A Fireproof Interview with JOEL Harmsworth

17 August 2023

Written by

Olivia Atkins for 1.4

Sparks clearly flew between the The Sweetshop and Australian director Joel Harmsworth and it’s easy to see why, given his recent work for the RSF.

The Sweetshop

Drawing on his own experiences of escaping extinguishment, Harmsworth brings honesty on-set, preferring to work with children – rather than animals, approaching spots like silent films and playing quite literally with fire. Most surprising perhaps is his commitment to creating work as authentically as possible, deciding to lean on reality rather than rely on post – a tactic that’s bound to pay off

This is a beautifully-shot, but very dramatic and emotional spot. What appealed about the script and how did you decide to approach filming it?

It was heartbreaking to read. I grew up in the bush; every summer, we had to pack the car boot with photo albums, after waking up to the sound of the fire warning siren blaring across town, the smell of smoke still lingering in the air… Those bad summer dreams and sinking stomach feeling never really goes away.

It felt like an important spot to make. It was a pretty emotional process for me, even in the pitching stage.

Your films are very aesthetically pleasing, sometimes described as poetic even, and you pay great attention to detail. How much pre-production prep did you do for this spot?

It was just over two weeks’ prep. For me, I was focused mainly on casting and blocking out the scenes with the locations we had to hand. Even if the fire and production design were perfect, the scenes weren’t going to work if the emotion and acting weren’t authentic.

Each character adds another layer in this ad, which helps to escalate the viewer’s understanding of what’s going on. How did you go about casting and how did you evolve the story with them?

Huge efforts were put towards the casting, especially when diving into such intense and intimate moments. We found brilliant actors to work with and I aimed to reduce everything down to the simplest human instinct. No-one tries to save themselves, instead it’s about protecting their loved ones.I also found it fascinating to explore their ways of hiding their fear and panic; to keep it from those around them; then to push it right to breaking point.

Tell us about the production process; where did you shoot the film, how long did it take and did everything run according to plan?

We shot for two days, in a location an hour outside of Sydney.

I was laser focused for the pre-prep; every detail had to be buckled down for the shoot. With fire, nothing can be left to chance. Weather is always the biggest curveball; things can shift from a fire ban to a complete washout just days before the shoot… so it’s a total gamble.

What was the most challenging aspect about the production and how did you resolve it?

Shooting scenes with fire and smoke brought its challenges, as we had to consistently hit the choreography for performances, fire, smoke, wind and camera at the right time. This should have been the biggest eater of our times on-set, but that said, it was the little production things that proved most tricky. For instance, there was a backyard swimming pool framed with a fence, that appeared in the opening scene, so we had to consistently find ways to be clever and work around it when shooting.

They say you should never work with animals or children on-set, yet you featured both horses and kids in the ad. How was that?

The child actors in this spot couldn’t have been more incredible to work with. There were moments on set where they were so lost in the scene, it was chilling to watch. It’s something that I love doing actually; working with kids and their imagination.

The horses, on the other hand, didn’t behave at all…

Obviously featuring an authentic-looking fire in the spot was extremely important. How heavily did you have to rely on post-production to bring the visuals to life?

It felt that we needed to capture as much ‘real’ fire as possible. Bush fires have a very specific look to them. I didn’t want to have to fake it and the RFS agreed; we needed to get it right.

The RFS were a delight to work with; they helped us through every stage of production, including sourcing locations where we were allowed to burn fires for real, finding roads where we could burn wood and help us stage fires with our SFX department – needing little to no visual effects.

In my opinion, it’s the visuals in the film that stand out and are more emotive than the script. How did you balance the audio with the visuals to create a sense of urgency and how much did the edit play a part in this?

I approached it more as a silent film, as opposed to leaning on the sound. The music is just a subtle bed to heighten the haunting story. In the edit, we did play with the sound design, hoping it would lead our audience deeper and deeper, not just into the fire, but into the headspace of each character. There’s something about being surrounded by the crackling sound of fire and wind whistling through the trees that feels off and unnatural, like ducking your head underwater.

How helpful has your background in photography, design and music been in developing your filmic style?

It all feels like the one discipline; it’s about finding a story and emotion in a single image as opposed to disparate things.

What else are you working on and what keeps you inspired?

I’m always writing, hunting for the next great idea. I also work on music; it flexes a different part of the brain.