BEN LAWRENCE The Hearts And Bones interview

Having worked on the documentary of a more supernatural topic, filmmaker Ben Lawrence has taken his sights to a more serious reality for his directorial debut, Hearts and Bones. He recently spoke to DAVID MORGAN-BROWN about the true stories and photos that influenced his film, and about creating the right atmosphere for the film’s production and the actors working within it.

What was it that influenced you to bring this particular story to the big screen for your feature directorial debut?

Very early on, I was interested in the profession of war photography as a subject matter, and that’s where it started. It was a profession that had literally a lot of conflict, but also had a lot of, I guess, conflicting moral and ethical issues that go along with it. And then there was a dual side to the idea of having a profession like that, in that you would be in a war zone one moment and the next day you’re at home with your family. Those extremes really fascinated me. And from that, those initial thoughts grew the story of Hearts and Minds.

How was it that the script then evolved as you were writing it? What sort of research was it that you were doing?

Well, I was looking at the work of war photographers, and I was certainly familiar with it because I have a collection of photography books. And I started to look at what their lives were like, in the books that were written about them and in interviews with them, and that research took me to a number of photographs. Some of the iconic ones that I looked at were from the Vietnam War. There’s the one that was taken, I think, by Eddie Adams on the street of a man being executed.

The aftermath of that photograph, obviously there was a victim within that and the grieving of that family, there was the man who shot him and I guess the pain and the guilt that he felt for the rest of his life. And then there was the photographer who felt ethically compromised by, I guess, showing that horrific moment out to the world. That in part, I guess, had had a very strong influence on societies. ‘Do you want war as well?’ There’s another photograph from the Vietnam War of a young girl running down the road semi-naked after a village had been napalmed. And it’s these moments that I started to look at, but also question and study the aftermath of them. So that young girl grew up and she actually went on a search to find the photographer.

And from that, it was this idea of the photographer and the subject’s relationship that became really the focus of Hearts and Bones, and I built upon that idea of Hugo Weaving’s character being approached by someone he had photographed 20 years earlier on the other side of the world. That really fascinated me, taking place in the suburbs of Sydney, a rich kind of mystery thriller feel to it that eventually becomes a story about hope and family and friendship.

Were there any true life stories or actual photojournalists stands by the creation and making of this film?

Not directly. I mean, those stories I just related probably had a big influence on the film, certainly in getting more detailed research when we were making the film and working with one photographer in particular, his name’s Ron Haviv, whose work is in the film. You know, I spent a long time on the phone talking to him about taking the photographs and what it was like trying to still maintain normal life is. The film is based on a whole bunch of real life experiences, and that can be said for the war photographer, that can be said for the South Sudanese character, and also their partners and wives and family at home. I tried to speak to as many people as I could within that network of those characters in real life situations, and they informed the script certainly very heavily.

Did you receive any input from the actors at all into this film, such as any of their life stories?

Yes, yes and no. In that I think it’s naturally part of the process of working with Hugo in talking about his character in the story, you know, in initial discussions formulated some of the approach that we were taking in filming and capturing scenes. I think Andrew Luri, who played the South Sudanese character Sebastian, I really sought out his thoughts on the story and I sought out his take on how the character might act, what the character might wear.

Even when we’re in the domestic setting of their kitchen, we talked about ‘would these things be on the wall? How would this room be decorated?’ So depending on what we were doing at the time, I was always seeking out what they thought about authenticity and did it feel right. And so that was my relationship with all the actors and they were very open to that, which was really supportive as well.

Were there any challenges that arose for you for your directorial debut, particularly ones that you didn’t expect?

I’ve made a documentary prior and also worked within factual TV and that really set me up for, which I found far more challenging, to be honest, than working with in a drama setting, which is far more controllable, and you have a lot more support of the people you’re working with. But certainly the chaos that comes from working in documentary is very handy in creating an atmosphere where a non-actor like Luri could work. And also it created enough space, I hoped, for the actors to bring a spontaneity and authenticity to their performances.

I think the pace in which drama films is something that’s very challenging. A documentary is obviously a much slower, long process. But I think that’s probably the thing that … I was very happy with the preparation that I’d done and also my involvement in the script as well made me very prepared. So it put me in good stead. I think I had a very supportive crew cast that, if that wasn’t the case, it would have been far more challenging.

What was the meaning behind the title of the film?

The title of the film comes from a Paul Simon song, which my dad suggested as a title, actually. So it was something that came very early on and for me, it took on many different meanings. But certainly the idea of trauma being something that’s of the head and the heart kind of relates to the title in that way. I think the film from our experience of showing it to audiences, a very emotional experience, and I think the human condition of being something that sits between our analytical thought and our emotional thought in how we navigate through life is reflected in the characters’ stories as well.

This may be a pretty up in the air time for filmmaking, but do you have any plans now for your next film or project?

I don’t. I’m looking to develop a TV series about Ghosthunter, which is my documentary from a couple of years ago. So that’s something that I’m developing at the moment. But apart from that, it is a time at the moment of researching, writing. So filming and going out and doing any productions is just off the cards for the moment. But writing, it’s certainly a perfect time for that.

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