Interview with George-Alex Nagle, director of Mate
Wednesday 2 February 2022, by ,
After a long time apart, local no-hoper John must take care of reserved schoolboy Jack over a weekend in an insular working-class outpost of Western Sydney. However, Jack’s attempt to re-establish their relationship is threatened as John’s self-destructive nature emerges. Mate examines themes of masculinity, maturity and the challenges of growth within a changing social landscape.
What did you seek to explore through the relationship between John and Jack?
For my co-writer Daniel Corboy and myself, the starting point of this film was questioning “what would my thirteen-year-old self-think of my thirty-year-old self?” Although both characters and their relationship to one another did evolve greatly throughout the writing process, and although we were trying to make relatable and autonomous characters that felt ‘real’, metaphorically they were always intended as ‘two sides of the same coin’ with Jack representing an innocence and youth lost to John, and John representing a possible outcome for Jack. In fact, this idea informed the narrative structure of the film. We enter the story through John, but gradually there is subtle perspective shift and by the end it is very much Jack’s story.
Are either of them based on people you know or personal experiences?
There’s definitely a lot of both me and Corboy in them. Some of it is exaggerated, some of it metaphoric, and some of it is closer to truth than we’re proud to admit. But having said that, there’s a lot of many people we know, both present and former friends, in these characters too. It’s interesting, although John might admittedly be an “unlikable” character, and Jack is maybe somewhat of innocent “blank slate”, it has been surprising to see just how relatable they both are to many people. I think they both seem to tap into anxieties of crossing certain thresholds of maturity.
Tell us more about the area the story is set in.
Our story is set and shot around Werrington and Kingswood which are surrounding suburbs of Penrith, a large hub on the western perimeter of Sydney near the foot of the Blue Mountains. It’s as far west from central Sydney as you can get whilst still being in Sydney. Like much of western Sydney, Penrith’s surrounding suburbs would typically be perceived as very ‘working class’, some parts around there would definitely be described as ‘lower socio-economic areas’ and in more recent decades would be seen as areas of great cultural diversity, with many migrant communities moving there over the years. But now, it’s in somewhat of a state of flux. There’s been a great deal of economic investment in the area, with large building and infrastructure projects going up, as well as huge new housing developments. We chose this area for our story for two reasons. Firstly, Corboy grew up here and many of the characters reflect people he knew and still knows. And secondly, we liked the idea of John being the product of a world that was rapidly changing yet leaving him behind.
What subjects and genres do you like working with as a filmmaker?
Both Corboy and I are inspired by a broad range of subjects, topics, characters and worlds. But personally, although it’s not necessarily intentional, I seem to gravitate towards stories about the complexities of familial relationships, and Mate is no exception. I think we’re both fairly agnostic when it comes to genre. Corboy adamantly asserts that character is the only thing that matters, everything else is secondary, including genre, and I agree. But having said that, we’d both like to have a stab at working within most genres, as long as the film favours character and theme above fulfilling particular set genre conventions. Mate’s genre would clearly be considered as ‘drama’, but it could easily have been a comedy. In fact, there was much more dark humour in earlier drafts of the script, and in early edits, and it just naturally evolved into being a drama. Perhaps if we were to re-edit it, it might just be more comedy than drama.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
Many. So many. But one film that made an impression on me with regards to the creation of this particular filmwas Avant Que De Tout Perdre by Xavier Legrand, which I believe was in Clermont-Ferrand in 2013. It’s an incredible film with such a high sense of relentless tension throughout the entire story, and I love that it just drops you right into an unfolding conflict with enormous stakes but with very little initial exposition just giving us the bare essentials as the conflict develops. In Australia, for various reasons, we’re highly discouraged to make long-short or ‘mid-length’ films, but this story really felt like it needed to be thirty minutes long, no longer, no shorter. Although our stories differ greatly, I was directly inspired by many elements of this film. Also, several years ago I was representing my former film school in a student preprogramme at FIPA in Biarritz. I got to see many great student films from film schools around the world, but I was particularly impressed by the French and Belgian films. They all felt very natural, honest and understated, yet very succinct, and they all seemed to be about small conflicts but with very large character and thematic implications. One particular film that struck a chord with me was called Paul et Viginie by Paul Cartron which is about a young boy learning to care for his mother. I still watch this film from time to time.
What’s your definition of a good film?
Corboy’s definition of a good film is very succinct; “does the film teach me something about humanity for the better?”. I don’t entirely agree with him necessarily, and I have my own personal metric. I don’t have any biases toward genres, styles, or whether the film has a thesis, central point or position being argued. For me a “good” film is one which ‘achieves what it sets out to achieve’, regardless of what that might be. Having said that, I understand this is a fairly intellectual way of viewing films, and admittedly I do tend to critically analyse films when I watch them. So, to me, a “really good” film is one which makes forget to analyse it because I’m immersed in the story and characters. The best films make me stop engaging with it intellectually because I’m engaged by it emotionally.