“One morning I was scrolling through Instagram, and I came across this guy just sitting in his car in front of his camera saying ‘I’m so, so, stupid. I’m a stupid slave,'” shares writer/director Dane McCusker, whose feature film The big dog recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival.
“As soon as I saw the video, I knew this world and this story. Everything came to me in a flash.”
big dog, McCusker’s feature debut chronicles the few hours before stockbroker alpha Richard throws a graduation party for his despondent son. However, he finds that his bank accounts have been emptied by his “findom” mistress, Princess Paige.
A “discovery mistress” is (usually) a non-sexual dominatrix hired by rich men to spend their money and humiliate them.
“The last two short films I made before The big dog were exploring similar thematic territory,” says McCusker. “They all sort of explored this dysfunctional man and his impact on his relationships.”
McCusker directed the feature as part of his capstone project during his Masters in Film Directing course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS).
“I definitely came into the course strategically enough to make a feature film. I had seen Sequin in a blue room doing it successfully a few years before me,” McCusker says. “I couldn’t get anything else. I was struggling to find money and realized that this would at least be a good way to keep it going.
Participating in AFTRS meant having access to some world-class resources. “Luckily, and it’s weird to say lucky about it, but COVID happened right at the start and so I was able to get some of my super back to help fund it, which is a little risky,” laughs the filmmaker.
“It took us some time to find the rest of the money for the post office. A company called Foreseen in the United States helped us find that last bit of money as well as a deal with a post house to get it through.
Budget restrictions also informed McCusker in the early development process. “We had very, very limited resources and a lot of restrictions. So a location, a scaled-down cast, all those sorts of things came into play just to make sure we could do a good job with the limited resources we had.
The big dogThe protagonist of Richard (Julian Garner) exhibits a complex set of character traits that could be considered “toxic”. Dealing with such a destructive male character was a sensitive issue that required a delicate touch.
“The thing with this story is that it automatically positions the audience to be in a place of judgment of this character and his behavior from the start. I think it was very important to leverage that into the storytelling,” McCusker says. “So I put the audience in a place where they could judge this guy, and then slowly throughout the story, hopefully they find a salvageable humanity.
“At the same time, I didn’t want to justify or excuse anything he did. It was a real challenge trying to put it to the test while appreciating that every human has the ability to change.
Audience positioning was not only an important part of getting the right message across, it was also a comedic device used by the filmmaker.
“A lot of the comedy relies on the audience being in a position of moral superiority. You watch the movie knowing this guy is shit, and I think some of the joy comes from wanting let him be punished,” McCusker says. “Then, over the course of the story, that idea gets challenged a bit.”
For McCusker, an Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival (admittedly, from a local crowd) and a distribution deal with up-and-coming company Pivot Pictures, speaks to a healthy independent film industry in Australia, paving the way for exciting and risky stories.
“It looks like the industry is changing a bit. Over the last two years there has been a boom of good independent Australian films being made outside the system here,” says McCusker. “I hope this continues and grows so that people can do this without having to wait or go through traditional processes.”