Thomas Charles Hyland: Don't Fuck With The Eyes


13 March 2024

Thomas Charles Hyland’s groundbreaking film This Is Going To Be Big has been captivating audiences worldwide with his, last week taking out the Best Feature Documentary award at AIDC, marking his ascent as a director to watch. Esteemed by both critics and audiences alike, his heartfelt film tackles themes of disability and acceptance with remarkable finesse. Drawing upon his foundation in commercial work, Hyland demonstrates a unique ability to handle nuanced storytelling. Now, as a proud addition to the Truce roster, we delve into the archives to uncover the origins of his extraordinary talent.

Subject matter probably doesn’t get much more difficult to handle than still-birth, what do you remember about your ‘Still Six Lives’ project?

Yeah, that’s true. If you’re not giving respect to these kinds of projects, you can really do some damage. I know that by the time this project came to me, my confidence as a director was brimming. I felt like I knew how to create and hold tone, how to work with actors and make the most of a challenging budget.
This job is a favourite of mine because it turned out exactly how I pictured it. I designed the shots to get the most out of the tiny space we had to use. We shot on long lenses and with a controlled colour palette because we had a very limited budget for art department. But what I always knew was that the real key was the tone and connection shared between the actors.

To help with the chemistry on set, I started giving the two actors little mischievous missions that were a secret to the other. I wanted to capture them laughing at silly things as that would help sell them as a couple. This kind of play is really fun. It’s one of those tools you deploy to take the pressure off the actors. After that, they can do their best work.

But before all that, when dealing with sensitive material, I always dive deep into research before locking things down. For me, this means a lot of reading, listening, and watching, but also a lot of practical, heart-to-heart interviews and conversations. I know that in order for me to do the best job I can, I have to find an emotional thread that ties me directly to the story/theme/subject. In the throws of production, things happen quickly, so if you don’t understand the subject matter instinctively then you won’t know what’s important when decisions have to be made quickly. In other words, it doesn’t matter how cool your shots, your scene or your story is if you don’t know what tone is right. 
I love it when you can make an "object" in a spot, symbolic of the whole story.  For this ad, the “object” is the couple's hands. That close-up shot of the hands has it all. They start nervous, then they’re happy, playful, and loving, but then they’re tense and they squeeze tight until the tension gives way to relief and excitement. That’s the entire story, right there in their grip!

That helps us segway into ‘The Hands That Bind Us’ which explores queer acceptance, how does your approach differ in dealing with subject matter like that?

Once again, it started from a personal place. The script for this one was already amazing, and so for the big piece was the tone. For these kinds of projects, my mantra tends to be: what do you want the audience to know and how do you want them to feel when they hear it? All decisions come from these two elements. 

So related to that, I was thinking about perspective. In other words: who are we with when we’re watching the ad? Which character is connected to the tone of the story. Both sound and camera should be informed by the answer. Here, we're in the shoes of the young woman who is stepping into her family BBQ. The emotional rollercoaster is all hers. The filmmaking moves are there to support that.

But these kinds of multi-character stories are deceptively hard. On the surface, the story is very simple but the amount of characters involved adds quite a lot of story pressure. There ends up being a lot of information you're needing to put across about what characters know what and at what time. 

Blocking becomes extremely important because if you've designed your shot list wrong and then for whatever reason you have to drop a shot, or if in the edit you need to cut things down for time, you'll find your story no longer makes sense. 

You work out the most important thing and make sure you’re supporting that.

What do you mean by that? 

I guess I find that every project, problem or question hinges on finding its lynchpin: the core element that everything else revolves around. I mean this for every part of the process, be it editing, casting, or scheduling etc. It’s everything. There’s always an infinite number of ways you can go, and so to not be paralyzed, you need to work out what’s the first puzzle piece to lay down. If you do that, you ensure that everything else falls into place around it.

For The Hands that Bind Us, the emotion of the story (and therefore the music and the camera angles) was tied to the young woman, but in terms of the actual action - the way the story moves, and how we structure on set - we’re following the Dad. So in the reality of the story (and therefore the practicality of the shooting day) he was the lynchpin. He’s the one who marked the pace that all the other actors follow. 

The campaign for Women’s Legal Service Victoria was inspired by real stories. What considerations did you have to keep in mind when blurring the lines between reality and fiction? And what’s your approach for capturing such an emotional performance on set?

Mixing real stories with visual fiction can be pretty fraught. Particularly when dealing with sensitive material. If it feels like an episode of Nightline or A Current Affair then we are in serious trouble. It’ll feel like you don’t understand your own message, the audience will feel insulted and the whole thing will fail.
But having said that, when used right, I think the whole idea of dramatically interpreting non-fiction is incredible. Honestly, I’d say it’s underused. 

In terms of capturing the performance, it’s absolutely essential to set the right tone on set. Ultimately, filmmaking is a collective effort, with everyone from the client to craft services being part of the atmosphere. Everyone should be in harmony, truly on the same wavelength, and aware of what’s required to make something great. 

Open and respectful communication plays a pivotal role — it's arguably the most crucial ingredient. Everyone is at their best when they understand the goal, and when they know what it means to do good work. You know? The Gaffer shines when they're aware the DP digs the lighting. Actors feel safe when the director understands how they like to work and assures them when they've nailed it. And then for a director, my confidence soars when I know the client and agency are really, really happy with the progress. It's a big web!

Your Incolink spot is truly compelling, offering a rare glimpse into the vulnerability experienced by male tradespeople. Could you elaborate on the challenges you faced while working within the constraints of a single character and single location concept?

Thank you! I think chamber ads are a cool little subgenre. Their challenge is always: how do you keep them from being boring and lame? I think you want an intriguing tone, some kind of “reveal” that makes the information interesting, and above all else: a killer performance.

For this one, I go back to what I was saying about creating the right tone on set. If you just leave it to the wind, a set can easily feel like an anxious environment. Or more often, they’ll feel like active construction sites. You know? There’s stands and cables everywhere. Giant equipment is being wheeled off trucks. People buzzing around the perimeter, fixing a light here, a monitor there. 

It’s all necessary stuff but you gotta make sure you’re not getting in your own way. Like, you can’t be barking like a mad pirate one minute and then expecting an actor to effortlessly slip into some other emotional space. You’re just making it hard for yourself. So my advice is: if you want your actor to cry or be vulnerable in some other way on set – while a whole crew is standing around evaluating everything – you have to create an environment that makes them comfortable to do that. 

This isn’t me saying that actors can’t act, it’s me saying: if you really wanna go for gold, get rid of anything and everything that isn’t supporting them and their performance. Like if you’re after something tender, you should try to make the environment feel that way.

No, that makes total sense. So tell me about "See What’s Possible", how did you work with the actors in this one?

Well this one was awesome as we had a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. I don’t think there’s a hard or fast rule, but sometimes a "real" person is the only one who can bring truth to a story. It’s not always the case, but it’s always obvious when it is. 

Working with actors is probably my favourite part of the filmmaking process, and there’s a unique kind of thrill I get when working with “real” people. I find that it sharpens my directing skills in ways that are hard to explain. It’s not so much that it means I need to do “more directing” or “better directing”, but it demands you to focus on empathy – which is always a good thing to do. I’m not sure how else to explain it.

The spot was written by Alex Wadelton - who is a star. His knack for simplicity and nuance is incredible. Like, this ad would be terrible if the hiring managers felt like Bond Villains. It might be entertaining but it wouldn't work as an ad. If you make the bad guys look like complete arseholes then no one will actually see themself in it – which will defeat the purpose. 

But what else can I say about this one? 

I guess it’s another with a few characters, and so eyelines come into play. There’s a great book by Walter Murch called “In the Blink of an Eye” that I read when I was young. It’s amazing. It’s all about film language, character psychology and editing, basically how big a deal eyes are in determining where and when to cut. I’m a believer.

Eyelines will make or break your scene. You fuck em up and you’re done. But I’m proud of how they work in this one. They hand off from one character to another, whilst also adding story and character detail. 

In short: eyes are AMAZING! They’re so powerful. They’re everything. Don’t fuck with eyes!

We won’t fuck with the eyes! So what’s next for you Thomas?

Honestly, I really love making things, so hopefully a bunch of commercials – I love the economy of them; how succinct the storytelling has to be; how each new one is its own world and so warrants its own ideas. And unlike feature films or tv, you also get to complete them quite quickly, so it’s a really satisfying ride. 

Aside from that, I am still on the festival circuit for This Is Going to Be Big, which is taking me all over the world, so that’s been very fun and inspiring. I have some other feature films in the works and so there’s development going on there, but really, right now I’m just keen to pick up the camera. 


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