We talk with the Australian director, whose scrupulously detailed first feature film premieres locally at UW Cinematheque on November 17.
David Easteal finds a new meditative grammar for the road movie in The Plains (2022), a rigorously composed docufiction epic about our habitual commute, the intimacy of impermanence, and the subtly direct intermediary of technology.
In the casting of himself as a secondary character to the film’s principal traveler (and occasional chauffeur) Andrew Rakowski, Easteal’s film feels endlessly amidst a journey—treading on business routes and Monash Freeway beyond the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, meandering through the life and times of its quinquagenarian driver over a 12-month period. A fixed static shot in the backseat of Rakowski’s compact Hyundai Elantra frames his world view, quite literally, as he peers out at the skyline and his fellow 5 p.m. commuters rolling along between traffic lights and km/h speed limit signs. But it’s the audible space within the car’s interior and Rakowski’s routine that command attention over a nearly three-hour duration, whether it’s listening to the hum of talk radio (on 93.1 and 105.9 presets) for a minute after turning the ignition, phoning his longtime wife Cheri or 95-year-old mother Inga at a nursing home (through his earbuds), chatting with fellow barrister and firm colleague Easteal, or simply sitting speechless as the gusting ambiance of the roadway fills the vehicle’s cozy, confined environs.
In its series of plainspoken, philosophical car conversations, The Plains shares some commonality with the tradition of Iranian art cinema from the minds of Abbas Kiarostami (Taste Of Cherry, Ten) or Jafar Panahi (Taxi Tehran). But while those filmmakers’ works traffic in a postmodernist artifice, Easteal’s film candidly expresses the most at face value. It explores the sorts of interpersonal drama that might make it into a conventional narrative or even documentary about family and friends while also remarkably encapsulating the invisible lines between them in terms of diction, half-seen body language, and what many might call the unromantic mundanity of everyday interaction. The film’s earnest virtues here align it more closely with the nearly dialogue-free documentary Cousin Jules (1972), Dominique Benicheti’s enthralling, almost devout five-year chronicle of an elderly French couple’s daily agrarian rituals.
Easteal reapplies a similar aesthetic to Benicheti to construct a film deeply rooted in the customs of contemporary Australia and shifting landscapes like so many other places in the post-industrialized Western world (including Madison). Where the first two shots from Rakowski’s Elantra may provide the impression of a rigidly formalist ethnographic feature like Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2013) or a structuralist experiment like James Benning and Bette Gordon’s avant-garde road trip The United States Of America (1975), Easteal navigates off the beaten path, inviting profound variations into his cinematic sandbox. By way of contrast, he introduces recurring interludes of landscapes from a multi-rotor drone that Rakowski remotely pilots in the sky above his 1,000-acre estate in Horsham (hours away from his routine drive) en route to his mother’s nursing home in Adelaide. These digital “first-person” clips, the only moments where a camera pans or tilts in any direction, re-contextualize Rakowski’s dialogues in relation to our acceptance and use of technology as a medium for observation (including the film itself).
The Plains isn’t burdened by political meditations, and yet it quietly plants a few seeds of commentary concerning our predominantly accepted means of interaction fostering an ubiquitous spike in intergenerational anxiety. When the younger Easteal, in his early 30s, first appears as Rakowski’s carpooling passenger in the second shot, for a moment it seems as if the driver is using his vehicle like an elevator, a mode of transport as a playful trap or a means to carry on a conversation face-to-face without potential technological interference. While this is never addressed outright, The Plains could further be defined thematically by such preoccupation. It’s a panacea to the inflated, hyperactive montages of modern cinema that cater to our dwindling attention spans, as we retreat behind falsely comforting intermediaries in our palms rather than devoting our eyes to the concrete road and terrain before us.
In advance of the local premiere of The Plains at UW Cinematheque on November 17, at 7 p.m., Easteal graciously offered his time amid his globe-trotting tour of the film to talk via Zoom about this modestly complex, yet epic work. He touched upon the interplay between the film’s real-life origins and written construct, themes of ephemerality pertaining to life and landscape, the liberating and idiosyncratic process of making and editing the film, concurrently developing a great friendship with Andrew Rakowski amidst the film’s production, the revelation of identifying themes in poet Seamus Heaney’s discussion of one’s parents passing, the significance of “deceptively simple” sound design, and the aspect of subtitling.
There are spoilers for the film below.
Tone Madison: The last film I reviewed for Tone Madison was Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s Take Out (2004), which is another film that sort of blurs the modes of documentary and fiction. I feel like the tension and interplay between those modes really makes for an exciting experience. Invigorating, even. How much of The Plains would you estimate is fiction? Or maybe a better question to ask is how much of the dialogue is rehearsed and how much is improvisatory?
David Easteal: It’s all dramatized insofar as it wasn’t ever just putting a camera in the back of Andrew’s car and seeing what would happen. Every time we drove, we knew where the conversation was going to go. That had been written, but the precise dialogue was improvised by and large for the entire film. There might have been a few things that I specified for Andrew to say, but most of the writing was more in the shape of the conversations during each drive. So, starting with the overall shape—around the death of Andrew’s mother [Inga], and the coworker [me] entering the film and leaving. That was looking back at a time when I worked with Andrew. The initial concept of the film was more a dramatization of this time that occurred in the past when he drove me home, and I witnessed his mother passing away. Perhaps it is working in a more documentary method, as we shot it over such a long duration that things started to happen over the course of a year. It then became a process of integrating more contemporaneous things into the film, such as when Cheri’s mother passed away. That happened during the shoot, and it became an [off-camera] dialogue about whether or not we would bring that into the film. It was an invigorating way to work. In many ways, the details of the film weren’t there from the outset. It was a very engaging year, because we constantly had to reevaluate what was going on, while keeping in mind the broader shape of the film and Andrew and Cheri playing versions of themselves. That adds another level of complexity. Particularly when they’re reflecting on things in their own lives, there were lots of conversations about how that would be presented and what information would be given.
Tone Madison: Maybe this is a loaded question, but would you like to get into your relationship with Andrew that exists outside the frame you’ve set up in this film? Talk more on the origins of the film?
David Easteal: When we started the process, I’d approached Andrew, because we had worked together. The narrative where he started to drive me home came from that time, and we developed a friendship of sorts over that year. I feel like I can see that reflected in the film, that you sense the bond between the characters growing, which is reflective of what was going on in real life. Although we knew each other, we didn’t have a close relationship in any way. But it deepened through the making of the film.
The documentary element for me, in reference to the previous question—you get the frame within the frame on the streets of Melbourne, which is totally out of my control. And there is this interaction between what’s being observed [through the windscreen] and what’s going on in the car. That, I also found, was quite an invigorating way of working. You never knew what was going to happen. There are a few times in the film [that only really resonate for me because of this interaction]—for instance, the first time there’s any deep conversation that’s not completely superficial, [happens] when a truck’s broken down towards the start of the film. Andrew’s moving at great speed on the highway, and then you’re [suddenly] brought to a [stop]. Twenty minutes into a drive, it suddenly provides an opportunity for this quietness in the car, which led to the conversation shifting in a more engaging way.
Tone Madison: That’s kind of a neat segue into my next question or next part of this line of questioning. As a further meditation, have you thought about this film as a kind of video diary on the ephemerality of the Australian landscape, and how it will change over time? What are your thoughts about development that’s happening in The Plains? It’s interesting—I read Chloe Lizotte’s review for Cinema Scope, which is really excellent. I really appreciate how she mentions that specter of development in the building that’s being constructed across the way from the entrance to your office park that you see gradually built up over the course of the film.
David Easteal: That was part of the intention, to see a year pass in a visual way and the changes in the physical environment. When I was working out there, the light would change so dramatically over the course of 12 months, and I wanted to show that, if we’re talking about a film that deals with a passage of time. Also, we get to see these shifts in [the landscape] along the way. I thought it was quite fortuitous how that building was developed across from the carpark—another thing I had no idea was going to happen at the start of the process. For me, the film is about this ephemerality and impermanence of things—this sense of time relentlessly rushing forward. You can’t really control it. Yeah, you can create all these habits to maybe gain some sense of control, but really, everything is passing and changing. There’s constant change [as we see Andrew] driving, in the motion of the film, too. And these themes come out [in certain aspects of of the narrative as well, such as] with the death of Andrew’s mother. It’s neatly tied in—if you’re exploring these themes of impermanence, to show that in a way with the physical environment.
Tone Madison: You said it was filmed over 12 months. What year or years was that?
David Easteal: We finished just before the pandemic [at the end] of 2019. We shot about once per month. That was the original intention. We did shoot 12 months, but only 11 appear in the film. It was somewhat experimental starting this process, so the very first one didn’t make the cut. We’d shoot for two days each month just to ensure that we had a second take, really, because we could only do one take per day. You can’t fake the evening rush hour.
Tone Madison: [laughs] That’s true. I’ve never been to Melbourne, but seeing this routine all the time made me reflect on growing up in suburbia and longing for even like these banal, corporately-affiliated places of my youth that no longer exist but were there in the late 1990s. I often wish I had some photographic evidence in my fading memory of history. With this film specifically finalized, you don’t have to worry as much about that, because it’s all there. It’s contained in this combination of documentary and fiction.
David Easteal: That wasn’t necessarily an intention starting out, but I can see that to be the case. I often find older Frederick Wiseman films more interesting than the current ones, perhaps because you have that window and record into a different period of time.
Tone Madison: Would you say that Wiseman was an influence on this work or just your aesthetic or sensibility?
David Easteal: I certainly respect Wiseman a lot, but I think this is much more shaped than how I understand his work to be. [He’s] observing in a more detached way and not influencing what’s going on in front of the camera. This had a greater degree of writing, but I certainly love some of his films, and I’m sure they’ve shaped part of [my] cinematic influence even if I’m not consciously thinking about it.
Tone Madison: To consider my next question a little more broadly, I see that you also directed some short films in the late 2000s and 2010s. How was the experience of making them—maybe the last one I see on your IMDb page anyway—Monaco (2015), radically different or remarkably similar to this one? Did The Plains unexpectedly teach you anything new as a filmmaker—what you found that works really well or what maybe doesn’t work?
David Easteal: Well, we made The Plains in an idiosyncratic way. The shooting crew was myself, a cinematographer [Simon J. Walsh], and [actor] Andrew Rakowski. I recorded the sound. But then, when I appear in the film, we had another sound recordist [Steven Bond]. At most, it was a crew of two and two actors, or one actor, which differed greatly from when I made short films. Those were much more conventionally made. They had more fully-formed scripts, [standard] casting, location[-scouting], and shooting to a schedule. This was completely different in a number of ways. I really loved working in this way. It was, uh—
Tone Madison: Relaxing, maybe?
David Easteal: It felt a lot more free and intimate. But it suited the project in a way. I don’t know if you could always make films like this. But, in theory, no one else could fit in the car. So it’s not really made for anyone else.
I never went to film school, so I feel as though making short films was a process of figuring out the type of films that I’d like to make and how to make them. I can [connect the dots when I look back at the shorts]. What I made before Monaco, for instance, they’re much more conventionally narrative-based.
Tone Madison: It’s kinda funny—when I visited your official website, the still image for Monaco is of a character sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, so I wondered if there was any thematic connection between The Plains and that film.
David Easteal: I think there are some thematic connections between the films, myself. Although, they’re very different characters. Certainly, the framing I first used [in the opening shot of] Monaco appeals to me, and I went with that for this film. I grew up in suburbia in Australia, too, where I spent a great deal of my life just driving around the Melbourne suburbs. It’s an experience deeply embedded in me, and so there’s a lot I like about driving—sort of being disconnected from the world but passing through it. Picking up on that in The Plains, it was such an interesting thing, this evening commute, where thousands of people in these vessels are moving through the city together, but separate from each other, with the sole purpose of just getting from the workplace to their homes. Perhaps I was drawn to the car initially from my own lived experience growing up and [how I] viewed the world. It’s an interesting place to make a film, for the [visual] reasons we’ve talked about, but also—how we engage with each other. I’ve had people come up to me after seeing the film and say, “Well, that’s the only place where I can speak to my adolescent child.” There’s something about not looking directly at someone that maybe permits a greater opening for conversation.
Tone Madison: Yeah, that’s quite moving, actually. And melancholic. I mean, you don’t have the full context of what they’re trying to communicate, but to evoke that sort of response—seems like you’ve fulfilled some sort of objective with this work.
David Easteal: Yeah, Andrew isn’t an actor, and for the film to have any sort of emotional resonance—to get some sort of honesty, I was worried about facing the camera directly [on him]. So, by putting the camera in the back, I was hoping to preserve that quality there in the communication in the car.
Tone Madison: My next question is maybe taking another left turn, so to speak. I was thinking about this film in the wake of COVID-19—you said this was filmed before that—so maybe this is particularly relevant, then, about how it affected the workplace. We’re not only more regularly communicating remotely, sort of like we’re this interview across countries, but now we’re also working evermore remotely away from each other, out of the confines of a traditional office setting. Another technological barrier to face-to-face interaction. Have audiences directly mentioned this in their responses to the film? Or have you addressed this publicly in your personal introductions at screenings, about Andrew’s working life now, since the timeline of your filming?
David Easteal: People have asked about Andrew, but not necessarily commented on the shifts more broadly that have happened caused by the pandemic. And true, maybe like you were saying, it’ll provide a historical document of Melbourne streets at that time, but also commuting life, which might be a thing of the past to some degree. It did cause a lot of people to reflect on how much time is spent commuting. At least in Melbourne, there still seems to be a resistance to go back to the office full-time.
I think Andrew does work a lot more online, and he’s probably not driving down the M1 [Monash Freeway] all that often.
Tone Madison: Speaking for yourself, how did your work life change since March of 2020?
David Easteal: I still practice law as a day job. Like everyone, it’s gone a lot more online. I left that job a long time before [filming The Plains with Andrew], so I hadn’t been commuting. I was working in the center of Melbourne. But the work I do in my legal career is predominantly court-based advocacy, and that all went online for a period of time. I mean, in Melbourne, it still sort of is, but things are easing back to being in person. Life became a lot smaller and more insular. It had a profound effect on keeping life contained to one location, which is in sharp contradiction to the film where you’re having to move great distances through the city. […] Thankfully, we finished the shoot prior to the pandemic, because that would have completely disrupted the whole project.
Tone Madison: I actually wasn’t sure when this was filmed. It premiered this year, correct? At first, I thought it may have actually been filmed mostly during the pandemic—although, it’s now clear why that couldn’t have been the case. I wasn’t sure how much post-production time was spent on it, but thanks for clarifying that.
David Easteal: There was post-production, but was also a difficult time for launching films. We initially wanted to eschew a digital launch. However, we ended up having one, as Rotterdam [Film Festival in late January] went virtual at the last moment. For a long time, we were contemplating how to best launch the film. The situation was changing so much all the time with film festivals. It took until the beginning of this year to release the film due to the post-production process but also in terms of navigating the landscape during those years, which was turbulent as everything was. [This film couldn’t have been] shot during lockdown in Melbourne. You didn’t have rush hour.
Tone Madison: So, it’s also a document of our lives or your life and Andrew’s pre-pandemic: the Before Times. [laughs]
I’d like to move on to a question about use of the drone footage. Those aerial shots are pretty striking, especially when we first see them. That dramatic shift in framing almost seems like a virtual reality simulation for skydiving or something. Fear-of-heights, acrophobia therapy. [laughs] But the handful of these interludes have a very down-to-earth humanity to them, too, in the audio we hear from Andrew and sometimes Cheri. Eventually, Andrew intentionally turns the camera from the drone around from the landscapes to himself and Cheri. I think they’re sitting just off their porch on their estate. It’s sort of the film’s grand reveal, because we’re seeing this static shot from the back of the car for two hours and forty-some minutes. How did you conceive integrating these scenes with the main shots? Was this more of a natural collaboration with Andrew—like, you just told him to film some stuff? Or did you have a lot more input into what he was doing with that?
David Easteal: I first thought to use the drone footage in a [car scene] where his character would show me footage on an iPad. And that was just something I had written. As I discussed earlier, our friendship grew over the course of the shoot. I learnt more about this part of his life. This was another theme in the film, which kind of developed in the process of making it. I didn’t have the idea to explore that from the outset. Having the footage actually put directly into the edit of the film was a post-production idea. During the edit, it was important [to be more creative]—I wasn’t making a mathematical James Benning type of film where you have 10 shots of 10 minutes [each]. If you’re not doing something like that, it’s important in the edit to try various things. The edit then became a very creative process. Many things were tried in the edit, and the idea came to integrate these shots directly. I liked what they did, as you mentioned with the dialogue that was recorded on the controller of the drone. So, you get a visual from the drone but these moments between Andrew and Cheri. Nothing important is being said, but you get this little insight into their relationship. Tender, sweet moments. Even if nothing is really being said, it gives you a greater sense of their love and relationship, which [hopefully] helped to engage with such a long duration.
I like those sound bits as much as the striking visuals. Most of them were actually shot by Andrew himself. He showed me recordings of a number of these [videos]. There were one or two where—once I had the idea to integrate them directly into the film, I asked Andrew to do one. So there’s a mix of ones he recorded naturally by himself or with Cheri, and one or two he did for the film. But it wasn’t a process where I was there directing. He was at the property, and I just gave him an indication as to what I was after and left it to him.
Tone Madison: Maybe in those sequences, they feel collaborative in a certain way—a unique way. I’m trying to think of anything to even compare it to, but it’s just fascinating insight into the whole edit and filming process.
David Easteal: Someone I know compared it to the use of shots of the Israeli desert in Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015). But again, that was never an intentional reference. Perhaps that was somewhere subliminally in the back of my mind.
I only [came up with the] title of The Plains very late in the edit process as well. And it’s kind of interesting how this theme and artifact of Andrew’s life has become the title of the film. I mention this in the director’s statement, but when I was editing, I listened to an interview with [poet] Seamus Heaney talking about the time of his life when his parents both passed away in his middle-age. The effect this had on him. Suddenly, there was no one above him, no parental roof. He was next. The sense of his own mortality came at this time. It occurred to me how that’s a major part of what this film’s about. I just happened to listen to it during the edit, and it clarified to me that it’s happening both in Cheri’s life and Andrew’s. Heaney used a metaphor—the roof of the barn being removed and the sky above [representing] his own mortality [being exposed]. I seemed to resonate with images of Andrew and Cheri on this vast landscape just with the hope in the sky above them.
Tone Madison: I want to move on to the aspect of sound in the film. I’m obsessed with phonetics on the surface and the idiosyncrasies of language and diction. The intense character study of the film is unique in that I feel you hear so much more than you actually see. I really feel like I’ve spent weeks with Andrew, learning his distinctive way of accounting for indistinct time by saying things in triplets. Like, he’ll say, “5, 6, 7 years” or “20, 30, 40 years” quite often. But it’s all still very cinematic by virtue of its verisimilitude, and your methods of breaking the expectations of a formal experiment. You don’t start a shot at the same exact place every time. How much time did you and your sound department spend on design, recording, and mixing compared to all the time used to set up the car camera?
David Easteal: I agree. I put a lot of importance on sound. I’ve worked with the same sound designer [Nick Batterham] now through two short films and for The Plains, and he’s fantastic. The mix we did in Paris is really good. For me, the sound was a great challenge. First of all, we’re not recording a Hollywood movie where the car is on some sort of tray [and the sound is emanating from] different vehicles. So you naturally have the sound of the car’s engine. And if you’re recording sync dialogue, that can be difficult to do. The car’s engine, when it’s going on a freeway at 80 km/h [50 mp/h], is quite loud. To [find] an intimacy with the characters, the dialogue had to be quite present and clear. The sound designer had to give the sound a sort of stereo width with the rumble, so it’s kind of deceptively simple. But it was a complex process.
The dialogue was recorded sync with some car sounds, but then I think [Batterham] went and recorded the same ride in Andrew’s car silently to get this stereo [Dolby] Atmos that could then be used to various effects at different times throughout the film. It would be difficult to sustain the film as a viewer if you’re stuck in this grumbly car noise that drowns out dialogue. Having that dialogue come through clearly and not have to strain for it was important. That was the primary focus on the shoot. The design then involved—say there’s a truck going past where you’d want to have more in the stereo mix, that was all recorded on the same roads. You also have other elements like the radio, which was sort of all constructed in post[-production] in the sound designer’s studio.
Tone Madison: It’d be interesting to consider this film with an electric car where the noise is minimal, and that would also translate to the widespread use of electric cars and how much quieter the roadways would be, and how that would change aural experience of the film—or any film, but specifically this one.
Something that goes along with discussion of sound and being able to hear things clearly—the version of the film that I watched was entirely subtitled. Is that the case for theatrical presentations of The Plains?
David Easteal: When we show the film in countries where English is a second language, we usually present it with English subtitles. It greatly assists people [in the audience], as they’re not able to see the mouths of the people speaking. So it’s just dialogue being spoken without the visual aid present if you see someone speak. And perhaps if there’s any difficulties with the Australian accent. For those two reasons we do put subtitles on when we’ve shown the film in Europe, Asia, or South America here [Mar Del Plata, Argentina].
Tone Madison: But otherwise, the subtitles or closed captions aren’t on?
David Easteal: When we show the film in Australia or in England or in the US—at the upcoming Cinematheque screening, I don’t believe it’ll have subtitles.
Tone Madison: Oh, interesting. I guess that nullifies my question. [laughs] I thought it was a universal thing or decision that you made for accessibility [because there’s so much dialogue] and for the reason you mention, in that you don’t see the mouths move—and it’s not a traditional shot structure.
I thought it was excellent. As someone who wants to be as attentive as possible and pick up on every word being said, and who’s looking away from the screen to take notes, subtitling is really beneficial.
David Easteal: I like that aspect to it as well. Accessibility is very important. It’s a dialogue with whoever is screening the film, but most of the time the desire is not to have the version with English subtitles. I’m not particularly forthright about [displaying] one version or the other. I put the option to whoever is organizing the screening, but I make it clear that we have a version with English subtitles.
Tone Madison: Well, thanks to whoever did the work on the subtitles for this very daunting film with so much dialogue over 179 minutes. [laughs] Just wanted to say their work is appreciated.
David Easteal: Oh, thank you. It was my work.
Tone Madison: [laughs] Oh, you did the whole thing? Thanks.
David Easteal: I did the English, but it’s been subtitled in other languages, too.
Tone Madison: My last question is just looking ahead to the future. Are you working on anything else right now? If you’re not, do you have plans or an idea of what you want to work on next that you’re able to share with us?
David Easteal: I don’t really have any details to share. But I am back in a sort of writing phase and thinking about new projects. This is now starting to wind down, so I’m looking forward to having much more time. But it’s been a very busy year, releasing the film and traveling, which I will be for another month. And then I’ll put my attention towards a new project.
Tone Madison: Do you think you’ll stick to—what you imagine working on, is it a drastically different idea than what you’ve done with The Plains, or do you want to do something somewhat similar?
David Easteal: In many respects, what we did in The Plains was quite idiosyncratic. It was a method which was created for this specific project. But also for other reasons, like necessity. I didn’t have a budget or funding, so it was sort of having to figure out a new way of working. But it was a way of working that I really loved. I would like to keep working in such a way and explore this process further. At the moment, I’m not thinking of anything too drastically different.
I’m quite glad you found the viewing of the film invigorating, I think you said in the first question. It really was for me, [making the film]. And so I have a desire to push forward with this way of working.
The difficulty, of course, is that it’s very consuming. I mean, there was no way I could’ve turned up to funding bodies in Australia and said, “I have no script, no actors, and I have this vague concept that’s going to be shot over 12 months. And it’s probably going to be much longer than two hours.” [laughs] No one would’ve given anyone money, and probably rightfully so. Not that I was working alone. I had collaborators. But yeah, I guess there are sort of pros and cons to working in such a way. [This particular project permitted it, and it provided an opportunity to make the film with complete artistic freedom.]
Tone Madison: But it’s distinctively your own modus operandi.
David Easteal: Well, I don’t mind doing a lot of the work as well. I really love all the processes of making films, particularly the edit and shooting in this way. But it can be draining. Maybe figuring something out in-between might be good.