Director Joseph Sims-Dennett on writing Observance as therapy

Joseph Sims-Dennett's feature Observance has been steadily building buzz since it premiered at Fantasia Film Festival last year.

The reception has been everything a young director in his 20's would want from a first film – only Observance isn't.

Way back in 2009, when Sims-Dennett was nineteen, he was a film student at Griffith in Queensland, working part time as a bookkeeper for Subway.

After "going and talking to some of our clients", the tyro filmmaker was able to assemble a budget of $100,000 for his first feature, Bad Behaviour.

After dropping out of film school, which the director found "too theory based", he moved to Sydney and worked for an ad company doing TVCs, shadowing directors on "massive shoots. You learn a lot in terms of how they compress shooting periods and knock things over really quickly".

At the agency, Sims Dennett also met Josh Zammit, the co-screenwriter of Observance. The two jumped ship at around the same time.

"The dream was to make another feature film, not shooting KFC ads. As much money as they pay you, it felt with ads that I was going down this dark road", Sims-Dennett said. 

"It changes your lifestyle, and I thought – I'm young enough to be a poor piece of crap, so I'm going to go and be poor".

In November 2012, Zammit moved into Sims-Dennett's apartment in Rozelle. Both found themselves suddenly unemployed, and decided to make a movie over the summer – "something easy and simple, that we could use as a creative outlet".

The pair gravitated to the nearby Callan Park, Lilyfield's abandoned mental hospital.

"we would walk through at night and break in. Josh had a tape recorder and we would just talk to each other, it was almost like therapy". 

"It ended up becoming this metaphor for how we felt about our lives, and trying to be filmmakers. We were working so hard and giving it everything we could, but couldn't have been further away from achieving it".

The duo started writing in November 2012 – "we always write in the same room, me on the laptop, Josh sat in the corner going mad and me typing it into the computer" – and were in pre-production the week before Christmas.

Pre-production consisted of Sims-Dennett calling people on Christmas day.

"We knew a lot of people we could pull favours from. That came from our experience working in TVCs".

Rodrigo-Vidal Dawson came onboard as DOP, and the production hired an Alexa through VA – the shoot's main expense, according to Sims-Dennett.

Lindsay Farris, who had starred in Bad Behaviour, was cast as the film's unravelling lead character, and the shoot lasted eleven days, from January 2 to January 13, 2013.

The production didn't have a first AD, which meant the director was trying to schedule on the hoof.

"I scheduled the first half of the shoot, and I thought I'd schedule the second half of the shoot in the evenings but we ended up doing 17-18 hour days every single day".

"I remember I was getting one and a half hours of sleep a night, and going absolutely mad. So it reached the halfway point in the shoot and I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn't find the mental capacity to sit and figure out how we were going to finish the film". 

The director was saved by one day in which temperatures soared – "fifty degrees in the apartment" – and the crew was forced to down tools.

Lead actor Farris, production manager Riley Mansfield and Sims-Dennett retreated to the pub around the corner and nutted out the schedule on the spot.

After a year cutting on Final Cut – with TVC editor Charles Ivory, in his kitchen on his days off – the director spent five months on the sound, which was done by Wild Blue in Brisbane.  

The grade was completed in around sixteen days by colourist Brad Crawford, a part-time lecturer at SAE in Sydney.

Since premiering to raves at Fantasia, Observance has picked up completion funding from Screen Australia.

Before that top-up, the budget of Sims-Dennett's second film came in a long way short of his first – around $18,000.

Observance was co-produced by Farris, Alice Collins, Clare Collins, Stephanie King, Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson, and EP'd by Zammit, Sims-Dennett and Raquelle David.

Umbrella is giving the film a limited release in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide this April.