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the making of monkey puzzle

Podcast - Q&A Session

Director Mark Forstmann and editor Ken Sallows talk about the making of Monkey Puzzle.

Q&A post-screening, 8 November 2008
33 mins

Play audio, Monkey Puzzle Q&A
Download mp3 file, Monkey Puzzle Q&A, (16mb)  

Filmmaker notes - Director Mark Forstmann

monkey puzzle
Monkey Puzzle: Ben Guerens (Carl)

Monkey Puzzle follows a group of five young friends who journey into pristine wilderness. The object of their search - the Wollemi Pine - is a "dinosaur" tree. Scientists say it should have gone extinct at the time of the dinosaurs. It didn't. Somehow it clung onto life. For this reason the location of the last remote gully on earth, which hosts this tree, is withheld from the public. The puzzle, that is this rare tree, sets up the film.

Monkey Puzzle is a landscape film. How do people react when they're lost in inhospitable wilderness? The characters' "emotional landscapes" mirror the physical landscape of the wilderness. The characters themselves merge with the wilderness.

The five friends are an explosive cocktail. One is brash, one is conscientious, one is flippant, one is neurotic and one is cynical. Not the recipe for cohesion in the face of adversity. Monkey Puzzle delves into friendship, rivalry, loss, and survival against the odds.

We often learn the most from our misadventures. My teens and twenties were littered with failed adventures. Many of my adventures were into the bush with which I have a strong connection. This film was born out of that connection.

Themes of "be careful tampering with nature" and "be careful what you search for" are explored. It is not by accident that Carl, who tragically lost his brother in a car accident, has developed a God-like reverence for nature and this rare tree. Dylan, who fondly calls Carl "brother", takes on Carl's obsession. For both men, this journey is a search for nature's Holy Grail.

But finding the tree, or not, is less important than the journey itself and the lessons learned along the way.

Script development

  monkey puzzle
  Ryan Johnson (Dylan)
I wanted absolute truth of performance and nothing less. To achieve this I cast the best of young talent around and developed the script through an intense workshop process.

Together with producer Tamara Popper, we cast Ben Geurens, Ella Scott Lynch, Billie Rose Prichard, Socratis Otto and Michael Dorman. Over many weeks, these actors put their heart and soul into character-based improvisations. The actors' sole responsibility was to remain utterly faithful to their character and their interactions, whilst I was custodian of the drama.

It was both strange and illuminating to watch a scene develop within the brick walls and parquetry of a football club house, then take life in the swampy marshes of Centennial Park in central Sydney. This was "reality filmmaking".

After sifting through many hours of footage I wrote the first draft. Thereafter co-writer Stephen Davis and I pushed and pulled the structure, changed dialogue and arrived at the final script.

Along the way actor Michael Dorman fell out due to other commitments. Then I came across Ryan Johnson and what a blessing he was! Ryan's Dylan became the true leader of the troupe.


monkey puzzle
Ellen Scott Lynch (Pippa)
We shot on location in the canyons in the Blue Mountains, the first feature film to shoot in these nooks and crannies. We shot on Super 16 with available light. Cinematographer, Justine Kerrigan's vision and sensitivity to the light captured the beauty of the actor's faces and mystery of the mountains. Winter sun and lugging in the gear meant we had barely seven hours a day to shoot. Not forgetting leeches, near zero temperatures, wet clothes, and abseiling the crew into to areas you were scared to look into.

"Reality filmmaking" became "feral filmmaking".  Full credit to actors Ryan Johnson, Ben Geurens, Ella Scott Lynch, Billie Rose Prichard, and Socratis Otto, who put their emotions on the screen; to the crew who put their sweat on the screen; and to producer Tamara Popper who kept up morale.

Despite the dirt and the sweat, we strove to choreograph the physical landscape to the emotional landscape of the characters. Designer Sam Hobbs, Justine Kerrigan and I worked tirelessly on finding the right niches.

  monkey puzzle
  Billie Rose Pritchard (Toni)
A film might be "conceived" on the shoot but it is "made" in post-production. Unlike the expansive canyons, editor Ken Sallows and I were cramped into the smallest edit suite in Sydney.

Ken paced and shaped the film into a seamless whole. I was blessed with Amanda Brown's score. Her haunting and lyrical guitar sounds "made" the environment. Liam Egan's sound design carefully mapped the emotional journeys as the character sank further into the canyons.

And now it's over to the audience!

Director Mark Forstmann, August 2008

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