Amiel Courtin-Wilson probes birth, death and everything in between in ‘The Empyrean’

Claire Collins in ‘The Empyrean.’

After three years in the making, Amiel Courtin-Wilson is getting ready to shoot the two remaining scenes of the most ambitious, bold and adventurous film of his career.

Titled The Empyrean, the multi-platform work defies easy categorisation. The writer-director variously describes the film as a tragic love story with elements of fantasy and psychological horror, a sensory assault, a visceral experience and an exploration of the fear of intimacy.

Shot in a highly unconventional style, the film blends observational documentary with a scripted narrative as the subjects’ real lives and experiences are fed into the narrative.

It was filmed mostly in Oklahoma City, a place to which Courtin-Wilson was drawn for its native American population, high crime rate and unemployment.

DoP Germain McMicking shot a staggering 500-plus hours of footage – a mixture of actuality, scripted and experimental visuals. McMicking worked on the filmmaker’s previous films Hail and Ruin, the documentary Bastardy, The Silent Eye and the short Cicada.

The medium-budget production was funded by Screen Australia, Film Victoria and the US co-producer John Baker, whose credits include Julius Onah’s upcoming drama Luce, which stars Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Tim Roth; Matthew Ross’s crime mystery Frank & Lola, which featured Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots; and Tim Sutton’s Dark Night and Memphis.

Curious Film will release in Australian cinemas, probably after the film commences its international festival run. The director’s agent UTA will manage the US rights while a sales agent for the rest of the world is yet to appointed.

Courtin-Wilson and fellow producer Freeman Trebilcock are talking to various museums in Australia and internationally to arrange a video installation of a different version of the film, which will follow the theatrical release.

The leads are played by Claire Collins, whom he found after a casting call in Oklahoma City, and Odin Volkov and Jesse Griffin, best friends whom he met at 1 am at a 7-Eleven store in that city.

When he discovered Claire is an indigenous Canadian who teaches poetry to female inmates in an Oklahoma jail, he incorporated that angle into the narrative. Many of the characters are drawn from the wrong side of the tracks, including a serial killer and a hitch-hiking telepath.

The two scenes he is yet to film highlight the film’s visceral nature. One is a baby’s birth, which he will film in extreme slow motion. The other is the moment of a person’s death, which would be captured by a thermal imaging camera placed in the ceiling. He is talking to hospices about filming the death scene, which would depict the heat leaving the deceased’s body. Already filmed is the cremation of a human body.

The film’s title is a reference to the final canto of Dante’s Paradise, meaning the non-physical realm of pure light and love beyond time and space.

He is assembling a crack team for post-production including sound designer Robert Mackenzie (who won the Oscar for best achievement in sound mixing on Hacksaw Ridge, shared with Andy Wright, Peter Grace and Kevin O’Connell), French composer Nicolas Becker (who was foley artist on major Hollywood films including Gravity and Beauty and the Beast) and editors Peter Sciberras and Luca Cappelli.

Marie-Hélène Dozo, a frequent collaborator with the Dardenne brothers, is serving as a consultant editor.

Courtin-Wilson tells IF: “I see The Empyrean as a natural extension of my previous work. It is a tragic love story combined with potent mythical imagery and an operatic, impressionistic tone. The film is a deeply moving meditation on the body, the cycle of life and the universal need for compassion, love and intimacy.”