Lake Mungo will have it’s first Australian television screening on WEDNESDAY the 6th at 10PM on SBS ONE.
What follows is a discussion about the making of this unique film.
Lake Mungo is a feature film about grief and the harrowing 12 months that follow the accidental death of 16 year old Alice Palmer. After her grieving family bury Alice a series of inexplicable, strange and possibly supernatural events lead them to seek the help of a parapsychologist who in turn uncovers Alice’s secret double life. Lake Mungo is a supernatural mystery and ghost story told as a documentary that explores just how the dead can forever haunt the living.
Lake Mungo started off as a bit of an experiment devised by the brilliant mind of writer / director Joel Anderson. Even today when I revisit the film several years after working on it (principal photography was completed in December 2006), I still find myself making connections and sifting further story elements from the finished film.
Mistakenly referred to as a horror film by virtue of it’s supernatural subject matter and disturbing disquiet, it’s really better thought of as a uneasy mystery thriller. It’s originality make it hard to categorise.
It’s an unbelievably layered and intricate story and the further you peer into it, the more you’re going to find. For this reason alone, it’s a very rewarding film to watch more than once.
Joel was really interested in the idea of apparent visual proof in images and how they can be used as evidence in the documentary form. I think he also liked the freedom of documentary story-telling structure. Unlike conventional drama structure where you tend to follow a single character’s story arc ( aka the hero’s journey) with all the story telling rules that an audience has come to expect, the documentary form allows you to near-seamlessly jump between different character arcs within the same film. The tone can unexpectedly shift gears and surprising story diversions can also play out without audience disbelief. You can even have blind alleys that actually lead to inconclusive outcomes and unresolved or unexplained story threads. It’s all part of the documentary oeuvre.
If you can have the audience believe they are watching a real documentary, other story telling mechanisms and conventions are suddenly possible. The truth is something that a documentary purports to tell and more importantly, to show. Using misdirection though, you can also manipulate the audience’s reading of the material being presented as evidence.
Every visual proof in Lake Mungo was created to be ambiguous and open to the audience members’ own take on the material. Like any good documentary filmmaker, we invited the audience to engage with the subject and to draw their own conclusions from what they were presented with as evidence.
We are so accused to the maxim, “a picture never lies”, that when it’s inconclusive, we’re not sure what to make of it. We were able to subvert’s people’s reading of images. Something that initially appeared to be concrete would be undermined by an alternative shot, or perhaps a revelation of new information by a character that would cause the image to be read in a new light.
We actually cast ourselves as prestigious documentary filmmakers embedding with the Palmer family over 12 moths of agonising and turbulent paranormal happenings. We didn’t want to judge or draw conclusions, just simply present what we were seeing and shown and let the viewer make up their own minds about what was happening.
Joel’s innovative script allowed for this by not prescribing any dialogue. Instead, a highly detailed treatment covered story beats and the intent of what each scene should be, it was up to the actors to get through those beats through improvising their own dialogue, usually in response to questioning from Joel.
Like a fencing match, Joel had to then tease the beats out of his documentary subjects….actors who were simply responding in-character to a documentary crew following them around. Sometimes they were hostile to questioning and sometimes they wanted to unload. You can hear Joel himself asking his characters questions in the film.
It was a fascinating conceit, to try and create a film using these techniques. Joel felt really strongly that it was also the only way to guarantee the veneer of authenticity. It also applied to the way we shot and staged the film. We went to extraordinary lengths to ensure we were authentic.
In effect, we were also characters in the film, acting in the role of a documentary film crew. We tried to make it a rule not to shoot things that wouldn’t have been possible for our fictional doco crew to have done. As often as possible we would shoot observational scenes in a single pass and without doing any blocking or rehearsals.
In an early scene with Ray Kemmeny, the parapsychologist, he has a session with one of Ararrats’s local residents (anne ?) who’s confronting a terminal illness. Ray was a sort of traveling councillor who offered a deeper insight into the possibilities of the afterlife. Practicing out of hotel rooms and spending most of his time on the road we staged him in the local motor inn without either of the actors having met each other before action was called on the scene.
In one continuos unrehearsed and unblocked scene that went for close to 20 mins we simply shot the counseling session as it happened with the actors meeting each other for the first time in-character and doing a counselling session. Shooting with a single camera there were no pickups, no extra coverage, and no take 2. We even realized during post that we had a significant hair in the gate during all of this sequence.
We decided against painting it out, which was possible to do. We thought it was further proof that we shot the scene continuously….the hair is there all the way through it.
In Joel’s mind, this was key to creating authenticity. To try to shoot scenes in an unrehearsed and even unblocked way. It was the only way to “bake in” genuine mistakes that sometimes might happen with framing and focus, not to mention awkwardness with actors and staging for camera. All these are unconscious signifiers and evidence of a real documentary and actually hard to fake when you try to create them.
We also relied on well established documentary techniques to tell the story. We could recreate events and more emotional interpretations on events that had happened in the past before our fictional documentary crew had arrived on the scene. We often used 35mm time-lapse sequences when characters were discussing events that contained some element of dread….
I deliberately limited our lighting package and crew size to mimic that of a documentary crew. I had a single focus puller, Geoff Skillbeck who also loaded and Gaffer Chris “Krispy” Dewhurst who mostly worked alone with a small VAN sized package. The occasional dolly shot was covered by grips Dean Garro and Greg Wallace who would come up for specific shots.
Given the supernatural elements that had to be created, we had to find a way to do this without it looking like a an effect at all.
The central character in the film is someone that dies before the film even starts. Our knowledge of her comes firstly from the families own re-told recollections, then her photographs and home movies. The aim was to paint picture of someone from the visual evidence she left behind. You get a snese of who she is from these disparate elements that are put together in the viewers mind. Eventually other kinds of amateur movies reveal another darker side to Alice and we’re then forced to re-examine the earlier images and how we see Alice herself.
Joel was really interested in interrogating visual images, and how the audience would view these images. He wanted to really look at what happens when you present an audience with apparent visual proofs only to then undermine it and really question what they were looking at.
But he really wanted to have the audience be troubled by the images that are presented as potential proof of the haunting of the Palmer family. As we the filmmakers tried to interrogate these images, they would frustratingly refuse to be explained and as we tried to work out what’s going on, the viewer is forced to conclude for themselves just what is real and what isn’t.
The closer you looked, the harder it would be to see what was happening. The more we’d peer into the images to try to enhance them the less conclusive they would be.
It wasn’t always easy to do this naturally and there was a lot of work and visual research done between myself and VFX supervisor Mathew Mackereth.
Subtle deceptions were employed so that images initially presented as being of one thing would look like something else when they were reprised later in the film. The audience of course assumed they were looking at the same image and with their new knowledge of the characters from film, could suddenly draw other conclusions about what they were looking at. We in fact would subtly doctor the image.
In the way footage of the Yeti and UFO’s defy deconstruction and reviewing, we wanted our found and family footage to be the same, to be credible enough to allow for both rebuttal and for the possibility that they were genuinely real.
There are over 60 VFX shots in the film, but most would hard pressed to identify which shots they were.
All these visually complex images in Lake Mungo don’t really provide answers. Deliciously ambiguous, the closer we try to examine or explain an image, the less resolved and conclusive it is.
As well as the documentary crew shooting contemporary footage of the Palmers in 2006, we also had to create a myriad of archival, family home movies, local news footage and police evidential footage. There was also a large number of still photographs that had to be created. During the very early days of development, Joel considered casting an actual family in the role of the Palmers so we’d gain access to their early family photos. I ended up designing a database in Filemaker Pro that would keep track of the different camera formats required for each scene. I even had to create the previous 5 years worth of family home movies, considering what kind of cameras the family would have had access to, making sure they looked properly aged.
Lake Mungo was shot using over 40 different cameras, with formats including 35mm, Super 16, HD, Digital beta cam, Hi8, Super 8, VHS and even mobile phones. We tried as much as possible to do it all in camera and to be low-fi.
Even during the post production phase Joel felt he needed to further degrade some of the home movie footage even further. I started by dubbing it to VHS repeatedly 6 times. ON the 7th time, we started up Complete Posts 1″ tape machine and dubbed it to that. While it was dubbing, I started yanking on the take up and feed reels of the open reel recorder machine, causing further glitches. After another couple of dubs through VHS , including one pass where I removed the tape from the cassette, crinkled it in my hand and carefully wound it back on. it was more than 10 generations old and finally to the point where it looked right !
We’d had advice from some VFX and post people that the degraded looks we wanted would be better done by shooting on a higher end formats and then treating the footage, but our early testing showed us that the only real way to get the right look was to do it all in camera. One of the most important scenes in the film was shot on a Joel’s phone mobile phone.
There were a lot of frowns when we initially said we planned to shoot using actual mobile phones, but again, testing in pre had us convinced it was the best way to go about it. We also realized that they way you hold a mobile phone to shoot with is totally different to the way you would hold a larger video camera.
We actually devised a series of tests in pre in order to work out lots of these key visual issues in the film. Would the mobile phones hold up on the big screen ? How could we find a way to create genuinely creepy images without resorting to post production and digital VFX techniques ?
It seems obvious to test for these things, and as Joel said in very early pre-production, how else could one “prototype” how to do things without testing them all the way to a film finish…
We ended up creating a test edit of about 3 mins of material of various tests. We compared different film stocks and even 35mm, Super 16 and super 8. The mobile phone material, some of our home video cameras and some of our ghost alice techniques all in a 3 minute edit of our various test shoots, including one at Lake Mungo itself.
We also used our test material to audition our post production facilities, by going to all three of the major post houses in Melbourne at the time. We graded the same material and had it all scanned and ended up with three prints form each of the vendors who all had different approaches to the scanning and grading processes. In the end we decided to go with Complete Post, principally because they had just installed the first Arri scanner in the country and because of their colourst Adrian Hauser’s diligence in trying to get the most out our material. Most of Lake Mungo would be shot using Super 16 and the arri scanner enabled us to extract every little detail of that fragile frame.
Before we had all our financing in place we started traveling to Ararat to start shooting shot of the town. Joel really wanted a sense that the doco crew had spent a considerable amount of time with the Palmer family over at least 12 months.
One way to do that would be to start building up a sort of stock library of the township and it’s surrounds as the changed with the seasons. We wanted shots in all four seasons to really be able to convince our audience that we’d been there for a long time, rather then the 25 days of principal photography in November. Joel and I would take the three hour drive to Arrarat for a weekend every month or so for about 6 months before we started principal photography. This also enabled us to have enough material to shoot a mood reel which turned out to be crucial to finalizing some of the private financing of the film.
I’m so proud of my involvement in this incredibly original and unique film. It was a challenge to make a film that wasn’t a mockumentary, but a genuine attempt to tell a story through the conceit of a documentary film. Most other films that attempt this usually break down at some point where you realise that what you’re watching is in fact a narrative. Our challenge was to sustain this over the entire film. Ideally if you saw Lake Mungo on TV late one night without knowing anything about it, you’d be convinced it was a real documentary film.
We could also use our documentary “cover” to make a virtue of our low budget and low-fi limitations and it made our film even more authentic. We wanted the audience to actually build their own narrative or truth constructed from many sources, be it a family member in interview, home movies or family photos.
Lake Mungo really does stand up to close scrutiny and is so brilliantly layered that the story can really be taken in so many directions and read in so many ways. Interestingly, the film seems to have had a lot more attention in the US than here in Australia.