Interview with Harrison Norris, Director of the award winning film “A PEACEFUL MAN”

Harrison Norris’ short film A PEACEFUL MAN was the winner of Best Cinematography at the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film Festival October 2015 event. Easily the most violent film that has played at the festival, A PEACEFUL MAN is a 4 minute short that’s a must see movie for action, horror, thriller fans.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK of A PEACEFUL MAN:

I recently sat down with Harrison Norris and talked about his short film and what’s next for the Professional Stunt Man turned Film Director:

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Harrison Norris: That’s a question with a few moving parts.

It all started when I read a news article about a little old woman who, in a burst of adrenaline, managed to single-handedly lift one side of a rolled car, off a trapped child. That fascinated me; not because an old lady was lifting a car, but because she herself had no idea that she was capable of such a thing. Instinct and adrenaline took over and did something just as unpredictable for HER, as it is for us reading later. As a filmmaker I obviously couldn’t resist exploring the darker side of that coin; what other things are we ALL obliviously capable of? And what could be the trigger to pull these things out of us? If I introduced you to a man named Chris, then asked you to shoot him; you, as a rational person, would (I hope) refuse. But if Chris was running at your family with a knife and you had seconds to react; it’s safe to say the situation might shake out differently.

The fact that we have such a truly universal key to trigger such a drastic act (that we would all swear we weren’t capable of) makes for some fascinating story options. You may swear by a life of non-confrontation, but whether you know it or not, there IS a hidden key to turn that ignition, it’s just a matter of the situation arising to pull these hidden potentials out.

So I sat down and challenged myself to speed-write a short exploring that concept and ‘A Peaceful Man’ is what came out. I wanted to show a no- nonsense, vertical slice of time: the exact moment that a peaceful man transforms into something else entirely. I wanted the audience to empathize and understand where this character is coming from intellectually and instinctually; enough so that they still don’t feel entirely alienated from him upon seeing his physical actions. The way I saw it was this: if I could set it up, so that the audience could still relate, to any degree, with Harper at the end of his arc; then that’s the difference between the film being 4 minutes of forgettable entertainment, or becoming something genuinely effecting. All I really wanted was to make something thought-provoking that would spark discussion between strong differences of opinion; and I’ve loved watching people argue over whether or not they would behave the same, or over the unseen events preceding the film.

From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this film?

It was a very short process, albeit fragmented. The initial draft of the script was written in one sitting, with minor tweaks made leading up to the shoot. The shoot itself was particularly rushed. Due to the extensive slow-motion aspect of the film, conventional lighting was off the table, instead we required exceptionally high-powered lighting, all with flicker-free bulbs. As I funded the project entirely out of pocket, I simply couldn’t afford more than a single night’s rental on our lights; so we were forced to shoot the entire film over the course of a few hours.

Once the film was shot I immediately flew out to begin work on a TV series over in Cape Town, Africa; so the film was edited over a period of two weeks, whenever I could steal a moment. It was during these two weeks that the other elements of the film also came together. The film featured entirely practical effects, bar one element: the screwdriver entering the eye; it was the VFX team on ‘Black Sails’ that came to my rescue, finishing that composition over the course of a few days around their other work, for a bottle of wine each.

Finally, we needed the voice of Harper Luckily for us Zach McGowan (Shameless, Resident Evil) and his gorgeously gravelly voice were present on set. I was incredibly unprofessional and flat-out rushed him with the script, somehow convincing him not to bin it. A few days later he got in touch and said we had about 1hr 20mins (starting immediately) to record Harper’s lines. Later that night I slotted the completed VO into the colour-graded edit.

Upon arriving back in Australia I had 2 extensive foley/sound design sessions with Stewart Whitely (who also composed our original theme) and submitted just in time for our first festival deadline! Following our submission we collaborated with Peter Pound to create the graphic novel tie-in.

So from concept to completion was several months, but there would have only been 3-4 weeks of work throughout that period, and that was almost entirely post.

How would you describe your short film in two words!?

‘Dormant instincts?’ God, why don’t you try giving me a hard one, you bastard.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

There were a couple, but I’ve got to start with that bloody lighting. Considering that I could only afford the rental cost for one night, we had to shoot the entire film within a few hours. This meant we not only had no time for lighting resets, I also couldn’t afford as many physical lights as we would have liked. So we ended up constructing a truss out of pipes, rigging it with various reflectors and diffusers, all pointing off at different angles, winched it up to the ceiling, and pointed our two lights up at it. That way we were able to bounce our light around the room as much as possible. All things considered, I think it turned out alright.

Our next biggest challenge would have to be that opening shot, pulling back out of the eye. It was an extremely rapid camera move, with some agonisingly fiddly focus pulling. Much to my incredibly patient 1st AD’s horror I wouldn’t move on without it, so thank god we finally got it! I’m pretty sure the shot used in the film is take 63. There was also the matter of the shot in which the angle grinder hits the ground. The shot used in the film is the 3rd take and features precariously balanced dummies. The reason I say ‘precariously balanced’ is because on the 1st and 2nd takes the angle grinder managed to amputate a foot from either dummy.

There was the matter of slugging our lead in the head with a sledgehammer. We wanted to avoid VFX work wherever possible; on a high-key moment like that it’s easy to tell when two actors aren’t in the same room and a botched visual effect could throw the whole ending. So we knew it had to be practical. We constructed a lightweight sledgehammer handle to double our original prop, with a detachable foam head. Each take consisted of selectively dotting super glue on the head, sticking it to the handle, slugging Judd in the forehead with the very tip (so the head would detach upon impact, and handle could keep swinging past him). Then we’d scramble around to find the foam head, re-attach it while watching playback, and thump him in the forehead all over again. Judd’s a really good sport.

International translations were a challenge I never saw coming. I never expected that the film would have the milage it’s had, so I was caught with my pants down when it came time to translate the film for the first time. Other languages obviously have different grammatical structures, and few words have exact translations. So not only did I need to be sure the word by word translation did the intended message justice; it had to do so inside the new grammatical structure, while maintaining approximately the same timing, so as to match the edit.

Finally, directing for extreme slow-mo is a notably different to directing otherwise. Typically ‘result directing’ is considered lazy (ie: “look angry, then pick up that cup, then throw it at him, then look sad”). But when you’re capturing 30 seconds of screen-time in 4 seconds, you need to approach that actor’s performance like a checklist. If you want anger, then realisation, then conflict, then acceptance; you need to workshop what each of those expressions look like individually, then have the actor quickly chain from one to another in a way that feels incredibly unnatural on set, but plays well in the footage. It’s certainly an odd process, but it was fun to experiment with.

What were your initial reactions when watching the Toronto audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

It was nice to hear that the audio design was appreciated, particularly that knee stomp (Hi Stewart!). We spent a lot of time making it ‘wetter’, so it’s nice to hear it specifically mentioned. It was also nice to hear the production design was appreciated. The mention of that shot where everything is swept off the table got me particularly, as watching playback for that on set was the first moment I felt we really had something cool in the making.

I find it interesting that we often have comments on the ‘great effects’ (usually in reference to the blood), but as mentioned above, there was actually only one effect element in the film, and that was the screwdriver going into the eye. The comparison to ‘Oldboy’ was flattering too! (Though I hope to god he means the original) Particularly considering I’ve always enjoyed that hallway fight myself.

As for the topic of excessive violence, I’m continually surprised. Not by the fact that people are switched off by it, but by how few people DON’T switch off. I know it sounds pretentious as a creator to say that if somebody didn’t like your work, it was because they didn’t ‘get’ it. But with that said, I was fully expecting the majority of the films audience not to ‘get it’. Every step of the production, I knew the most important thing was the dialogue, and by extension I knew there would be a percentage of people who saw the shocking visuals and dismissed the film at face value as too violent for their tastes, missing the intended message. Fortunately, I’ve been absolutely floored by how many viewers are willing to engage with the film as a whole. Across all the festivals I’ve visited, I’m able to count on two hands the number of people I’ve spoken with who have walked out; which is amazing considering the reaction I was expecting!

What have you learned working on Stunts in the film industry to help you as a director?

It’s been absolutely invaluable for understanding what makes good action. There is such an dearth of terrible, lazy action making the rounds. Having a hands-on understanding of precisely what goes into performing stunts, does more for planning the coverage of an action sequence than anything else can, particularly because you’re aware of exactly which boundaries you can stretch to make your footage unique.

Good action is as simple as a 4 step checklist:
1.) Is the footage visually clear? Can you tell where everybody is at all times?
2.) Does it tell a story? The best action is character driven; can you tell what every major character involved wants at all times?
3.) The most memorable fight scenes could only have taken place in a specific location. Does your fight incorporate pieces of the environment it takes place in? Or are your characters just standing in the centre trading punches and kicks?
4.) Does it keep the audience engaged? The trick is to alternate between telegraphing upcoming moments, and revealing surprising consequences; in short, balancing the audience between: “Oh my god I know what’s he/she is going to do!” and “Oh my god, I can’t believe that just happened!”

What film have you seen the most in your life?

I couldn’t possibly name one film that I’ve watched most, but I can easily tell you which directors I particularly enjoy; I’m such a sucker for filmmakers with a distinctive style.

Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Edgar Wright, George Miller, Doug Liman, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell and (the older work of) The Cohen Brothers are all right up there. Over in the realm of animation I can’t resist mentioning Tetsurõ Araki and Satoshi Kon.

I can’t go without saying though, over the last few years my personal writing has been far more influenced by the narratives in games, than film. With the (often) reduced studio oversight, extra hours of ‘screen-time’, and sprinklings of player choice, there is some incredible tailored narrative stuff going on in that space. Look no further than anything recent by Telltale Games for proof (Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands and The Walking Dead will all knock your head backwards for entirely different reasons.)

What is next for you? A new film?

We’re just about to do some really exciting stuff to shake up the VR space. Keep an eye out for PROXi

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