With Free in Deed producer Georgina Conder as moderator, Jake Mahaffy shared some of his philosophy towards micro-budget filmmaking, with specific reference to his work on Free in Deed.
Having delivered the world premiere to Venice, Mahaffy left the festival with the Best Film gong in the festival’s Orrizonti (Horizons) selection.
The film has been a while coming, as is often the way with projects without funding or studio support. In Free in Deed’s case, it’s been coming for 11 years and was made “for around the budget of an Escalator film ($250,000)”, plus additional post support once the film had been invited to Venice.
It picked up a number of small grants along the way, Mahaffy said, following its acceptance into the Sundance Lab. A “poetic reinterpretation of real events”, the version that went into the Sundance Lab was “a white version”.
“It was good,” Mahaffy said, “but the more I found out about the actual events it became clear it wasn’t going to work.”
Free in Deed is Mahaffy’s first feature with a producer or, indeed, with any kind of real crew.
“I love input and friction but I don’t need to hand it over,” Mahaffy explained. “I have a visual narrative interpretation of what the story should be and a strong visual plan.
“I shoot my own work because I know what it should look like. I do whatever I have to do in the edit to preserve the meaning but I can’t stand a crappy shot.”
Mahaffy spoke at some length about what he shot and didn’t shoot.
“I’m interested in character but I’m more interested in the negative space between characters,” he said, calling his sense of composition as photojournalistic.
“Keep the camera up” was a point he repeated. “I don’t want to shoot ass.”
Mahaffy also didn’t want people eating or phone calls or shot-reverse shot constructions. “It slows it down.”
He was much more interested in finding a balance between explicit and inferred narrative, in treating an audience as if they had enough intelligence to understand without being spoonfed. Mahaffy also acknowledged that his approach meant his films would have a limited appeal – but (with or without festival accolades) that was OK because Mahaffy’s first audience was himself. “I make films I want to see.”
He acknowledged that he wasn’t the world’s greatest optimist. His reaction to his film achieving festival selection was, “It can’t be worse than the worst film they selected.”
Mahaffy found writing the hardest part of the filmmaking process. “I think thematically rather than in cause and effect and arcs. As long as there’s a change or reveal in a scene it’s a cinematic narrative,” he said, before acknowledging that he come to a better understanding of the use of cause and effect at Sundance Labs.
Given the length of time Mahaffy spends in development, it’s not surprising he has a number of ideas advancing simultaneously.
“I have about 12 unfinished films at this point,” he noted, as well as other projects including installations with Alyx Duncan (The Red House) and Niu Han (upcoming Land of Nobody).
Mahaffy also said he makes “little shorts just to keep myself amused”. One of those “little shorts”, AD1363: the End of Chivalry played Sundance this year and will play here next month in Show Me Shorts.
Free in Deed will next play in the American Film Institute (AFI) competition, but is unlikely to play here for some time – possibly in next year’s NZIFF. Going forward, Mahaffy said he’d like to scale back production (from a crew of up to 12 on the shoot for Free in Deed). One of a couple of ideas – one contemporary, one a period piece – is likely to be his next feature.