Exclusive: Camera d’Or winner Michael Rowe

Michael RoweIn this exclusive interview, Camera d’Or-winning Australian expat director Michael Rowe talks about his career in Mexico, and how the lack of a treaty or MoU with that country might make production of his next project more difficult.

“It would seem logical [for Screen Australia] to take advantage of this level of international exposure. I spoke to them on the very first day in Cannes, and that was before the award, so maybe now it’s a different story. I have to talk to them again,” Rowe told Encore.

His new script is a story about an Australian expat living in Mexico City.

“[Head of development] Martha Coleman was very enthusiastic about the whole thing. [Head of production investment] Ross Matthews was a little less enthusiastic because he has to deal with the harsh realities of legal agreements.

“He said it could be done theoretically, that it would be a huge amount of work and, unless there’s a clear significant Australian content, I’d be better off getting funds from someone who already has a co-production agreement,” explained Rowe.

That is why Rowe, who won the Camera d’Or for his first feature Año Bisiesto (Leap Year) last Sunday, is in Paris to talk to French producers about his new script, a story France does have a bilateral co-production agreement with Mexico, in addition to the Fonds Sud, a fund to support production in developing nations.

Australia has claimed the formerly unknown director as ‘our Michael’, but little is known about him other than a few biographical details sourced by wire services.

Conversing in both English and Spanish with the editor of Encore, Miguel Gonzalez, Rowe shared some details about the long and unusual road that took him to Cannes.

At 22, Ballarat-born Rowe wanted to enrol in the Victorian College of the Arts’ film program. He enquired about the enrolment process, and the person he spoke to unknowingly helped change the path of Rowe’s life.

“The person that I spoke to said ‘forget it, you’re too young; don’t even bother applying, they won’t take you because they always take people in their late 20s who have been working in the industry for a few years. Go and live life and come back later’. That was the advise,” recalled Rowe.

And so he did. He moved to Mexico City 16 years ago and, after spending some time teaching English, he started a career in journalism with one of the few English-language publications, The News.

“I covered a premiere of a film that came out of the [film school] Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica. It was La Orilla de la Tierra, directed by Nacho Ortiz. At the premiere I met some people from the CCC and they said ‘you should come and study at the CCC’.

“I was not interested in directing; to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but they said a new screenwriting course was due to open the following year. I stayed in touch, and when the course opened I applied and wrote the admission essay – god only knows how -in Spanish,” said Rowe.

Rowe did the course and graduated. He decided he was not going to write another script until his thesis project Naturalezas Muertas was filmed.

“I didn’t want to direct, because I felt that directors need to be good at planning, yelling, and a whole other set of skills. I had no trouble finding directors and producers who wanted to do my script, but finding one who was good was difficult.

“Ten years and many directors and producers later, it was very frustrating. I was 37 and I said to myself, ‘it’s about time that you did something about this, because otherwise it’s just not going to happen’.”

Rowe received a writing scholarship from the federal screen agency Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia (IMCINE). He used the $120,000 pesos (A$11,175 at today’s exchange rate) and bought an HD camera, a plasma screen and a new computer to do the editing.

He agreed with his then-wife that she would become the main income earner for a year, while he got the project up. Rowe quit his job editing the airline magazines Vuelo and Loop and the Mexican edition of Endless Vacation, and wrote the Año Bisiesto script, with the idea of directing and producing it for the lowest possible budget.

“I didn’t have any money, so I thought two people and one room would be ideal. I also needed to make money somehow, but my own sensibility is kind of Bergmanish, with lots of interiors and psychological transitions, which is not the stuff that makes it at the Mexican box office.

“I wondered, ‘how the hell can I get a mass Mexican audience to sit still for 90 minutes, watching two talking heads in a room? I know, SEX! That will do it’. So I wrote this script that is based on a sadomasochistic relationship,” explained Rowe.

But things were not easy. Rowe’s equipment was stolen from his house, and his producer decided to move to India – but not without putting him in touch with a friend who might be interested in the project.

“I’d written a very anti-commercial script, there were absolutely no concessions to an audience at all. It was what I wanted to do and I didn’t care, because I was going to produce it and I didn’t have to please anyone. It wasn’t a script that I thought would interest any producer, much less a Mexican producer.

“But I met Edher Campos and he said he wanted to do it. ‘I’ll call you’, he said, and he disappeared for about four months. I finally called him, wanting to make it official, the fact that he didn’t have the money and he wasn’t going to produce it, so I could look for someone else. But he actually said ‘I’m glad you called, I’ve got the money’:

The U$600,000 film was privately financed. It didn’t get production support from IMCINE, although it did receive completion funding weeks before the Cannes screening.

“It was obvious that it was a very difficult script and most of the professional screenwriters that I knew in Mexico hated it,” said Rowe. “State funding is a wonderful and necessary thing, and it makes films much better, but it also has its inherent drawbacks because it’s bureaucratic, and if you didn’t make it through the convocatoria (call for entries), then you don’t get it.”

The scenario described by Rowe is not dissimilar to what happens in Australia. Both countries suffer the same problems: a low share of the box office for local films, scarce financing options and limited government funding, as well as issues with distributors and exhibitors and a divide between art house and commercial production.

A good example is Año Bisiesto, which still doesn’t have a distributor in its native country. But Rowe is hopeful that the visibility gained at Cannes – and potential controversy over its explicit sexual content – might help the film find an audience there.

“You never know. El Crimen del Padre Amaro (2003 Foreign language nominee The Crime of Father Amaro) was a big hit, because it had the catholic church apparatus behind it. They hated it and they said so publicly, which was very kind of them. I don’t think that will happen with mine because they’re probably learned the lesson,” joked Rowe.

Rowe will return to Mexico next week.


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