From Innocence to Experience: A Conversation with Charles Williams

Father-child relationships come into focus in this week’s Short and Feature pairing on the Criterion Channel, which examines the trauma of coming of age with an emotionally unstable parent. Presented with Víctor Erice’s El Sur, Charles Williams’s All These Creatures follows the story of a young boy named Tempest, who watches his once charming and charismatic father, Mal, unravel before his eyes. The film, which won the short film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, builds an immersive visual and sonic world around its characters, evoking the confusion, frustration, and despair Tempest feels as he realizes his father’s mental health has deteriorated. Alongside moments of brutally realistic family drama, the director adds a poetic layer to the film in the form of an insect infestation that becomes intertwined in Tempest’s mind with his father’s condition. In anticipation of the film’s debut on the Channel, I spoke with Williams about his creative process and the challenges of writing about mental illness.

What made you want to tell the story of a child grappling with a parent unraveling?

What Tempest goes through—picking apart his memories of parental volatility and impending violence—is something very familiar to me. You wonder, if that’s what came before you, what are you going to turn into and how much control do you have over that?

I’d been trying to articulate something along these lines for a long time. These themes are lingering obsessions of mine, and they’ve never really left me.

I think the film also touches on something everyone goes through—reckoning with these mythic images we have of our parents as we get older. It’s a process of growing to see them with more understanding, and if they’re violent or destructive, that process is even more complicated and essential.

My own daughter was born while I was writing the film, which added both a different perspective and a sense of pressure to making it.

Did you always envision the film having a voice-over from the child’s point of view?

Yes, that was in there from the beginning. I felt the film needed to be conveyed from inside the boy’s head. It was daunting, though, because I’m aware of how difficult voice-over can be. It was about getting the tone right—the sense of someone trying to reconstruct something through naive eyes, in a way that was curious and almost detached.

There were different references that came to mind for this, and probably the best was from the great documentary Streetwise. At the start of that film there’s a kid talking about how he likes to jump off bridges to get away from the world, and it’s perfect—there’s just this rawness that has a kind of poetry while still being grounded. The other great reference, of course, was the early Malick films, especially in terms of how they give us an innocent perspective on a dark world.

Tell me about casting the film. Was this always a story about an Ethiopian-Australian family, or did that evolve from your casting process?

The script wasn’t specifically written for an Ethiopian-Australian family; that just evolved from casting with an open mind. Because the role of Tempest [played by Yared Scott] required qualities so innate—this mix of innocence and maturity and an ability to let the audience in while being essentially passive—it seemed unnecessarily restrictive to cut off my options based on race. I also felt I could rewrite the story around the right soul.

Luckily I had a great casting director who was supportive and even encouraged me to forget about gender too. So we just looked for someone who was in the age range and had the right qualities. Our shortlist was very diverse: we had a girl of Zimbabwean heritage, a boy from Scotland, and of course Yared, who was born in Ethiopia. 

Like most of the cast, Yared didn’t have any on-camera acting experience at the time. Mandela Matthia, who plays his father, did. He was studying in drama school. It is a very different kind of role from Yared’s, and it needed to be played by someone with his emotional range.

After I cast them I brought on four local Ethiopian-Australian advisors to help make sure the film was accurate and sensitive to their culture. In the end the script didn’t change dramatically, but their generosity and support really helped me reinterpret the details and flesh out the world.

How did you decide to shoot on 16 mm?

It was never a dogmatic thing for me. I’ve shot a lot on film over the years, but I’ve also shot digitally. That decision just evolved out of conversations with my cinematographer.

I wanted the images to reflect a sort of organic erosion, and how imperfect our memories can be, and that lent itself to the randomness and beauty of film. Also, because the film is about someone looking back in time, the nostalgic nature of 16 mm felt right.

My cast was largely young and nonprofessional, and that always pushes you toward shooting digitally, so you can shoot faster and keep rolling. But I wanted the film to feel really considered and precise visually.

I love that the boy describes the sensation of growing up with his father as being “like we were all living underwater,” and that the imagery then brings that feeling to life, with the low-angle shots, the murky cinematography, the locations full of stagnant water and decay. Can you talk about creating the visual world of the film?

There was a mix of imagery I tried to build into the script, particularly in the first half. Visualizing these elements—like the feeling of being underwater, and the smoke that haunts his memories—were important for me.

A lot of this was achieved by finding abandoned locations and working with my cinematographer and production designer to incorporate sickly greens and browns into the palette.

For reference points, we used some photographs, but most of the inspiration came from a pretty diverse collection of other films: everything from Tarkovsky to Cassavetes to the Safdies to Justin Kurzel and Harmony Korine.

The sound design is so intricate and so integral to the experience of the film. Can you talk about developing that?

This was something I thought about when writing. I tried to incorporate elements that would give me things to work with in the sound design—things like the cicadas, the bubbling coffee pot, the plastic flapping in the pool and over the broken window. I’ve been working with my sound designers for a long time now, and they’re really creative and generous. 

The music was also transformative. My composer, Chiara Costanza, worked on many, many drafts and added a lot to the film. It was difficult to get exactly right because we were trying to push into areas you usually wouldn’t with a film like this, using synths and a kind of techno sound. We wanted to avoid playing to sentimentality and instead made the film sound cosmic.

Rewatching the film, which I first saw at a festival last year, I was struck that it has a two-act structure, with the first half being more dreamlike, told from inside Tempest’s head, and the second taking place in the real world, where things become suddenly less subjective. Can you talk about that choice and how it came about?

This was one of the first ideas I had about how to make the film, dividing it in two so the first half would be almost philosophical and dreamlike before you’re suddenly forced to sit with the repercussions in the moment.

I wanted to show both sides of what this experience is like so the audience could have compassion for the father but also feel the threat of the situation.

My memories usually linger on the small details and are often more centered on the aftermath of something dramatic rather than the incidents themselves, and I wanted these fragments in the first half to feel like this. I developed these more traditionally dramatic “scenes” before each of these moments, and we would play these out on set, but we’d only roll camera once these were over, so we were kind of catching the emotional residue left behind.

How did you work with Dan Lee, your co-editor, to create the atmosphere of the film, especially in the first half?

I was really lucky to work with him. He was in a different city from me most of the time, and we would both cut separately and share scenes. Sometimes he would focus on the macro and I’d be working on the micro, and then we’d switch. It was a fluid process, and I think that could have been frustrating for a lot of editors, but Dan really helped make the film what it is.

It was a very difficult edit. We had limited footage because we shot on film, under fluctuating weather conditions, with nonprofessional actors and the usual problems that come with no-budget filmmaking. But the real complexity was in keeping the film flowing, particularly in the first half, where there’s no dialogue and the scenes are less traditionally structured. Juxtapositions between scenes were sometimes more important than the placement of the scene within the narrative. So there was a lot of rearranging, and the smallest changes could throw the rhythm off. We just kept working it until it got there.

Could you talk a bit about developing Mal and how you approached writing a character struggling with mental illness?

Mostly I just pulled from my understanding of my own life and some people close to me. However, I engaged with a lot of research too, consulting with a psychiatrist and also with these two mental-health bodies in Australia, Sane and Mindframe. They read the script and were very encouraging about the depiction.

I worked a lot with Mandela too. He’s nothing like the character, so we spent a lot of time getting him into the right headspace so he could connect to Mal’s experience.

What are you working on now, and how will the experiences you had on All These Creatures inform your process moving forward?

I’m writing a feature called Inside, which is in some ways an extension of All These Creatures in terms of the themes and tone, explored through a different story. More than anything, this short was a way of being dogged about how I want to work, even if, as with the casting, that’s not the way things are traditionally done.

It’s been rewarding, letting go of those expectations and my own desires, and just listening to the film and adapting the process to serve it. I’m not sure that’s a process, but it’s definitely a lesson.