In pursuit of a feeling

Goran Stolevski on capturing time and place in Of An Age

by Jennie Kermode

Hattie Hook, Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age
Hattie Hook, Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age Photo: courtesy of Organic

Goran Stolevski wowed critics last year with his mysterious Eastern European fable You Won’t Be Alone, so when I heard that he had completed his second film, I had to talk with him about it. Of An Age is set in the suburbs of Melbourne in 1999 and then later in 2010, and it follows young Serbian-born immigrant Kol (Elias Anton), a ballroom dancer who is due at the final of a big competition when his dance partner Ebony (Hattie Hook) phones him to say that she has woken up on a beach in an unfamiliar town following a night of heavy drinking. Plans are thrown into disarray as Kol goes to find her, but it’s what happens between him and her brother Adam (Thom Green) along the way which will change the course of his whole life.

Goran Stolevski
Goran Stolevski Photo: courtesy of Organic

Although it centres on this unexpected romance, I put it to Goran that the film seems to be at least as much about capturing a particular time and place.

“Yeah, that was actually the main impetus behind it,” he says. “The first moment I got the idea, I was reading an unrelated short story, and in that story a teenage boy went to his first party at a new high school. While I was reading that I got this intense flashback to the one time I ever went to a party in high school, and not so much the events of that as the mindset of who I was at the time and what it felt like to be me and what I thought life would be like, and what love would be like later on.

“It did feel like life was going to happen somewhere else afterwards, for me for like, you know, for feelings do matter. For life to matter, it had to be something cinematic. It couldn't possibly be where I was. I was a film nerd already when I was in high school. So I said this task for myself to try and make a romantic, cinematic film about the least romantic, cinematic place, which for me is the suburbs of Melbourne in 1999. And also that specific part of the working class, in the outer suburbs, and just how people speak and behave. I find even in Australian cinema, when people get cast as working class, they want either the working class mannerisms to be exaggerated or not attempted at all.”

He does an impression of the kind of accents he’s heard from supposedly working class characters in films, and we both laugh. Then we get to talking about the amount of time in the film which is spent in cars, and how important they are to young people in that kind of environment when every other interior space is controlled by older people.

“So much of our lives in suburban Melbourne, at the time – and I think still, to an extent – took place inside cars,” he says. “You have to be driven everywhere, everything is so far apart. It's very low density living, but you just were always in a car. Even the year after high school, when I first started dating myself, we were going out for drives. My then boyfriend, now husband, was also in the area, and so we were just driving around those streets all the time. And there was a sense of safety and intimacy within it as well, and also just the fact that you're constantly in motion. I thought that was very cinematic and also true to that experience of what day to day life felt like.”

Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age
Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age Photo: courtesy of Organic

It allows him to be very intimate with the camera as well, I note, with a lot of intense close-ups.

“Yeah, absolutely. I was actually planning to have a few more wide shots of the world around them as well, and some of them were in the screenplay, but then once we started filming that sequence of the two guys talking in the car, I just didn't want to leave that space. It ended up being even more intimate than originally envisioned.”

Did he draw on his own experiences as an immigrant when writing the story?

“It was more just like, I think the more detailed you make something, the more universal it gets,” he says. “It wasn't driven by this sense of ‘I have to depict what my life was like’ because, you know, a lot of events that happened aren't me. I was actually openly and militantly gay in my freshman year, so that's not my experience at all. I think the lead character is probably closer to my personality when I was 14 or 15, not so much 17 – by that point I was very different. And my dad is alive and well, and he is in the film because I couldn't find Serbian speaking actors.

“I just feel like if you're making a story, the more detail you can pack it with that is interesting and gives you more context into a character and deepens that character, the better. In this case it captures a lot of other lives in that area. I mean, not just Serbian migrants or Macedonians, which is what I am – in that area there was such a mix of ethnicities, where I grew up. That was a great benefit of living in Australia, it was actually very multicultural.

“I found it surprising that I never saw that reflected on screen. It just felt stupid not to have that included within the story, it felt so organic to what it was like. In terms of trying to capture that time and place, you kind of have to have a mix of these people. And I didn't want to overemphasise the negativities of what you have to experience when you're a minority, but I wanted them to be present around the edges, so you're aware of the context.”

Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age
Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age Photo: courtesy of Organic

There’s a lot of homophobia in the first part of the film, which is set in 1999, and then in the second part, in 2010, people’s attitudes seem completely different.

“Absolutely, yeah. And again, that's a reflection or living in these periods. Homophobia was around me, it wasn't always directed at me. I was quite lucky when I was younger in the sense that I could kind of pass for straight. There was also just this sense of gayness as something that happens on TV or far away. I was out and queer in high school, but I was the only gay kid that was open in the whole of the school. So it was still unusual, but I kind of benefited because it was seen as something interesting.

“The reason no one else was is, like, you were surrounded by homophobia. You know, the F-word is such a commonality, right? I used to put it in screenplays without even batting an eye, because that was just how people spoke around me. I didn't even question that. I had internalised so much homophobia and bigotry just from being in that space. And I didn't want to deal with that too much – I didn't want to overemphasise it – but it seemed important.”

It emphasises the feeling of being trapped in a hostile space, I suggest. For Kol, what happens between him and Adam is not just important in itself, it’s given additional weight by the feeling that somebody can see him for the first time, and that he's got a point of contact with a safer world.

Goran agrees. “It is that sense of it as just another element that isolates you from everyone else around you. And in this case, like both of these boys, in the location where I grew up, talking about art or films or books was like a recipe to get beaten up. So there's all these other things that I think other people can relate to as well. They don't have to be queer, necessarily. It's just an additional element in the way life sets you apart, and the environment sets you apart. I think there's a flip side to that. I think there's a poignancy as well, when you meet that other person that you can connect with, it's just so much more intense. You get to appreciate it at a different level when it's something so rare.

Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age
Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age Photo: courtesy of Organic

“There's a special kind of loneliness that comes from being queer, but then, when you meet that person you connect with, there's an electricity that I think you only experience as a queer kid in a place where no one else is, and it's actually genuinely special. I'm very grateful to have had that experience. I wanted to capture that there's a positivity to some of these things and also, life will put you in situations you have no control over and a lot of them will be negative, so I think it's important to look for what is the positive flipside to that. It actually comes with some bonuses.”

We discuss Kol’s complex relationship with his dance partner, Ebony, and the dance they perform together close to the end of the film.

“I know she’s technically an unlikable character,” says Goran. “I mean, I love her desperately myself. There’s a charisma to someone who's that confident and assertive about what they want at any age. But I think, yeah, why are these two people friends? From Koll's perspective, he doesn't have a choice, he will be friendly to anyone who’s willing to be close with him. But also, there is a connection when you're spending all that all that time together and, you know, dancing lessons, it's a process, and dance partners do become quite close.

“I don't dance,” he adds hastily. “I mean, I do, but under coercion, never willingly. And definitely not well. But I think that was also important to show that something stays in your body from the people who impact you early in life, and it's mutual. That kind of a goodbye moment, that scene later on in the film, to me is one of the most important parts of the film. Because the people that shape you in those high school years, it's physical, like the dance is physical, like it's something that is in your blood and is undeniable.”

I tell him that I adored her too, and that I’m impressed that he managed to find somebody who could take up so much space in the film without actually appearing in all that many scenes.

Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age
Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age Photo: courtesy of Organic

“I grew up watching a lot of Thirties and Forties Hollywood movies, where supporting characters were a lot more interesting than they are today,” he says. “I think it's what I look for in movies and books. I want to feel like the world around the main people is lived in and filled in. The more you can put detail into these other lives, you know, I think it also makes the main characters feel more detailed and alive as well.

“I spent a lot of time with all three of them before the film. I was lucky to. We didn't really rehearse in a traditional sense, we didn't run lines or anything. I spoke with each of them individually to go through the whole script literally syllable by syllable, so they’d know where I was coming from. Then I gave them full freedom to improvise or change lines, and then we spend time together, mainly just hanging out and getting to know each other. So you know, a symbiotic relationship develops, and then there’s chemistry there between the three of them as well.

“They spent time together apart from me, and Hattie and Elias had dance lessons together, because they've never danced. So I think then that chemistry develops and I think you can have a supporting character who's big, but they don't detract, they just fill in the tapestry because that connection is real between them. Friendship chemistry, to me, is as important as romantic chemistry, or brother and sister chemistry. All three of them genuinely became very close, because it was such a special experience. And I’m privileged to have them in my film.”

It’s a film in which everything hinges on getting that chemistry right. How confident was he, at the outset, that he could achieve it?

Of An Age poster
Of An Age poster

“Not at all,” he confesses, laughing. “I was very invested in that relationship from the moment I started writing, obviously, and then you just hope and pray. In the early stages of casting, things did not look very promising and I wasn't sure how it was going to work. We were also doing the casting during lockdown so we couldn't do chemistry tests in any traditional sense. Not that I believe a lot in the audition or chemistry test process. When you're in a world in a movie, it's a different setting.

“I was looking at actors who were engaged with the person they were talking to, who seemed invested. With Thom Green, I saw a clip of him in a film called Downriver. It's a very simple clip – he's a teenage boy, he rides a bike, gets off the bike, walks down this rough alley into a bar and smiles at the bartender – but like the way that he was, he just looks like he's a person in a world. He's not putting on his selfie face, he's actually engaged. Anyone can have chemistry with Thom. The way he looks at a bike, it's like Fred Astaire dancing with the hat rack.

“I was just looking for that kind of openness. If they have that quality then it's really easy to generate chemistry. Elias was the flip side of Thom in that he was just like an open book. Even in his audition situation it felt like the words were just coming out of him but he was thinking about the person who was talking to him. He was so open and vulnerable, so ready to connect. And it's really hard for people to not have chemistry with those personalities.”

Of An Age is available on Digital Download now.

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