Ben Young is one of Perth’s most recent success stories. After years of directing commercials and children’s TV, he got his break last year with the directorial debut Hounds of Love, a Perth made suburban horror which went onto international acclaim and scored Young the gig of directing Hollywood sci-fi thriller Extinction (to be released on Netflix later this year). Pelican Film Editor Finnian Williamson spoke to Young about how to carve out a film career in Perth, what it’s like directing on a Hollywood set and why you need the drive to make movies more than the person sitting next to you.
I saw that you started out as an actor in your teens but found it frustrating finding roles and turned to directing. Do you think this acting experience helped you become a better director?
Yes, significantly. Part of the reason I got frustrated being an actor was because I didn’t like the way directors were speaking to me. They weren’t communicating clearly and they didn’t allow me to bring any of my own process to it, and I didn’t feel like it was very collaborative. As a result I never felt like I was doing the best performance that I was capable of. I did a degree in film, and was still acting, so that’s where part of the frustration came from. So I thought, oh, maybe I could do this directing, I’ll just talk to actors in the way I wish I was spoken to.
You studied film at Curtin University then WAAPA’s Screen Academy. Would you recommend this pathway to Perth film students, or any other ways?
No-ones journey is the same. There’s not a bunch of boxes you can tick then you’ll have a career. For me, that worked, but I think the thing that worked most about it is that the entire time I was at both film schools, I was making my own stuff. So every weekend I was taking out gear and shooting music videos or teaming up with WAAPA actors at Screen Academy and shooting scenes on the weekend. I was also doing the Perth Actors Workshop where I was shooting scenes, so, film school’s good because obviously I did learn stuff, but the best thing about it for me was the access to the gear. I could get hundreds of thousands of dollars of gear for nothing and also meeting like-minded people. I’m still working with people I went to Curtin with to this day.
Do you find that to be a misconception, that a degree will get a film student a jo?
I don’t know. I think a lot of film students think tragedy’s cool. They like the idea of being the poor struggling artist but don’t become proactive in seeking a career out. No-one’s going to give you a job because you’ve got a degree, it’s just not going to happen. You’ve got to make your own stuff. The other thing I was doing whilst I was at film school was already applying for artist grants from Screenwest, so you’ve got to be proactive. And I think the best time to do that is when you’re a student, because your living expenses are cheaper, and I only had 12 contact hours at Curtin, so why not use the rest of that time? It’s easier to make your own stuff in many ways as a film student then when you’re out in the real world.
Obviously a common move by Perth creatives is to travel over east. Do you find that Perth has a lot to offer over Melbourne and Sydney?
Yes. To put in perspective, off the top of my head I can’t think of any other film-maker from Perth who has left Perth and then made a film. The simple thing is that everybody has the idea they’ve got to’ leave the little place and go to the big place’, be it Sydney or Melbourne. And every film student from around the country flocks there and they want the same thing, and the obvious thing is that there’s way more competition. A film graduate in Western Australia, well, you’ve got your connections now and hopefully you’ve met a handful of people from film school you want to keep working with. And by now some of them have joined the Writers Guild or the Directors Guild or FTI or whatever it is and they’ve got some other contacts and so it’s easier to make stuff. It’s your hometown, you know the locations, you know the stories. Plus, ScreenWest has the same grants that all the other film bodies over east have, except there’s way less competition. So my thing was to rather run off, I’d become a big fish in a small pond. So I did a lot of stuff here that did well locally but didn’t really travel over east. Then I was making stuff that was appearing on a national level. And then I made Hounds of Love in Perth which had some success internationally and then as a result of that I got a call from Los Angeles offering me a ticket to go over there and meet people. And then I did an American film. So when I went to Los Angeles, it was on someone elses dime. And that’s the way to go, rather than go over there and bash on doors and end up making coffee’s for people and working the ridiculous hours that you have to work in the film industry and not having time to develop your own stuff. I just decided to stay here and take advantage of what’s here. And it worked for me, and Zak Hilditch (Perth film-maker, director of WA-made These Final Hours and Netflix’s 1922) took the same path as me and now we’re repped by the same management company in Los Angeles.
You had a career in commercials, short films, music videos and children’s TV before landing your first feature. What did you find to be the biggest learning curve in this time?
One of the two things that was the big for me were constantly writing. Hounds of Love was the ninth feature film script which I’d written. And none of the others got up. I’d been shortlisted for West Coast visions six or seven times, and shortlisted for Link (Screenwest grant now known as Elevate) eight times before I got it. I one hundred percent believe that I’m talentless, but I just wanted it more than anybody else. Writing is really important as a director I think because it teaches you about story, and the other thing that’s really important is just doing it. I probably learned as much about storytelling doing music videos as much as anything else because they were an opportunity for me to understand visual language and I was developing a visual language while I was developing my storytelling. So the two married very well.
Your first Hollywood feature film, Extinction, is being released on Netflix later this year. What did you find to be the greatest difference between directing in Hollywood and Perth?
There are so many differences, I don’t know where to begin. Well, a big difference between Hollywood and Australia is that I’d say in Australia it’s eighty percent art and twenty percent commerce. In America it’s one hundred percent commerce. It’s all about the dollar. It’s not a hobby, it’s a very, very real industry with very, very real objectives on making money. Well, it’s probably eighty percent commerce and twenty percent art, but that twenty percent art is only there if they think it’ll add to the commerce. Directing a movie for Hollywood for me is like directing a gigantic television commercial.
Did that come as a shock to you?
It was what I expected, having had heard all the horror stories from people having had gone over there. It wasn’t quite as bad as doing a TV commercial, but you’re not the boss. You’re reminded you’re not the boss every single day. And every single creative decision you make gets vetted and watered down. It’s impossible to have a singular vision. With Hounds of Love, warts and all, that’s the film that I wanted to make. There are things I’d make about it differently if I was to go back and do it now, but the film that went to screening is exactly the film I set out to make. I can’t see how that would be possible in Hollywood.
And if you could give any advice to a younger Ben Young, the one who’s trying to get acting gigs and studying film, what would you say?
It’s all clichés, but clichés are clichés because they’re true. Your first script is going to suck, so hurry up and fail. Hurry up and fail. And the amount of people I meet who write one script and don’t get funding and get bitter at the whole industry is amazing. Like I’ve said, I wrote nine. You’ve got to want it more than the person next to you.
Extinction will be released on Netflix later this year. For more information on ScreenWest news and funding grants, visit https://www.screenwest.com.au/.
Finnian Williamson | @finnianwilly
Finn studied film at ECU. Make of that what you will.