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MISGUIDED Tour: An Interview with Shannon Alexander

Writer/director Shannon Alexander's The Misguided is a truly strange and invigorating indie about two low-life brothers whose relationships with drugs, women, and crime are only slightly more tenuous than their own warped familial bond. The movie plays like a not-quite-found-footage account of restless twenty-somethings alternately looking for meaning in and escape from Perth, Australia.

I caught up with Alexander via email (my first-ever interview of this kind, so be gentle), and he shared some insights into the making of his feature debut.

There was a five-year gap between your first short, The Caravan, and your second, A Fine Stash. Yet you jumped from A Fine Stash right into your first feature, The Misguided. What were you working on in the interim, and what was it about that second short that propelled you to the next level of filmmaking?

Between my short documentary, The Caravan (2010), I was studying cinema, enjoying life, reading and whatnot, working on commissioned directing work in the commercial and video world, and simultaneously working on screenplays. I began writing The Misguided in 2014 and it was completed in 2017, released early 2018.

During the post period in 2017 we shot A Fine Stash which is a companion piece to the feature. So we shot the movie first then created a short, which has completely different characters and narrative, but features both the leads of Caleb [Galati] and Steve [] who play two close-knit thieves and retains the dark comic flavour and circular plot design of the feature.

I don’t want to get too personal here, but the underworld elements of The Misguided feel so strange as to be either the product of a truly demented imagination--or tidbits drawn from first-hand experience. How much of these characters and situations (especially Wendel’s oddball mix of charm, arrogance, and incompetence) did you glean from real-lfie encounters, and how much was you just making stuff up and hoping the audience would buy it?

It’s probably from my demented imagination after a lifetime of watching many warped movies and TV series. It’s not autobiographical at all. Some of the characters' vocabularies and mannerisms were influenced by real people whose paths I’ve crossed in general life; the slang was obviously parochial and something I couldn’t help but be attuned to and probably revealed itself in the script.

In terms of Wendel, Steve and I saw him as a lonely guy with big dreams, ill-equipped to fulfil any of them, due to his bad habits and lack of direction and guidance. He hates to be lonely and loves his brother more than anything and would do anything for him. I like working with actors who can bring their own experiences and spirits and apply it to their characters, so there was no idea that anyone brought that was off limits. The goal was just to create 3D, living, breathing characters and the actors gave me what I wanted. I enjoy working with actors who’ve lived life and experienced pain and joy and everything in between.

Caleb and Steve starred in A Fine Stash and then made the leap with you into The Misguided. Their roles could not have been more different, though, and watching the short after having seen the feature was quite eye-opening. During the audition process, what stood out about each actor that suggested they might not only be right for your goofy heist short, but possibly to carry a more substantive film?

Steve, Caleb, and I have great shorthand and had already commenced working together on the feature when we decided to make a short, which was a snap decision and made over the course of one weekend. It felt like a vacation for us to create a short so spontaneously and it was a blast to rehearse and shoot after the lengthy considerations that went into The Misguided. When we were casting initially, I noticed they had strong screen presence, especially together, and could carry the film.

One of the many things I love about The Misguided is your refusal as a creator to allow your film to be categorized. It’s part small-town-criminal-underworld movie; part sibling-rivalry drama; part lovey-dovey-late-night-driving-around movie--and probably three other things that combine to give the movie its unique (and miraculously balanced voice). How important was referencing, combining, and subverting genre to the writing process--or was this just the way you’d always imagined your bonkers story coming out?

Thank you. The cast recognized this too and gave me a lot of support and trust in my evolving ideas and the confluence of styles. I always thought of it as a hybrid of those standard plots you mentioned and a combination of genres that I drew from a wide range of films and the objective of injecting them into the one movie. We tried to set up the normal realities of the characters first and then defy viewer’s expectations of who these people are. Who’s doing the real manipulation? And is the filmmaker also in on the trickery? Shifting various styles and using certain techniques and motifs throughout needed to feel unified, which was a risk.

The nature of the characters also veered the story in the direction it went and I wanted to strike a balance between the regular and larger-than-life characters that showed different aspects of the subculture. These are real kids who are living a movie-like life.

Talk about the scene late in the film, where Wendel and Levi rough each other up on the playground. It’s The Misguided’s harshest scene in terms of physical violence, but your cutting away to the metal rocking horses reminds us that these monsters were once innocent boys who went astray at some point--which adds an element of tragedy to all the face-smashing. Did you have this in mind when putting the scene together; did this element reveal itself in the edit; or is my pretentious critic-mind just digging for meaning where there is none?

It was a well-rehearsed scene, and we didn’t want any real physical contact to be made initially, but we shot the scene and saw the rushes and realised how fake it looked so we decided to re-choreograph it and do it for real. Caleb was getting punched in the head by Steve because they both agreed it would make the scene more believable.

I was amazed by their total commitment throughout the entire process. As for the rocking horse, I’m happy you caught that. It’s definitely the play between the brothers' innocence and their corruption. At some point they were children, they’ve played together at that very park hundreds of times, and now they’ve returned twenty years later in such a violent but still playful way. At one point Levi is smiling and looking like he’s really into his self-imposed bashing.

They’re kids lacking strong familial discipline and influence, they’re battlers. I also wanted to cut away similarly to the cat glaring at Levi from afar earlier; I wanted some voyeuristic off-screen space of suggesting "someone watching"; that’s how schemes get unravelled. And, of course, it’s a funny contrasting image. It’s only a two/three-second shot but I’m glad you brought it up because it’s there for a reason.

Filmmaking can be a fiercely time-consuming, expensive, and collaborative effort, especially in the realm of low-budget indies. What was the greatest hurdle you had to overcome while making The Misguided? Also, what advice would you give to yourself if you could tap pre-production Shannon on the shoulder?

It was a constant hurdle. I assumed many production roles. The commitment to the task dawned on me just before the shoot and I thought there was a high chance it wouldn’t get made. I wasn’t even sure if the cast would turn up on the way to location on the first day, but I felt a sense of confidence, maybe because Zimmer’s score from Gladiator was playing in the car at the time.

The plan was to stay fit, healthy, no consumption of hard stimulants or anything to stay in it for the long haul. Post-production was a challenge. The hardware and the recorded sound had issues; next time a bit more cash would be ideal. It took a long time finessing the technicalities in post without a high-end set up.

Otherwise, no regrets. I feel well versed in most aspects of the long-form process now.

Once you’d finished The Misguided, how did you decide what to do with it? In this content-saturated creative landscape, did you have difficulty getting eyes on your film?

I approached distributors’ direct and sent screeners. Lucky that an Australian distributor and
an American one agreed to release in their respective territories.

Wendel and Levi are one of the most unique and darkly charismatic movie duos I’ve seen in years. The Misguided ends as it needed to, wrapping up their arc (sort of), but I got the feeling that their misadventures in miscommunication would continue for the rest of their lives. Any thoughts on revisiting these characters down the road?

Ambiguous and open endings create curiosity that make stories live on. Hopefully the viewer comes to their own conclusions of where they go in the short term. A spin-off or sequel would be a trip. I love these characters.

What has been the most surprising reaction you’ve received to The Misguided?

I hope the viewer either loves it or hates it. So far it seems to have brought out a response in people--savageness or praise, haha.

What’s next on the horizon? In addition to promoting The Misguided, are there any projects percolating that you’re eager to start working on?

I have another two or three scripts that I started outlining along with The Misguided that need to get done next.

And thanks for your time, I appreciate the opportunity to chat!

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