“Some superstitions have good reasons,” is the slogan for a locally produced independent film. The blacksmithPremiered at Dendy on Friday: a ghost story (or is it?) spanning 180 years.
Audiences can expect an atmospheric film with a dark, hidden past that is slowly being revealed, says director Steve Cooke (The Walk World), who turned filmmaker after a 33-year career as a police officer. It is his first feature film after the award-winning short film Letter from Bobeyan.
Eighteen months in the making, The blacksmith tells the story of Jesse (Michael Slater) and Ella (Yanina Clifton), a police officer suffering from PTSD and his academic wife, who move from the city to a small country town to help him recover . On their new property there is a blacksmith’s shed that has been closed for 180 years. When Jesse turns to blacksmithing, which he’s always wanted to try, strange things start to happen. Are they real or are they in his head? You won’t know what actually happens until the end of the film, Cooke promises.
“I had the spark for the idea,” he explains. “I was diagnosed with PTSD and left the police force in 2017. My wife thought it would be a good idea if we moved out of town and went to some town somewhere and started a new life just to help me, to recover. But I didn’t want to be a burden to my family. So I developed some strategies to help myself.
“One of them was bushwalking. And as I walked, I got a lot of ideas for stories that I could possibly make into movies. Having never done a film before, it was obviously a huge leap into that realm. I pulled myself out of that dark space by wandering the bush and writing screenplays and started making films.”
his first movie Letter from Bobeyan (2021), shot in Namadgi, won Best Indie Short at the New York Movie Awards and Best International Short Film at the Rocky Mountain International Film Festival. Based on true events from the 1850s, the beautiful Australian landscapes and sounds of native animals appealed to American audiences more than Australian ones, Cooke said.
“But that’s how it works.
“When a third of the audience loves [The Blacksmith]a third of the audience doesn’t care and a third doesn’t like it, so to be honest I’m pretty happy with that.”
After the Dendy performance, Cooke will enter The blacksmith in some of the larger global film festivals. The film will be broadcast on Vimeo (pay-per-view) in March 2023.
The blacksmith was shot on a tight budget, says Cooke.
“We don’t have the luxury of having the big CGI effects, so we had to settle for some traditional filming methods to be creative with our camera angles, our lighting and our times of day to shoot.”
But a traditionally artisanal, artisanal approach is appropriate for a film about blacksmithing after all.
Filming during the pandemic has had its challenges, Cooke says.
“Right from the start, we had to take a certain shot where there was an acacia tree in bloom. This was right at the height of COVID. So, not knowing where everything was going to be with COVID, we had to go through a process to get an exception from ACT Health to actually film that very first scene. Regarding the COVID restrictions things slowly started to relax so we could start filming again.
“But the other challenges were of course the locations. This was quite a large script in terms of story. Finding quality sites to accommodate that was probably the biggest challenge early on.”
But Daughters at Hall allowed them to film in the café on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, while the owners of an estate in Carwoola provided the location and materials to build film sets.
“In many ways we were lucky; The planets were aligned to have the perfect location for the film, or at least something that would do it justice.”
Cooke said he could not have made the film without his cast and crew, particularly assistant director Erin Hyde, cinematographer Maggie Shatrov, assistant cameraman and sound engineer Brayden Clew-Proctor, and assistant producer Caleb Cooke. He was also fortunate to have his young people, many of whom have been with him for five years.
“When people come to this film, they see a finished product, but what they don’t see is the many, many months of hard work that went into it. Not just hard work filming, but preparing for the film, balancing life and personal commitments, filming in the very hot summer and freezing winter. Some scenes were taken at night in the middle of winter. We got pretty cold and it was hard work.”
Cooke’s next project will be a 45 minute adaptation of Stephen King’s short story. mission. As a teenager he was a huge fan of the author and the influence has stayed with him.
“I’d like to say that I don’t just do ghost stories or supernatural thrillers, but I certainly seem to be heading in that direction with my writing.”
Cooke dreamed of being a filmmaker since he was in seventh grade. Despite being a latecomer to the industry, he believes Canberra is perfect for independent filming.
“No matter where you look, there is a filming location, whether you want capital city flair or want to film down by the lake. There is so much natural beauty here that it’s really easy to find inspiration for stories. So much diversity in such a small city gives filmmakers the opportunity to shoot any story they want, using these many, many places as inspiration. And the people are pretty good too! They’re generally very receptive,” he says.
“It’s really important to support the Canberra film community – there are some great independent filmmakers in Canberra and there are some great stories coming from independent filmmakers. If people could come and support this industry, it just gets better and better knowing the people have our backs and it will lead to bigger and better things for everyone.”
The blacksmith Screens at Dendy Cinemas Canberra, Civic on Friday 25 November: Event starts at 6pm, Screening at 7pm; mature audience only. Tickets available from Eventbrite.