Writer-Director Charles Williams Discusses His Palme d’Or Winning Short Film ‘All These Creatures’

All These Creatures is an atmospheric and deeply personal exploration of our parental relationships and issues such as mental illness and compassion. A young man begins to fear that his father’s volatility was caused by the strange creatures in the family garden. He also worries that the same instability will soon affect him. The film’s director, Charles Williams, has recently returned triumphantly from Cannes, having won the Palme D’or at the festival’s prestigious short film competition. Listen in below as we talk about the film, the victory and the future, or alternatively read on!

All These Creatures was my favourite film at the short film contest at Cannes. How would you describe it to listeners who probably haven’t had a chance to see it just yet?

So, the film’s the story of a boy who’s looking back on his father and trying to understand what he was as a full person. Whether he was a bad person, or a sick person. And, reflecting on his time when they had this infestation of cicadas and understanding his memories, just trying to pull them apart and understand his father a little better. I think it comes from something we all do with our parents as we grow older and try to see them as people rather than these kind of myths that we have in our head. And I think if you have a parent that’s volatile or violent or even dangerous that becomes a more more complex and a more necessary process.

It does seem to be a film about mental health and anxieties around getting older and reevaluating parental figures. What inspired you to make the film?

I think it’s just thoughts and ideas that I’ve always been obsessed with. When I was young, very similar to in the film, these were things I would think about a lot – the kind of person I was gonna turn into and how much control I have over that. There’s some similarities that the character has in the film to myself, but then even now, I think about it a lot still. These are sort of obsessions of mine, about how we can in some ways have compassion for people, even if they’ve caused us harm. It doesn’t mean we like them, it doesn’t mean we want to spend time with them, but we don’t necessarily see them as willing causes of the damage that they do all the time.

There is a sense of frustrated reconciliation going on throughout the whole thing.

Definitely, yeah.

You have an excellent cast in the film, was that a difficult process, assembling people?

Yeah, it was difficult, but I think it’s really important. It changed the film quite a lot. I needed the lead role, he’s a twelve year old child, to embody this kind of complexity and to also be enigmatic just by thinking, just by being in the scene, without really acting too much, and that’s almost impossible to get from a twelve year old because it’s such an innate quality. So we looked at maybe four hundred kids. We didn’t audition all of them obviously, but we looked through about four hundred kids. I looked at boys, girls, any race; it didn’t make a lot of sense to make restrictions on that, and I knew I could rewrite it around the right person and the right dynamic. So when we found Yared Scott who has an Ethiopian-Australian background, I obviously cast the other roles in the family to reflect that and brought on some Ethiopian-Australian advisors to help inform the story and make sure I’m telling it accurately and honestly.

All These Creatures did win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. How did it feel to win in such a diverse and strong competition this year?

Yeah, there were really great films and I really liked all the other film makers. There was a real sense of camaraderie and we liked each others’ films.  It was incredible! It’s something you don’t totally process. It’s so meaningful to me, to have been invited to the festival and then to have had the kind of relationships and conversations that I had at the festival. That’s probably about as much as I can take in. The award itself is unbelievable and I sort of see it as well as something to live up to more than as like, “Hooray, I made the best film!” I think of it more of as a kind of promise of something I have to deliver on.

Right, like a challenge to do more and go further.

Totally, yeah. The kind of attention that the award gives you, you want to spend wisely, and I wanna make sure I use it to make the best feature film I can possibly make.

This was your first time at Cannes. How did you find the experience? It was my first time as well and it’s fairly overwhelming even from my side of things.

Oh definitely yeah. I think for me it was a pretty great experience because I’m a little older and I had the film invited. So you’re getting a lot of emails requesting you rather than having to beat down doors so much. And so I just kind of got there and I didn’t really go out much. I’d wake up at four or five in the morning, do some writing, go to meetings all day, and that was about it. And go to bed by eight or nine o’clock. I went to a few movie premieres, I did have some fun as well. But mostly it’s like… I watch movies all day long in my real life. Cannes’ more about the meetings and making use of the opportunity.

What do you actually get for winning, both physically and in terms of the opportunities that are afforded to you now?

Well, I think this is the first time in history that they’d actually given a physical Palme d’Or for short film. They usually give a kind of diploma looking certificate thing and now they made me an actual award which is really something. I’ll grab it out at some point and show it to you. But really that’s just very nice to have. The main thing is … It might be too much to say, but it’s sort of like an anointing that the festival gives the person. Palme d’Or is such a big deal internationally as well as in France. It gives you a little more legitimacy. I mean, short film makers, we’re all looking for legitimacy in some way or another and winning the Palme d’Or certainly does that.

So far you have exclusively worked in short films. What do you feel are the strengths of the short film form?

It’s incredibly challenging I think; if that is a strength. It’s really demanding, obviously, to try and … I don’t know about literally tell a story… but to get a relationship with an audience and convey a meaningful experience in a short period of time is incredibly difficult. Which is why so many shorts and features revert to certain kinds of narrative devices that we’ve seen a lot, because it’s very hard to do. But I think that the good thing about a short is that you can take a bit more risk with a short film. I mean, most short film makers don’t. They try to hone it. But I think [with] a short film you get a little bit more narrative leeway than you do with a feature. A short film’s only gonna go for ten minutes and you can’t stretch that out too much for audiences patience, but they’ll give you a little bit.  You can be a bit more experimental with a short film than I think you can in a feature. It’s strange because I think a lot of people actually take the opposite approach, but you can definitely be less literal.

Absolutely. I believe you shot the film in 16 millimeter. Was that an easy decision?

No, there weren’t any easy decisions on this film. Shooting on film with a lot of non-actors and with kids and with animals – not an easy decision. But I think it needed to be on film for two reasons for me. I mean, I’ve shot a lot on film in the past but it’s not a religious thing for me, it’s not an absolute. But for this film it’s important because it’s a little bit dated; it’s supposed to be someone looking back, so you sort of want it to look a little older.

The film has these themes, and when it’s talking about this organic stuff, these kind of bugs and everything, you wanted something noisy and something that felt alive moving through the imagery. So, also using a recording medium that’s imperfect in a sense, I think was important.

But then I think in terms of the process, it was important [to shoot on film] for me because the natural decision when working with kids and non-actors is you have to shoot digital because you need the takes. I just thought working counter-intuitively to that was a good idea. By shooting on film it would force you into a corner, so you could only do a couple of takes; you’d have to be from this angle; you couldn’t over cover it, you couldn’t just get loose with it and I wanted the film to feel very considered and very precise. And it’s a pretty tough corner to paint yourself into, but I thought if we could get out of it we’d definitely have something very special.

It certainly looks fabulous. It sounds like you thrive on restriction, and overcoming issues. Is that something you’re going to look to preserve as you move into features?

I don’t think so. I don’t usually do that, but this just made sense to me, this particular restriction, because I knew that it would be so obvious a choice to just shoot everything on digital for this particular film. I knew I had to stop that because it was not right for the film, and it was just another reason why film would help. But no, for better or worse, I don’t usually try to impose too many creative restrictions.

You’ve mentioned that you want to transition into feature films now. Is that something that’s seen traction and that you’re moving forward with?

Yeah. I had two feature films that I was pitching around the festival while I was there, and I’m focusing on that now. In a couple of weeks I’ll disappear from the face of the earth for a little while and hone this draft for, I don’t know, six weeks or two months, and just keep moving forward with that.

Are you going to continue to make films in Australia or are you looking to break out internationally?

I think internationally. The feature that I’m focusing on at the moment would take place in Australia. But I’m definitely looking for international representation as well as international opportunities, probably after that feature. But I don’t know, I’ll see what happens. I’ll see what’s coming my way before.

A domestic feature sounds like a really cool idea to make that transition.

Yeah, I mean I sort of know that world [Australia]. I’ve got a lot of opportunities from what’s happened at the moment, but not the kind that I’m gonna get sent the greatest script ever made. I need to develop my own stories, and I understand the world in Australia and I understand the world that I’m presenting.

Is that something that’s going to remain important for you –  the idea of writing these films as well as directing? Or do you suppose you might direct other scripts if the right one comes along?

I think I’ll direct other scripts if  the right one comes along. I’m not a natural writer. It’s quite a complicated process for me to get it all down. So no, If I could find a script I have an affinity with, I would definitely be keen on directing that.

That does you credit because sometimes you experience directors who are primarily screen writers that happen to also be directing and the result is often very verbose and wordy. Your short film is very much a film that’s written as a film.

Yeah, I’ve seen that with other film makers I’ve really liked and I can’t imagine how they write. Almost all film makers, almost all directors, don’t write, or they co-write. There are few that actually just write-direct and do a good job of it, and the ones that do, I find astonishing because in terms of the skill set, I just don’t think there’s much cross over between being a writer and being a director. They’re such different personalities.

I imagine it’s really tough because you need an objective eye with a script when it comes to actually making it. It must be really hard to cut something if you happen to know that it took hours to write.

That’s just part of the job, you have to interrogate everything. I mean it’s the same in the editing room.  You’ve just got to completely detach from however hard something was to make and just be brutal. You just kind of have to go, “Does it matter now? Do I feel it now? Is it coming across?” The same thing you’re constantly doing with the film is asking yourself, “Is this translating and is it meaningful? is it interesting?” And all of the other things that want to become a part of that conversation like “How hard was it?” are irrelevant. You’ve just got to try and remember that they’re irrelevant.

I imagine that short films were good training for that in terms of it excising any sort of fat, as you mentioned earlier not wanting to test audience’s patience and keep it that pure experience.

Definitely. I mean, even this film was an effort in making sure we crunched it down. I just think that certain narratives will only hold for so long and this was not a film that had a traditional narrative. The first half of it is quite dream like, the second half is more traditional to some extent. But you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a short that I thought was too short. I think you can always go a little shorter. I’ve seen a lot that feel too long. And so yeah, you can always go a little shorter. If you need to let it out a little bit you can, but it’s always good to crunch it down.

There’re various charts that demonstrate the bloating of runtimes of feature films over time, from the traditional 90 minutes to over two hours. So, I think that’s a good mind set to have in the feature film world at this stage.

Yeah, I think a lot of features these days, they’re so packed with so many obligatory elements that they necessarily have to be long because by the time you take off every superhero that’s in it, give them five minutes on screen, you’re two hours in. There’s just too much stuff going on they have to answer and that are based on the concept “Okay so we’ve got to set up that the worlds gonna end!” And then also with other movies that aren’t the blockbusters, it’s just so much that feels obligatory for the narrative that it has to tick off, that it’s just forever to get through. You’re half way through,  “Can we just tick off these other scenes?” It doesn’t feel really feel like watching a movie. It feels like you’re watching someone tick off elements.

It’s not engaging. You mentioned the dream like elements to your film and that’s absolutely correct. There’s also a horror feel to some of it, with the etherealness and strangeness and the idea of something lurking in the garden. Is genre something that interests you in terms where to move into next?

I don’t think so.  Genre is not something that has ever jumped out at me. I think when I talk about obligatory scenes, genre jumps into my head and there are some amazing film makers that are very good at, not just dealing with what I would call obligatory scenes, but actually making a virtue out of them. I don’t think that would be something I’m good at. And I don’t respond to horror that much myself. I see what you mean though. I didn’t think of it that way but I do know what you mean. There is a kind of creepiness and a kind of a … not supernatural but maybe spiritual element that is a bit hard to process that the kid’s going through and it becomes a bit spooky with some of his memories. Yeah, that’s true.

And the idea that the ghost of his father might reside within him, or the demons that he experienced might return to torment him as well.

That’s very true. Yeah, most definitely. The horror films that I do like, I don’t think of them as horror films. I think they have those elements, like Rosemary’s Baby or something, except for the fact that they have the claws during the sex scene [in Rosemary’ Baby]. But other than that it’s pretty straight and pretty much about psychological horror and paranoia.

Well, not to add to the pressure, but I really look forward to seeing what it is that you do next with your first feature. Are you able to tell us how people can experience All These Creatures?

Yeah, it will be doing a lot of film festivals over the next year. There’s only so many that I know about and even the couple that I know about, I’m not allowed to talk about. So I know that’s quite frustrating because people will hear about it now and they’ll probably forget about it by the time it’s playing, but I’m at the mercy of the film festival windows. But I suspect and I hope that it will get a good run on festivals and eventually a while from now be available online.

Lovely, well we’ll do our part to make sure as many people as possible are aware of it when it comes out again.

Great, I really appreciate it.

You can find out even more about All These Creatures, including any upcoming festival screenings, by checking out allthesecreaturesfilm.com, and @allthesecreaturesfilm on Facebook.

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