With short film Neon Skin

BY GRANT SCICLUNA

Director Grant Scicluna on the set of ‘Neon Skin’. Image: Brent Lukey

It’s been a busy time lately, in post-production on two short films and writing another, and it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. Sometimes it’s good to just drop everything and revisit the films that are completed, and see them in front of a new audience to be reminded of why we go through all the hard work.

It’s exciting to have Neon Skin screen in My Queer Career as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival. This festival has a place in my heart — my first film Discomfort had one and only one screening (it was a dubiously strange film), and that was in this festival, so to come back years later with Neon Skin feels like a progression.

When we learnt that we were Melbourne Queer Film Festival’s nomination for the Orlando Short Film Award, we were absolutely thrilled. Getting on the plane to head to Sydney for the announcement filled me with pride but also a large dose of nerves. The folks in the Queer Film community are tremendously supportive of one another, and it feels like going to a giant and sincere ‘love in’ when we all get together at festivals like this.

On the trip, nursing a small hangover and hoping this red-eye flight wouldn’t translate literally, I began to think back over the journey of Neon Skin… Some time ago we were given a roll of 35mm film stock that was not exposed on a feature film, and told that we should make a film out of it. We had around 10 minutes of night-exposure stock to play with. I went away and thought about what I could do with it, and Neon Skin was born. At the time, I was fascinated by the cross-pollination of the senses; that you could describe colours with taste and smells, or vice versa. One night I walked past the Crown Casino in Melbourne, with its famous flame show, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s hot and beautiful at the same time’, and it occurred to me that I could set my film down on the banks of the Yarra River, and make a film that was a sensual encounter between two young men — one who could see, and one who was blind. I knew I wanted the blind guy to show his friend something ‘new’ about himself — the way he sees his body, and perhaps even his sexuality.

We made the film in one night. I remember it was a very hot January night, and there was a total fire ban in place, which meant the flame show wouldn’t go on, and effectively we had no film. It was a disaster, because we’d hired all the equipment and planned everything. Luckily Melbourne, being Melbourne, decided it would save me from my sinking disaster, and it opened the heavens. You can see the rain in the opening shot, and as they say in show business, ‘the show went on.’

In the film world, there’s a thing called ‘the ratio’ which shows how much film you exposed in comparison to the length of the film. Ratios vary according to budget — someone like Kubrick could work at a ratio of 100:1. I had a ratio of 2:1. This meant I could only have a maximum of two takes for everything. Our crew was so experienced and brilliant though, and my friends, Luke Mullin and Martin Sharpe playing Sam and Dale, nailed the tone and spirit so well that we got there. After a long night, by 6am we had a film in the can.

With the generosity of post-production house Deluxe in Melbourne, we were able to keep our film on film (like a real film!) and screen a 35mm print around the world. We have screened the film as far as Valetta, Copenhagen, Bern, Bangalore, Michigan, Singapore, Byron Bay, Sydney and, of course, our home town, Melbourne. It inspires me that a short film like Neon Skin can connect with audience of all walks of life through its simple message of learning to see yourself through your own eyes, not through the way you think others see you.

Hearing the words ‘Neon Skin’ as the winner I will never forget. I was so excited coming down the steps that I tripped — how graceful. Winning the Orlando means so much to me, and my team. We were thrilled at the nomination, but to take out the award while standing alongside such wonderful filmmakers in co-nomination was unbelievable. That we will now work with the NFSA to preserve the film into the national collection is the sweetest part of the prize. I have long thought that the work of the NFSA is so important, and now I will learn the processes of film preservation, and my film will be available to the coming generations to view as it was intended.

My Director of Photography, Franc Biffone, is so moved at the thought that his children can pull Neon Skin out in 50 years time and watch a film that their dad shot. It moves me too.

I want to thank the NFSA, and the staff and judges behind the Orlando Award. This is a special award for the Queer community, and it means so much to be awarded it.