Bernie Van Tiel (Jade) and Jordan Cowan (Maya) promoting JADE OF DEATH at Fair Day

Stylish and supernaturally creepy, JADE OF DEATH, is making its public premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival on February 23rd.  Lucky me, I had a chance to see the series of 6 x 10 minute shows before it opens as a 60 minute offering.  And luckier still had the chance to speak with Erin Good (writer / director) and Taylor Litton-Strain (producer) of the show.

Firstly, about JADE OF DEATH.  Episode one introduces Jade and her environment.  She works as a reader at Carnival of Darkness, a sideshow alley of sorts in a part of town where “bad things happen all the time”.  It feels vaguely abandoned except for the “freaks around here” as we follow Jade through the circus style tents and past neon signs proclaiming enticements like “Animal Freaks”.  Jade has an animal air about her too.

Comfortable in full leathers, with her face half hidden by dark tresses, she peers out suspiciously as an older gentlemen, gloves and cane included, enters her parlour to request a reading.  Jade may work in the unsettlingly dodgy carnival but she has a real gift.   She can see how and when people will die, sometimes through an innate and intuitive thought process, sometimes by accidental touch.

As the story progresses we learn more about Jade (Bernie Van Tiel) and why she is so surly and truculent with most people she encounters.  Except for the pastel yin to her dark yang, Maya (Jordan Cowan) the pink fairy who works at the Ghost Train.  There is obvious, and might I say very hot, attraction between them.  In a very small space.

Beautifully shot, JADE OF DEATH is claustrophobic when events are happening in Jade’s den and expansive when her backstory kicks in.  And the detail is so impressive.

The high production values of this series are palpable.  Gorgeous washed out crimsons occasionally washing into pinks, oblique and disarming angles, backgrounds which are rich and dynamic.  (Grégoire Lière  Director of Photography and Ester Karuso-Thurn Production Designer).

And the music is fantastic.  Listen out for ‘The Heart of a Man’ (Mitch Lanham, Chris Hogben & Yoshi Hausler) and the heartbreaking ‘Lyrebird’ (Natalie Moss).

But enough from me let’s hear from the originators of JADE OF DEATH, Erin Good and Taylor Litton-Strain .

SAG: Thanks for taking the time out of what I imagine is a really hectic leadup to the opening. This is obviously a labour of love. I gather you have been working on it since 2015. What was the connection with this project that you stuck with it for so long?

Erin: We approached it like a feature film and with limited funding we initially just spent time rather than money.  We knew it was going to take time because it was an ambitious project … a genre piece with a really large cast and a lot of locations.  We just took it one step at a time.

Taylor: It felt like a feature film in terms of the production schedule … logistically how we managed cast and crew, locations, scheduling, budget. It wasn’t like we were making a short film, so now we talk about it as a mini-television show. 

It was slow pre and in production but we completed post much faster than many feature films would after we received completion funding from Queer Screen and Screen Australia gave us post production funding.  Private investment and crowdfunding all helped and Erin took it Berlinale when it was still being scripted.

(SAG Note: Erin was selected as one of only ten people worldwide to participate in the 2016 Berlinale Short Project Lab with “Jade of Death” during the early stages of its development.)

SAG: I read that you did the carnival scenes in winter, it shows in the film I think.  I loved the superb quality of the mis-en-scene and its relationship to the palette.  Was the washed out feel of Jade’s world always in the mix?

Erin:  When I was scripting, I put together an image board and had a strong feel for the look and tone.  Like in the flashback scenes we wanted a hot, dusty, light washed feel.

Taylor: Because of the nature of the project, Erin established the style right at the beginning of the piece and she had to communicate all that to whole bunch of different cast and crew as we went through.  We had a couple of stable crew but when the project became a long project, which it did, it was really invaluable to be able to pass that along. 

SAG: Did I see a little Hitchcock in there too or a bit of noir? Especially the alley scene with shadows and angles.

Erin: Film Noir was a big influence throughout the shoot and the edit.  Particularly with the character of Wilkins, even his outfit is noir-ish, and we always tried to shoot him with that style and genre influences in mind.  The Cinematographer (Grégoire Lière) and I worked closely pre-production and whenever we were setting up a shot we conferred so that there was that consistency of style with angles and framing so forth.

SAG Apart from the cinematographic influences what else influenced the style?

Erin: True Blood, The Place Beyond the Pines and American Horror Story plus I’m a big fan of Buffy and Jessica Jones is in there too...  It was a lot about tone and look and style.  The right sort of darkness, little bit of humour.  True Blood perfectly balances being quite scary and having horror elements with this hot sexiness as well.

The 10-minute episodes all dovetail each other without repetition, even the flashbacks propel the story rather than just developing Jade’s backstory.  Did you have a standalone 60 minutes in mind when you conceived the show?  

Erin:  Thanks, propelling the story was really important.  Particularly for the flashbacks that crossover events, it was about the order.  Not what you are seeing but what you have seen before to give you information and context about that scene.  When I wrote it I very much wanted it to have a television narrative, so each episode is meant to have a cliff hanger within an overall narrative story.

Taylor:  I remember reading the early draft as Erin was writing, you were racing through each page to get to the end and then it was like … oh no what’s next? And when we were making creative choices in production Erin was making sure that every chapter felt like a single chapter… which would touch on every character’s journey and each episode would propel that story forward.

SAG: Thinking about characters, did Jade come first or was it a lesbian lead character and Jade sprung from that?

Erin: The character of Jade came first, her personality and everything she encapsulates came first then I started thinking about her love interest … cool, it can be a girl who works at the carnival.

The reason that Jade isn’t straight is just because I felt like that was something that was lacking on screen and something I wanted more of … I, um, didn’t even think about it that consciously at the time.  I didn’t think too much about it … I just didn’t want her to be straight… I just made her not straight!

Taylor: What’s exciting for us is people who have seen it, in rough-cut screenings and so forth, have come up to us and are excited to see a gay character in not necessarily a gay story.  She’s a woman with superpowers who just happens to be gay.

SAG:  Thanks so much for talking with me and congratulations on being picked up by the ABC for a second series.  Now … just between us any hints about what happens to our girls?

Erin: (laughs) Well, Jade is going to really indulge in her powers and is led down quite a dark path …

SAG:  And they told me more but I’m not letting on!

JADE OF DEATH [Facebook]  is playing this Friday 23rd Feb at Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival and tickets include the Q and A following the film.   You can also buy for the After Party which is a special showcase party where almost all the cast and a lot of the crew are attending.

The really terrific music album is available on Spotify and iTunes.

And there is video trailer on YouTube.