SxSW 2021 Interview – THE MOOGAI director Jon Bell

THE MOOGAI is an Australian Aboriginal psychological horror about a young couple who have to face a malevolent spirit that wants to take their newborn baby. The themes deal with Australia’s “Stolen Generations”, as well as the ways in which trauma jumps from parent to child and lastly Post Natal Depression. In the tradition of GET OUT and ROSEMARY’S BABY, this film examines the creeping fear of being stalked and the desperate attempt to escape when the truth is revealed.  Having its International Premiere in the Midnight Shorts section at SxSW Online 2021, we speak with filmmaker Jon Bell on THE MOOGAI. 

Welcome to SxSW and congratulations! Is this your first SxSW experience?

Thank you, it is my first SXSW experience. It’s actually my first American Festival experience. Which is perfect because SXSW is such an interesting festival, delving into different storytelling mediums and exploring storytelling in a number of ways. I’m bummed that I can’t attend. I have never been to Austin, but everyone raves about the music and food. And I am a huge Robert Rodriguez fan.

How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send THE MOOGAI into the festival?

I honestly can’t remember where I first heard about the festival but I feel like I have always known about it. There are certain festivals that get talked about constantly and SXSW seems to be one of those. Maybe that is because it is such a celebration of storytelling in a way that no other big film festival really is. SXSW seemed like a logical place for our film to go, because the audiences are open to new forms and new perspectives. There haven’t been a lot of Aboriginal Australian films that have gone out into the world so SXSW seemed like the right place to go. It also helps that Texas has a substantial Latin American population as I think THE MOOGAI will appeal to Latino and Native American audiences. Being so culturally similar to Aboriginal Australians.

Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!

I had mainly worked as a TV writer in Australia for the last decade and I really wanted to make something that was similar to the stuff I watched as a kid, which was a lot of Sci-fi and Horror. Get back to the kind of filmmaking that involves, special effects, prosthetics, visual effects, interesting lighting effects. Not just two people talking about other people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of drama, but I wanted to get into filmmaking that you can get your hands on. I also wanted to show I could handle those kinds of elements along with tension and building an atmosphere and create a story with real stakes. There were a few subjects I wanted to explore about Aboriginal existence. The first one was the ‘Stolen Generations’, which referred to a period when Australia had the ‘White Australia’ policy in effect. The White Australia policy focused on making Australia completely white or more specifically western European. There were two prongs of attack, one, not letting any people of colour or non-western Europeans into the country and the other was “breeding out the blacks”. One of the main ways the government tried to do that was the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. My family has stories about “the man in the black car” coming to take the children, but we either moved around constantly, hid on rural properties (of sympathetic white people) or tried to be pillars of the community so that there were no excuses to have children taken as the reason given was usually ‘neglect’. It became this catch-all way of removing children. And the fear of having children taken has metastasized and made its way into our culture. Our young women are still very much on their guard when going into hospitals to give birth. The fear is still very present. It haunts us. And that naturally translated into a story about a young family being haunted by a malevolent spirit that wants to take their children. And although I was coming from a specific place, the fear of children going missing is a universally human fear. 

I had already worked this story up a little bit, to where I had the basic journey of the film down. And when it was brought to the Producers, the plan was initially to develop the feature script to be my debut feature. Then we decided to make the short as a Proof Of Concept and were supported by Screen Australia to do this. That led to this situation where I was kind of developing both the short and the feature script at the same time. A completely fresh experience and it really benefited both versions. Characters that developed in the feature made their way back into the short, and in order for some elements of the short to work, I had to figure out the story functions, and I could do that in the feature. So there wasn’t any material going to waste. All the narrative mechanisms were incorporated in a version.

Getting it made was a bit tricky. We had a few knockbacks but the Producers were always confident that we would get there and they just kept telling me we were making it no matter what. That kind of support from the team keeps it alive. And in turn I wanted to pay that support back by being as prepared as I could, so I storyboarded as thoroughly as I could. Then I went back and forth with the DOP Sean Ryan and main cast Shari Sebbens and Meyne Wyatt, so that we were all on the same page when we got on set. I’ve known the main cast for about a decade so we had a shorthand. And all of the children were my grandchildren, nieces and nephews so I had a shorthand with them as well. We managed to get it all shot in a bit over four days so we were going hard at it but all the preparation held us in good stead.

Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this project?

For this film I really drew on the work of David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick. I wanted to get the feeling of dread into the film, so we opened with an establishing shot that keeps holding and hopefully the audience go from getting their bearings to finding the rhythm of the film, to almost feeling as though they’re peering in on this family. And from then on we wanted to stay locked step with our main character. Fifteen minutes is not a long time to be able to tell as much story as I wanted to tell. And take these characters as far as I wanted to take them. That was the Fincher component, trying to zero in on a character the way he does. And the Kubrick part of the equation was trying to maintain the detachment, observing the character’s slow descent into her greatest fear and maintaining a sense of dark destiny. And both Fincher and Kubrick are masters of tone and pacing. I think if you can get somewhat of a handle on that, then you’re telling the story in the right way.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?

We shot anamorphic, that’s about as technical as I got. Sean and I kept most of our conversations about composition and intent really. I trusted him to recreate a feel he’d done on another short film and he did. To be honest we didn’t really have any overly challenging creative issues. The Producers put such a talented and experienced team around me that I basically just had to communicate. And with our reasonably tight schedule, all the prep we had done really saved us when we were on set.  

Being all virtual this year, what do you hope to get out of the virtual SxSW experience? And where is your project going next?

I’m just interested to hear people’s thoughts about the film. I am very interested to see the other shorts as this is my first international experience. I’ve written a couple of drafts of the feature version of The Moogai and I’ve come up with an exciting version of the monster, something that people haven’t really seen before. It’s new and unique, the world hasn’t seen an Australian Aboriginal Horror story or monster before. I think it’s the kind of creature that will translate to audiences around the world but particularly SE Asian, African and Latin American and Native American audiences.

What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

Covid has forced us to be more disconnected and that’s made us realize how much we value and need our connections. And I think forcing us all online in order to connect has helped film. We were already bingeing long form storytelling through SVOD. It’s a natural step that those same audiences will start trying to get closer to the source. And that’s through film festivals and particularly Short Films. Audiences are so narrative savvy that the best way for them to see new stories is through Shorts. Where filmmakers can try more unconventional material, not quite experimental but certainly there’s a correlation between budgets and risk.

If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?

It has never been a better time for being a filmmaker. We are basically at the point where creators make content for themselves and then let it seed into the internet and grow as it finds its own light and nourishment. The audience can speak directly back to you. The controlling paradigm has shifted from trying to connect to trying to filter and we still haven’t really understood that. Learn the language of cinema and then go do. Put it out into the world and see if anything comes back. There’s a good chance that like-minded individuals will want to connect. And if not, chalk it up to the ten thousand hour rule. You’re just learning your craft. 

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

I’ve always loved Taika Waititi’s TWO CARS, ONE NIGHT. Such a sweet but honest perspective from the characters.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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