by Lynette Washington.

The Adelaide-based team at Projector Films have just released their first feature film, One Eyed Girl. With truly rave reviews flooding in from the U.S. and the Jury Award from the Austin Film Festival already under their belt, One Eyed Girl is a serious contender on the world stage.

The Clothesline chats, via email, with Craig Behenna, who co-wrote and co-produced the film as well as acting in it. We begin by asking Craig to tell us what One Eyed Girl is about.

“It’s about a psychiatrist, Travis (Mark Leonard Winter), who spirals out of control after the death of his patient. He falls into the hands of a self-styled ‘church’ with a charismatic leader, Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand), through Grace, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey,” Craig explains. “At first the cult looks like it’s saved Travis’s life but when Travis realises the deeper truth of the church and the farm, the story takes a darker turn.”

It does indeed take a very dark turn when the self-styled church shows itself to be more of a cult than church. Where did the idea for a film about a cult come from?

“Nick Matthews (Director) had a slip of paper (he claims this – none of us have ever seen it) on which he’d written a fragment of a scene with a young girl running through a field, away from pursuers, saying to herself ‘in the land of the blind, the one eyed girl is queen’. That was the start. The cult was always there but shifted to being a focal point of the story when we realised that Travis and Grace, who has grown up in the cult and knows no other way to live, had the key relationship in the story.

“Also we were fascinated by how cults seem to be booming again. There’s a theory that cults start to thrive in times when people feel insecure about the world and their future and we noticed that lots of little splinter groups have popped up in recent years. So we started to ask – what was it that drew people into that world.”

How were you able to get a window into a world that is often very secretive and private – the world of cults?

“People who are attracted to alternative communities and cults are asking questions all the time,” Craig says. “They are sensitive and often highly intuitive people who see that society as it is doesn’t answer their questions and so they rightly go looking for somewhere and something else. So we had to dive into that.

“We ended up doing a lot of research on cult leaders. One guy in particular became a favourite of ours; he believes he is Jesus reincarnated, has a girlfriend called Mary (seriously) and he has a place up in country Queensland where the faithful go to see him and he has a lot of two-hour plus seminars on YouTube. Nick and I would watch hours of them, he’s an odd cat but he’s not without his charisma and, like a lot of people who run these sorts of communities, sometimes he’s actually got a point! When we realised we were buying into what he was saying about love and connection we realised we had to take a week off…”

The entire film is emotionally intense and suspenseful, but the tension ramps up enormously during the train carriage sequence. What it was like to shoot those scenes?

“Suspenseful!” Craig says. “The last sequence was also the last thing we shot – we tried to roughly shoot in sequence – so the tension you see was pretty real. Everything had been building up to that high stakes moment in the film and it really felt like everything was riding on that one moment between Travis and Grace. It was a very intense few days. Then there were dozens of extras, a real STAR force team; the whole catastrophe.

“On top of that we had a short window to shoot that whole sequence and some of the security guys who were running the rail yard were actively looking for ways to shut us down. I had one guy yelling in my face about people not wearing enough hi-viz being an excuse to throw us out. That was on the first morning of a three-day lock-in. I’d finished my acting job so I was crewing at that point and one of our main focuses was to keep everyone from knowing that there were a few people out in the train yard who had it in for us. It got to be kind of fun but it was another level of intensity.”

One of the central themes of the film is mental illness and vulnerability. How did you find working with that subject matter?

“I was a therapist for a short time so I had a window into that world and how it works,” Craig explains. “Some of the world of the hospital, and even the world of the cult, come from the things I saw and heard and learned in that time.

“Also we found that we were being pulled into that world of mental health and being on the edge because of the characters. Travis is right on the edge. Jay has pretty much crossed over to the other side. So we had to look really closely at what happened when those two met head on. Grace is the other side of the coin to Travis: she believes totally in what’s happening on the farm and believes totally in Jay and so her journey was to ask, ‘what else is there in life and how do we live?’

“Writing and shooting a world like that gives you lots of story options simply because the characters act and feel and think in ways that other people don’t. We really had to push that aspect of the writing and the acting – if we held back a bit, it didn’t work. If we made more extreme choices, it actually worked better because there was more action and more tension and also was more true to life.”

One Eyed Girl has been called ‘riveting’, ‘thrilling’, ‘engrossing’, ‘intense’, and ‘first rate’. You have achieved excellent reviews. How important is it for a film like this to be able to win awards and quote rave reviews?

“The reviews have been really important and winning Austin was a huge bump for us,” he says. “Austin Film Festival is a big deal and the reviews we got straight afterwards brought us a lot of attention in the U.S. It’s also made a big difference back home because the reality is that we still look to the U.S. in many ways and having kudos from them certainly made life easier in some ways at home.

“The American audiences and film people were really enthusiastic about the film, they really took to it in a way that I wasn’t expecting,” Craig concludes. “Obviously I hoped they’d like it but I was taken aback by their enthusiasm. That’s something I’ve really taken away from the whole experience, actually, that your audience is wide and deep and you have to trust your material to communicate.”

One Eyed Girl is screening at Palace Nova and Trak cinemas from Thu 30 Apr.


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