Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, creative technology, and art with practitioners in Melbourne. Each episode, we interview a resident that works at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focus coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator.
Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne, and I extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Peoples listening in.
Today we're chatting to Jason Christou, who is a creator, writer, (and) director across film, TV, documentary, interactive, and games. He was a writer on ABC/Matchbox Pictures' TV series, Nowhere Boys, and a Director's Apprentice on Sony/AMC's Preacher, and this year is a recipient of the Creative Victoria Creators Fund for his interactive series, We the Jury.
Jason Christou: Thanks, Amber.
AG: I thought we could start from the very start because I'm keen to hear how you first got into writing and directing.
JC: When you said "the start" at the start, I was like; "oh, hold on. I gotta tell you where I was born and..." (laughs). Well when I look back, it's funny. Before writing and directing, I was always I think looking for a creative outlet and creative expression growing up. I was in a band when I was 14, I was the lead singer. it was a hard rock band. I was (laughs) probably screaming more than I was singing. And even the sports I was playing, there was a creative aspect to it. I was trying to, you know, do things in different ways and all that kind of stuff.
But then ultimately, in terms of writing and directing, I saw Fight Club when I was in year 12, which I know was kind of a watershed film for a lot of people. But I saw that, and it still remains the only film that - I saw this on VHS as well - the only film that I've put straight back in and wanted to watch again. Because I was like; "how did you, how did they do that? How did they take me on this journey? Oh my God. I wanna be able to create a journey like that for people to go on." And I was heading to a commerce degree. I was doing specialist maths - I didn't know anyone in the arts. I was like; "how do I do any of these things?"
AG: Yeah. So no one in your family was in the creative field?
JC: No, no, no. Well, not anyone that I knew of that. Well, definitely not in terms of professional artists or anything like that. No, no attachment to that at all. And so I was like; "okay, I'm doing a commerce degree." (laughs). You know, like what are you gonna do? But of course, a fuse had been lit. And so, one of the beautiful things about when you're doing a commerce degree is you can actually do all these breadth subjects in other things. So I took all these cinema studies subjects and studied like Scorsese and New Hollywood stuff and just immersed myself, and then I got a job as a projectionist. So I was suddenly immersing myself in like... back when, literally you're splicing film together - 35mm.
AG: Was that in Melbourne?
JC: That was in Melbourne, yes. That was at Crown. I was a projectionist at Crown for many years through my uni years. So that was great. I was totally immersed in it. And of course, we watched films, we test-screened films, which was just: watch it, make sure it's okay. But I was, I now know looking back, I was kind of in critic mode. I was like; "how does all this work? How do we pull all these things together?" But I thought; "I have to start creating in some way." So I started directing university theatre and then started crewing because I wanted to understand how a set worked. And then very quickly went; "okay, I'm just gonna make a short film."
So I made a short film and I kind of did everything on it (laughs). I got to work with friends and it was a fun experience. It got into Melbourne Underground Film Festival and I was like; "okay, maybe there's something here." But then when I actually watched it, I was like; "I'm not sure how successful the telling of the story was. I'm not sure how good a writer I am." So I thought; "okay, I need more training." So I went to RMIT screenwriting and then straight from that into VCA directing. And over the course of those five years, I made seven short films and they started to play around the world. And I was like; "okay, cool." But my graduating film: Tony Ayres assessed it and he really liked it. And I was like; "oh, hold on a minute, I'll reach out." That kind of thing. And at the time he was developing Nowhere Boys. And then that eventually led to work on Nowhere Boys. So that was kind of my...
AG: Was that Push Up that you were...
JC: No, so Push Up I made... I teamed up with a screenwriter at RMIT screen and Push Up was one of my first short films. Graeme Simsion, who is the novelist of The Rosie Project, we were both at RMIT screenwriting together. He wrote this short and he's like; "I think you should direct it. You're into father and son stories." And I was kind of like, I couldn't (because) it was all about his family. And I was like; "oh, I'm not sure." But I kind of found a way in, in terms of father and sons and we did it and it was pretty wild. It was a pushup contest over 40 years between a father and son.
AG: Yeah, I loved It. It's really interesting.
JC: Oh, you watched it! Great! (laughs) Thanks!
AG: Yeah! And then you went to work on Nowhere Boys.
JC: I got to work on Nowhere Boys, which was fantastic. So first off I was a director's attachment and then I was a script editor, and then I ended up writing on the show and doing some script producing. I was on the movie as a director's attachment. And then I was in the writing team on season four. So yeah, that was a nice introduction to television.
AG: And the TV shows and feature films that you've worked on seem to all play within the fantasy-action-adventure genre with supernatural themes. Do you enjoy working in those genres?
JC: I do. I really do. The TV stuff seems to have gravitated towards that, but I mean, for me, I'm always looking for a personal connection to the material. Then when I find that; from a creation side, rather than something someone else has created, I'm looking for the perfect form to tell that story.
AG: Okay. When I watched Human Resources, that was so different from your earlier short films.
JC: Yeah, yeah. And it's kind of because I don't like to repeat myself. It makes me a little bit hard to sell because I am interested in different things. And that idea of form for story, it's meant I've been working in all different screen forms now. But I think you're finding the vessel for the story to travel on. I must say though, in terms of that personal connection, the thing that changed in my work... so I'd been creating a lot of stuff and as I was doing it, I realised that I was still keeping things at a bit of a distance.
AG: Yeah. So do you mean like with Human Resources and Snake?
JC: Yeah, and the form was still giving me a bit of distance as well. So I hadn't really honed that executing really accurately on my intention.
AG: Can you describe that idea for Human Resources?
JC: I think looking back, on a really psychoanalytic level, it was probably me feeling trapped in a life that I was gonna have in different industries that wouldn't nourish me and exploring that through something really kind of surreal and macabre.
I am generally interested in darker stuff because I don't understand it. I kind of search in the shadows too. I find that really interesting and beguiling and in some ways even though, you know, when we talk; I'm really quite an optimistic person (laughs). But in some ways, that's kind of the balance there. My questions lead into those darker territories. I like to explore them. But with Human Resources, there's actually a really dark humour about it that I was looking to explore as well - these possibilities. So ground things in truth, but kind of find ways to express them that are a little bit more universal sometimes too.
AG: And so what have you written where you felt like you've stepped into that personal narrative?
JC: I think everything kind of changed when I wrote Feud, which is kind of a combination of stories from my family and (I) fused that into this crime-thriller that was set in Melbourne and was all about a trauma surgeon who lives in Melbourne. His brother gets killed and he finds out that the link to the killer stems from a blood feud that forced his parents to migrate from Crete 35 years earlier and it suddenly lands on his doorstep. What do you do? You're in this modern society. And what I was actually really exploring in terms of all the stories from my past, and my family weren't involved in a blood feud but there was stuff going on, was looking at how our morality is passed down through our bloodlines and how much of who we are and our moral composition is made up of nurture or nature. And then how does that collision happen when then things happen? Like in this case, in this blood feud; when you're trying to find a resolution to issues that are really dangerous and really conflicting, and when there is this collision of cultures in a way, because you inherit some of that culture, but also those generational conflicts. And so that's what I was really exploring and I found that not only was it becoming nourishing for me and cathartic for me to work in that space, but then the script ended up being in the files of the Sundance lab and I was going; "okay!" So when you really dig into the personal, it actually really connects to people even if that culture seems far and away from their own experience.
And then likewise, when friends or colleagues read it who were also first or second-generation migrants, they were like; "oh my God, you're speaking directly to my experience." Even if it wasn't specifically a Hellenic-Australian experience, it still might have been a European experience or a European first or second-generation experience here in Australia. And so from that point, it just felt right to kind of continue to investigate the personal.
AG: Yeah. And it's a really gripping story.
JC: Thanks for reading it.
AG: Did it change much from that script to... it's being developed now, right?
JC: Well, no. That's pretty much... it's pretty close to (where it was), yeah. We've done a few passes on it since but it's pretty close to where it was, yeah. I tend to do a lot of work before it goes out, so my first draft has a number of iterations. That's a third draft you're reading.
AG: Do you have writing partners or people who check your work that you trust?
JC: Yeah. So, Feud I wrote myself, but I do work with a writing partner, Tanya, who's also my partner in life. And so we've got a couple of projects we've written that, yeah, we're really proud of and (that) are out there at the moment too. And I was talking earlier about how I'm kind of interested in the dark side - I'm a little bit nihilist sometimes in my worldview. Tanya's super optimistic and kind of romantic. So the collision of those... not that I'm not romantic, hopefully (laughs), I'm a little bit (laughs). But that collision actually, I think, creates something really interesting because you get this push-pull in the work as opposed to kind of staying down a tone or a path that may be limiting.
So a lot of the time we do a lot of work early on. If it's a research-based thing, we do a lot of research, we'll even do it separately and then come back and kind of decide; "what is it?" We'll do a lot of work on plotting and really sort out the whole structure before we jump in and then go from there. Usually, I'll muscle out the first parts and then Tanya, who works so much quicker than me because my process is a lot more sculpting and almost painting, like brushing strokes, going to page one and coming back through each time. Whereas Tan can jump in anywhere and just be brilliant.
AG: You've worked on some larger productions; international films and domestic films as well. So Where the Wild Things Are was shot in Melbourne, but you were the production assistant.
JC: Yeah, I was a production assistant and I was an art department runner. So that was early in my journey too. The beautiful thing about that was actually seeing scale and seeing the size of things. And then I guess sometimes too when you're on a lower role, you get a little bit of time to actually observe and see these big decisions being made on that scale too, and how people execute an intention when you're dealing with so many more aspects. But also having now worked on productions of all levels, you actually see that it's all really similar. So the key thing is about understanding your own process, or if you're leading the project; communicating that vision to your collaborators and finding a great space to communicate effectively.
AG: Yeah. So with those directing skills, do you feel like they are intuitive to you or have you learnt them through being on these larger sets? For example, doing the director's placement with Preacher?
JC: I think it's a combo. I think in the end; when you start doing your own creative work, you start to learn a lot about yourself and about the way you've been built and the way you're conditioned and all of those things. I was the youngest in the family too, so I think I was super observant and always trying to see where I fit. Everyone has a role in their family. I was kind of the court jester. So I was always, you know, trying to make people laugh.
AG: So you were a performer.
JC: I was, in a strange way. And in that you're always searching then for the reaction. You're searching (for) what makes people tick and so I think from early on I was really observant of all of those things. I realised that I'd collected a lot of that data, I guess. And that comes through then socially and you kind of pick up what people are really like and then I guess the craft aspect is you start to observe people on productions and see that they all have different methods of doing that, but they're all kind of still doing the same kind of inherently social and emotional and psychological things, right? So it's just about sometimes finding a language for that once it then gets to a production level and maybe an efficiency in communicating those things. And a lot of that comes down to helping people find a way to be their best version of themselves. I just think (that) a director's job is to just get the best out of everyone.
AG: Yeah, making people feel comfortable.
JC: Comfortable in a space that they can play.
AG: And you mentioned that part of your process is (that) at the start of an idea, you work out what medium to tell that story on. So is that what happened with We the Jury?
JC: Yeah, it did. We the Jury, which I'm currently the creditors' grant recipient for...
JC: Oh, thank you. It was nice that it resonated. It's always one of the things when you put a project out in the world to see that it connects with someone even at an early stage.
AG: Can you quickly just do a bit of a sum up about it?
JC: Yeah. So it's an interactive crime series. It's a game, right? That is essentially... you have the fate of the accused in your hands. And so, you have the power to not only solve the crime but determine the punishment of the accused in a choose-your-own-adventure-style series. So like, imagine any crime show you're watching, right? And this is some of the idea of where this kind of originated was from, watching a lot of these kinds of true-crime shows that we're all obsessed with or podcasts on it where a couple of minutes in, we go; "you know what?" - and I'm not going to say it was you Amber - we'll say; "you know what? Jason did it. He totally did it. I know that." And you look to whoever's in the room with you and they're thinking; "I don't think so," or; "give them a chance. You know, I don't know. There's some sketchy stuff going on. Sure. But I'm not sure."
But imagine if you had the power to decide; "yeah, they did do it." And kind of matriculate the story in that way, quicken it up in some sense and go; "no, they did do it. What will happen to them now if I decide they're guilty now?" And so the whole idea was to build this thing where you could decide two minutes in to say; "yes, Jason did it." And suddenly Jason's character is thrust to the justice system based on the judgments you've made and whatever choice you make and whenever you make them, leads to a wholly unique experience.
AG: Oh, wow. So is it single-player or multiplayer?
JC: Single-player. And through that and through that process we go through and through these choices you make that lead to consequences, the idea was to build it so it was kind of self-reflexive of our morals. And we kind of start to see how any moral judgments we make... like we make thousands of minor ones a day. But what if we made some on a grounder scale? How do we see how those consequences affect people, but also then affect ourselves? And can we make a story where they're more self-reflexive of our bias that leads to a lot of these judgments?
AG: So who are you working on this project with? Because it's quite legal-focused (and) psychological. You're working with moral and social implications.
JC: Yeah. I kind of didn't have the science knowledge of all those things. And so I kind of went; "alright, let me have a look around (at) if people are exploring these things maybe in science." And I stumbled upon Stefan Bode, who's a neuroscientist who was literally working in the same field. So he was asking exact same questions scientifically as I was asking creatively. So he was doing studies on how our moral judgment changes over time (and) how our bias affects our decision-making. All of these aspects too. And I was like; "okay, cool." So I just, I reached out to him and said; "hey, I'm working on this thing. I think we're working in the same space just from different angles. Do you want to kind of team up?" And so what we're doing is doing research on these aspects and seeing how that research will impact the writing as well, so we've got kind of this really... I guess this way of checking or investigating the experience and meeting it against science and the likelihood of someone to react a certain way, and that helping us inform these really elastic narrative trees that people go on. And in that, (we) hope to be able to find a way to make these aspects that are so blind to us all about our biases actually appear in some ways or at least question why we made a certain decision as opposed to a lot of the time when we just continue to make decisions and don't reckon necessarily with the consequences of them.
AG: Absolutely. Yeah, it's very immersive it seems, the game.
JC: I hope so (laughs).
AG: So what stage are you at, at the moment?
JC: So we're still in the grant. Coming from film and TV, games are new to me. So part of it was to fill up all the mechanics of how we build games and how we create games and the narrative design aspects too on a game site and fill that up with all this neuroscience and combine it too. So at the moment, we're still in a very early stage. I'm currently doing some early writing on it and some really early design. So the idea is to have it at a really good pitch level by the end of the grant, which is at the end of December.
AG: Has it been an easy transition to move into games?
JC: It's been really fun, because you're playing in games. What's been nice about it (is that) it's like learning a new language. I find my mind becoming kind of really elastic suddenly. Suddenly I can tell all these stories that have branching elements that you always, you kind of build when you're doing more traditional stuff, but then you spend your whole time carving away at it to do something really distilled or something quite linear or something that fits in 90 minutes, or 30 minutes, or 60 minutes, kind of thing. And what I realised actually was that I actually do all that work anyway. I do this kind of 'what if?' thing at an early stage of the writing process. But now, and it's not wasted work, but now all of that can actually be the possibility of a player's experience.
AG: Yeah, totally. Because they become choices, right? They don't have one linear narrative.
JC: You're spot on. And so storytelling becomes like story sharing. Like it's this combined kind of dance that you're going on. And in terms of We the Jury, one of the tricky things, when you're dealing with investigating people's morals, is to make sure you take yourself and your message, your moral message or your moral view, out of things. So how do you build a world that even though... so we're talking about the justice system. We're talking about the justice system, which we know is inherently biased. So how do you build this world, this justice system that we replicated in a game system, not to be so biased that the player is still afforded the space, the possibility space of choice? So I don't feel like the game's telling them off, which is literally then the creators of the game telling them off in that sense too, right?
AG: Yeah, right. So are you playing a lot of games to explore how games are made?
JC: Yeah, that's the really fun part. Like games do so many things really, really well. Which are different to the experiences we have in traditional film and TV. The ability to really step inside someone's shoes is extraordinary and you can get there so much quicker sometimes than (in) film and television. And that idea, that by doing that and by opening up the point of view so quickly, we have this great ability to leap towards empathy so much faster, I think in games. You talked about immersiveness, right? Like, that's exactly it. I'd been working with all these stories, in especially feature film, which dealt with social justice, moral reckoning, all of these things. But I was looking for a way for the experience to be more immersive. Like; "how can we activate the audience more?" I mean, if we're doing our job in film and TV, you're still activating people in that, but how can you literally get them to consider the choice, make the choice and feel the consequences? But it all comes back to all those other tenants about, can a punishment ever equal a crime? And we all have that different number in our head on how that works in that sense.
AG: Yeah, like what is justice?
JC: What is justice? And all of those kinds of aspects, yeah.
AG: So do you have a timeframe around when it will be developed? When it will be released?
JC: No, I don't have an ambitious release date yet (laughs).
AG: And you are also not only working on this, but you've got a few other projects that you are juggling as well. Can you tell us about those?
JC: Yeah. So just at the moment (I'm) also working on... there's a US-set feature that Tanya and I have written that's about to go out. I've got a documentary that we developed through AFTRS' National Documentary Talent Camp. (I'm) working with Walking Fish Productions on that one, which is great. And then we've got We are the Jury, of course, we're in the middle of...
AG: How are you juggling that all?
JC: And we're gonna write a horror film actually, over the summer.
AG: Oh my gosh.
JC: Yeah. I don't know. I guess you find a way. it's nice that there are different... they're different head spaces in a way. It doesn't feel like you're overlapping and getting caught telling the same story in another space.
AG: Yeah, it's quite a positive thing to switch. Well, thank you for joining us, Jason.
JC: No worries. Thanks, Amber.
AG: That's all we have time for but we could talk a lot more. Thanks for coming on the show.
Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. If you would like to find out about ACMI X and keep up-to-date with the next episode, follow us on Twitter at @acmiXstudio.