Obsessive love and the search for perfection are examined in the Australian filmmaker's feature debut.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What if you had the opportunity to go back in time to repair the mistakes that caused you to lose your one true love. Would you do it?
That's the question posed by Australian filmmaker Hugh Sullivan in his feature debut, The Infinite Man.
The romantic comedy follows one man's desperate attempt to win back the woman he loves by inventing a time machine to rectify the past, which involves an ex-boyfriend, a javelin, an electric cattle prod, and a host of other problems. Unfortunately, the idea backfires and an infinite loop develops with multiple versions of everyone involved constantly rotating through the same timeline. Of course, hilarity ensues. The film stars Josh McConville, Hannah Marshall and Alex Dimitriades.
Sullivan got his start working on a number of short films before embarking on the complicated and daunting task of shooting his first feature. The film, which he wrote, directed and edited, was financed by the Australian Film Corporation Film Lab Initiative, which supports the development and production of original low budget South Australian-made films.
Script spoke with Sullivan at the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Austin during the SXSW Film Festival where The Infinite Man made its world premiere as part of the festival's Visions program.
Let's start off with the conception of this film. It's an incredibly high-concept project. Where did the idea for this story come from?
Hugh Sullivan: I just wanted to do a time travel film. I knew that it was just something that I wanted to try my hand at. The film was developed through the South Australian Film Corporation Film Lab Initiative, which fully finance low-budget films.
That sounds like an amazing program.
Sullivan: Yeah, it is! It's a great initiative and their films have been doing really well. I wanted to create something that was still very engaging and felt somewhat expansive despite the small budget, and this just seemed like a good way to do that. I knew roughly that we'd have to be working with three or less characters. Ideally, one primary location. I knew the elements that I was working with. I couldn't recall where this sort of story had been done like that, using those same elements. So I had all of those things and there are these characters as well, and time travel just seemed like the perfect vehicle/metaphor for Dean's character and his idiosyncrasies.
The Infinite Man really is more of a love story using a time travel plot device. Were you looking to take the love story and turn it upside-down?
Sullivan: Yeah, focusing on obsessive love, specifically. Dean (played by Josh McConville) has his back turned and is always facing the past and looking back on things, like the wreckage of his romantic life. So I wanted to explore those thematic ideas and that sort of character and his idea of love, and then his time traveling feeds into that exploration of character and his experiences of love. It just seemed like the best way to explore those themes in a very explicit or literal way, I suppose.
From a director's perspective, this film must've been technically challenging to map out. You're dealing with multiple timelines weaving in and out of each other. How did you do it? What was the process?
Sullivan: Well, I think a lot of that I just had in my head, I suppose.
You couldn't have just spitballed this concept to such a successful degree, did you? That's incredible. Seriously?
Sullivan: (laughs) No, well I certainly had to draw it out in diagrams. That's all we spent our time doing in rehearsals was just looking at diagrams and scratching our heads. It was obviously important that everyone, especially the actors, understood what was going on. I didn't want to take that for granted. Especially reading the script, it's a pretty dry read when you've just got each character numbered like D1, D2, D3, you know.
Is that how it was written?
Sullivan: Well, I wasn't too sure during the writing the best way to convey [multiple versions of the same character] to a reader. Fortunately, as I mentioned, the money was already in place, so I didn't have to worry too much about people reading the script and not liking it. But, of course, we had to attract a cast, etc. It still had to be an enjoyable read. It was about finding the best way to make it as clear as possible to the reader. I was always confident that it would work a lot better visually, you know. It was always meant to be a film. So that was how we conveyed that on the page, was by numbering the characters. But yeah, it's not as exciting when you hear "D1 looks at D2," but it's far more thrilling to watch that sort of stuff.
How long did it take you to put together?
Sullivan: It took two years, I think. There were two main things. One was the fact that it was a time travel film and the other was the budget. You go to a financier and they say this is not achievable, so you bring it back and just work out the best way to create an engaging cinematic experience on a low budget. So that took some time.
Most of the film takes place in one primary location. How were you able to secure an entire motel for the shoot?
Sullivan: It's a caravan park in Woomera [in South Australia] with these three large buildings and we shot in the last two. One of which was not in use, but the rest of the space was still open. We were actually staying in one of those buildings during the shoot. It was a lot of fun, just being out in the desert. And there was a bar on the set. (laughs)
How many days did it take you to shoot?
Sullivan: Twenty-nine days. We were shooting six-day weeks.
You also did the editing, as well?
Sullivan: Yeah. I've been living with this for a while.
We already addressed the directing challenges; this must have been a monster to edit.
Sullivan: Yeah. It took four months, maybe? It would have been more challenging, I think, had I not written and directed it. To be honest, I think an editor coming fresh to it would have just quit after the first day. (laughs)
I can only imagine.
Sullivan: I think the writing was the most difficult part of the process. Editing was just really ensuring that it moved at the right pace and the audience could understand it. That was a great challenge. Because I'm so familiar with the material, I couldn't afford to make certain assumptions.
Were there any films you looked to for inspiration?
Sullivan: As far as specific influences on this film, there really weren't. Working with a budget like this, it's not so helpful to look at a much bigger budget Hollywood film and aspire to something like that.
You cut your filmmaking teeth working on a number of shorts, but this film is your first feature. What was the challenge going into a much bigger project?
Sullivan: The greatest challenge was just maintaining the energy and enthusiasm over a much greater period of time. I tend to tire of things quite quickly. So over the course of the years of writing, directing and editing the film, I was treating every day as if it was the first. The shoot was tiring. I'm essentially a lazy man. (laughs)
The Infinite Man made its world premiere Friday, March 7, at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival as part of its Visions program.