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Interview with Andy Jans-Brown

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Andy at a public reading

Hell is Light

Pighouse Flicks |  Thursday 17 October

Andy Jans-Brown had a script. He wrote some music, did a couple of public readings and people seemed to laugh and cry in the right places – he had an overwhelming sense that the film should be made. He had no idea how to do that, but being the DIY kind of fool who never reads the instructions, and always ends up with a few spare screws and bolts, he thought naively, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ And Hell is Light was born.

Hell is Light is essentially an arthouse black comedy that off-sets the natural beauty of Byron against the shadowy side of escapism and drugs (ice, pot and LSD), and petty – at times clown-like – criminality. Andy chatted with Seven in the lead up to the film’s screening this week.

As a multi-talented artist, and NIDA graduate, what is it like to tread both spaces, as a musician and an actor?

Ha, I actually never graduated from NIDA, but spent two years doing the Diploma of Acting course, studying alongside many of the greats, including Cate Blanchette, who was in my year and a good and kind friend at the time.Theatre and music are both aspects of story telling. I’d love to somehow bring those two worlds together more in my art. Music for me is still the most direct way to get straight to the heart of the matter. Straight to the emotion. When I perform live with my band, I like to get a little theatrical.

You are also a published poet, where do you feel all this creative drive comes from? Did you grow up with musical or creative parents?

Ha. Na! There were no artists in my family. My Mum and my brother Paul were very encouraging of every silly thing I did. I used to sing in the shower… really badly! I’d come out and they’d both be laughing hysterically. One day, after some very challenging things happened in our family life, mum said ‘You know Andy, one day all this hardship will come out in your voice, and you’ll be able to sing just like Jimmy Barnes’. That was the gift she gave me. My struggles took on deeper meaning and purpose. But I still can’t sing like Jimmy Barnes.

What was it like to study at NIDA? Was it a bit daunting starting there – with so many big names in their graduate list, or was that aspect more of an inspiration to you?

It was definitely a source of inspiration. I wanted to be just like Mel Gibson (before the antisemitic drink driving incident). I was blessed to study there. I was introduced to Shakespeare, Wilde and The Greeks. It was a perfect grounding for a life in the arts. Sadly for me, my brother passed away whilst I was studying second year. It altered the course of my life.

Fast forward to today, where your already impressive creative output has gone to the next level – having recently completed, not only an entire double album, but also a feature length film to go with it… Wow! Can you tell us what inspired you to take on such a huge, multifaceted project?

I’m naive, I guess. A fool of sorts. Why do art? It makes no sense what-so-ever. You throw money and time and love recklessly upon some imaginary wagon of dreams and pray you make it through the desert, somehow, whilst chasing your rainbow’s end. Something inside you demands that you do it. The story needs to be told. The art needs the light – it just can’t bear the darkness any longer. So you roll up your sleeves, and get the job done – any way you can.

The film, called Hell is Light was shot in and around Byron Bay and Lismore, with more than 150 local volunteer actors. That must have been a blast, but also a handful? How did you manage all that?

I did two public readings of the film. I was terrified, but people seemed to respond well to the script. They laughed and cried in the right places. Afterward there was a real excitement in the room. A buzz! It was this buzz that gave the film momentum. It was the commitment of everyone involved that made it possible. The community wanted the film to be made.They got behind it. They gave up their homes, their cars, their motorbikes and their time, with passion in their hearts and a fire in their bellies. I became a willing slave to that community spirit. People had given so much. I didn’t want to let them down.

The project has been incredibly well received, winning 9 awards since its first screening in November last year at Brisbane’s Newfarm Cinema, including: best film, best director, best screenplay, best original score, best actor, and two best supporting actors awards.

It’s extremely validating and humbling. I’m even more terrified now to sit in the audience – what if their expectations aren’t met? The Brisbane screening was enough to be honest. That was a hugely cathartic moment for me. I sat in the cinema alongside my brother’s teenage girlfriend and my best friend from that era. Gauging their responses measured the importance of the film for me.

So the film has had a huge impact. Why do you think your film has received such an overwhelming response, what is it about your film that has struck a chord with industry bodies and audiences alike?

The heart of the film. The story itself. The characters and their struggles – their flaws and their beauty. I think for anyone who has lived through addiction, or been affected by the hardships of someone close to them experiencing the chaotic spiral of addiction, the film strikes a chord and rings true.

You have mentioned that the main characters in the film, to some degree represent the experiences of some members of your family. Would you be willing to expand on that a little? And what was it that compelled you to want to tell these stories that are so close-to-home for you?

My brother struggled with amphetamine addiction when I was in my final year of high school. He got into debt to some very heavy characters.

They made an example of him. It was so tragic. It may or may not have contributed to his death. He lived fast and died young. He was a beautiful young man with so much life ahead of him. He took a wrong turn and never turned back. Maybe he didn’t know how? If his story can be a signpost on that very over-crowded highway to hell, that says ‘take a rest if you’re feeling fatigued,’ and in that rest, someone gets a fresh perspective and lives to fight on for another day – or if it can help families and friends of those who suffer such ordeals of deep meaning and soul searching – then I guess for me the loss of my brother and all his potential wasn’t for nothing.

So Hell Is Light is showing for the first time here in Byron, at the The PigHouse Flicks (The Byron Bay Brewery) on 17 October, at 7pm and you’ll be doing a Q&A afterwards. The film is not for everyone, being rated ‘R’ (18+) with frequent coarse language, sexual and drug references, so who is the film’s target audience, and who do you think would appreciate it the most?

Naively, I made this film without a target audience in mind, but so far it seems to relate to far more people than I ever expected. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It’s arthouse, it’s black comedy, it’s hard-hitting drama, it’s experimental film – I like to call it ‘Psychedelic Soap Opera,’ because at one of the first readings, a young guy exclaimed afterwards, ‘Wow! That’s mad! It’s like Home and Away on acid!’ And he was right, it is kind of like that. It contrasts all the natural beauty of our local Eden, with all the Hell that temptation masks. The characters are real, flawed, and yet somehow redeemed by their human-ness; somewhere in all the darkness you’ll see the light. For those open-minded types who enjoy a good story and aren’t easily offended, or for those who never could hide from the complexities of a life lived large – this film is for you.

What else is on the cards for you for the rest of the year? Any other events you’d like to let people know about?

I’m a Dad now. It’s such a big commitment. The biggest labour of love yet. It certainly keeps you busy doesn’t it? I take my hat off to all parents.Massive job! I will be releasing my first vinyl though; a double album of the songs from the film, which I’m super excited about. There will be a gig to mark the occasion. Stay tuned.

Hell Is Light  will be screened on Thursday 17 October, at the Pighouse Flicks at 6pm. For more information visit: www.facebook.com/HellIsLight.


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