Mark Savage is an Australian filmmaker who doesn’t just push
the boundaries of sex and violence in film, he blasts through them with a
shotgun. He’s been a cult director for some time, but now Subversive Cinema is
living up to their name and has released a box set with three of his most
extreme movies – Marauders, Sensitive New Age Killer and Defenceless – with
tons of extras, including a bonus disc with his TV movie Stained.
Savage is a director of the old school – his low-budget
films aren’t schlock because they’re deadly serious. I once read that the best
exploitation films were the ones that made you more than a little bit afraid of
the sicko who came up with this stuff, and I think Savage fits very comfortably
into that definition. His movies are over the top, occasionally sick and often
quite strange – Defenceless is a movie without dialogue, but with a couple of
graphic scenes of men having their dicks cut off and with women being raped
with knives. Mainstream this isn’t.
I talked to Savage on the phone a couple of weeks back. The guy’s
got a lot to say, and he’s very serious and thoughtful about his work, which is
a refreshing change of pace from so many other low-budget filmmakers. He’s also
working on a very odd project called Tess’ Journey, which we talk about at the
end of the interview – the concept alone makes it worth checking out when it’s
finished… in six years.
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The new box set is representative of the aesthetic of low budget filmmaking with very personal obsessions and interests behind it. Why have you chosen to work so low budget and so outside the mainstream?
Savage: I guess the box set in a way represents from when I started to where I am now, although there are another four or five films in between that aren’t in the box set. The reason why I have been independent is that I have always wanted to make genre-related films, and when I started making movies in Australia there was no money to make films like that. Most Australian films were government financed, and the Australian film financing bodies had a social agenda, and the social agenda precluded backing films which they considered at the bottom of the cultural runs. Early on in my career I knew I would have to start financing privately.
And I didn’t want to be dependent on government funding anyway, because they dictate content. As you certainly know, working on a site like CHUD which does a lot of stuff with genre, you cannot make those kinds of films by committee. Especially when dealing with bureaucrats, because bureaucrats can be incredibly conservative people, and a bureaucrat going through your horror screenplay and marking off things they didn’t want to see… So for me it was important to make the films as independently as possible, away from that kind of influence. When you’re making independent films you don’t have big budgets to impress people with, so what you have to impress people with is the way you tell the story, your particular style. And when you have independent financing you can push the subject matter further.
You’re not just outside the mainstream – you’re outside the general genre conventions with Defenceless, one of the films on the box set. You’ve made a dialogue-free rape/revenge movie. Can you talk about what made you decide to go dialogue-free?
Savage: Defenceless is a sum of all my influences and all the films that have affected me. In a sense I had a little bit of a battle with myself because I love genre films but I also have a love of other types of films as well – the teen drama is one of my favorite kind of films of all time. I have a desire to make films that were a combination of many genres, and it never seemed to me like I was setting out to make films that were arthouse mixed with horror – Defenceless to me is something that was completely natural. All of the elements didn’t come with a decision saying, ‘I’ll put in a bit of this and a bit of that.’
Defenceless was half Japanese financed and half financed in Australia. The Australian financing wasn’t dependent at all on what I was making – it was invested as a tax write-off. But the Japanese side was interested in me making something that was unusual. The challenge was that I had a couple of erotic thrillers before Defenceless that were fairly unhappy experiences because they were so formulaic. I wanted to make something that was a complete return to the roots of how I started making movies, when I was making Super-8s. When I was making Super-8s I didn’t use sound, I had no interest in making Super-8s with sound. What I would do was I would shoot them, cut them in camera and then I would put soundtracks to them, and then I would screen them for friends. So I wanted to make a throwback to that style of making films, which is very pure, and I wanted a story that could be told so much from someone’s point of view that dialogue would be superfluous and using the purest of elements, which would be sound effects, music and visuals. Not having it marred by dialogue, I wanted it to be very pure so that it would always seem very pure. And at one point she becomes mute, but she never talks anyway. I want you to be able to fill in the blanks in terms of how she’s feeling and not have her stating her intentions. I wanted to make something that was such a challenge without dialogue and having no exposition – I wanted to make a film that was completely exposition-free. I wanted to embrace that.
So many of your films push the boundaries of what you can and can’t show in film. What’s the line for you? Is there anything too taboo for you?
Savage: I don’t think there’s anything taboo, but certainly the context in which it’s shown is something I’m really conscious of. I don’t set out to just shock people. Through my own exposure to certain films and dark things in my own life I tend to portray things graphically because I don’t like softened stuff. A common theme in my films is sexual assault and graphic violence – I was actually very close to a woman who had actually been raped and it completely not only destroyed her life but it destroyed our relationship. The aftermath of it had a huge impact on me; I was quite young when I met this woman. I became determined that I wanted portray that graphically but realistically. I hate when people watch these movies and say, ‘I could hardly watch that.’ It’s a rape scene – that’s the whole point. I don’t think it should be something you could sit there and just watch and say, ‘That wasn’t too bad.’
At the same time violence and sex in movies is very pure cinema. I understand there’s the uneasy marriage between being really repugnant and at the same time having strong cinematic qualities. They’re very, very visual. I find that in pushing and moving towards material that’s fairly incendiary and makes people uncomfortable, it brings out the most indispensable aspects of the characters. It’s like someone who has been through a disaster – there’s a certain amount of courage that won’t come if you don’t face that disaster or hardship.
I tend to make movies about things I like and things I abhor. To me that’s the center of my own filmmaking, and you make movies about things you’re passionate about. You’re passionate about the stuff you either hate or you’re passionate about the stuff you really love. My filmmaking is very much reflective of me.
You’re making a movie that’s going to take seven years to film?
Savage: I’m actually making a movie that’s going to take ten years to film, and I’ve already done the first four years.
What’s the story? Why will it take ten years?
Savage: It’s called Tess’ Journey. It’s kind of like a bizarre version of Alice in Wonderland. It’s about a little girl who is eight years old and abandoned by her father in a forest. She must basically find her way back home to find her father. She ages from eight years old to eighteen years old in the movie, but the film itself will only take place in a week. I shoot two weeks every year, and at the end of each year she’ll get to a point on her journey and, for example, fall into a river. When she emerges from the river she’ll be a year older. She goes from being a child to a woman in the course of the movie.
It sounds like a very challenging concept to pull off.
Savage: It’s challenging from a number of points of view. It’s challenging because I have to maintain her interest over all these years. The girl is very interested in acting – she’s the girl in Defenceless , she’s the little girl. You’ve got the challenge of the clothes she’s wearing. She’s wearing her mother’s dress; her mother has died and her father abandons her at the mother’s grave. I need to her to grow into the clothes. You’ve also got format changes as well. And you need the support of her parents and the other sub-characters. It’s a very interesting experience, and I intend to take it to the end.