"As part of my research I talked to as many musos as I could — some who ended up in the film, some on the soundtrack."
Play It Safe follows Jamie, a 26-year-old struggling muso who turns to music teaching after his band breaks up. The music school is soul-destroying, but safe. So many people wanting to pursue a career in a creative industry have found themselves in the same situation, and it was exactly that commonality between all kinds of people that director Chris Pahlow wanted to explore in his debut feature film.
"The genesis came from my experiences in my early 20s playing in bands and getting exposed to the local music scene in Melbourne," explains Pahlow, "but as part of my research I talked to as many musos as I could — some who ended up in the film, some on the soundtrack, other dudes I just kinda tracked down because I liked their music — and I tried to find out what's the commonality between struggling indie musos, what are the kind of things they deal with on a day-to-day basis and yeah, tried to put that on the screen."
"I wanted that realism, I wanted people to talk like people I met at uni, at bars, on the street and stuff like that."
Stylistically, Pahlow was inspired by filmmakers such as Andrew Bujalski, Lena Dunham, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater and the Duplass brothers. While Pahlow wouldn't necessarily categorise Play It Safe as 'mumblecore' proper, he admits he was inspired by the genre — notably Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation.
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"That's like one of the very first mumblecore films, like maybe only the second or third, and it's about a struggling guitarist in New York, trying to get some gigs going and put a band together, and I just saw that probably almost like ten years ago. It blew me away and I was like, 'Why isn't someone doing that stuff in Australia?' So I decided to do it myself, pretty much."
In keeping with Pahlow's vision of the film being quite naturalistic, the cast is a mix of professional actors and non-actors, and many of the musicians in the film are actual musicians. The actors helped devise some of the script.
"I wanted that realism, I wanted people to talk like people I met at uni, at bars, on the street and stuff like that. So we spent lots and lots and lots of time with the cast, trying to deal with the backstories of the characters and the way they speak and everything. To give you one example, there's a fictional band in the film. And so, part of the rehearsal process was just getting them together for some beers and dinners and getting them to hang out and getting them to just like each other, become good friends. I'm trying to sell a band that's been together for six years, some of them have probably known each other for longer than that. You can't just fake it, you know; I wanted the film to be real."
The film's star, Nicholas Kato, not only took piano lessons to prepare for the role but also kept his look the same for the duration of the filming. "He couldn't cut his hair for like three years, the poor bastard!" laughs Pahlow. "We filmed it so slowly because we had no money."
In fact, Pahlow worked on the film for almost five years. How does it feel to be finally releasing the finished thing?
"I don't know if I can answer that question!" he laughs. "It's just like, I don't remember what life was like not making this film, if that makes sense. It's incredible — it's just been such a massive part of my life as well as the cast and the crew. I think there was probably quite a few years where people were like, 'He's not really making a film,' you know? They probably just think I'm smoking crack in my bedroom or something... wasting my time. It's incredibly fulfilling to finally be able to share it, it's kinda just blowing my mind... It's overwhelming, honestly, I'm struggling to deal with it right now." He really does sound super-stoked about it all, though. "I sound like that now; you haven't seen me in my dark moments where I was like, 'We're never gonna finish this film!'"
One thing that sets this film apart from all its contemporaries is the soundtrack — chock full of Melbourne bands and artists such as Big Scary, Speed Painters, Yes/No/Maybe, Patinka Cha Cha and Villains. Putting that together was no doubt an integral part of making the film, and it's something that Pahlow is understandably proud of. Local artists have to help each other out, right?
"I was very, very lucky in that my music supervisor is a beautiful guy, Oscar O'Brien; we used to play music together back in the day, and he is a member of the band Speed Painters — I dunno if you could call it a band, it's like a four-piece like I guess house act, that came out of Two Bright Lakes — and so he had a lot of connections in the music industry to different bands, and also because he's an entertainment lawyer he knew like the publishing companies and all that kind of stuff, and so he was really instrumental in making sure we got all the rights we needed and contacting artists that I didn't know. A lot of the people, me or Oscar or someone else involved in the film already knew or were friends of friends…
"There was a couple of exceptions. There's Ron Rude; he's such a legend, I never met him but I did some work with Missing Link back before they closed so I heard some of his songs through them. I thought, 'This guy's a like tremendous, like post-punk guy from the '70s, great — so I just like sent him a Facebook message and he was like, 'Yeah, sounds great, let's do it'. The same thing happened with Mantra actually, like he was my number one choice for [the role of] the rapper, like I've been a fan of him since his very first song he released like over ten yeas ago. But I didn't know him and I didn't know anyone who knew him, I just thought there's no way I'm gonna get this guy, so I started talking to other rappers and, you know, cast one guy but he had to drop out because he was going to the US and another guy couldn't do it so I was like, 'Fuck it, I'll just send Mantra a tweet'. He responded, he was like, 'Yeah, let's meet up and talk about it!' Sometimes you just get lucky, I guess!"