Acolytes – shoestring auteur takes aim at teens

Cinetopia – The Age

Jim Schembri


Among the many challenges facing shoe-string director Jon Hewitt on his latest film was something he’d never had to deal with before – a budget. A real budget.

Among the many challenges facing shoe-string director Jon Hewitt on his latest film was something he’d never had to deal with before – a budget. A real budget.

The tense, glossy teen thriller Acolytes boasts a production cost of almost $4 million, which is approximately $4 million more than it cost Hewitt to make his previous films, Bloodlust (1992), Darklovestory (2006) and Redball (1999).

Hewitt usually creates his own films, but this time around the project was offered to him after he was recommended to the producers by the Film Financing Corporation. Still, Acolytes – an urban Gothic tale about three Queensland teenagers who blackmail a local serial killer into dispatching an ex-con they hate – is perfectly in keeping with his “schtick” of wanting to “marry strong marketable elements with something a bit more cinematic and with pretensions to being intelligent or arty cinema.”

The original screenplay by Shane Krause and Shayne Armstrong was very strong, he says, but required some reworking – along with a heightened awareness that, in order to secure funding, he had to keep people other than himself happy.

“As you’re probably aware, when you’re trying to get three or four million out of somebody you’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot of d*** to suck and all that sort of thing. I’m pretty good at doing that shit because of having made three (films) out in the cold.

“So I was able to respond to people’s criticisms and do a little bit of my own tweaking. Having made three films before, I realised that a script is a blueprint for something else, not a work in its own right. I’m prepared for scripts to radically transform during the making of a film. For me, it’s essential.”

All this sounds suspiciously like an outsider learning how to work the system.

“Oh, I’ve always been good at working the system,” Hewitt says with a laugh. “I’ve always wanted to be inside the monster and I’ve been able to deliver the film that I wanted to deliver, which is a teen chiller but that doesn’t patronise its target audience, who are teenagers.”

He senses a shift in the mindset of the Australian film industry towards genre films. It might not quite be the winds of change, he says, but at least there’s a good breeze.

“I’d like it to be a wind, definitely.” Hewitt says. He cites the populist slant of the 2008 MIFF schedule. “Looking at it from afar, obviously this is the genre year of the festival. There’s definitely something in the zeitgeist.

“I think what’s happened in the last few years is that perhaps the mainstream financing apparatus in Australia has become a tiny bit more inclined to finance something that might be seen as a genre film, which Acolytes is. Basically, if Wolf Creek hadn’t have occurred there’s no way Acolytes would have gotten into production in Australia.”

Sure he’d welcome another film-making adventure like Acolytes, but Hewitt swears his spots haven’t changed.

“Look, basically I have my own films that I’m still trying to make. My niche is as a low-budget filmmaker who writes, produces, directs and markets their own product.

“But, you know, if somebody called me up and said `we’re interested in you directing Halloween 10′ I’m there! I’m doing it! I’ll do anything, because no matter what (the project is), there’s always the opportunity to try and turn what you’re working on into your own film.

“To a degree I’ve done that with Acolytes and I’m pretty happy with the result.”

Acolytes has been programmed into the esteemed Toronto Film Festival – alongside Mark Hartley’s terrific documentary about Australian genre film, Not Quite Hollywood – and is slated for release in February 2009. Hewitt has his fingers crossed, nonetheless.

“I’ve made the film for a 15-to-18 year old demographic and I absolutely want to target that (but) I don’t know if distributors and exhibitors are quite on the ball making value judgements about that audience.

“Generally, movies made for that audience just come down the pipe from Hollywood, they just get put on and they’re successful or they’re not.

“So with us being an Aussie film aiming at that demographic, which is the movie-going demographic, I think there’s still a few people who have to get their heads around a proper release pattern.

“I’m from exhibition and distribution. I was releasing films in the early 1980s in Melbourne and all across Australia, and the unfortunate thing that I noticed is that Aussie films today are still being released in pretty much the same way that they were in 1985. Nothing has really changed.

“That’s one of the reasons, perhaps, why Australian films don’t achieve as much success as they might at the box office. I’m not laying the blame on exhibitors and distributors, but that’s sort of what I’m up against with Acolytes.”

Acolytes is Hewitt’s fourth film since 1992, and it’s not as though he is using the royalty cheques from Bloodlust to finance a new indoor swimming pool. How does he survive in between drinks? Does he rely on royalty cheques from his partner, Belinda McClory, who was in the first Matrix film? (This is not a joke. Belinda still receives quarterly cheques from The Matrix, though she says that, after ten years, “they’re down to about four dollars”.)

Hewitt explains.

“Belinda and I are a partnership. We write together and we’ve had success at being paid to write scripts, none of which have been made, but we’ve had some degree of success there. But Belinda’s also a working actor who manages to survive.”

And as for Hewitt?

“I’ve always been a graphic designer. I’ve always had a day job, which is a sensible thing for any filmmaker in Australia to have. So, (broadly speaking, when I’m not making films) I’m doing graphic design and whatever other shit-kicking work I can get.”

Acolytes (MA 15+) screens at MIFF tonight (Fri 1 Aug) 9:30pm Forum; tomorrow (Sat 2 Aug) 11:15pm Greater Union.

(For the full MIFF08 screening schedule, please go here.)

(For more info about the original Acolytes screenwriters Shayne Krause and Shayne Armstrong, please go here.)


What did you think of Acolytes? Was it well-made? Did it scare you? Does it stand up as a quality genre thriller for the teen market? Or is it a try-hard effort? Does it have a distinctly Australian flavour? Or is it a generic genre piece? Do you think the film will succeed at the box office? And do you agree with the view that local films are handled differently than overseas ones in cinemas?

And have you seen any of Jon Hewitt’s previous films? If so, what did you think?

Your valued thoughts are hereby sought.

Posted by Jim Schembri
August 3, 2008 2:00 PM

LATEST COMMENTSAcolytes is pretty good, has a solid and genuinely surprising twist. Beautifully Shot. Wonderful bombastic sound design and great use of popular sounding music.

Hewitt shows off a great visual and aural cinematic sensibility here. Some genuinely frightening and thrilling moments, it’s not so much a splatter horrorfest as a thriller-horror.

Edgerton is very convincing as one of the villains. Belinda McClory is brilliant in her small role.

The film however is let down by some stagnant dialogue in a few scenes in the first half of the film, and our trio of relatively inexperienced younger cast members do let the film down in their speeches – this is also due to direction and writing.

Hewitt shows his weakness here – clunky dialogue delivery, and how he shoots it does not hide any weakness in the actors direction, performances or written dialogue, in fact it lays it bare.

At least get your characters doing something interesting to distract us from the overly expositional clunkers they deliver – don’t go in for close-ups or mid-shots either as they deliver these speeches.

The younger trio do get to show off their strengths later in the film, so I am no way saying they are not capable. They just need to be given better direction and better lines.

I hope it does well at the box office. It has a good trailer, and word of mouth just may be strong enough for it to survive. The marketing of it will also decide. I hope the critics are careful not to talk up the horror in this film, as by most horror standards it is on the safer side. But as a thriller-horror is thrilling enough and lets you work to piece the puzzles together.

I have only seen one other of Hewitt’s films, and that is Redball. I thought this was unfortunately a very weak film.

Schembri note: Agree with your point about the dialogue and the teen performances. When I raised this with Hewitt he took it with good humour, but was surprised.

Belinda McLory is a terrific actress who should be in our faces a lot more. Apart from her striking angular beauty she is very versatile. Anyone who hasn’t seen her in David Caesar’s film Mullet should.

Posted by: Anonymous on August 2, 2008 12:51 AM
I live in the US (I’m from Melbourne). Will this movie be released overseas or only there?

Schembri note: You may have to fly bnack to Melbourne to see it in February. If Jon Hewitt reads this he is more than welcome to elaborate on the film’s US release.

Posted by: Vince on August 2, 2008 2:50 AM
Special Schembri Note: Very articulate review and commentary here bouncing off the screening of Acolytes on Friday night. CineTopia thanks you.

I saw Acolytes last night unwittingly without any prior knowledge, as a MIFF punter.

I was out of practice attending this year as I missed the last few years due to disinterest and basically not having enough free time.

I purchased 2 mini passes this year and carefully chose the movies I wanted to see. I was interested in seeing this movie because it was Australian, the story line in the MIFF guide drew me in and also I was interested in seeing the two popular lead actors who incidentally gave impressive performances and I congratulate them (Dorman/Edgerton).

I really enjoyed this movie and was glad that I chose to see it.

I thought the special effects such as the stop motion sequence in the forest was brilliant for the suspense.

Acolytes was very well-made. It scared the shit out of me. The colour, art direction and cinematography were rich, stylish and of high quality and does stand up as a quality genre thriller for the teen market. (Enough to draw their attention away from the temptation of turning on their mobile during a movie so I think that in it’s self is a monumental achievement!)

The performances were great, the story line engaging and overall it was gripping and grizzly.

I loved the car chase, hated Ian and thought Gary was a sexy lunatic. I wanted more of Ma Parker and the also kids put in a good effort.

The final scene where Chasley was staggering down the road was terrifying and would make a great lobby poster. I got what I asked for and I think so too did the film makers and the audience who last night were mostly I guess school friends of the two boys cheering them on for their first premiere.

I think Acolytes has a good chance of doing well and I hope so because I am a big big fan of the Aussie Film industry.

I think local films will start to get a much firmer hold in the international market as I really felt that American films are starting to loose their identity and originality especially as you hear that every new movie is either a remake of a sequel.

It’s beginning to turn me off and I think that is a new trend that is emerging overseas. Aussie films need to grab a firm hold on the international market. One genre is not enough we need to develop many others. The medium now has to work that much harder to compete with all the others and compete against those that prefer to seek their entertainment in other ways such as on the internet and cable TV.

I have to rush off now otherwise ill miss the next session!

Schembri note: Wow. How did you write this? On your iPhone while wating in the queue?

Posted by: Rohan Silver on August 2, 2008 11:32 AM
US distribution yet to be confirmed. We screen in Midnight Madness in Toronto on Monday Sept 8. We also screen at Fantastic Fest in Austin Texas (the coolest genre fest in the world!) sometime between Sept 18-25. Also screening in LA at Screamfest sometime between Oct 10-19.

Schembri note: Shucks. And I thought MIFF08 was the coolest genre fest in the world. (Sigh.)

Please keep us posted, Jon.

Posted by: Hewitt on August 2, 2008 2:54 PM
I know it’s playing at Toronto International Frightfest but aside from that nothing has been mentioned yet about an overseas release.

Really dug the movie though!


Schembri note: Please see update from director Jon Hewitt above.

Don’t know if it was intentional wordplay, but loved that you said you “dug” the film, given those sequences in the forest.

Posted by: Sam Hamilton on August 2, 2008 4:46 PM