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Angst and optimism from Down Under

Australian Sarah Watt shows her knack for blending wit and weird in `Look Both Ways.'

April 25, 2006|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

"I've always been fascinated that nobody mentions the train drivers when people throw themselves in front of trains," observes Australian filmmaker Sarah Watt, creating a perfect distillation of the mix of humanism and the macabre that makes her sublime films, full of calamities real and imagined, so infectious.

In her first live-action feature, "Look Both Ways," which opens this weekend, Watt paints her brand of morbid bemusement, perfected in her many award-winning animated short films ("Living With Happiness," "Small Treasures"), on a much bigger canvas. The director's on-screen alter ego is Meryl (Justine Clark), a painter who imagines catastrophe everywhere in visceral bursts of gruesome animation. Muggings, earthquakes, shootings -- even whale attacks are constant threats. When she witnesses an actual tragic accident, she crosses paths with Nick (William McInnes), a photojournalist who's just received terrible news himself. Over one particularly hot weekend, the two mortality-obsessed strangers cautiously wade into a romantic relationship as an ensemble of others affected by this random event spiral through their own aftermath.

"Every stage in life is a little step towards death," Watt says as she sips from a cup of Earl Grey tea in an alcove off the ornate lobby of Santa Monica's Casa del Mar on a sleepy, overcast Friday afternoon. "It's aging, but I also think the anxiety level in most people has gone up a lot in the last four and a half years. I don't know what it's like in America, but in Australia a lot of advertising, a lot of governing, a lot of interrelationships are organized by fear now. We drink milk not because we like the taste; we drink it so we don't get osteoporosis. Or we don't drink it because we're going to get fat."

With her sparkling ice-water blue eyes, short black tousled hair and unassuming Down Under lilt, the fortysomething Watt is soft-spoken to the point that the far-off clanking of dishes and chatter of hotel guests threaten to drown out her voice. "I think we're trying to control a universe that is largely uncontrollable," she adds with a dry chuckle.

"Look Both Ways" is what "Crash" could have been with less contrivance and a lot more finesse. Or what "Magnolia" might have been without Paul Thomas Anderson's tremendous self-regard and lack of internal editor. Despite its rich eye candy and dramatic story lines, there is no look-at-me bravado in Watt's work. Her film is actually closer in tone and insight to those of German director Tom Tykwer ("Winter Sleepers," "Run Lola Run"), with its organic visual gimmicks and unaffected, humanistic eye on the intersections of people in crisis.

In Watt's witty cinematic world view, death and rescue are never more than spitting distance apart. And any circumstance can be funny, depending on one's perspective. The magic of her artistic voice -- rich with the compassion and willful optimism that arise from weathering communal daily life -- is that much of what befalls her characters can provoke a knowing laugh as easily as a shiver.

"I'm actually quite an optimist and a believer that most people are fundamentally good," Watt says. "I'm incredibly soft on the world. I should be a bit tougher."

Watt grew up in New South Wales and, later, Melbourne, where she now lives with her husband, "Look Both Ways' " leading man, McInnes, and their two children. While trying to eke out a living from her photography, painting and graphic artwork in her 20s, Watt paid the bills by teaching art to the disabled and working in a psychiatric hospital.

In 1990, she decided to take a yearlong animation course at Swinburne School of Film and Television in Melbourne (now the Victorian College of the Arts). "I loved it," she says. "I loved filmmaking, I loved telling stories, I loved that you could add music, I just loved the whole process."

Her animated shorts won awards at a variety of international film festivals, but after "Toy Story" and "Shrek" were released, Watt decided that the technology was moving beyond her, and she began trying to get a feature made. She eventually shot "Look Both Ways" over 35 days in and around Adelaide with seed money from the newly launched Adelaide Film Festival.

Not one to patter on about her favorite directors (in fact, she can barely name one when asked), Watt's major influences are actually painters: David Hockney; Adelaide native Jeffrey Smart, known for his urban industrial landscapes; and Clarice Beckett, another Australian who did landscape oil works in the 1920s. "I'm much more likely to go to an art gallery than I am the cinema," Watt admits. As a result, her films unfold with grace, insight and emotional lyricism that owe more to poetry, photography and painting than to traditional filmmaking.

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