“I certainly could’ve chosen something a little simpler for a first film,” says Hugh Sullivan, a few days before traveling from his home in Adelaide, Australia to Austin, Texas for the premiere of his feature debut “The Infinite Man” at SXSW, a shorter distance perhaps than the film’s main character who is able travel in time.
Yet chronological machinations come easier to Dean (Josh McConville) than matters of the heart as a weekend he’s planned for an anniversary with his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) goes up in flames when he wants to relive the fond memories of the previous year by recreating the exact details of their trip to an out-of-the-way hideout in the Outback and she would prefer him to be more spontaneous. With the ability to turn back the clock, Dean only reinforces some of his own poor decisions out of stubbornness, a trait that could cost him Lana, especially once her javelin-throwing ex Terry (Alex Dimitriades) comes around.
However, Dean becomes overwhelmed by more than just his desire to fix the past as Sullivan toys with the ramifications of time travel in ways both unexpected and bursting with comic possibilities, becoming more and more surreal as the film’s single location fills up with the physical and psychological manifestations of Dean’s bad ideas. While Dean goes oh so very wrong in trying to get everything right, the same can’t be said for Sullivan and shortly before his big premiere, he spoke about how he embraced a low budget to create something inventive and the importance of a script supervisor for a film with multiple timelines.
How did this film come about?
Basically, the South Australian Film Corporation was running an initiative called Film Lab where they would fully fund a number of low budget films. You’d take it through a three-week development lab to begin with and then go away and write the script and then make the film, so I was writing the film with a very specific low budget in mind. This just seemed like a good fit for that and it could use the lower budget to its advantage, so that’s why we kind of went with this idea over others.
I always appreciate stripped-down science fiction such as this where you create a logic of your own, but you see the humanity behind it and don’t drown it setting up the world. Was it hard to find that balance?
That was one of the toughest things throughout the development was juggling those different elements. As far as the science fiction goes, it’s as fictional as you can get. [laughs] But I did want to make sure it adhered to a certain logic and I didn’t take liberties with the rules that I established. It was about making it complicated enough to satisfy certain genre expectations while at the same time creating something that is primarily entertaining.
I want to try and discuss this without spoilers…
Yeah, it’s hard, isn’t it? [laughs]
Well, it’s a fascinating approach to time travel because you start out with a self-defeating character. Did he come first and you thought this might be an interesting situation to place him in or was it the reverse?
It’s interesting because I think normally, it would always be the character first. I always knew I wanted to do a time travel film, and then once I had that idea, it was just about having a character and a certain metaphor or idea that worked for that character. The time travel perfectly suits this character and his unique flaws, so it was just about finding the perfect fit between the two things.
Because the single location of this hotel in the middle of nowhere seems so crucial, did you actually write with it in mind?
I’d been writing the script for a little while when we were looking for some kind of caravan park. We knew we wanted it to be isolated, so the producers and myself pretty much scouted South Australia looking for the right space. Once we found this place, I totally rewrote the script.
When it’s pretty much the one location, is it difficult to keep it visually interesting?
[laughs] Yes. It was a real challenge and obviously, with limited equipment and whatnot, but at the same time, it’s so striking that it provided a great canvas to work with, it was also to our advantage at the same time.
After directing shorts, is directing a feature any different?
The biggest difference is just the duration of things and maintaining a certain level of energy and concentration and enthusiasm over a much longer period of time. But we were working at a certain level and our crew was quite small, so in many ways, it felt similar. We’d gone up to Woomera, just a small group of us and we were living on location in the actual hotel that appears in the film. The whole thing had this very nice, small, comfortable feel to it, so it didn’t feel that big a leap.
Still, was it intense if you were working and living together?
It was very intense and I think it’s got to be good for the film, just everyone totally immersing themselves in this film. We were shooting six-day weeks and then I was still working on that seventh day as well, so for however many weeks of your life, it was just nothing but the film. I quite enjoyed the totally immersive experience of it all.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on the film? I imagine keeping all the different timelines in your head was tricky.
Every day, there was always the sense that no one knew entirely what was going on, so the whole shoot just had that vibe of slight craziness to it. Fortunately, we had a great script supervisor, who I can’t speak highly enough, of and just great actors who were up for the challenge. Josh, especially, had to act opposite himself in certain key scenes and I don’t know how he did it personally. It would’ve done my head in and I think it almost did his head in. But under those circumstances, it’s quite an extraordinary performance.
I’ve read you were born in one of Austin’s sister cities, so does a premiere at SXSW feel like it was meant to be?
Yeah, it seems fated. When we started making this film, we thought SXSW would be the perfect fit for it. The producers Kate Croser and Sandy Cameron actually very early in the development process went over to SXSW just to check it out and they loved it. They had such a great time and they thought that our film would just fit in perfectly, so here we are sometime later and I’m just so happy it’s turned out the way it has. I can’t wait.
“The Infinite Man” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on March 7th at 9:30 pm at the Stateside Theater, March 8th at 7 pm at the Alamo Village, March 11th at the Alamo Ritz 2 and March 15th at the Alamo Ritz 1.