Upcoming Aussie flick Ascendant is, as writer and director Antaine Furlong tells Supanova, “a pretty intense sci-fi fantasy thriller”.
The film follows Aria Wolf (Charlotte Best), who, kidnapped and held hostage in a high-speed elevator in a 120-floor building in Shanghai, has no memory of her past, who her captors are, or what they want from her.
It’s when she’s pushed to her limits that she begins to realise she has “incredible powers” within.
We caught up with Furlong ahead of the film’s Thursday, 8 April release.
What can fans expect from Ascendant?
Ascendant is the first in the trilogy, it’s a pretty intense sci-fi fantasy thriller, based on a character everyone in the world knows about but has yet to see on screen. It’s a sort of origin story, an original telling, your readers will understand (I don’t want to give too much away) once they see the film. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story, with a big difference.
It’s an unpredictable plot, our lead character Aria pushed to her physical and psychological limits, her journey, her loss of memory, whether you can change the future, is her pursuit to save her father. Her only chance to change it, to survive and become who she was born to be is to unlock incredible powers within.
Plenty of twists, turns, incredible visual effects… and elevator drops.
What were you aiming for with your feature film debut?
I’ve got a lot of projects I’d love to get on the silver screen. Ascendant was really a huge test for me. As someone who’s come from a desk job to Director in little to no time, could I achieve this monumental shift, this sea change? I guess I believed If I could do this one, I could do anything, and that’s important for anyone who’s a dreamer like me. Once you believe don’t ever let time get in your way. It’s never too late to start no matter what age you are. But what I didn’t expect was the level of friendships you make along the way, like-minded people, who’ve become a great part of my life.
It was filmed at Sydney’s Fox Studios and on the Northern Beaches and looks visually stunning – what can you say about the talent in the Australian film industry at the moment?
The crew were incredible, they’ve all worked on huge Hollywood blockbusters. I was extremely lucky to get the talent I did as the industry was booming in 2019 just before COVID struck. But working with people like this elevates your game especially as a first time Director. They’ve worked with the best in the business so there’s no time for insecurity or doubt you need to be clear about your vision. We had only five weeks to shoot this, with a big VFX post-production, so you need a team that can manage under pressure and deliver. Welcome to Australia, the country with some of the world’s finest filmmakers.
As for the cast, well you would need to have lived in isolation for 20 years to not know of the incredible talent that hails from Australia. The Ascendant cast is no different. They’re phenomenal in this.
The elevator scenes in the trailer also look epic – how was it filming those?
There were two steps to this. The practical interior elevator required stunts and a number of sets and a lot of blue screen. I had one of the best stunt coordinators in the business, Glenn Suter, and one of Australia’s leading production designers, Fiona Donovan. There was a lot of stunt work required – Marlee, who was Charlotte’s stunt double, was insane. We threw her around like a rag doll (safely, of course) and she just got up, with a smile on her face and was ready to go for take 12. It required a two-camera team setup using Arri camera’s headed up by cinematographer Frank Flick who achieved what I was hoping for. It can be tricky doing their work in such a restrictive space, yet capture the moment.
The next step was all achieved in postproduction by Stage 23 VFX. I set out with a modest 230 VFX shots for this film, but the more I explored what we could do the more I found myself wanting to expand on my ideas, so we achieved over 400 shots. This was a mammoth task as COVID hit. I had to try and explain what I want, or how I’d like camera to capture the energy, we had Previz to work from, but it required a lot more work and it was hard on all of us, especially Stage 23 as their team was dispersed across the country. They did an awesome job, we had such great fun creating, collaborating and visualising the shots necessary to make this one hell of a ride.
I think my biggest struggle on Ascendant was constantly holding my imagination back because I knew we didn’t have time or money! I felt like a kid in a candy shop. The audience will be amazed what they achieved. They deserve many accolades for this work and I hope they get it.
Charlotte Best looks to give an amazing performance as Aria – how was it working with her?
We looked at over 100 actresses to find our Aria; the US, Ireland, UK, Europe and of course Australia and New Zealand. We auditioned 50. It came down to Charlotte. The role needed someone who could handle the pressure, and it was enormous pressure to carry a film like this.
I reflected on an interview our favourite Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds said about his film Buried: “When you’re spending 17 straight days in a heightened state of anxiety and panic, it’s not very good for your nervous system, so you walk away pretty jittery.” Ascendant was going to be that on steroids as Charlotte would need to be in a much more heightened state and for 20 days and she had some stunts to do on top. So, I took a chance. What you see on screen is Charlotte’s real heightened state. I am thrilled you see an amazing performance in the trailer. It’s what all cast and directors want to hear. Charlotte is playing an iconic figure, a strong female role model who will ultimately change (through the trilogy) humanity.
What do you hope audiences take away from Ascendant?
I hope they come out of this feeling they’ve watched something original. That they enjoyed the ride, they felt the emotion, the journey and their ears are buzzing from the amazing sound and stunning musical score that David Hirschfelder did. I don’t spoon feed who Aria is in this chapter, so it’s slightly cryptic. I just hope they want to see the next chapter, which is insane.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This is an international film, an original story, created in Australia. Filmmakers like myself need Australian audiences to support genre films. We have the talent. Like in sport you need the fans, you need people to back you so you can reach your full potential.
I hope audiences will see that we have achieved a world stage international film, that will translate across the world. Ascendant is already getting recognition in the US, and we’re closing a deal with one of the top independent distributors in the USA who want rest of the world rights.
My editor, Jon Tappin, worked on many films, like all the Lego movies, Peter Rabbit. He was a genius. He knows this is the most confronting part of film making for any director. This is the place where you learn if you’ve got something worth watching. Their skill can craft performances, change beats, make you see things in different ways. Their patience is extraordinary. Jon was amazing to work with, he was my greatest supporter, when times were low, he picked me up and gave me options. He and I both had great attention to detail, and I think Ascendant is all that.
‘Ascendant’ opens in Australian cinemas on April 8