It’s enough of an achievement for a director to win an award at Cannes for his debut film, but to do so at age 19, that is truly remarkable. Yet that is exactly what Australian director Murali K. Thalluri did with “2:37,” which picked up the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes.
Unlike many first-time directors whose debuts represent carefully-crafted calling cards to the industry, “2:37” was a film the director had to make, compelled by the demons in his own life, including a friend’s suicide and his own subsequent attempt. The director spoke to The Japan Times on the painful experiences that drove him to make the film.
When I got to the suicide scene, I almost bailed. It was unbearable. But when I got to the end of the film, I understood what you were trying to do.
Well, when I watch the ending, it still tears me apart, even now, even though I’ve seen the film probably 1,000 times now, from the editing onward. Initially, I wasn’t going to show the suicide, or I wasn’t going to show who did it. I was going to cut to black and leave the audience wondering who it was. But I wanted the audience to feel guilty, guilty for ignoring (that character) because she was essentially ignored by everyone in her life, and I wanted to put the audience in that place where they did the same. I wanted people to walk out of the theater feeling guilty, and wanting to rectify that sense of guilt by helping (people like her) in the real world. That may be idealistic of me, but that was my intent.
But she’s the only nice character in the film, the only one who’s managed to get beyond herself and be concerned with other people around her. Like when she tries to be nice to Stephen after he’s been bullied. . .
I always wonder if Stephen had turned around and asked her, “How are you doing?” whether there would have been a different ending.
I think it would have been different that day, maybe not the next week.
Absolutely. But for me, the idea of suicide is a single moment. I don’t think it’s something that builds over time, or that it’s for this reason or that reason. It’s just a single moment where there’s nothing going on in your head, and nothing going on in your heart, and in that moment you can’t imagine moving forward, I think. And in that moment, if someone can deflect you, it could save you — even if it’s only for a week, it’s worth it. Like with my friend who did it — I’d pay all the money in the world to have that extra week.
So, when your friend did it, it was completely out-of-the-blue?
Completely. If someone were to tell me it was going to happen the next day. I wouldn’t have believed it. She was like (the character) in the film, very bubbly, very affectionate.
And you got a videotape from her after it happened?
That was just terrible. And I felt it was selfish, weak, at the time. But until I was going through that myself, I didn’t understand it. I was going through my own problems. I’d had kidney problems since I was a child and I’d lost a kidney, and when I was 15 I was stabbed in a random attack, and went blind in one eye. Then I broke up with my girlfriend and I was working at the tax office, which was terrible, and I did try to take my own life. They’d given me a lot of codeine to relieve the pain in my eye, which was constant. So I took ’em all, drank a bottle of Jim Beam, and was out cold. The funny thing is, in the split second before I dozed off, I had this feeling of regret, that I didn’t want to die.
A lot of people say that . . .
It made me realize, I’m not going to wake up, I’m not going to be able to follow my dreams. And that’s why there’s a moment in the film’s suicide scene where (that character) is mouthing “help me.” She doesn’t want to die, and I really wanted to show that regret. I wanted to show the suffering, the brutality, and the regret. Because I wanted that if someone was borderline and went to see the film, it would destroy any romantic illusions of suicide. It really pissed me off that in Australia, people under 18 couldn’t see the film. Because every 16-year-old studies “Romeo and Juliet,” which is the biggest glorification of suicide ever.
The reason I’m doing so much press for this film is because if people hear my story and know that two years ago I was at rock-bottom and tried to kill myself, and now I’m as happy as can be, it shows that that feeling of complete nothingness can pass, and does pass.
One thing that sticks out is the language the kids use, which is probably what got you the “R” rating, but most high-school movies you see, people don’t talk like they do in real life.
Most teenage high-school movies I see, I always watch them and think “God, I wish I spoke like that!” (Laughs.) But, unfortunately, I don’t. I try to cut down on my swearing now, but I swore a hell of a lot in school.
How many of the characters in the film and their stories came from your own life?
All of them came out of people I knew, or a combination. Stephen is mostly me. The bladder problem, that was based on me as a child. The limp comes from the actor. Sean was a guy I knew at school. They were all real people.
I wanted to ask you about the opening shot, looking up through a tree’s leaves into the sky. Why did you go with that?
I’d love to say it was part of the grand vision, but that would be a lie. Initially I had another opening shot, a four-minute tracking shot through the school, but we decided to use the leaves. That came about when the steady-cam operator put it on his shoulder to rest and left the camera running, shooting the trees above us. It was the biggest “happy accident” of all time!
I was quite impressed by your use of sound — very original.
To me, you can tell a different story with the sound. I wanted to almost get into the minds of the characters without using voice-overs or anything like that. My sound designer, Leslie Schatz, he worked with Walter Murch on “Apocalypse Now,” he’s a genius. He’s been working on this technology, we applied this brain-wave technology — it plays binaural beats that essentially synchronize the left and right hemispheres of your brain to different degrees — in a 5.1 surround-sound element. You can influence the audience’s state of mind by playing different frequencies. We applied this to the atmosphere tracks. It worked beautifully. We compared test screenings, before and after, and the response was so incredibly different. It’s almost scary.
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