Exploring the Psychic Prison: Matthew Metcalfe on Understanding the World of The Free Man

Olympic freestyle skier Jossi Wells and extreme sports performance artists The Flying Frenchies take us on a journey into the void. For writer-producer Matthew Metcalfe who renews his collaboration with director Toa Fraser following their 2014 narrative feature The Dead Lands, it is the pursuit of “something greater than themselves.”

The Free Man (2016) is centred upon the question of why? Jossi and the Frenchies together with narrator Fraser explore the limitation of fear that prevents us being authentically free. Just as the boy genius of Polish director Kuba Czekaj’s The Erlprince (2016) ponders what if death is not the end of consciousness, so The Free Man explores the state of experiential consciousness that exists beyond in the void.

In conversation with Film Frame, Metcalfe reflected on serendipity and the ongoing process of education. He also discussed the relationship of cinema to the void, how mythologist Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of the goal of the story contextualises the spectatorial experience and how The Free Man echoes the ideas of Plato’s The Republic.

Film Frame: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Matthew Metcalfe: First of all I’m going to quote Jim Cameron. I don’t remember Jim’s exact words, but when asked how you find a career in the film business, he said something to the effect of: You don’t go looking for a career in film, it finds you. And that’s exactly what happened to me. My journey into film was serendipitous. I grew up in Canberra, Australia and I didn’t even know that a job like I have now existed. I grew up in a very traditional family, we were quite a poor household and you got an office job, you worked in the trade or you went into the services. That’s kind of all I knew and it was only by a serendipitous accident that I met someone many years ago that wanted to make a short film. He said he didn’t know how to do certain things, and I’d been in the army and everything he was listing sounded like the army – he needed creative solutions. It sounded enjoyable and I was looking for things to do after university and so I volunteered. One thing led to another, which led to twenty years later and in that time I’ve had the privilege to produce and work on a lot of things. That’s the Reader’s Digest version of how I ended up in this business.

Film Frame: Across the course of your career, how has your perspective of both documentary and narrative fiction filmmaking changed?

Metcalfe: The more I do the less I realise I know, and I promise you that may sound trite, but oh my God the more I do, the more I realise what I don’t know. I’m a little bit embarrassed when I think about how much I thought I knew after I’d made one film. You fast forward all these years and I squirm in my seat when I think about how sure of myself I once was.

The craft of storytelling is incredibly difficult and it’s a very skilful profession. You have to work with a lot of very smart, articulate and well trained people. The longer I go in this business the more I realise that’s what I have to do – to put myself at the mercy of those experts, work with and allow them to guide me, to help me to do my job well. It’s actually a very hard business and I am just fortunate that I’ve managed to stay in it for the time I have, and to have done all the films that I’ve been able to do.

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“You are right to say that every step on this journey is a step into the void, because everything I’ve done before doesn’t count for anything.”

Film Frame: Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon told me: “The medium and the mystery of the process is that I could wake up one day and not know where to put the camera. Not that I know where to put the camera now, but you walk in with a certain sense.” One of the ideas that permeates the film is our relationship to the void. Listening to you discuss your own filmmaking journey, could we not describe the filmmaking or creative process as a void of apprehension and uncertainty?

Metcalfe: You’re right, filmmaking is a step into the void. People will say to me at a dinner party or a function: “Oh Matthew, you have been doing this for a while, it must be getting easier.” And I always say: “No, it’s getting harder.” They’ll look at me and ask how it is getting harder, and I explain that every time you do it again, you have to encourage yourself on the last time. If you are not going into every film, every storytelling journey demanding of yourself that you do better than the last time, then you are just going to go stale, and you are going to do substandard work. And that relates to the concept of the void because the void is stepping into the unknown.

One of the Frenchies said to me: “The void can be both your saviour and your death.” I looked at him and I asked: “How does that work?” He told me to think of it like wing suiting. The void lifts you when you are wing suiting and saves you, it helps guide you to the ground, the same as when you are in a parachute. But he said at the same time if you make a mistake the void will envelope you, and you’ll fall like a stone to the ground and die. That’s a more extreme example of it, but you are right to say that every step on this journey is a step into the void, because everything I’ve done before doesn’t count for anything. You might have made a fantastic film that was a big hit last time, but the audience doesn’t care. You can’t deliver them a rubbish film and then say: “Oh yeah, but my last film was awesome, please forgive me.” It doesn’t work like that and so for everything you’ve done, everyday begins anew and you’ve just got to deal with what’s in front of you. So it is like the void and everyday is stepping into the unknown.

Film Frame: On the subject of the audience, filmmaker David Fairhead remarked to me: “You know there’s a mountain in front of you to climb, and of course, you hope that you’re going to get up to the top of that mountain and I guess come back down again [laughs]. That’s the trickiest bit actually, getting back down. I suppose the coming back down when you are making a film is how do you deal with the distribution. You can make the film, but it’s difficult getting it out there to an audience.” We often consider the challenges of filmmaking, yet would you agree that the difficult process of finding an audience is often overlooked?

Metcalfe: It’s a very important question and I think all of us as filmmakers have a tendency to over intellectualise our work. It’s a natural inclination and in part it’s driven by the fact that we are so close to it that we know what we mean. Film and storytelling is a language, and so we are presenting something to an audience. We know what we mean, but sometimes one of the hardest things to learn is that you have to put yourself at the mercy of the audience, and allow them to say to you that they don’t get what you mean. What surprises me in the test screening process is that it’s never what you think and the editor and I will be sitting there talking, worried about this and that, and often I’ll say: “I guarantee you in an hour and a half what we learn is not what we think we know.” I’ve found that to always be true and that learning process is so important to the process of making a film better, and delivering it to them to make it as clear and enjoyable as possible. And in that process you always find out something that you just didn’t see coming. The thing that you thought was really funny is not funny to anyone else, or the thing that you think is deadly serious, other people will think is funny. It’s language, and it’s about getting that right. So that’s one of the hardest parts of filmmaking, as you say coming down the other side of the mountain, and being prepared to be gracious and humble towards your audience, and allow yourself to hear what they’re telling you.

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“I hope that people who watch the film ponder and ask when is enough, enough? Where’s the line here?”

Film Frame: Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014)  she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

Metcalfe: I’m going to quote Joseph Campbell here who famously said, the goal of the story is to seek a reconciliation between the individual consciousness and the universal. And I think that sums up the concept of transference with an audience. We all laugh and we all cry, and we all think at the same time in a movie because a transference is occurring. We are realising that we are experiencing something that represents universal truth. We are all human beings, and as much as we are different, deep down we are all the same. We are all motivated by the same ideas, by the same needs, fears and desires. We might all have them at different levels, but we all have them and that idea of transference that you are bringing up is a really powerful idea. One of the most wonderful things is when you make a film and you then start hearing from people three years later who tell you they loved a scene, they play it to their kids or whenever they’re feeling sad or they want to laugh they watch it. And that’s awesome because by becoming a part of their life it is then owned by them. With The Free Man we wanted to tell a story about how far do you go and what point is enough, enough? I hope that people who watch the film ponder and ask when is enough, enough? Where’s the line here? We all want to live our lives, but at what point is destroying or killing yourself actually not doing that anymore. I hope there are a lot of people that really take in the deeper discussion that it provokes.

Film Frame: This deeper discussion is supported by the narration that almost creates two subjects – those pushing to the edge and exploring the void, and the filmmakers documenting the story. The way in which the two subjects feed off of one another serves to create an understanding that would otherwise be absent.

Metcalfe: Well when we look at The Free Man it’s interesting because Tancrede Melet who’s obviously spoken about a lot in the film, I had the privilege to meet with him very early on. He lived near to Geneva and I flew there. We sat down and we talked about this film and the way in which the Frenchies were going to be involved. It was funny because at that stage we were talking about his motivation for living the life he did, his own views on pushing life to the limits and being true to yourself and true to your heart – being a free man. And it’s incredible that only three weeks after that I received a phone call early one morning from one of his closest friends to say Tancrede had died. It was incredible that here we were embarking on this journey to tell this story, and the very person who had helped introduce the idea to us had died pursuing the very thing we were starting. I think it made our own journey take on a depth we could never have imagined from the outset, and so that was a really humbling experience. It made us work so much harder to get into what we were really trying to uncover. I think that’s why we had that juxtaposition between Jossi, the Frenchies and Toa’s own voice as the director, sharing with us our own feeling and almost speaking for the audience with this sense of what I am learning here, and understanding that the extreme sport world is more than just adrenaline junkies. I think that’s another thing that the story reveals to us and that our own process as filmmakers reveals is that it’s not right to just call people who do this adrenaline junkies. In my experience they were all doing this because they were looking for something greater than themselves. That’s why they do it and Tancrede was a living example of that.

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“And that was again the motivation to make the film, borne out of a desire to understand something bigger than all of us if you will.”

Film Frame: In this time of austerity where the arts are facing growing cuts, films such as The Free Man serve an important purpose. They are an example of the importance of art to create an awareness and discussion of ideas that resonate with us – here fear, imprisonment and freedom. Aside from the engagement with ideas, it also promotes a change of perspective of characters that can be victim of stereotyping.

Metcalfe: Without wanting to sound like I’m overtly intellectualising it, there is a concept in Plato’s The Republic that I remember reading, and I’ve always being fascinated with, about people who have lived their whole lives in a cave. They are chained in this cave and there is a fire, and they see their shadows on the wall and because they’ve only ever lived in the cave they come to believe that the shadows represent reality. Then one day they are removed from their chains and led out of the caves, and they realise that their reality is no longer their reality. It’s really difficult for them and they can’t handle it, and I think The Free Man is a film that explores the concept of the psychic prison, the idea that we all carry baggage with us. We all carry our perception of how the world should be and if we just touch ourselves, if we open ourselves up then we realise that there’s actually so much more there, so much more going on than we might have first thought. And that was again the motivation to make the film, borne out of a desire to understand something bigger than all of us if you will.

Film Frame: Director and producer Sabine Krayenbühl told me: “I think because of immersing themselves in different topics, documentarians in that way may be exposed to more of a change than lets say a fictional director who brings their own personal vision, and repeats that in different ways.” Meanwhile filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

Metcalfe: Look, I think filmmaking is filmmaking. Documentary is different to narrative filmmaking, but they are both borne from the same skill set. To answer your question as to whether it is transformative, look I think it always is. How could you not be effected if you emerge yourself into this world, get to know these people, gain their trust and understanding, look into their lives and then not have that rub off on you at the end of it? I know when I frequently watch The Free Man, every time in fact I tear up at the end. I think part of the reason if I’m honest is because I believe the story is impactful, but I also feel that I am looking in the mirror and seeing aspects of my own life. Like the characters in The Free Man, all of us have made errors and decisions, and all of us have gone on our own journey. I know that this film allowed me as a producer to explore ideas that I had harboured and thought about for a long time, but actually focusing on them and looking at them every day twenty four seven for a year and a half, it really rubs off on you. It makes you reflect on what you’ve learned and your own life, and so to come back to your question, I think it is transformative and I strongly believe that most of my fellow filmmakers would say the same thing.

The Free Man is available on DVD and Digital Downlad now courtesy of Universal.

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