A three-hour film, shot almost entirely from the back seat of a car, of two Melbourne lawyers talking: that doesn’t sound like crowd pleaser. But Melbourne solicitor David Easteal The plains received rave reviews at that year’s Rotterdam Film Festival. Some critics even call it the big hit of the festival’s Tiger competition.
Easteal shot the film with his friend and former colleague Andrew Rakowski in the driver’s seat. They met while working at a law firm in Springvale, an eastern suburb. Both lived in Kensington in Melbourne’s mid-west. “When we found out we lived pretty close, he started driving me home,” Easteal says.
The journey took between 45 minutes and an hour. You can say a lot in an hour. Because everyone is coping, it can feel like therapy. “That’s when I met Andrew,” says Easteal. “Our friendship grew during this time – an unlikely friendship in a way – and I got to know his wife and mother, who died during that year.”
His wife Cheri is only glimpsed in the film, but he called her every day when he got home. He also called his mother. He and Cheri both had very elderly parents in Adelaide and drove there so often that they had bought a house in Horsham which they had come to love. The plains of the title are seen in drone footage on an iPad: a flat, brown country that had become their refuge.
Easteal tried to write a more conventional script by picking up on things they had discussed: the critical points of middle age. “That age when, as an adult, both parents die and your own mortality is therefore brought to the fore. Struggles at work; the feeling of being stuck. Those are things I wanted to explore, but I had little success.
He doesn’t remember how he decided to make the film with Rakowski himself. It wasn’t hard to convince, he says. “I don’t think he thought it would be in Rotterdam, I think he just thought of it as something to do.” But he remembers it was the idea of recreating the car rides, in which he and Rakowski would both play characters like them, that he felt was right.
“I’ve always loved cars and driving scenes, so this was a unique opportunity to shoot an entire film in a car. Being able to observe the outside world highlights the fact that so much is left to chance with every shot. When we get into traffic it’s completely out of my control as a filmmaker, but it’s remarkable how often what’s happening in the car blends in with what’s happening in the outside world and traffic in a way that I think, looking at now, is quite miraculous. ”
At this point, they were no longer working together. They would meet once a month and go their old route, having agreed on what was to happen during that month’s shoot a few days in advance. “The precise dialogue was not scripted,” Easteal explains. “I think it would have been impossible. Authenticity was important. Andrew is not an actor and neither am I. I just wrote where each reader was going to go; it was structured improvisation.