Creating a Mystery Means That Every Character Must Have a Secret, Something That They Are Hiding by CRUSHED Writer/Director Megan Riakos

Behind the Scenes and Still shots for the film Crushed. Shot in Mudgee, NSW 2013/14 and Directed by Megan Riakos.
Behind the Scenes and Still shots for the film Crushed. Shot in Mudgee, NSW 2013/14 and Directed by Megan Riakos

Film Courage: Where did you grow up?

Megan Riakos: I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, first generation Aussie born to a Lebanese dad and American mum and the fourth child out of five (the perfect position in the family to be left to your own devices when it comes to deciding on a career path). Our house was loud and crazy and although we were creative in our own ways, there was no history of working in the arts in the family. I didn’t really understand it could be a career, but even so I was putting on plays and writing stories from as far back as I can remember.

Film Courage: Have you always wanted to make films?

Megan Riakos: When I got to high school, I was able to to formally study drama and it was then that I really started to appreciate theatre and performance. However it wasn’t until a Media Studies class where we studied some old classics, including Sydney Pollack’s THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY that it all clicked into place for me. Watching Pollack’s film resonated so strongly with me, my family were working class and this film framed the devastating effects of the depression through the eyes of an individual which I found deeply affecting. It opened my eyes to how you can convey a perspective about the world to an audience. Films can be a great medium to create empathy for the other (without people even realizing it!). It made me want to create films that make people think and feel differently about a person, a subject or a situation.
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Megan Riakos – Writer/Director of CRUSHED Movie

Film Courage: Did you go to film school and/or University for writing?

Megan: I have had several stints studying film over the past 15 years – Straight out of school (in the year 2000) I enrolled in a Bachelor of Communications (Media Arts & Production) – although this was a general filmmaking degree, this was where I was first introduced to the world of screenwriting. In 2009, I also completed a Graduate Certificate of Screen Drama at AFTRS which led to a Graduate Diploma in Directing. Again there was plenty of study surrounding script theory in these courses. And finally I did the Professional Screenwriters program at UCLA which was less about learning script theory and more about the actual writing of two full features, the challenge of which I found completely invigorating – and led to the first draft of Crushed.

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Film Courage: Did you move from Australia to attend UCLA?
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Megan: I have had two stints of living in LA so far. First time round was as a new graduate from my bachelor degree when I was 21. This was a complete change for me, I immediately started working on indie features and movies of the week. It was a huge learning curve but it cemented in me what I wanted to do in my life. After a year of working massive hours on film sets I became quite homesick, I was over the concrete jungle and was yearning to make more of my own stuff. I realized that I needed to step away, live life in the real world a little more and find a stronger level of creativity that can be hard to find when you are a little cog in the world of film production. I took those lessons, traveled around Europe for a little while before heading back to Australia where I started work on my first feature script. It was 10 years later that at the age of 31 when I made my way back to LA to study at UCLA. Second time round I kept my expectations low about LA and I really loved it. I knew that I needed to base myself near nature so took up residence in Los Feliz just next to Griffith Park – the perfect antidote to writers block for me is a run in the hills. I have been back and forth plenty of times since and I’m sure I’ll be there again soon.

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“In regards to character, I was told many times that my female characters couldn’t do certain things because she would be unlikeable and therefore unable to gain the audiences empathy, even though these same actions are carried out by male protagonists every day of the week without anyone batting an eyelid. These flaws are what makes characters interesting, human and three dimensional.”

Megan Riakos, Writer/Director of CRUSHED

 

 

Film Courage: The best and worst advice on filmmaking or writing a screenplay you’ve received. Did either statement effect you for longer than a day?

Megan: Getting the right kind of feedback for your film is incredibly important and although all writers must navigate these murky waters there is a special kind of trap female writers must beware of. The history of cinema has been dominated by the male gaze and male protagonists, so when you introduce a female voice to the way a script is told or the use of female protagonist who doesn’t fit the archetype of what a woman should be (i.e. has been presented on the screen to us over the years) you can get some really unhelpful and damaging advice. In regards to character, I was told many times that my female characters couldn’t do certain things because she would be unlikeable and therefore unable to gain the audiences empathy, even though these same actions are carried out by male protagonists every day of the week without anyone batting an eyelid. These flaws are what makes characters interesting, human and three dimensional. It creates the grey areas of a persons moral outlook. When I first encountered this I took it personally, I worried about my skill conveying my characters and questioned my own voice and what I was trying to portray. But once I understood where these comments were coming from I was able to assess them more clearly and to understand that perhaps this person was not my audience BUT that there is an audience interested in the female gaze, and that it is important to find someone who understands my voice who will give me solid feedback to improve my script.
In regards to best advice, I think not panicking when a script isn’t quite working – a tight brain is not good for the imagination and a loose one is. If you are stuck, go to the cinema and see a completely unrelated movie, go to the art gallery, go for a run…let your mind wander and do its thing unconsciously and all of a sudden the answer will pop up when you least expect it!
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Film Courage: Where were you in your life before you began writing the script for CRUSHED?

Megan: I had just graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio school primed to make my first feature but without a script with a low enough budget to enable me to make it. I spent about a year looking for the right story and struggling with confidence and motivation, so I specifically looked for a course where the aim was not to learn how to write a script but to give you feedback and deadlines. UCLA was the perfect place for this and I wrote the first draft of Crushed during that course.

Film Courage: How many short films and or scripts had you made previously before CRUSHED? How did you know you were ready for a feature?

Megan: I had made over a dozen short films, docos and music clips and had written five unproduced feature film scripts before making Crushed. While I was trying to find that elusive low budget feature idea, I made another 2 short films. Although i loved making them, I just knew it was time to move into the feature world. The stories I wanted to tell just couldn’t be contained in shorts anymore.

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See Megan explain the cameras she used for CRUSHED here on Youtube

 

Film Courage: What inspired the story for CRUSHED?

Megan: I had just seen Jane Campion’s TOP OF THE LAKE and I really responded to the beautiful but eerie New Zealand setting, the mystery as the driver of the plot and the flawed female protagonist that led the series. This combined with the documentary THE STAIRCASE by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade which is a documentary following a man accused of killing his wife. His children from a previous marriage believes he is innocent, but the wife’s daughter from a previous marriage believes he was guilty. As the court case continues, all kinds of secrets and lies come out and I though what an interesting idea; if the two people you trust more than anything in the world have this life you know nothing about and that they could possibly be capable of murder.

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Film Courage: Did you have previous knowledge of vintners or wineries?

Megan: Taking a weekend trip to a wine region is quite popular in Australia, so I had been to a few different wine regions around Australia and do enjoy a glass of wine, but what drew me into this world for Crushed was after a girls’ weekend to Burrundulla Wines – a friend’s family vineyard where I discovered the true appeal of a winery as a setting. Years later when it came time to embed this mystery somewhere interesting, I remembered Burrundulla and how beautiful and complex a world it would make for the film. Being a low budget indie film it was also a location I knew I could access cheaply that would provide a huge amount of production value. I then did a whole lot of research about viticulture and did mandatory trips to wineries to taste wine while picking the brain of the winery owners.

Film Courage: Why had you not made longer work previously (since you’d written many feature scripts)?
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Megan: Making a full length feature is a huge amount of work and locks you in to 3-4 years to not just make the film, but bring it audiences. Up until this point I hadn’t found or written a script that was achievable on a low budget that I wanted to make. The longest short I had made was 21 minutes, but unless you have a really amazing short, anything over 10-15 minutes gets lost on the festival circuit as it is too hard to program.
'Crushed' film shoot
‘Crushed’ film shoot

 

 

“Creating a mystery means for me that every character must have a secret, something that they are hiding which ends up making the audience suspect multiple characters as the killer. It helps to create subtext and an inner world that the audience may not necessarily see, but one that definitely enriches each of the characters.”

Megan Riakos, Writer/Director of CRUSHED

 

 

Film Courage: Can you share a bit about the writing process, how all of your characters have strong transformations during the course of the film, character driven versus plot driven?

 

Megan: Creating a mystery means for me that every character must have a secret, something that they are hiding which ends up making the audience suspect multiple characters as the killer. It helps to create subtext and an inner world that the audience may not necessarily see, but one that definitely enriches each of the characters. I have heard Crushed described as a character driven thriller, plot is definitely essential to this script, but for me I want juicy, flawed characters to inhabit my films. The next step is to allow the characters to transform further during the casting period, actors bring a whole new layer of meaning to a character and their story and they are great allies in strengthening the world of your film.

 

Film Courage: Your story had multi/layers and deep twists? How much did you rework the story to have it be multi/faceted?

Megan: The plot was tricky in Crushed, there are a number of red herrings and dead ends and it did require several drafts where we were working through the plot progression. After completing a draft, I would often return to either doing a beat sheet or creating cards from that draft, to ascertain if the plot was working and what needed to change. It helps boil down the film to see if it is working. Not only did this have to logically make sense it also had to emotionally make sense, ie. Just because a character could physically do something, would they actually go through with it in reality?
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Film Courage: Can you share how your film CRUSHED passed The Bechdel test? Did you change anything or revise it to meet those standards?

Megan: There are three strong female characters in Crushed – the lead character Ellia (Sarah Bishop), her mum Sophie (Roxane Wilson) and her sister Harriet (Millie Spencer-Brown). I didn’t specifically set out to pass the Bechdel test, it was just a story I wanted to tell. Although some of the talk between these three women is about their dead father/husband and the mystery behind his death, it is also about how to deal with the failing vineyard and the family business in which these three women are an integral part. After the fact I did double check that we passed it!

Film Courage: What did you want your main character to be and what did you know you did not want?

Megan: I definitely wanted our main character to be a flawed woman. We don’t get to see this woman on our screens nearly enough and yet we see her everyday of our lives (and in fact we are her). I did not want her to be a screaming topless final girl in the typical chase of a thriller/horror, I did not want someone to rescue her in the way women are so often rescued in films.
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Film Courage: What do you love about your protagonist Ellia that you secretly wish for in yourself?

Megan: Ellia couldn’t give two f*cks about what anyone thinks. Sure she has some pretty big flaws but she doesn’t try to be something she isn’t and she is comfortable in her own skin. Something a lot of women learn to do as they get older I think.

Film Courage: Did the shoot go smoothly?

Megan: The shoot went as smooth as possible for a low budget indie – we shot for 19 official shoot days and then several other skeleton shoot days. There were many challenges, one of which was the change in weather in a rural environment. The film is set in harvest time but for logistical reasons we shot over summer with the idea that we would return approximately 6-8 weeks after wrap to shoot some harvest scenes. Due to ongoing drought and extreme heat, the harvest ended up being 5 weeks earlier than expected, so we had to drop everything and head back out to shoot these final scenes. When we got there, Mudgee had finally gotten some decent rain and the entire region had transformed from a dusty, straw colored world to a rich, green one! So we had to be selective in how we covered the landscape second time round.
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crushed_108_media_4Film Courage: Where is the vineyard featured in CRUSHED?
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Megan: We shot at two main locations: Burrundulla Wines which covers a really large and diverse parcel of land – this was my friend’s family vineyard so was always on the cards to be our main location. This covered us for the cellar door, vineyard, shearing shed, cottage, house, farm land plus more. They don’t have their own winery, so we also shot at Robert Stein’s Winery who in real life are the winemakers for Burrundulla Wines. The most crucial element was the wine – it is so rich with meaning – obviously the blood and wine metaphor, but also the hard work it represents and how it can also be the undoing of people.

 

 

Film Courage: What cameras did you use?

Megan: We used primarily Sony F55 and Alexa – unusual to combine two very different cameras but we took whatever we could get for our small amount of money so we made it work in the grade.

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Film Courage: How did you originally find money for production and what was the budget?
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Megan: Crushed was made for mid six figures – although we didn’t start off that way. Like many indies, you think you can make a film for maybe $100,000, but then you bring on some great actors, you fall in love with locations and you get some great footage and you want more your little film. So you head out and find more investment, crowd-fund, whatever you have to do to fulfil the films potential. Crushed was funded through private investment, crowdfunding, fundraising and good old credit cards!

Film Courage: Why did you crowdfund via Kickstarter in 2014? Did you know many of the 290 backers to exceed your $35,000 goal? What did most of the money go toward?

Megan: We needed the money to bring Crushed up to the next level of potential. We decided to run the campaign during post production as we knew it would be easier to raise the money. Not only did we have a proof of concept in the rushes, but we now had over 70 people involved in the film from the shoot. This would be integral to help us reach out for backers. I think there was definitely one or two degrees of separation between most of our backers and the cast and crew.

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Sarah Bishop as Ellia (Left) and Millie Spencer-Brown as Harriet (Right)

Film Courage: Sarah Bishop was an excellent choice for the lead of Ellia in CRUSHED. Had you met her previously before writing the script?

Megan: Sarah and I met playing oz-tag which is a social football game in Australia – the team was made up of film industry people and we got along really well. We then made a little short together to test the waters and when it came time to write Crushed, Sarah came on board early as a producer to help develop the film with me. Having the lead involved so deeply in the script writing process was an amazing experience. We had such a short hand by the time we got on set, which is crucial for the speed you must shoot at on an indie film.

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Film Courage: How did you get Sarah to be a producer in addition to the lead? What did this producer role entail?

Megan: Sarah and I were both in LA while I was writing Crushed and we would catch up every now and then. When I pitched her the idea she loved it and when we started to brainstorm ways of getting it made, she committed to coming on board as producer as well. Sarah’s role in development was key to laying the foundations of Crushed.

Film Courage: Did you cast all of your actors at the same time?

Megan: Sarah came on board while I was drafting the script, but we didn’t start approaching others until much further down the line. When you haven’t got a big pay check for an actor, it is often hard to lock them in too far in advance as they might have other work pop up. We didn’t lock in Les Hill or Helmut Baikaitis (both name actors in Australia) until roughly a week or two before the shoot for this very reason.

Film Courage: Did your family helped behind the scenes or in front of camera?

Megan: My family were amazing in the creation of Crushed, my parents were the caterers to a cast and crew of over 30 people for three meals a day, my partner took time off work to do unit, all my siblings were extras in the city scenes at the beginning and my dad got roped in at the last minute when an actor fell through to play the bar tender in a scene towards the end!

Film Courage: You have a beautiful song that closes the film, which is perfect for the ending. Who is the artist and how did they become involved in CRUSHED?

Megan: Tiger Darrow’s WASHED AWAY completes the film beautifully. We were using a temp song during the edit of a very famous artist knowing we could never afford the rights to it, I was thinking how the hell are we going to find the right song to tie this film together? My composer, Aaron Kenny knew Tiger and had heard this song, he said it would be perfect and he was completely right. Even the lyrics fit the meaning of the film.

Film Courage: Why does the idea of a character not really knowing the people around them intrigue you?

Megan: I think we all wear masks. Different masks for work, for home, for the gym, for the party. These masks aren’t a fictional part of us, they are just a specific part of us that we put forward to draw attention away from other parts of ourselves. I am interested in this tension between who we are on the inside and who we present ourselves to be.

Behind the Scenes and Still shots for the film Crushed. Shot in Mudgee, NSW 2013/14 and Directed by Megan Riakos.
Behind the Scenes and Still shots for the film Crushed. Shot in Mudgee, NSW 2013/14 and Directed by Megan Riakos.

Film Courage: Where can we watch CRUSHED? Is it currently available?

Megan: Crushed is now available for download in Australia, New Zealand and North America on iTunes and Google Play (plus Amazon, Xbox and Vudu in North America).

Film Courage: Can you share some of the unique ways you incorporate themes of wine into the showing of the film?

Megan: It’s been really great bringing the film to vineyards and wineries, we screened at the Napa Valley Film Festival last year which is the all time hub of wine which was amazing, on the lawn of the cellar door of Burrundulla and we’ve brought wine tastings into cinemas to introduce the film. It adds an extra dimension to the experience, especially when you are screening the film in a barrel room and one of the characters has been killed by a falling barrel!

Film Courage: What is the hardest part about asking for help?

Megan: Asking for help can be hard because I always worry about putting someone out, or putting them on the spot or making someone uncomfortable. Making an indie means you have to ask huge favors of people when on a bigger film you could just pay. But what you get on an indie film is a real sense of community from those who step up and help. You make life long friends with these people and an experience that absolutely could not have been bought.
Film Courage: Do you wish you’d made CRUSHED years earlier or was this the perfect time?

Megan: I don’t think I could have made Crushed much earlier – the opportunity of making films with affordable, accessible cameras, editing equipment, hard drives at a remote location has only been possible for the indie filmmaker in the past few years. Without this democratization of filmmaking I would never have been able to make Crushed. So I think that my emergence as a feature director coincided well with the advances in technology.

Film Courage: Favorite wine and food pairing?

Megan: A glass of shiraz and a medium rare cooked steak.

Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?

Megan: I am shopping around a period mystery feature called THE LAST REPRIEVE set in Philadelphia in 1786 while also working on the treatment for sci-fi thriller about memory called TRACELESS. I am really excited to put my writing cap back on after such a long period of releasing and marketing Crushed.

 

ABOUT MEGAN RIAKOS:

Megan Riakos is a Screenwriter and Director with a passion for telling stories that engage and provoke. She recently completed her debut feature film Crushed, a mystery thriller set in the beautiful Australian wine region of Mudgee. Crushed premiered to sold out screenings at Montreal World Film Festival and went on to screen at Miami International Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, Vancouver International Women in Film Festival before mounting a successful limited Australian theatrical release. She has also completed over a dozen short films ranging from the psychological thriller The Shed to the 1930’s crime drama 50-50 and even an experimental dance film The Eye of the Beholder. Her tastes are eclectic but it’s the love of telling a good story no matter the genre that attracts Megan the most.

Megan’s screenplays have also garnered acclaim. Her period drama The Last Reprieve was awarded the Grand Prize in the Greater Philadelphia SIP Screenplay competition and her political drama Victory and Defeat made the semi-finals in the Final Draft Big Break Competition.

Megan earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Media Arts and Production) at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and has completed both a Graduate Certificate in Screen Drama (Writing and Directing) and a Graduate Diploma in Directing at the prestigious Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). During 2012-13, she also completed the Professional Screenwriters Program at UCLA.

Megan has just release Crushed on iTunes and Google Play and is currently in development on her second feature.

 

crushed_movie_1Now on iTunes! – CRUSHED movie from writer/director Megan Riakos

 

Synopsis:

After her father dies in an eerie accident at the family’s winery, Ellia returns home from the big city to tend to the remaining members of her disaffected family. The death is eventually ruled a homicide, with Ellia’s mother emerging as the prime suspect. Ellia takes matters into her own hands, compelled to discover the true story behind her father’s death. But the family and small-town secrets that emerge are more than she bargained for. Australia’s stunning wine country is the backdrop for this thrilling murder mystery from Director Megan Riakos.

CRUSHED – 111 minutes – Mystery thriller
Genre: Mystery Thriller
Starring: Les Hills, Sarah Bishop, Roxane Wilson

 

 

 

CONNECT WITH CRUSHED:

Official website
Twitter
Facebook

 

 

 

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crushed_108-mediaCRUSHED Movie Now on iTunes! – Ellia returns to her family vineyard after her father dies in a winery accident. When his death is ruled a murder and her mother becomes the prime suspect, she’s determined to find the truth. As Ellia uncovers secrets about her family and the winery, she becomes the murderer’s next target.

 

 

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