Interview – ‘Limbo’ Writer/Director Ivan Sen

Limbo is a the latest film from one of the most unique and important voices in Australian film, Ivan Sen (Mystery Road, Goldstone). The film follows Simon Baker (The Mentalist, The Devil Wears Prada) as jaded detective, Travis Hurley as he travels to the eponymous town of Limbo in outback South Australia to investigate a 20 year cold case of the murder of a local indigenous girl. As Travis delves deeper and truths are uncovered, he gains a new insight into the case as he becomes increasingly sympathetic to the victim’s family. Sen’s monochromatic mood piece is a poignant meditation on loss where the silences are deafening and a profound exploration of the impact of the Australian justice system on Aboriginal families.

To celebrate the upcoming release of Limbo in Australian cinemas on May 18, I had the privilege of chatting to the film’s writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, colourist and composer, Ivan Sen.

Sean Coates: You’ve made Neo-Noir detective films in a Western setting before with Mystery Road and its sequel Goldstone, and Limbo follows in those footsteps both thematically and in terms of genre, but what makes this film different to those?

Ivan Sen: Yeah, it’s in the same family as Mystery Road and Goldstone, but this time it’s more about the interaction of the Australian justice system with the indigenous experience and the conflict that has been part of that for the past couple of hundred years. So instead of having an indigenous cop, this time he’s a white cop and the whole racial interaction between the police officer and the indigenous family he is trying to help is the catalyst for the drama.

Sean Coates: And that cop character, Travis Hurley, played by Simon Baker who is incredible in the film. I feel most audiences would know him from The Mentalist as a smarmy handsome guy, but he is very much performing against type here. I’m curious to know if that character was written specifically with Baker in mind?

Ivan Sen: No, I’d written the story without choosing any specific actor, but as soon as Simon showed interest in the script and he wanted to do it, the whole character had another draft and we focused the character of Travis Hurley right onto Simon and his strengths and we worked on the character together after he came on board.

I’ve always been a fan of his right back to The Guardian which I think was his first American series. I actually wanted to work with Simon years ago, probably around 2004 I think but it didn’t happen and I’ve always been a fan of his non-verbal ability. For years now, i’ve wanted a chance to work with Simon and expand on his ability to tell a story without having to talk in a cinematic way. And funnily enough, it’s exactly what he wanted to do where he didn’t have to speak too much verbally and tell the story in other ways, so he was really into that from the beginning.

Sean Coates: It’s certainly a film where a lot is said in the silences. It has a pretty intense atmosphere and very sparse dialogue and music and some great sound design. I feel something Australian cinema does better than anyone is place as character, and for a film called Limbo, I’d imagine that was incredibly important. You shot the film in Coober Pedy and while watching the film, it felt like you had wanted to make a film here for a long time and that the idea for Limbo was born out of this. Is there any truth to that?

Ivan Sen: When I was filming Goldstone, I think it was around 2014, I got a very strong feeling of wanting to do something in Coober Pedy and it was just waiting for the opportunity to arrive. I was actually thinking of writing the first Mystery Road TV series set in Coober Pedy, but I decided to hand off the TV side of things and told them not to go near Coober Pedy for the Mystery Road series because I wanted to save that for Limbo.

There’s something about the underground aspect, feeling you’re in this…I don’t know, this halfway between worlds kind of existence. That was a great location to symbolise the story of these people who are stuck in limbo in their own lives in different ways.

Sean Coates: Absolutely. That between worlds environment you described is really emphasised no just by the giant craters from all the opal mining in Coober Pedy, but also the decision for the film to be black and white. I understand the film was graded to Black and White in post-production, so was the film always intended to be Black and White from the beginning or was that decision made later on in the production?

Ivan Sen: Originally, I wanted to shoot the movie in colour, but on 35mm film. I felt film had the ability to capture the colours in a more truthful way, because I’m not a fan of digital cinematography and I really think the cameras have a long way to go to capture the atmosphere that film can. But after doing some test shoots, it was very difficult because film is not really shot professionally in Australia anymore, so there weren’t enough resources to help for that to go on.

So I thought “okay, if I shoot digital, I’m gonna make it black and white because I don’t like the colour” and I know that location has a lot of minerals in the dirt that make the ground white and I always wanted to get a black Dodge Phoenix into this movie from the very beginning as well. That was there before any of the characters, so I had to spend a lot of effort finding that car. No one really understood the importance of it except for me, so I had to find it myself.

Sean Coates: What is the importance of the car?

Ivan Sen: It’s just the look of the car, the feel of the car, the colour of the car. I wanted a nostalgic feel to the film and I felt the black and white could also capture that car in a way that gave the feeling that this film was kind of in a memory or people living in a memory.

Sean Coates: Well, speaking of nostalgia and memory, Limbo had its world premiere in competition at the Berlinale back in February. Your debut feature, Beneath Clouds also premiered in competition there back in 2002. What was it like returning to Berlin with this film and how was the experience from when you first went just over 20 years ago?

Ivan Sen: Oh look, the first time I went to the Berlinale, it was amazing. It was my first screening of my first film ever. And to see 2000 people on the other side of the world, and I hadn’t really travelled much back then either. It was amazing, it was surreal and it was a bit of a wake up call to how international film can be and how it can speak to different people around he world no matter where they come from.

And this time when I went back just over 20 years later, it was kind of a similar feeling but a bit more muted I think. Partly because there’s a war going on in Europe which has put a certain atmosphere onto the whole festival, let alone my experience of it. But in saying that, it was pretty amazing to go back. It’s such a people festival, you really get the feel normal people are going to your screening as opposed to other big festivals where the public don’t really get to rub shoulders with you. So yeah, amazing experience both times.

Sean Coates: In that festival setting, taking a film like Limbo that is so uniquely Australian, is there always a sense of uncertainty of how an international audience will respond to or engage with your films?

Ivan Sen: Yeah. I mean, the thing about these big festivals, especially in the competitions, you get maximum exposure and there’s nowhere to hide. You know, you’re a deer in headlights and sometimes you can get hit (laughs) pretty heavily or sometimes it works, it comes off really well and you get a lot of positivity out of the festival for the film. But in saying that, I think Australian audiences will get much more out of the film than an international audience as Australians are more attuned to what’s going on in their own country as other people in their own countries.

Thank you to Ivan Sen for a such a wonderful interview. Limbo opens in Australian cinemas from May 18.


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