different tastes and different strengths we as a collective bring to the filmmaking process. And in every department I strive to build a network of people who can offer stimulating input.

This production was a mix of our Australian network and contacts, and American friends that we have worked with, or friends of friends. It was such a cool team.

Beyond that, stuff goes wrong in indie filmmaking. It’s just part and parcel that you are flying by the seat of your pants. But if you are really prepared and know what you are attempting to do, you can think on your feet and come up with a new solution and otherwise enjoy the adventure. I had a location try to pull out the day before production. I handled that by basically doing a one man show demonstrating the scene and that it was completely safe.

We arrived to one of our other permitted locations to find a completely fenced off construction zone with no notice given to us. Alex came up with a creative solution for that (which I won’t mention).

We shot a scene in an elevator that broke down just before we started shooting. That meant the crew had to carry a truckload of gear up four steep flights of stairs by hand.

I had no more than three or four hours sleep a night for weeks before and through this shoot. There was a lot to do.
But I was completely energized by the end of it. Indie filmmaking has its challenges, but it has its rewards too.

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