Interview – ‘Baby’ filmmakers James Di Martino and Llewellyn Michael Bates discuss their Slamdance short film

After witnessing a tragic hit and run car accident involving a pregnant woman, Mikaela, a young woman with Down syndrome, decides to set in motion her life’s goal of having a baby. After falling pregnant with Eric Charles, a fellow resident at her group home, fate intervenes and sets a course for the future of their child.

Following their premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Nick L’Barrow had a chance to chat with Baby‘s director James Di Martino and screenwriter Llewellyn Michael Bates about casting their film, where the inspiration for the story came from, and how they pulled off an incredible one-shot opening scene!

Nick: I really appreciate you both taking the time to chat today! And I wanted to begin just by saying, my mum is a special education teacher and my grandfather worked in a house for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. So, it’s been a big part of my life for so long. And when I see films like the one you both have made, I get so excited to see authentic and inclusive representation of people with disabilities on screen.

I’m curious to know what both of your experiences are working with people with disabilities, and the reasoning behind why it was important for you to make a film that showcases the inclusivity?

James Di Martino: So, I am hearing impaired. I have moderate-to-severe hearing loss that impacted me from when I was, like 4, 5. And it was diagnosed when I was in year five. So, I would’ve been about 10. So that’s a lot, it’s impacted everything you know from education to like working environments where there are a lot of people, trying to work out how to hear properly.

And I guess I’ve been embarrassed to say that I’ve got a disability as well, because no one really wants to have to say they can’t hear, you know. You don’t hear something, and people think you’re an idiot because you haven’t heard it, and you’re just really trying to focus to hear something.

I guess that’s my experience with having a disability. And then that made me want to do a film showcasing the essence or the authenticity of two adults that have a dream, and they have an intellectual disability. But they still have dreams like you and me! And I thought the script and the idea was very beautiful.

Llewellyn Michael Bates: I have an intellectual disability – dyslexia. And then I also have some other stuff. And I work in a theatre called Rollercoaster Theatre, which is a theatre that works with adults with mixed ability sets. All sorts of physical and also intellectual disabilities. I’m also a qualified teacher’s aide, as well. That’s sort of how I started getting into that field.

But I also grew up around disability. My grandfather had a stroke, and then also my father had a few undiagnosed mental illnesses. So it’s always been important to me to represent the world that I’ve seen around me and also my lived experience. And then I wanted to make a film! I’ve always just been interested in putting people with disabilities into the mainstream, and having them be a part of mainstream cinema, rather than be blocked.

And it was also important to me to showcase how great these actors are! They’re so amazing, they needed to be the stars of the film.

Nick: They are incredible in this film! And this isn’t the first time you have both worked together. So how did you both come to collaborate once more on this film?

James Di Martino: Yeah, so I guess our history goes back to small film festival in Melbourne called the Short and Sweet Film Festival, about eight years ago. I submitted a film, and we made it to the finals. But Llewellyn’s film won in the end! But I went up to him and said, “Well done”, and it turned into a friendship that has developed since then.

I went off to do some other projects. I made some other shorts. I made a feature film called The Faceless Man. And after that even, I didn’t really know my direction and where I wanted to go after I made a feature film. I wanted to make that, and I had everything that I wanted. And then COVID happens, then me and Llewellyn started talking all the time about films and stuff. So, I’m like, “Okay, what film project have you got for me?” And he hands me a film called City of Salt, which is another film based around disability. And that film did good and played like 30 film festival’s all around the world. But I think we realised we made it a bit too extreme.

Then when he handed me the script to Baby, I thought why don’t we make it a bit more optimistic. Why don’t we make this a G-rated film that anyone can watch. Then when I read it, everything started to click and I’m like, “Okay, this is an amazing film that needs to be told. We really need to tell Baby.” Because I think Baby is a film that everyone will watch.

Llewellyn Michael Bates: It’s been great working with James actually, because he’s somebody that really respects the writing. And also his ability to always surprise me with his creative vision of his directing.

We have a philosophy which is “the best idea wins”. So, like no matter who says, we want to make the best film possible. And I think James has no ego, he just wants to make the best film with the most impact.

He’s also very risky in his filmmaking. A lot of other people would have told us to cut the two minute long shot, and it was amazing to pull it off. Everybody told him that he couldn’t do it!

Nick: I genuinely wanted to ask about that shot, because it’s an incredible way to open the film. I love long, one-shot takes, but the technicalities you have in that scene is astounding. Can you please talk me through the process of creating that opening shot?

James Di Martino: This shot was something we had talked about, because there was a car crashing [in the scene]. There was a lot of resistance, believe it or not! We almost had to cut it!

In my feature film, there’s a nine minute long take, but it was just this theatrical show of two people talking in a busy environment. And during COVID, watching a lot of the great cinema masters like Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, and also Tarkovsky, made me realise that I needed to improve on my filmmaking. So, I’m like, “Okay, we’re doing the one shot”. But, I wanted the show to really mean something to the film. I wanted people to be drawn in.

I really want that to be my director signature. I’ve thought about my signature for a long time, and that’s what I want. And that means the long shot can be 30 seconds, it can be a minute, three minutes. But that kind of sets up the film. And that’s a risk I’m willing to take because I’m a sucker for one-shot takes when I see them! I admire the work that’s gone into them.

Nick: When you wrote that scene in the script, Llewellyn, did you ever envision that it would play out as a one-shot take?

Llewellyn Michael Bates: Ah, no, I didn’t to be totally honest with you. When it started, it was all audio only because I didn’t envision that we’d have the money to do a car crash! But when he [James] was like, “Can we do a car crash?” And I said, “Yes, I would love that!” But originally, it started with a bike accident rather than a car crash. I don’t get really involved in the direction of the film, that’s really James’ vision. I just give him the good material! [laughs]

Nick: It’s an incredible shot! Before we wrap up, I want to ask about the beautiful cast in this film! What was the process in finding the cast for Baby?

James Di Martino: For Erin Kearn [Mikaela], Llewellyn had given me a contact for Back to Back Theatre, which is actually located in Melbourne. And I messaged them asking if they had someone around 21, who has Down Syndrome, that we could interview or talk to. And they sent me a photo of Erin, and we got her to do a screen test, and as soon as I saw the screen test I was like, “This person has something.” And then the next step was we met with her and her mum.

It’s always a risk to take on someone that’s never done a film before, that just goes for any actor. I’ve had history with actors who haven’t done a film before, where it becomes a lot for them. So I didn’t want to bring her into a situation where a casted her as the lead, and midway through the film, they don’t want to do it anymore.

But when I met Erin and Erin’s mum, magic happened because we saw all the characteristics we were looking for in Mikaela. And they were the most beautiful people, her and her mum. And it was through the support of her mum and dad that we got this film done, because they live so far away from shooting. Like, four hours away. And they came down to every film day and were so encouraging of their daughter.

Daniel [Facciolo] is a part of Chapter 5 Studios, and he has a great role in the film and did a great job on the fake TV show. And there is my fiancée who was in the film as Kara, but she also was a producer and did the storyboards for the film, after I did all of my shitty one [laughs].

Llewellyn Michael Bates: Michael Buxton was in another short film that I wrote, and he goes to the theatre company which I work in. I just knew working with him on the other script that I wanted him to be the lead, like the male star in this film. And I took elements of his character and made him more sassy in the film!

And I met Yiana Pandelis through her brother because we used to work at a supermarket together! And while I was stealing coconuts, he was like, “My sister does acting. She’s really great.” And then four movies later, I just think she’s an incredible, nuanced actress who’s very understated and really amazing to work with. I always cast her in a lot of my films. I love working with her.

Thank you to James and Llewellyn for their time. Baby is playing as part of the Short Films line up at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, with more festival screenings planned during 2024.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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