Focus On – Sean Lahiff on “Swerve”
Swerve is an octane-fuelled thriller that doesn’t stop. How did you maintain the pace while allowing the plot and characters to develop?
Maintaining the pace after the action packed opening was all laid out in the well-planned script. The prologue first sets up and introduces Colin and Jina, while the third main character, Frank, the town cop, is introduced in a Hitchcockian style scene in a country pub. As we learn more about our three leads, we introduce the peripheral characters who help twist the plot and add danger. The pace ramps up as it becomes a game of cat & mouse across the outback. Frank’s hell-bent determination gave me plenty to work with to keep the energy up, while cross-cutting with Jina and Colin gave further character development and in particular, Jina’s past, the motivation for her femme fatale side. Also intercutting with these two threads is the hitman, Charlie, who is intent on getting the syndicate’s money back. It was quite a balancing act.
How did you keep the edit from falling into the expected thriller?
It was important for us to maintain the tongue-and-cheek tone that flavoured the script and also balance the action and suspense sequences with black humour. Sometimes this was through violence (although never graphic) and other times through performance and plot twists. Seeking out some of the more animated performance takes, also helped steer it away from a stock-standard thriller and took us somewhere different and a little quirkier. As the character Frank becomes more unhinged, we made a decision to use some of Jason Clarke’s ‘larger than life’ performances, which added more menace but black humour at the same time. Paul Grabowski’s jazzy score often counterpoints the thriller sequences and gives them a more edgy feel. The careful placement of these music cues was critical in keeping the film upbeat, unexpected and energized. Swerve certainly has a sinister side, but it comes in varying doses and never loses sight of the fact that it is a fun ride.
Sound and visual effects enhance Swerve’s visceral nature, how important was it to the storytelling in the edit?
I had discussions with the director (Craig Lahiff) well before the pre-production on planning some VFX sequences so that he could storyboard these sequences. Then when shooting started, Marty Pepper from Kojo and Simon Herden, composited temp VFX shots the day after plates were filmed so I could use them in the edit straight away. Craig and I were then able to immediately judge how scenes were working. As well as the VFX, the soundscape was also essential for the mood of the drama and I laid in a good amount of sound FX to help get a better feel for the sequences.
You were able to tweak the film after completion. How did the team decide what to lose?
The main thing that stood out was the length of the first reel – the story’s setup and the introduction of the main characters. So we went back and ramped up the beginning. There were two brief scenes that were a little expositional, so these were easy to lose. It’s important to put yourself in the position of the audience and think whether they have enough information to understand what is going on. It’s a fine line – if you have too much information, you’ll bore half the audience who have already “got it” - if not enough then you’ll lose some of them. It is important to be able to stand back from the fine cut, get feedback from selected people, and then go back into the cutting room taking those comments and the benefit of reflection into the film.
What was your favourite experience?
It’s hard to name just one. The excitement of watching the rushes each day and seeing really good performances from the actors and David Foreman’s cinematography with great compositions – I knew I had something special to work with. Watching the rushes gave me seriously itchy trigger fingers, day in - day out. I also really enjoyed meeting the actors in person, editors get to know actors in intimate detail on screen, so meeting them in person is always fun. Being in the audience of the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2011 where Swerve had its Australian Premiere was also a favourite experience, to hear the audience gasp, jump and laugh at the right moments was very rewarding.