Aaron Wilson on collaboration and the decade long journey of ‘Little Tornadoes’

Aaron Wilson's 'Little Tornadoes'.

Whereas Aaron Wilson’s first film, the World War II-set Canopy, examined the trauma that can come from experiencing war, his second film, Little Tornadoes, examines how that trauma then impacts subsequent generations.

Set in 1971 in rural Australia – shot on the Riverina – the writer-director’s sophomore effort follows the introverted Leo, played by Mark Leonard Winter, a steelworker at his small town’s local plant.

After his wife abandons him without explanation, leaving him to care for their two young children, he is bereft – barely able to cook a decent meal or keep the household running, while also trying to manage a connection with his war-affected father (Robert Menzies).

A recently-arrived Italian colleague suggests that his sister, Maria (Silvia Colloca), act as surrogate homemaker, and Leo reluctantly accepts.

Little Tornadoes was designed as the second film in a trilogy, with the first being Canopy, which followed a RAAF pilot in Singapore during WWII and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013.

Wilson tells IF he wanted to explore in the sequel not only intergenerational trauma within families, but how that trauma also impacts the community around it. Having grown up on the Murray River in Tocumwal, he also wanted to delve into the communication – or lack thereof – between men in country towns.

“How does that affect their connection to family? What happens when we become disconnected or unmoored from them? When our lives are fragmented, we become more isolated in a world full of space.”

‘Little Tornadoes’.

Little Tornadoes‘ journey to screen has been a long one; principal production took place back in 2009 – it was shot back-to-back with Canopy. The next decade was spent finding the final pieces of finance and tying together the story, with Wilson also producing alongside Katrina Fleming, Ian Anderson, Susan Schmidt and Christian Pazzaglia.

Using money saved from shooting commercials, Wilson would over the years return to the Riverina to do pick-ups and film vignettes that spoke to the textures of the world, like children playing under sprinklers, the harvest or Italian migrants speaking in Sicilian.

While initially anxious to complete the drama, Wilson says he ultimately realised: “It’ll take it as long as it needs to take to make the film that we need to make.”

However, he acknowledges that 10 years is a long time to sit with one story. His collaboration with other creatives, such with editor Cindy Clarkson and cinematographer Stefan Duscio, who both worked on Canopy, became vital to keep the project fresh and alive.

For Wilson, the joy of directing is in giving others space to be creative.

“It’s all about empowering people, once you’ve discussed the vision, to go off and create and then trusting in what they’re bringing.”

Duscio grew up on the other side of the Murray from Wilson in Cobram; the director went to school with the DOP’s cousins. On their drives from Melbourne to shoot, they would discuss the colours, textures and sounds from the area they wanted to celebrate.

“We wanted to create something special that spoke to our personal, intimate connection to a sense of place, and by extension, the diverse mix of people, lives and backgrounds that you see in that world. In doing so – we hope – we’re creating a country Australia that feels familiar. But it also feels like we haven’t seen this angle before in cinema.

“We were trying hard not to go for any larger-than-life characters or any obvious features of the country town.'”

A key partner in Little Tornadoes also proved to be The Slap author Christos Tsiolkas, who Wilson brought onto the project as co-writer in 2019.

Sitting in the edit suite, he was struck by a need to strengthen the film’s narration – delivered by Maria – as a parallel to Leo, and looked to find “a writer that had a more poetic grasp of language than me”.

Ultimately, he credits Tsiolkas with bringing different textures and layers to the story that wouldn’t have been there had they completed the film more quickly.

“I had the idea of this male character… he communicates through action; we get a sense of who he is and we feel for what’s going on. We understand that there’s vulnerability at play because in a lot of scenes, we see him by himself when no one’s looking.

“But at the same time, I wanted to parallel that with this voice of someone who is new to the world, who is able to communicate through words, and is able to speak to not him, but the world that she’s coming into. [If we] can understand how she sees this world, [we can] understand how he might fit into it.”

Aaron Wilson.

Little Tornadoes also sees one of Australia’s most decorated sound engineers, Robert MacKenzie – recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound for The Power of the Dog and who previously won the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing for Hacksaw Ridge – strut his stuff as a composer.

Wilson has worked with MacKenzie on all of his films, going back to his first short, Rendezvous – MacKenzie offered to score that film for Wilson as he hadn’t found a composer yet. He stuck his hand up to do the same for Little Tornadoes way back in 2013, having felt a connection to the story.

“We would have lots of discussions about the worlds we grow up in, remembering childhood and and what he really wanted to really say.”

While Little Tornadoes took 10 years to complete, Wilson feels he has only completed “the first two stages of a triathlon”, with the last stage bringing the film to market. It premiered at the hybrid Melbourne International Film Festival last year (it was financed with support from its Premiere Fund), and begins playing in cinemas today via Fan-Force.

“I’m really keen to get out and meet audiences, to do Q&As, to take it into regional areas and speak to the people that the story is really about, and discuss the issues that the film speaks of. It’s set in 1971, but it speaks very much to issues that are at play now – the background was quite a period of social change, with the women’s liberation movement taking off, the Vietnam War protests and new Australians coming. And we’ve got another period of great change. How do we adapt lest we be left behind?”

As for the third film in the trilogy, Wilson says if he was to make it, it would be set now and be more personal, while still exploring a different generation within the same family and how trauma ripples out.

“I’d want to continue exploring connection to family; the importance and necessity of family in these worlds to maintain connection and roots to your community. The thing with these worlds that I find really exciting to explore is there’s so much space in the country and it can be quite isolating. So for people who’ve been brought up to be quiet and keep their emotions inside… it’s often that physical isolation that exacerbates the emotional isolation.”

Wilson is also continuing to work with Tsiolkas, currently writing another project set in regional Australia. However, he says the film is more genre, “maybe a little more fun” and less personal than Little Tornadoes.

“All I can say is, it would be very different to this.