TAKING ACTION IN THE OUTBACK: Award-Winning Director Johnny Balazs On NIGHT SHIFT, Filmmaking, Fandom And Fortitude

The last few years have proven helpful in discovering talent out in Australia, and not without some serious internal effort for that matter on the part of its select residents. Characteristically, Australia is just one example out of many in the world in which a demographic of inspired, up-and-coming creatives work and do their best to thrive in their field of choice, which is film. In parallel, however, the land down under also has its share of setbacks - specifically pertaining to the business stimulus of producing local action films. Melbourne-based filmmaker Johnny Balazs is just one out of the pressing handful of talents working and shaping himself around a lens to change this.

"The term independent action cinema doesn't exist in Australia." says Balazs. "I would often ask people name one action film that's Australian that you remember and can recall in the last 5 years. Most say Fury Road, but that's not Australian money, that's not Australian deal making, That's not Australian independent cinema. Its a blockbuster dictated by 10 people in boardroom at a dominant studio in LA. There's a big difference. We just don't have the space or the market here. And its not because of the lack of want, its simply because the majority of distributors do not know how to market action. They do a great job in marketing horror and drama, there are very large government incentives for those kinds of films to be made."

I first discovered Balazs for myself last year upon coming across a trailer for a project called Dancer. Eager to learn more about it, it eventually led me to him, and as such, following his work has been a pretty rewarding experience. In my view, he's certainly one of the better ones, coupling talent with humility and culminating with a pragmatic approach to action films and filmmaking. It also comes bookended with a shared affinity similar to many others for the genre, dieting on such properties like Cannon and Shaw Brothers, as well as Jackie Chan films and the like, and all of which he describes as having "...planted a seed in my heart that continues to grow to this day."

Richard Norton (left) and Balazs during production of EARTHRISE

Growing up in Eastern Europe, Balazs was motivated to make his fair share of ninja films in his backyard and even moreso to find his identity upon high school, and evidently by when he began attending JMC Academy and graduating in 2004: "I remember one assignment we were told to make a fifteen-minute film of our own choice, whatever we wanted to do. I made an hour-and-a-half action feature film. It really wasn't until my university days that I understood what it means to direct, the responsibilities and what it costs on a personal level. So in a sense I have always loved films, its in my blood, my every breath."

Balazs has since transitioned his love for films to the bustling indie banner at Prima Lux Films, where for him, the objective is more than simple: "My aim is make enough of these short action/martial arts pieces to be able to say, 'Hey look at the awards, look at the response, look at the care, the craft and quality. We can make action here!'."

Balazs has been delving into his own creative endeavors at Prima Lux, shared with wife and film partner, Marlane, since 2014. It took a few creative stumbles beforehand with the production of two earlier films under his previously-existing Inception banner, as well as some serious motivation - essential to filmmakers like Balazs who have the interest, but are mired in lack of resources and doubt.

"My wife and I had made a pact that we would make films together for as long as we both can." says Balazs who credits his wife and film partner, Marlane, for stirring the momentum they needed to begin finding their footing. "We were both working in network TV on game shows. Until then I was a 'gonna': 'I'm gonna do this...' and 'I'm gonna do that...' It wasn't until she basically told me I'm full of shit, stop saying and start doing , that we both took it seriously. We started a production company called Inception Films and made two very bad films. Those film taught her how to produce and taught me how to direct. It taught me how to deal with crew, how to deal with others who have learnt a discipline themselves, how to work with a DOP, the importance of sound etc. It was a great way to learn."

Marlane and Johnny

He adds: "My wife, Marlane, and I have a very strange dynamic but it works. I'm a dreamer and passionate about a vision. I would often take her away to a fantasy land of big ideas, big sequences and big plans, but she would pull me down to earth and be the voice of reason, be the voice of budget, scheduling etc. I have learnt a lot from her, how to create without over creating. In 2014, when we were both beginning to understand the business side of film, we focused on re-branding ourselves to be a production company that people can take more seriously. We started Prima Lux Films with the notion that we would make movies that we would like to see. We both have great taste in films and enjoy many genres. In a sea of production companies around, we are just one of many doing exactly the same thing as other filmmakers out there. What I would hope puts us aside is the quality and care that goes into our films. The themes we portray and the versatility of the our produced and yet to be produced slate of work."

Balazs loves making action films. He doesn't mind experimenting in other genres either, but the all-too familiar reaction to genre central to his current endeavors isn't something he chooses to ignore, and he's not alone either; Places in Europe, South America and even Southeast Asia have all been problematic in this regard. Places like the U.K., Philippines and Cambodia are slowly placing themselves in the arena with as much volume in their successes as possible. Argentina is barely visible as well as places like Istanbul, Finland and even throughout The Middle East, and usually it's only when outside factors with deep pockets and loud intent do these select locations get some buzz. Balazs defines this type of thinking as stigmatic, viewed merely as "cheap thrills and $2 Target DVD bins.", and having worked with people on these kinds of projects that entail tons of constraints and  pressure amid the call for excellence in the pursuit of doing action right, to him, it provenly means so much more. It is, as he calls it, "the most rewarding experience one can imagine."

"The cast and crew are excited because their work looks great, the actors are astonished because they can move like that on screen, and the audience is taken on an adrenaline filled ride for 90 minutes." says Balazs, who also extends his grievances over Australia's preference toward Hollywood's move ashore in pursuit of better tax incentives, adding "...It's so sad to see a huge pool of stunt actors, martial artists and performers waiting for the next big U.S. production to arrive because of the tax write off. It's such a lottery mentality, and it's a shame because we have some of the best talent in the world here and they have to work offshore, and in turn, not be able to support homegrown films of that nature."

"There are those who try but fail miserably." Balazs says, continuing his viewpoints as he segues into one of his biggest, more challenging periods several years ago on a project in which he was one of two sharing a director's chair. "...That experience showed me what NOT to do. It showed me that an audience is ruthless and you better be damn good at what you're doing in order to get their butts on seats for 90 minutes. I strongly believe that the people I'm working with now fully understand what our mission is, they are just as passionate as I am."

Adele Elasmar (center) training for NIGHT SHIFT with fight choreographer Dan Ginnane (left)

Earning more than twenty awards at select festivals around the world, Dancer was an ultimate game changer in ways aplenty for Balazs who sought it as a personal goal to see succeed following previous lowbrow ventures and moments of uncertainty that nearly killed his passion for film were it not for faithful loved ones who helped him keep afloat, and essentially, growing: "With Dancer, I learned structured compromising. It means letting things go that you have no control over but using that as an advantage in what ever way may come."

That advantage now goes in-hand with his future endeavors with Prima Lux where he's begun efforts to start on Night Shift, for which crowdfunding is now underway. Dancer's co-star, the effortlessly beautiful Adele Elasmar, is now front and center following her supporting role on Dancer. It was through Marlane that Balazs met his newfound talent and it was through Dancer that Balazs noticed Elasmar's ability to invoke greater depth and caliber, otherwise adhering to an old saying about there being "no such thing as small parts."

"For Dancer, I needed someone who could command presence on screen for a few minutes but be unforgettable." says Balazs of Elasmar. "During production I saw an aggression, a vulnerability and a sense of drive and purpose in her eyes. I knew that there was so much more to her underneath and I decided that she would be my next star. She has taken on everything with so much dedication and heart."

Balazs applauds Elasmar for the time she's since begun putting in with the stunt team for Night Shift. For her efforts, she can currently be seen in a number of behind-the-scenes photos and select videos online showcasing Elasmar's application to fight training performace through the Prima Lux social media pages at Facebook and Instagram to further whet the appetite.

Adele and Johnny behind the scenes of DANCER (2017)

He continues: "She has made this film her life for the last six months. She is there training, learning intensely choreographed fight scenes three-to-four nights a week, learning six different fight scenes with seven-to-eight different people. She is amazing and I have never seen such discipline and drive before. She is one of those actors who continues to study at acting labs and classes, always finding ways to perfect her art and craft. She has no ego and that's the beauty of her. She has made my life so much easier by being so dedicated. We have a fantastic and very talented fight choreographer call Dan Ginnane overseeing the fight scenes. Her ability to adapt and her willingness to learn the moves and practice them over and over again had him astonished. I remember him coming up to me during a training session and saying to me 'You did a great job casting!'. Adele is my muse and I hope to continue our relationship for a long time."

As far as challenges go, time has played the biggest factor in how things get done next to the weather. Until this interview, I hadn't known Winter temperatures took over in Australia and so it was quite a bit of education.

"Luckily most of the film is set in doors." says Balazs who suggests things will be in freezing temperatures come the next few months. "Weather has always dictated what and where we shoot unfortunately. It's a funny thing because nearly all of our productions are filmed in the June-August period. It's as if we have fallen into the pattern of getting a great idea at the start of the year in Summer, then it takes about four-to-five months of pre-prod and by the time you're ready to shoot its always cold dark and dreary."

Balazs's method for the fight action is also changing this time around. Compared to the five hours in which the action sequences for Dancer were rehearsed, he's instead pushing forward for more time in rehearsals in addition to longer takes - a strategy used on some of the best film and television contributions to date such as Netflix series Daredevil, Lionsgate's John Wick: Chapter Two, and my personal favorite, Eric Jacobus's wacky and timeless martial arts comedy, Contour.

Needless to say, he's taking heed to the aforementioned lessons on shortcomings as an advantage any way possible as things boil down to budget, manpower, and filmmaking techniques to try and cut certain corners without reducing central quality; Though the action in Dancer was a great watch, according to Balazs with regard to the time ".. it was so heavily compressed that I had to compromise on a few things. What I want to do with Night Shift is to spend a whole day focusing on a fight scene, making sure that the actors are rested and recharged between takes and making sure that they perform their moves with precision and discipline."

He continues: "...'Can we afford an extra day here and an extra day there.' The answer is always no, but this is where the cast and crew step in and help out as much as they can. Then that will ultimately domino further down into schedule. 'Can we find the time that all cast and crew are available for that scene?' Because most of us work 9-5 Mon to Fri, and weekends are really the only time we have to film. So compressing up to eight or nine scenes into a day, with a location move and catering breaks is very challenging to manage. That's why smarter filming techniques are required and why I tend to to do longer takes with multiple elements playing out in a single scene rather than cutaways."

Johnny and co. on the set of EARTHRISE

"I knew I could do it better and be able to show off the kinds of things I was restricted in having input over in other projects." Balazs says, reflecting on pre-Prima Lux days, and with this, follows up with a philosophy that I personally feel all directors should take heed to; Truth be told, I was once threatened with a lawsuit by a filmmaker who got upset that I only cited negative (and actual) reviews about his work instead of pointing out mere "fan" responses (crazy enough, he actually tried to point those out as reviews as well). Lo and behold, I was also grievanced by a stuntman who worked on a film for which I and my fellow contributors James, gave low reviews, as he stated wasn't very good for the politics where he was. As it stands and as much as I care about the success of independent creatives alike, I also care about being as constructively honest as I can in pursuit of better cinema with every review. And for that matter, as Balazs moves forward with his newest action thriller, Night Shift, he shows understanding.

"I learnt to always follow your gut because at the end of the day, you're responsible for your film." he tells us. "Not the DOP, not the sound guy, but you. It's your vision and your responsibility to create, inspire and deliver. With Night Shift, I want to focus more on the performance this time and really spend some time with the actors to draw out what each character needs. With every film I learn something new, something I can improve on."

Balazs's story is far from unique pertaining to others who have faced adversity and/or continue to do so. He's not over the hump yet, though the past four years have shown tremendous, visible results in his strive for betterment at Prima Lux, and Australia's film environment in whole, overseeing the strain of facing down hardship with persistence and resolve.

"In times when you think all of the struggle and personal sacrifice is pointless, if you can continue down that path and have the faith that one day it can be your life, well that's the point of difference between those who make it and those who don't." he says. "I knew I had to continue down this path when my [university] film won Best Film at the end of year showcase. But I always remember the sacrifices I had to make. I had to kill sheep in an abattoir from 3am to 10am just to be able to pay to go and study. I lost out on spending my early twenties having a great time with my friends because I was so driven to see myself making films. I guess everything has a price."

Time will tell how much Night Shift will pay off for Balazs. Having seen Dancer though and the pre-vis footage that has emerged in the past month, I'm pretty keen on this particular project as a stepping stone for Prima Lux and other local filmmakers. Balazs express these sentiments all the same and more.

"Everything begins somewhere, and for me, the beginning was Dancer, now following that with Night Shift." says Balazs. "I admire people like Isaac Florentine who are able to make these kinds of films and have a comfortable life, living and enjoying their work. And throughout the journey you may see me struggle, but you'll never see me quit."

Click here to watch Dancer, and feel free to visit the official Indiegogo page for Night Shift to learn more about the project and how you can help.


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