Interview: Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price on Planning a Vacation From Hell in “Wish You Were Here”

“None of the actual events depicted in the film had happened to us in our relationship,” Felicity Price wants to clarify, if she can in between sharp, knowing laughs when referring to her new film “Wish You Were Here.” You know she’s telling the truth since she’s sitting next to her husband Kieran Darcy-Smith, who directed and co-wrote with Price the potboiler about two sisters who take their significant others to Cambodia for a few days of fun in the sun and only three of them return home to Australia.

Hailing from Blue Tongue Films, the Aussie production collective that in a few short years has become synonymous with tense thrillers after such films as “The Square” and “Animal Kingdom,” it’s not surprising to see Darcy-Smith’s directorial debut follows the aftermath of a vacation gone awry, with the ensuing weeks testing the strength of married couple Alice (Price) and Dave (Joel Edgerton) as her sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) is spooked by the disappearance of her boyfriend. But the twist is “Wish You Were Here,” at least the one that’s okay to spoil here, is that Price and Darcy-Smith are as invested in exploring what happens when trust evaporates between longtime partners and relatives as mysteriously as the person they’ve recently lost. While the real-life couple, who have been a staple of films from down under for some time as actors, did want to keep some secrets about their first collaboration behind the camera, they were more than happy to spill others about what went into making it on the eve of the film’s American release.

You’ve said before that this film was originally a much smaller endeavor, possibly to be shot quickly on a shoestring budget. How did it develop into something a little bit bigger?  

Kieran-Darcy-Smith: The initial intention was to scrape together $100 grand, rent a house for 12 months in the suburbs and we would play the two characters and do it very much guerrilla style. We just happened to stumble upon our producer, Angie Fielder, and she just said this is too good to do it that way and we’re going to have to do it properly. That was the end of that kind of $100,000 movie idea, but the germ for the whole thing really came out of Felicity’s brain…

Felicity Price: Yeah, my intention was to write a story that was achievable on a low-budget, but we do live in a country where we are lucky enough to have a government that subsidizes film, so the script got into a script development program called the Aurora Program, which is a year-long program and throughout the program, you get to meet a whole lot of amazing filmmakers. Ted Hope, the amazing independent film producer, became one of our mentors and we met some other amazing people during that process and I guess getting into a fairly prestigious script development program like that really elevated the script from being one thing to being something completely different. Once we got into that program and we went through that year of developing the script, we were very much on the radar of the funding bodies [such as Screen Australia] and they want you to get your film made then.

What’s interesting is that as a Blue Tongue Production, I came to the film with certain expectations that the premise of the film lends itself to, but was pleasantly surprised to see it move more towards the direction of a domestic drama rather than a noirish thriller such as “The Square” or “Animal Kingdom.” Did you ever feel like you were battling expectations from those films? 

KDS: Not really. All that’s really bound Blue Tongue together consistently over all these years is a collective taste in drama, but also no pretense — the kinds of classic character and plot-driven stories with just good scripts. We don’t do flat-out genre like horror or something like that, whereas while “The Square” is pretty genre-based, it’s still character-driven and the same with “Animal Kingdom.” I think all of us share an almost a classical sense of storytelling and the whole Blue Tongue thing works as a support mechanism. Everybody contributes thoughts and opinions on the screenplay, then on the edit and everyone gets involved, so there’s always going to be a good team of people around to ensure there’s a standard that’s met. It really comes down to the script. I don’t think any Blue Tongue film is ever going to come from a script that didn’t have some sort of depth to it because that’s what we’re all interested in.

When you’re making a film about a couple going through a rough patch, is it interesting to go through that as a real-life couple?

FP: We were sharing experiences more than anything else. We’re pretty honest people, so there’s not so many secrets we’re keeping from each other, so we weren’t sort of discovering horrible things about each other or anything. We just were recalling things that had happened.

KDS: And just trying to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters based on past experiences, but trying to experience them firsthand. There’s a lot of improvisation that goes on in the writing space between the two of us.

FP: Because we’re both actors, it makes it a unique approach to writing in that we can really throw ourselves in there. I was always like the caretaker of the character of Alice and Kieran was always the caretaker of the character of Dave and it really benefited the writing of the script. Because often the audience is on the same level as Alice in terms of what they know and Dave is hiding so much from the audience, sometimes we said it’s like the relationship was the main character in the story.

The film has an incredible opening sequence that seems to take in all of the sights and wild life in Cambodia, which reminded me of a similar montage in “Rules of Attraction” where they took a year to shoot like five minutes of footage in Europe. How long did it take to piece something together like that?

KDS: Funnily enough, we were in Cambodia for 10 days total and it was probably only a day-and-a-half to getting that opening montage stuff. What assisted it enormously was that I’d been over there before a couple of times and I knew the lay of the land and what I wanted to see, so that opening sequence is actually scripted. When you’re walking down the street and a guy with a handgun that Joel reaches across and has dialogue with, the snakes being corked, a guy on a motorbike [comes by] with pigs in baskets, if you read the script, it’s all pretty much what you see on screen and we went out in the first day or so of prep when we first arrived, just lined all those things up and then went out straight and shot them. The great thing about that is that you don’t need to get releases from actors or background people in those sorts environments. You can just go out, swing a camera and point it in any direction, and it’s going to look glorious and magnificent. It lined up enough so that we could get what we wanted. We booked the spiders to be at the markets and we went out and made sure the snake was going to be available for us and the elephant and things like that.

Because you’ve had some time to reflect on the film since it debuted at Sundance last year, has it been interesting to look back at this with some perspective?

FP: In terms of what it was for both of us as a journey and as an experience together, it’s really lovely to look back on it because it’s so hard to get a film up and it’s hard to write a script that works. Four years is a long time to be sitting and writing a script. Sure, we had a bunch of other things going on and we were doing other work, but a good part of that time, we were both absorbed in this film, so there’s total ups and downs and you really have to push each other on. That’s another benefit of being co-writers.

KDS: Yeah, the whole thing has been a massive chapter in our lives and it continues to be. There is enormous fondness when we look at the whole journey because it’s involved our kids and moving countries and doing it all together rather than separately.

But the one thing that I find interesting about your question is I know a lot of first-time filmmakers and have worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers and generally, at the end of their first film, there are things that they were disappointed by. So many compromises had to have been made and I have to honestly say that I don’t feel any of that. I’m moving onto bigger budget projects now, but I will always look on this film with nothing but real affection because it’s exactly what we’d always imagined as we were writing it and it’s frame for frame exactly what I saw in my head. I’m terrifically proud of it.

FP: One thing that is beautiful to see is we had a screening of the film in L.A. just a few weeks ago and we were walking back.we didn’t sit in the screening room. We were walking back to the cinema and people were coming out and I could just see the exactly the same reaction that I’d experienced from Australian audiences. People were coming out quite rattled and quite moved. It’s really great to revisit that from audiences who are not Australian and to see that this story can affect people on an international level now.

“Wish You Were Here” opens in limited release on June 7th.

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