“This idea that a biography can be objective is, I think, completely false.” Thomas M. Wright Talks ‘Acute Misfortune’

19 October 2018

Thomas M. Wright

“I didn’t want to make a film that existed in this traditional mould of dark Australian cinema: where it’s really grainy, low-lit, the colours are really muted, and there’s these electric guitars grinding away in the background. It’s like you take the audience and shove their head underwater for an hour and a half.

I wanted to make a film that was full of beauty, full of possibility, and full of feelings that I didn’t quite recognise. A lightness, an accessibility and an honesty.”

Acute Misfortune is not your run-of-the-mill biographical art film. It’s a film about an artist, yes, and it draws from a biography – but the complicated relationship between artist Adam Cullen and his biographer, Erik Jensen, is the focal point here.

We caught up with the film’s director, Thomas M. Wright, to discuss his directorial feature debut. Catch the film tonight (19 October) with a special introduction from Wright at Adelaide Film Festival. Tickets available here.

Adelaide Film Festival: What drew you to the story?

Thomas M. Wright: It was certainly not Adam’s art. It was the thing that is at the centre of the film, which is the idea of the relationship, and the difficulty of recording another person’s life authentically. This idea that a biography can be objective is, I think, completely false. You’re always either going to bring the perspective of time, of a political or personal feeling, and in this instance, it was such a close – and uncomfortable, and transgressive – relationship between these two people.

It’s like if I wrote a book about you if you had shot me… and thrown me off a motorbike. This very physical relationship, that then had an outcome in the publication of one of these people’s perspectives. I’m really not interested in biographical cinema, and the film’s really not biographical cinema at all. It’s a film about the forces that impose themselves upon these two people’s lives, and then the relationship that took place between them.

What was it about the relationship that was so intriguing?

Quite literally what happened was I read an excerpt from the book, in one of the major Fairfax papers. It’s a very attractive story for the obvious dynamics of it: you have a very famous, acclaimed older man, renowned for being quite difficult and abrasive, and probably representing some of the worst aspects of our culture – at least publicly, that was the kind of persona he was playing with. And then this young, unknown, unheard of kid with a lot of ambition landing in this really difficult relationship.

[The book excerpt] really upset me. It made me really cross. Because the things that Adam seemed to be famous for as an artist, and what he represented, and the type of issues that he was dealing with, and more the persona – was really offensive to me. But then I thought, hold on a minute. I’m having such a strong physical reaction to this, as a man, as an artist and as a father. Thinking about why this person was so honoured – the youngest artist to ever have a career retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, winner of the Archibald Prize, the most prominent painter of his generation… the most often quoted… but a guy who seemed to embody all of these things that I couldn’t agree with, and that I didn’t think art justified. And then who ended his life so tragically, at the age of 46. Death from alcoholism. The image to me is almost of a figure in the middle called Adam who is being crushed and compressed by all these forces and pressures around him that were his upbringing, his life, the culture that he lives in, the things that he was rewarded for. And I thought that was fascinating.

And then of course you have Erik, a generation younger – so really, then, in some ways, the film for me is about culture, and change – inevitable change. And the kind of change that’s taking place in this country. I certainly wasn’t interested in making something that was black or white, or damned either of them. And I didn’t want to make a faithful transcription of the book; what I wanted to do was question the book.

Did you feel a strong sense of responsibility when making a film about real people?

Adam only passed away six years ago, and I felt such a huge debt to him… but also to Erik, and to the families of both these people. We received extraordinary support.

Almost everything you see in the film connected to Adam is authentic. Dan (Henshall), playing Adam, lost 22 kilograms during the making of the film. He’s wearing Adam’s clothes. When he’s painting, he’s painting with Adam’s paints, with Adam’s paintbrushes. He worked closely with Adam’s painting assistant who worked with Adam for six years. We spent time meeting Adam’s doctors, his nurses, his former partners, his lawyers, and his friends and contemporaries, to try to really get as authentic a version as possible.

The difficulty of making cinema like this is that you have to acknowledge you’re not telling the truth – you’re reconstructing the truth out of an avalanche of lies, because you’re always referring to someone’s perspective. The minute that you replace a real person with a person that’s portraying them, and compress four years into 90 minutes, you really have to know your material inside-out.