Observance director on Fantasia premiere and rejection by local distribs

Director Joseph Sims-Dennett and star Lindsay Farris.

Filmmaker Joseph Sims-Dennett describes his second feature, Observance, as "a surrealist horror art film".

Sims-Dennett and his friend and co-screenwriter Josh Zammit decided to make the film, which stars Lindsay Farris and John Jarratt, after leaving the same commercials agency.

The result is a film that's "a metaphor for the anxiety that Josh and I were feeling back when we lost our jobs".

"It's about about a character who feels as though there's this invisible force that's manipulating him and almost possessing him".

Observance was shot in eleven days, in the middle of a sweltering Sydney summer.

"It was such a mad shoot, and it did translate in the images", Sims-Dennett said. 

The director also credits the sound design done by Brisbane company Wild Blue as intrumental in establishing the film's "sense of anxiety and dread".

The filmmaking team knew they wanted to take the film overseas first, and had plenty of offers from festivals before landing on Fantasia.

"We're all aware that if you do drum up some noise overseas, everybody in Australia takes notice. Media in Australia just ignore you if you haven't gotten that approval overseas first".

Before the film's debut, Sims-Dennett tried to elicit interest from local distributors, to no avail.

"Everyone told me to fuck off, essentially. Partly it's that they're all really busy people, but it's also about the festivals [that are] acknowledged by Screen Australia".

The likes of Fantasia and Slamdance may not cut it for the national screen body, but are "really significant particularly for making sales and getting noticed", especially next to the behemoths like Toronto where smaller films can be buried amid all the noise, Sims-Dennett said.

The filmmaker ended up selling before the film's premiere to Shoreline, who promptly sold North American rights to boutique company Artsploitation Films

That may have been premature, as the film has only gained in buzz since its first screening.

"We premiered on Sunday, had an encore on the Wednesday, then on Friday had a [positive] review from The Hollywood Reporter, and that review went everywhere. That's the reason the Weinstein company contacted me". 

Sims-Dennett promptly flew to LA to meet with agencies, followed by New York to meet TWC's head of acquistions.

"So many people. There are lots of Vanessas in the film industry", the writer-director tells IF drily.

"It was really bizarre how suddenly all these people knew who we were, because we're just these idiots who made a film in Rozelle, in our own apartment". 

When the film screened at BFI's London Film Festival, the director was approached by distributors for foreign territories, but couldn't afford the $15,000 that Shoreline wanted for deliverables and to cover E&O insurance.

In a panic, Sims-Dennett called Australian producer Raquelle David, who helped him apply to Screen Australia for completion funding, which has been "lifesaving".

Only in his mid-20's, Sims-Dennett namechecks Platon Theodoris' Alvin's Harmonious World of Opposites as the kind of Australian film he's excited by, as opposed to certain government-funded films which "look like they've been through the same filter". 

He is currrently in the thick of research for his next project, which he hopes to shoot mid-year.

Observance's US release is still being worked out by Artsploitation, who may opt give the film its American premiere (Fantasia is in Montreal) at a festival.

In Australia, Umbrella is giving the film a limited run in cinemas in April before home entertainment release in June.

* Part 2 of IF's interview with Joseph Sims-Dennett. Part 1 is here.