13CO director, Husein Alicajic, has been nominated at the 2020 Australian Directors’ Guild Awards for Best Direction in an Online Drama Series. It’s his fourth nomination in five years, which is a remarkable achievement. The new nomination is for the pilot episode of his series, ONE SIDED // The Acquired Inability To Escape, which will be a six-part series, each episode focusing on one person’s story from their own perspective.
Alicajiic talks about where the idea came from, how having “nowhere to hide” influenced its development, and what he will take with him into his commercials.
You’re an Australian director currently living in Los Angeles. What is that like in the eventful year of 2020?
Husein Alicajic: It’s a strange time indeed. It feels like this giant pause that has made every day totally unique but exactly the same. Between keeping everyone fed and managing remote learning for my 6-year-old daughter, I’ve been keeping busy writing and developing a number of different projects as well as staying sane with some artwork and discovering my newfound love of riding a bike again.
What was the inspiration behind the idea of One Sided?
HA: I’ve always been fascinated by how assumptions shape so much of our own life, and how people reveal different sides of who they are depending on the circumstance they find themselves in. There’s this idea that film is life with the boring bits cut out, but I’ve always found myself drawn to those moments in between things – where the real stuff happens and where you get to see people in all their messy contradictory glory. I wondered what might happen then if we explored one of those in between moments from one person’s perspective and see how things might change once we see something from a different perspective. In a way that’s how we experience the world. We can only know as much as we know at that moment and we fill in the gaps with guesses or assumptions. I think the idea also connects to my own experience of how people kind of assume one thing from me due to my name and then when they meet me you can see those assumptions kind of change and shift in real time.
Is this work a departure from your commercial work ambition?
HA: I love shooting and telling stories. This series is more performance based than a lot of my commercial work, so it was fun to combine my background in writing and drama with a strong visual sense that you develop from commercials. I’m excited to apply some of this narrative approach and long performance takes to my work in commercials and see what comes from that.
How does working on long-form like this mould your TVC directing?
HA: A lot of TVC directing comes down to getting very specific moments and actions in order to tell the story so quickly. I think this longer form of work helps remind me that people and performances are really at the heart of all storytelling and my job is to listen to what the film wants to be.
This is the first of how many in the series?
HA: There are six episodes in the series. Each episode focuses on one person’s story from their own perspective, and then picks up the other person’s story in the next episode, so you get to see, hopefully, the contradictory sides to people and how they show different aspects of who they are depending on circumstance.
How long did it take you to write the series?
HA: Once I’d worked out the idea of each episode being some kind of one-sided conversation, I began to see more and more of those kinds of moments in everyday life and I ended up writing a heap of them pretty quickly. The fun part came in working out how to tie them all together, kind of like a daisy chain structure that ends up looping back onto itself.
Are the characters based on any personal connections?
HA: They’re all personal in one way or another, based on recollections of people or situations or little moments you remember that you then play with and embellish. Episode 2 is about a guy getting a haircut while the barber is yelling at someone on a phone call. That was something that happened to me while we were prepping for the pilot. I remember coming out of the barber and being like, “that was crazy, but also, that would be a great episode.”
How do you work with actors? Is everything fully scripted? Were the actors aware of the final story line during filming?
HA: It’s always so thrilling to work with actors. It’s one of my favourite parts of directing. Weirdly, I think so much of it comes down to the casting process, because the choices you make determine much of what follows. From there I like working through the script and then kind of playing with what the scene might feel like from each character’s perspective, really having everyone find it together rather than dictating what it has to or must never be. In the pilot, we had fun with how things played out in terms of tone and staging and the little moments here and there. In episode 1, for example, when Georgia kind of waves off the couple, that action ended up replacing the line of dialogue that went with it and made the moment so much stronger. Shaping those emotional beats are what’s especially fun for me.
Tell me about the production of the production?
HA: The biggest thing with this is that all of the episodes really land on the shoulders of one of the actors, and they need to carry the audience with them whether it’s them talking or reacting. Finding that rhythm is really the big part of it, shooting in long takes and getting out of the way. There’s nowhere to hide really, and that’s part of what’s thrilling from a directing point but also for the audience as well. For this first episode, finding the right location was also a big concern. We needed a good street corner for the staging to work, and then we also needed somewhere we could shoot all night. We ended up in a semi industrial area in Sydney, which was perfect and we added neons to create the feel that our couple were outside a bar waiting to get home. It rained all that day and into the night, which began as a concern, but we pushed on and embraced the rain. it really gave us a brilliant look and added so much to the story that now it’s hard to imagine the finished piece without that setting.
What are plans for the rest of the series?
HA: We’re working out financing for more episodes and will hopefully have them to share soon. Stay tuned.