In 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt became the only world leader to vanish without a trace. He drowned while swimming at the beach. Or at least, maybe that’s what they want you to believe.
In director and producer Scott Mannion’s short film The Defector, he imagines a different scenario – aka conspiracy theory – that could explain the man’s infamous disappearance at Victoria’s Cheviot Beach.
Featuring a star-studded cast and crew, as well as impeccable period VFX, the short successfully turns a nation’s quest for answers into a full-blown spy thriller. And much like many espionage films, it’s filled with plot twists that’ll have you engaged and guessing at every turn.
We won’t spoil it for you, but the ending is so clever that you can’t help but put your tin foil hat on.
Filmed in 2015, the 15-minute short was released on the 50th anniversary of Holt’s disappearance. It was funded via a 2014 Kickstarter project which was able to raise US$51,144 (AUS$65,054).
We spoke to Mannion recently, and got to know a lot more about The Defector, as well as his filmmaking tips and tricks. Check it out:
Why did you feel like this story needed to be told?
“We need stories, but no story needs to be told. All art is inherently selfish, it’s created out of compulsion or obsession with beauty in the form, or the subject. No artist would survive the hardship if they weren’t obsessed.
“You’re giving something to an audience, true, and that is the emotional and beautiful thing about it, when you see them cry and laugh and gasp. It’s the best part, but that is so far away while you’re making it. You’re obsessed with the process.
“Some of the great films inspire and save people, but I think those films would never be described as ‘stories that needed to be told’ by their makers. Maybe if a marketer handed a PR brief to an actor or a director before a press junket.
“That aside, it was as much a career choice as an artistic one: It hadn’t been done before, no one had made a drama about Holt, and no one had changed genre midway through a short film. Even in feature land, no one’s changed genre from Cold War spy thriller to sci-fi before.
“It was based on a real story, so it made it marketable, and it was the perfect story to show off versatility: VFX, performance direction, genre, design, large scale, world building, drama, story craft, thematic core, history, politics, it has it all.
“It’s about subjects I love, and it shows off what I can do to the top end in Hollywood, AND it sets up a feature set in the US and USSR I’ve written.”
What does it take to pull off a really good plot twist?
“What I’m looking to do is create a subversion of expectations that gives the audience catharsis. The reveal must be completely unexpected yet feel inevitable. To do that, you create a multi-stable gestalt in the audience’s mind – things that have two interpretations.
“The first is the surface interpretation: the red herring the audience follow, and their expectations about where the story is going.
“The second is the hidden interpretation: a niggling question in their mind, or hidden flags of incongruence that stand out in their memory. You must make sure the red herring is entertaining to follow, or they’re turn it off.
“When the audience reaches your reveal, you give them the missing piece of information. That information will reveal the truth behind all the flags you placed.
“Anyone can create a crazy unexpected event, but if you carefully place the flags throughout the reveal feels inevitable and unexpected. It should inherently change the whole gestalt of the story. The more gestalts it shatters in the audience’s mind, the better. If it’s too small it won’t seem worth it.
“It’s like you placed pleasure bombs in their memory. The more you place the bigger the explosion is. The more false interpretations the audience makes the better.
“To make it even more impactful you fulfill all the audience’s wants, reveal the theme, and give the character what he needs at the same time: you set off a bigger boom by mixing chemicals.”
What are some ways you can set yourself up for success in the very beginning scenes to help that twist coming later on?
“It’s very, very, VERY complex. I answered a bit of this earlier, and I’m not going to be able to teach you in one conversation. But you need to learn what makes people curious. What makes people want to know what happens next. I’d suggest you read a psychology paper on curiosity, and study movies to find what works. That’s what I did.
“In summary, you’re looking to raise a question in the audience’s mind. Curiosity is a desire to close an information gap. It’s created by incongruence between character, motive, action, environment and object. For example, that could be between an object and its environment (a cat in space), a character and her actions (a doctor shooting a cow).
“If the red herring is boring they won’t make it to your twist. Also, if you make the red herring is too weak, they will feel they are one step ahead of you and be bored.
“You can get around this audience arrogance by creating a micro subversion (twist), this will give them trust in you as a storyteller. If you’re a world-famous director you get more leeway.
“You should also hook them with strong dramatic events right at the start. Show them what they’re in for. Grab their attention. Especially now as the audience watch on YouTube, and TV. Slow burn stories don’t play as well these days.”
How did you work in so many layers of conflict between the characters, and within the characters themselves?
“Look, it’s very complex, and it would take a whole book to explain, but basically we watch drama to figure out the subtexts and the motives of the characters. We watch to see the hero face struggle in a difficult world. We watch and wonder what happens next because we want to see a resolution. We want to see if they achieve their goal. We watch because WE are struggling, and we identify with them because of that.
“SO: you create a clear goal, a super objective for the protagonist. And you make it as clear as possible to the audience. Then you create a deep need in her. The NEED is usually irreconcilable with her story goal, her WANT. That’s the core of an arc in a feature film: the journey to achieve an objective only to realize what you really NEEDED all along.
“That will create internal conflict.
“Then you set the antagonists goals up in opposition to the lead, and that creates the external conflict between them. To make it more complicated you simply mask the motives of characters to keep the audience guessing, or create other desires which pull them in other directions. This will give you the complexity you’re talking about scene to scene.
“You’re doing all the groundwork in writing. The rest is discovered in the script analysis I talked about before. An example might be, say: a man has to kill an old general, in the backstory you could make his best friend an old general, and this guy looks a lot like him, so perhaps he treats him like an old friend, and has trouble killing him.
“This will suggest a complex inner world, probably something I’d discover outside the writing process. But if you write the story well, a lot of the complexity will be inherent to the reveal.
“Take Anthony Hopkins in Westworld. At first I wondered, “Fucking hell his performance is so complex and intriguing.” It’s only later I realized much of that was down to the writing, and the actor being true to his backstory in every scene. All the little emotions that made us want to know why: they were all incongruent at the time, and they all suddenly made sense once his backstory was revealed.”
What does a moment of conflict need to have in order to carry the story along?
“The protagonist must have a compelling urgent need to turn up in a scene. Otherwise cut it. That reason should relate to him getting his super objective. Remember what I said before? We watch because we want to know what happens next. Because we want to see his goal realized. So if the scene isn’t about his main goal, you will boor the fuck out of us. The conflict is just putting obstacles in her way. Could be a character, could be a cat, could be environmental.”