Seven years in the making, Aaron Wilson's WWII drama Canopy was conceived while he spent time in Singapore. Canopy takes place in 1943 in the the Southeast Asian country, which, like Australia, is a former British colony. In the feature, Australian fighter pilot, Jim (Khan Chittenden) is shot down and he awakens suspended in the treetops. Now seemingly without his comrades in the jungle, he must battle for survival among the natural dangers of the jungle while staying clear of the enemy.
Canopy is a minimalist drama that had its debut at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and has screened at other events in Busan, Stockholm, Abu Dhabi, Taipei, Seattle, and, of course, Australia. The film will have a one-week exclusive run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center beginning Friday, August 29, and writer-director Aaron Wilson will take part in a Q&A Friday. He shared some thoughts from Australia with FilmLinc about making the film and its journey to the big screen prior to this week's U.S. release.
On the genesis of Canopy and what inspired Wilson to to make it…
Canopy is one man’s journey, but told from a collection of true stories of isolation and loneliness in war. Stories that I heard growing up in a small town in rural Australia about far-away lands, and from war veterans and war survivors in Australian and Singapore.
The film was first conceived at a filmmaking residency in Singapore in 2006. What drove me to create the film was hearing first-hand accounts of war in Southeast Asia during World War II. Personal stories revealing the vulnerability of young men—just boys, really—navigating life in between the sorts of battles we're accustomed to seeing in war films. Moments of being fearful, lonely, and isolated… emotions that I as a person who had never been to war could connect with. Canopy is about these spaces between battles, and the sorts of emotions and connections with other human beings that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
In a broader sense, the story I wanted to tell explores Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore and Australia share a common history forged through empire and war, and in Canopy I had the opportunity to represent this connection symbolically through two soldiers from different backgrounds: one from Singapore and one from Australia.
On finding his cast and shooting in Southeast Asia…
My Australian lead, Khan Chittenden, was found through auditions held in Melbourne and Sydney. I essentially put young actors in an empty room and asked them to imagine themselves alone in a dark space that felt foreign or overwhelming, natural or otherwise. I filmed them for about 15 minutes, without talking or acting, just being, existing in their thoughts. It's fascinating to me what happens when someone forgets about the camera being there, or perhaps becomes self-conscious of the amount of time they have to sit alone in a quiet space.
My Taiwanese lead, Mo Tzu-Yi, came to the project in a very different way. I was attending the Hong Kong Film Market a few years ago and was watching as many Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Taiwanese films as I could to look for interesting faces and new talents. I saw this one Taiwanese film with an absolutely riveting lead performance. So I raced to the Taipei Film Commission stall to ask about the actor I'd just seen in this film, only to find that he was standing right behind me. We talked for several days about the film, the character and history on World War II in Singapore. By the end of our time together, Mo had come on board in the role of Seng. I'm very much a person that goes by feel, and this situation feel very organic and honest to me.
With the exception of a small scene shot in my hometown in rural Australia, the film was shot in Singapore. I actually spent several years scouting jungle and mangrove areas and Chinese graveyards on the island, looking for the right combination of spaces that would help to build the world as character in the film. We spent just under two weeks with a mix of Australian and Singaporean crew to complete the Singapore shoot, so everything had to be meticulously prepared. I did return to Singapore several times afterwards to record many sounds of the jungle and mangroves at different times of the day, which we then used in our sound design to create a voice of sorts for the jungle. We did very little foley, instead choosing to distort and manipulate the jungle sounds to create haunting and other-worldly textures, and at times to mimic the sounds of war.
On the stars bonding on camera and off. And those sticky clothes…
The filming was largely done in sequence, which meant that I was able to keep the two lead actors apart until they were to meet in their first scenes together. I'd previously done rehearsals with each of the leads separately, taking them into the jungle to familiarize them with the space and the sounds of that world. This meant that when they came together on set, we launched straight into filming and they had to adjust to each other's acting styles as we were shooting the scenes. This then parallels the coming together of their characters and the adjustment period as the settle into navigating the hostile terrain together.
The filming conditions were quite tough for both actors, especially since they were essentially wearing the same sticky clothes day after day, in jungles and mangroves that were incredibly humid and hot. Maybe because of this, it was great to see their friendship grow off camera while their characters were forming a strong bond on camera.
On the project's seven-year trajectory to the big screen…
We were blessed to have a great many private investors and sponsors from Australia, Singapore, China, Thailand, France, and The Netherlands. But we also had to explore more unconventional ways to raise funds. We held several events such as art exhibitions (with images from or inspired by the filming) and period-style music events to reach new investors and broaden our group of followers. We ran a successful crowdfunding campaign during our post-production to help raise additional funds to complete the film… All up it took my producer and I seven years to complete the film, from initial idea to world premiere screening.