Suzy & The Simple Man was eight years in the making. Directed by Ian Darling, Suzan and Jon Muir, the film started as a modest work with the working title “Our Little Garden”. It was to be shot over a year but then something unexpected happened and it became a documentary with un-simple questions at the heart of the story.
While not a Good Pitch² Australia film, Suzy & The Simple Man involves Chair and Moderator Ian Darling, as well as GPA event producers Sally Fryer and Mary Macrae—all involved in documentary filmmaking with Shark Island Productions when not spending a large chunk of their waking hours preparing for the big day and working with the team looking after the twenty Good Pitch² Australia films (the 2016 crop is soon to be announced).
I was executive producer on Ian Darling and Jon Muir’s documentary Alone Across Australia and it’s been such a pleasure to see not only Ian, Jon and Sally together again on this new film but also meet the wonderful Suzan Muir. Tomorrow, I post an interview with co-director Suzan, and the day after—with Jon, also co-director.
The trailer. WATCH:
PJB: You’ve known Jon Muir, your co-director a long time. Together, you directed and produced Alone Across Australia in 2004. When did you first meet?
ID: I met Jon in 1992 through a mutual friend who climbed Everest with him. Min [Ian’s wife] and I went on a guided expedition with Jon to climb the highest mountain in South America, Mt. Aconcagua. We spent a month with him there, got blown off 300 feet from the top, and turned around. I learned a lot from Jon on that trip about the importance of the journey rather the destination! In both films: Alone Across Australia and Suzy & The Simple Man, it’s all about the journey. We became good friends, and I’ve done about 15 trips with him—across deserts, up mountains, in kayaks. The first film came out of discussions we had on long walks; it works well with men especially because you can talk, think aloud…without having to necessarily look at each other…After we made Alone Across Australia together, he and I continued our long walks. Jon began to talk about his new life and marriage with his wife Suzy—their shared beliefs and interests. He was talking about every day things but from an outsider’s point of view, I thought it was extraordinary.
PJB: How were they living?
ID: Simply, off the grid, and as sustainably as possible while continuing to share experiences in the wilderness.
PJB: Jon’s hard to describe—which is why it’s satisfying seeing him in those environments on film; he has a complete fearlessness about the endeavors he undertakes. I asked him about that when we spoke, and he didn’t answer the question. Maybe because for him it’s about the doing, he doesn’t need to ask himself why. And it’s simply where he wanted to be. Do you know what it is, in you, that inspired a documentary about Jon and Suzy’s way of life?
ID: I love seeing larger than life people in the minutiae of their lives.
Jon is the most genuine man I’ve ever come across. If you ask: “Jon, How are you?” He will tell you exactly what’s going on. He’s lived how he wants to live with great integrity, and been in control of every aspect of his life. This film also shows another side of Jon and in his relationship with Suzy… I didn’t know Suzy that well until making this film—she’d been support crew on a number of the expeditions with Jon—but discovering who she was and what she’s done: her achievements, her strength and complexity as a person was so rewarding.
PJB: Are you drawn to making a film about Suzy and Jon because the way they live is other to the way you live, in your predominantly urban life?
ID: I think it’s the otherness, and yet something in me connects to how they live. With all the films I’ve made, there is a pattern. I have a deep connection, not necessarily with the subject but with something around the subject. The first film I made about Warren Buffett (Woodstock for Capitalists)—we built our whole investment business on his way of doing business; Alone Across Australia—I’d been on those walks; In the Company of Actors—I’d wanted to be an actor all my life and had been a board member of NIDA and Sydney Theatre Company; The Oasis—I’d been involved in a homeless shelter and was drawn to making a film about that; Paul Kelly, Stories of Me—he spoke to me like no other singer-songwriter; I’d been listening to him since I was young and he was playing the pubs in Melbourne. With Suzy & The Simple Man, this experience was all new to me—despite having made a film with and about Jon, I didn’t feel like I was going over old ground; the questions were new.
PJB: What were those questions for you?
ID: Whether you can live your truth and find happiness… Is there any such thing as the ‘simple life’? But also, when I see how Jon and Suzy live, I can’t help but ask myself: Am I doing the right thing by Earth in how I live?
PJB: You’re quite driven by, and interested in, ethical responsibility: In philanthropy, in care of the planet, in business, via Good Pitch. Where does that come from in you? Your family? Your education? Or something else?
ID: I’m not sure how to answer that. I think it comes from family and education definitely but it was jet–propelled by the work I was doing with places like The Oasis homeless shelter—the stories of the people; and seeing films that exposed inequality, injustice and unfairness. I think that self-education has been as powerful as the nursery I grew up in. It’s a combination of all those things.
PJB: The film was originally going to be about Suzy and Jon’s garden at their property ‘Inanna’ in Victoria, told over a year, through four seasons, but when their life’s journey took an unpredictable turn, I was interested in how you—as a storyteller—dealt with not knowing where the film might go.
ID: It’s one of the things I love about independent filmmaking. I’m very fortunate that we are able to fund elements of our own films and have a band of supporters who help and it’s a very trusting relationship. We don’t have to go into a film with a known outcome but we do have a strong sense of our initial intent. I think the best documentaries are when something unexpected happens along the way—Murder on a Sunday Morning, Capturing the Friedmans—being cases in point.
PJB: Not to forget The Staircase and The Jinx—
ID: Yes! In filmmaking, you go on journeys with people when you allow the unexpected to happen; you get into territory that you might otherwise never explore. You get past superficial appearances or judgement of people. On first meeting, people often think Jon is a wild man who might sleep in a cave; they don’t see his wisdom or complexity.
PJB: When I see Jon’s knowledge of, and confidence in, the natural world, it’s obvious he has used his intelligence for a specific purpose. Most of us don’t know what Jon knows. And he has an expertise that isn’t valued in worlds many of us western white people operate, but the film gives us access to a world that makes us realise how profound his—and Suzy’s—knowledge is. But you have also mentioned the control he has over his life and that is challenged in this film isn’t it?
ID: When you are ‘out there’ with Jon, you feel that he’s always in control and responsible, in a great way. When we were in South America climbing the tallest mountain, Jon turned us around when the summit was in sight and said, “No mountain is worth losing fingers and toes or dying for”… He’s right, of course. When we were making Suzy & The Simple Man, and only because I was used to always seeing him in control, to see him dealing with a situation he could not control… it was almost shocking. Suzy kept a video diary but we didn’t know where the story was going or what was going to happen.
PJB: Two years into filming, you found out what she was dealing with. Did you have a discussion about what that meant with regards to continued filming?
ID: I remember thinking that the film might not go ahead, and honouring Suzy’s wishes should that be the case but she also told us that she had been shooting video diaries for several months. Later, when she showed them to us, we felt privileged to share her fears, her demons and her truth. It was our expectation at the time that they wouldn’t be made public. As time went on, Suzy became comfortable with the idea of us incorporating them into the cut, and with the understanding that she could ask that they be removed at any time.
PJB: She had the right of veto—
ID: Absolutely. I think that’s why the video diaries work because she didn’t know at the time she was shooting them that they would be in the film and viewed by an audience. But as she saw them ‘contextualised’ within the compile and the cut continued, she was more comfortable. About five years into an eight year process, something happened that meant she needed to divert her energies elsewhere. She stopped filming, and we stopped editing but the film was close to being finished. There was a real discomfort at that stage of including the video diaries and other material in the film so we stripped it out and went back to the film we originally intended to make. But once you know what you know, you can’t not know it. The film we thought we were making originally no longer worked. So we accepted that the film would probably never see the light of day.
PJB: How did you feel about that as a producer? I know, for me, how difficult it is when you’ve invested emotion, time, energy and attachment into a film project (let alone money) and have to leave it behind. It can be traumatic—even if it’s the right thing to do.
ID: With documentary generally, there’s so much uncertainty and there will always be a high rate of failure—you just have to accept that. Some films are a much lower budget proposition so financially it’s easier… And because Suzy & The Simple Man was self-financed, it was a conversation between Suzy, Jon and me not a broadcaster, studio or distributor. I’d like to think the outcome would have been the same but we didn’t have those obligations which would alter the decision making process. And then, only a few months ago, Suzy called us—she was in a different place, we finished the film and here we are… At all stages we were able to make the right decision.
PJB: And at the right time, which is critical in filmmaking…You seem interested in creating places where conversations can take place outside the usual ‘business-y’ environment—
ID: I think everything we [Shark Island Institute] do is about creating safe spaces. Right now, we’re here at Kangaroo Valley with six teams of filmmakers for Good Pitch 2016—and we want them to feel safe. I think if people are allowed to express their vulnerabilities by creating a supportive environment, the art is better for it. With Suzy & The Simple Man, I believed in the film emotionally but the health and well being of Suzy and Jon as individuals was more important. It’s complex because I wouldn’t be making the film if I wasn’t a trusted friend and yet there are people who say to me: How can you make a film about a friend? For me, the work and the friendship go hand in hand… Jon, Suzy and I have never signed a piece of paper; there are no release forms dictating how we are going to do it—
PJB: That’s how it used to be decades back in Hollywood—deals done on a handshake or a napkin at a bar or in a restaurant. Contracts were based on trust and one’s word…I wish. It never happens like that any more.
ID: With this film too, ultimately, we will have to put in place contractual arrangements when we put it out into the world but the relationship has always been based on mutual trust…
PJB: There is a true naturalism about this film; the process and framework within which you, Jon and Suzy made the film is reflected stylistically.
ID: Jon is a great cinematographer in his own right, and Suzy did an amazing job. And there was something coming out of them doing most of the shooting: they were used to the presence of the camera. It would have been different with a more intrusive set up and a cinematographer following them around. Without other people there, and a locked off camera. Cinematically, the film has a calm and stability: people walk in and out of the frame and as a viewer you stay with the subject in the space. The one camera in Suzy & The Simple Man let us sit, and stay with people and landscape in the edit too. One of the main characters of the film is ‘Inanna’ where they live and we’re able to see how they are placed in the wilderness.
PJB: Since your first film, you’ve worked closely with editor Sally Fryer and you have a close-knit team on Good Pitch and Shark Island Productions. What are your thoughts on collaboration?
ID: One of my favorite filmmaking teams is Albert and David Maysles. When I saw Grey Gardens and Salesman, they had four directors. You see it rarely. I’m also an admirer of Australia’s ‘Working Dog’ (Frontline, The Castle, Utopia). They’ve been making film and television for thirty years and there is a core group. They also work with comedy, which creatively can be very challenging…
My background is in Finance, and one of the first lessons I learned was that if you invest by committee you are going to have bad investment performance; in our business, there was a very strong core of 3-4 who made all the decisions and, in many ways, I can apply it to this approach too. Making art by committee is a disaster. However, you can have like-minded people with aligned interests but slightly different angles on things and they all bring a lot to the rich tapestry of a film.
PJB: You’ve directed several films solo but you have co-directed with Jon, Sascha Ettinger-Epstein (The Oasis) and now you are co-directing with Suzy and Jon. Not every director is comfortable sharing the job or credits, how did you settle on co-directing the films you have?
ID: When you’re making a film you have to get into the rhythm of the subjects… Observational shoots require a lot of time. On The Oasis, for example, we were dealing with street kids and vulnerable subjects; you have to earn their trust and time is what we needed. We brought in Sascha Ettinger-Epstein who was originally going to be the cinematographer but I realised she had greater patience and could hang in there day in, day out. She’d be there five days a week, I’d be there one day a week. Some of the strongest reveals in the film came from 12-18 months of shooting with these kids. It was appropriate that Sascha have a directing credit… On Alone Across Australia, Jon was out there and doing all the shooting so I thought he should have a co-directing credit. With Suzy & The Simple Man we were going to take cameras down to ‘Inanna’ each season and shoot but we thought we’d get much more intimacy and honesty if it was just Jon and Suzy shooting themselves. We talked about story lines and what we were thinking but I asked them to be directors with me because they were shooting and making decisions that directly impacted the story. Suzy’s part of the story is very much her story and she’s done in it in a private and intimate way. I like that they are directors with me because with it comes a story-telling responsibility: it’s all care and all responsibility…. I think credit should be given where credit is due, and having three directors makes the film more exciting—if I was the only director, and telling them what to do, we wouldn’t have the magic we have.
PJB: You’ve packed a lot in over the last sixteen years—including ten films, what are some of the lessons learned over that time that stand out since the experience of making your first film?
ID: My first film Woodstock for Capitalists, I approached with such enthusiastic naivety! It was a three-day film shoot with one of the wealthiest guys in the world. It was a small film—and I’d never put myself in a film again—but I’m proud of that film. The inexperience helped me; sometimes you can spend too much time thinking about things, you have to trust your gut—
PJB: And you jumped right in, you didn’t go to film school or work on other peoples projects, you learned on the job—
ID: Yes but I had very experienced and great professional people around to guide me. Since those first films, I’m more prone to exercising greater caution and over-analysing which isn’t always helpful. You can over-think it. With Suzy & The Simple Man, I realise that I trust myself more—I trust in silence. Sometimes, less really is so much more. I think I’ve learned that the hard way.
PJB: What are your hopes for the film?
ID: In audiences, everyone sits in a different seat. I think Suzy and Jon are very engaging characters and there are some profound universal themes in this film that are not obvious—I hope it stays with people when they leave the cinema and that they think about the those themes in relation to their own lives.
PJB: With Suzy & The Simple Man, like Alone Across Australia, there’s a story about how to live well with the planet and if we could stop watching the news, and listen to people who are doing things differently—we just might get somewhere.
ID: I hope this film gives people the opportunity to see that everyone’s got a choice.
PJB: I borrowed your book Tell Me Something about documentary filmmaking and found Sam Green quoting the brilliant film and sound editor Walter Murch:
“As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years-old”.
What did you love most at that age?
ID: At that age, I was making “Hooray, Hooray the Holidays Start Today”.
PJB: What is that?
ID: It was my first film—I always wanted to make films or be an actor—that’s a long story… But I didn’t know what making films meant and still to this day, I get asked: “Are you going to make a real film?”
PJB: Wrong question.
ID: Yeah, because documentaries are real films.
PJB: So do you feel like you have a real job?
ID: Documentary filmmaking is difficult as a job because it has to be supplemented by another job—I’m lucky enough to come from a Finance background and I’m still an owner in a business that helps pay the bills. It’s very difficult to sustain the life of being an independent filmmaker without some other form of income. We’re hoping with the increasing prevalence of this philanthropically funded model (Good Pitch and Documentary Australia Foundation), when it’s used in conjunction with the Producer Offset and the existing funding streams, that it can be absolutely sustainable. That’s yet to be seen. But it’s a good question—the work we do in this space can be incredibly hard but it doesn’t feel like work, it’s exhilarating.Tags: Alone Across Australia, In the Company of Actors, Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, Suzy & The Simple Man, Sydney Film Festival, The Oasis, Woodstock for Capitalists