Alison Myers - 'Lobster' Director Q&A
VFF caught up with director (and SubStation Audio Description Manager) Alison Myers to talk about her wacky and innovative new comedy, Lobster
VFF: Lobster’s approach of incorporating AD as a central character feels fresh and innovative, how and when did the idea first come into your head?
AM: I’ve long thought that the best ambassador for AD is AD itself, and that if the wider Australian community experienced AD, there would be a lot more support for having AD on Australian TV. So I guess the idea evolved from that. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for many years so I can’t remember when I first had the idea. When I ran the concept past my AD colleagues, there was some concern that the blind and low vision community might be offended. But when I described the film to some blind representatives on an AD campaign group, they laughed a lot. I consulted with them and the blind and low vision cast members all the way through script development. ‘Lobster’ was intended to showcase AD and show how useful it can be, so exaggerating the concept slightly by making the AD specifically useful to a sight-impaired character helped make that point. It was also intended to explain how AD works, e.g. Cam realising the AD only talks when she is quiet, how we learn her name, how we learn she’s alone, etc. One of the benefits of the black screen was that we could do whatever we wanted because we didn’t have to worry about costuming, sets, special FX, etc. The other huge advantage was that it exactly matches my talents as a director. The burnt-in captions are there for accessibility reasons, but also to help make it clear that the black screen is intentional. The main reason for the delay was I couldn’t find a sound designer. But then the Facebook groups for film crew appeared. (I’m also a freelance video editor.) I advertised for a sound designer there and got six replies within hours. So when it got going, it all came together pretty quickly.
VFF: As Australia is the only OECD not to have AD on free to air TV, how important was it for you for this film to achieve success at home, as well as abroad?
AM: There have been amazing developments since Lobster was made but I can’t change the ending just yet, alas. The campaign for AD on Australian free-to-air TV has been going on for over 20 years. There was a very successful 15-month AD trial in 2015-16 on iview, the national broadcaster’s streaming platform. But after the trial finished, the AD was removed from iview and the only TV AD available was on Netflix – for those who could afford it. In 2017, there was a government AD working group and a report but then just a whole lot of nothing, which is why we were organising campaigns in 2018, and Lobster was made in late-2018 early-2019. In mid-December 2019, to my very great surprise, the Australian government announced out of the blue that they would provide about two years of funding for 14 hours of AD a week on the two national broadcasters – the ABC and SBS. The AD started in late-May 2020, so I barely noticed the COVID-19 lockdown because I was flat-out writing, recording, mixing, and training folks in AD for the ABC. By December we had delivered AD for about 600 episodes! At the moment it’s only available on broadcast TV but we’re hoping it’ll appear on the streaming platforms soon. However, further funding for AD is not guaranteed so there’s a chance that once it runs out, the AD will simply stop. So the campaign continues, and Lobster is still relevant!
The cast of Lobster
VFF: You’ve worked for many years as an Audio Describer, whilst your supporting cast on the film features: those who are visually impaired, Braille business owners, and Access & Technology Advisors. Did the film feel like a passion project during production?
AM: As my colleagues, friends and family know, I’m somewhat obsessed with AD. (They’re very accustomed to getting questions like, “You know that thing that...what is it called?) The 2015-16 AD trial on iview went so well, and soon after it started Netflix arrived in Australia with their brand-new AD feature. So I was really excited about the future of AD in Australia – I thought everyone would see how cool it was and all the stations would pick it up. That just didn’t happen. When the trial finished, all the AD vanished from iview overnight. I remember how shocked and disappointed my blind friends were - AD had become such a big part of their lives, and it was just gone. And whenever I discussed the iview AD trial with its former audience, I was always struck by the real sense of mourning over the loss of AD in their lives – for example the loss of the ability to watch TV with their families without needing them to do live AD, or to just watch TV by themselves. It’s frowned upon for AD providers to campaign for more AD in Australia, so Lobster was a way I could contribute to the campaign to get AD back on Australian TV. It was important that the cast were all blind and low vision. It was also important that they were paid. I was prepared to pay for it myself but my boss kicked in some money and Associate Professor Katie Ellis from Curtin University helped organise some grant money for the film. The professional sound designer and composer both kindly reduced their rates. To get a better idea of the AD audience and improve my AD, I volunteered with a blindness organisation for many years. (I was too busy last year but hope to return soon.) That’s where I met Katie Best and Sam Noonan – Katie plays Cam and Sam is the bossy ‘blue’ friend, for those who can see the captions. (She’s also the abovementioned owner of a small Braille company.) Cam was written for Katie, (though I have only ever seen her drink coffee and water.) Katie recruited Sam, Terry Lianos and Nicole Holmes, which meant she was being heckled by her own friends at the end there. Katie consulted on the script all the way through, and the others also had the opportunity when they were recruited. For the credits sequence, I asked them to act out all the really annoying stuff that us sighted folk do, so that bit was all improvised. There are no cameras, so they all recorded their lines in our AD recording booth. Katie read her script using a Braille display tethered to her phone. Sam brought in a Brailled print-out of her lines. Nicole was listening to her phone screen reader through a Bluetooth earphone. And Terry was happy for me to just feed him his lines. I swear that mix of tech wasn’t planned! (Katie’s dog, Benny, refused to be left out of the booth and was snoozing under the desk for all her records. A few snores might’ve got through.) One of the sound designers who expressed interest, Anthony Marsh, mentioned that a blind film composer, Matt McLaren, worked in a studio down the hall from Anthony’s. And, yes, that was one of the reasons Anthony got the job. Over the phone I discovered that Matt has a great voice and his own studio, so he became the AD voice. I’ve never met Anthony or Matt in person.
VFF: We’ve got to ask, why a lobster? Why not a whale or a dolphin? Better yet, why an inflatable at all?
AM: Lobster is intended to prove that AD is entertaining in its own right, not some boring, disruptive, worthy accessibility measure, so it was very important that Lobster was entertaining, fun and silly, right up to the serious punchline. For the film to work, the lead character needed to temporarily lose their sight for the duration of the story. This is usually a very serious medical problem so I needed to make it very clear that this was a temporary situation that wasn’t a matter of real concern, and that could be laughed at. So having someone wake up VERY hungover with something very silly stuck to their head gives us self-inflicted, hilarious short-term sight-loss. For many years, it was a turkey, then I belatedly remembered the Mr Bean Christmas special so I had to change it. The lobster was just the silliest-looking animal I could think of to be stuck on someone’s head. The platypus and echidna were strong contenders, but they’re a boring brown, not lobster red. Of course, right after it was finished a film called ‘The Lobster’ became popular on Netflix in Australia. (SIGHS)
Alison Myers - Director