Alex Russell, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ star James Hoare lead ‘Picture Wheel’

James Hoare in 'Picture Wheel'.

After graduating from WAAPA in 2007, actor turned writer-director David O’Donnell moved to Sydney, where he met NIDA student Alex Russell through another actor friend, Ande Cunningham.

The trio has been working together ever since, forming their own company, Five Lip Films, with two of Russell’s fellow NIDA students, James Elliot and Sarah-Jane McAllan.

All five are in development on their own projects. Last year Cunningham directed short film Oranges Don’t Grow on Trees, featuring Russell and Sarah Snook. 

“Our tastes really do contrast quite a bit, generally,” says O’Donnell. “We don’t agree on most films. Even the name we couldn’t agree on (laughs).” 

The group finally settled on Five Lip Films (after a stint as Rockpool Films) because “it was five of us giving each other lip, disagreeing with each other.” 

Their latest project is Picture Wheel, a short written and directed by O’Donnell, produced by O’Donnell, Russell and Tom Fox-Davies, and starring Russell and James Hoare (the upcoming Picnic at Hanging Rock redo).

“The film is essentially set in an alternate reality where mental baggage is worn literally about one’s head,” O’Donnell tells IF. 

“The first concept of the film was a hobo dragging a cart full of old memories down the street, like they were old cans and bits of hub caps. Aesthetically, I liked that idea and it basically built [the short] from there.”

The filmmaker knew he wanted to make the literal representation of mental baggage clunky and “not high-tech at all.”

“Part of the original idea was thinking about memory as sort of clutter that we hold on to; memories that seem so important but they’re probably not and they can get in the way of living everyday life. I wanted it to be this sort of steampunk, comical representation of memory and mental baggage.”

The short was financed by Five Lip, and “we got friends to chuck in”, says the director.

Starting work on the short in June last year, O’Donnell was aware the film would be “art-heavy”, and that he needed to find a production designer who could do it for the (measly) budget.

“Someone mentioned this girl who had worked on this project where she’d built this leaning house. I was like, okay, like a model? And they were said no, like an actual leaning house. So they showed me this video of this house that was mechanically leaning and it was incredible.”

The designer, 27-year-old Carly Larson, showed the script for Picture Wheel to her LA production company, BLK&Ginger, which swiftly came on board as a production partner. 

Three weeks out from shoot, Russell, who had grown a moustache for upcoming firefighting drama Granite Mountain, in which he stars with Miles Teller and Jeff Bridges, had to step out of the lead role. 

“This was no ordinary moustache,” recalls O’Donnell. “This was a bushy 70s porn moustache, and he had to keep it, there was no way around it. So we recast.”

The filmmakers turned to James Hoare, with whom Russell had worked on AMC pilot Galyntine in 2014. 

O’Donnell and DP George Su shot on the AMIRA over three days, with locations in downtown LA and outside the city limits.

“We didn’t have a budget to get permits and stuff, but I worked out that if you go outside the quote-unquote LA County limits, those areas are happy to have you shoot there,” says O’Donnell. 

“So we went to a place called Riverside to shoot the exteriors. But given the location for two of the days was a little way off, it was a tight schedule.” 

Picture Wheel is O’Donnell’s second short, but the first shot in LA. The city has its logistical challenges, he tells IF.

“One day we rocked up to one of the permitted locations and there was a massive construction site there. In the end we actually made it work for us with some creative solutions from Alex which I won’t mention.” 

Another roadblock emerged when the production ventured to downtown to shoot, and the landlord who had agreed to let the crew shoot in his building got cold feet. “I had to go in and basically do a one-man show and let them know it was going to be safe and all good,” says O’Donnell.

In post for around four months, Picture Wheel premiered last Friday at California’s Academy-accredited Cinequest Festival.  

Next up for O’Donnell is surfer crime pic Sons of Salt, aiming for a late-year start, and romantic drama Under My Skin, shortlisted for the 2016 Cinestory Fellowship.

Picture Wheel is a Grant Larson Productions, BLK&Ginger, and Five Lip Films production.