top of page
  • Geoff Cordner

When Life Imitates Art

I have recently enjoyed re-visiting a “journal” I kept during the “second honeymoon” that my wife, Linda, and I took in 2016.

I have put the word journal in inverted commas because those writings in fact consist of a series of emails sent to my three siblings over a period of a couple of months between mid‑May and mid‑July 2016, and were never intended, when I composed them, for long‑term retention. How thankful I am today that at some point following our return to Australia, I printed them out and put them aside. For posterity perhaps, or just for me - who knows? Either way they now represent a welcome and fascinating insight to a time in my life when the world looked so different to the one I observe around me today. My understandable sense of gratitude and good fortune for all that life had gifted to me to that point in time is palpable on every page.

I have put the phrase “second honeymoon” in inverted commas because it is difficult to imagine that, prior to our departure, Linda would have viewed breaking up our 2‑month journey to a dozen exotic countries as a romantic twosome with a 3-week cricket tour to the north of England as ideal travel planning. That said, I also now know, in the light of subsequent events, that the opportunity the cricket tour afforded to us both to share the holiday of a lifetime with our two adult sons is one for which we will remain forever appreciative. The experiences the four of us enjoyed in one another’s company, along with our fellow tourists, and our wonderfully generous hosts at the Norton Oakes Cricket Club in Sheffield, and the memories we now carry with us as a result, are the most treasured of gifts.

The benefits of overseas travel are well known. The chance to experience first-hand the sights, sounds and smells of foreign places, and to learn more about the people and cultures occupying the lands beyond our own borders, is for many people an essential element of a well-rounded existence. But what I discovered in 2016 is that overseas travel, particularly a trip of such a significant duration, also provides a unique opportunity to review and recalibrate one’s life, and to reassess what the future might look like. There are likely to be many aspects to this kind of analysis: career, key personal relationships, living circumstances, health and fitness, personal interests and hobbies are just some of the things that might be considered and explored, both individually and as a couple, at such a time.

As part of the informal review process I conducted during those weeks overseas I determined, amongst a handful of key resolutions, to give some thought to the challenges and aspirations I might set for myself during the next phase of my life. As a result of which I came up with two somewhat surprising personal goals, even to me, of a creative kind. Firstly, a resumption of the acting “career” I had commenced in the mid 1990’s; a career curtailed when the financial imperative of supporting a growing family kicked in soon after. (Quite possibly also by a dispiriting lack of talent!). And secondly, a blog in which, hopefully, I could encourage people of a similar age to grab life by the horns in the way that many of us aspired to do when we were a little less world-weary, and our bladders a little stronger, but the execution of which plan may have fallen foul of the white noise of daily life.

Initially it seemed I had launched into both projects with equal gusto. However for reasons still not fully understood, it was the acting venture that appeared to receive by far the greater proportion of my attention as time passed. Indeed all that had transpired over the ensuing two years so far as the blog was concerned was the establishment of the requisite web page, details of which were never disseminated, and the drafting of the first article intended for publication on that site. Almost unbelievably, and disturbingly with the benefit of hindsight, that blog was called “Falling With Style” ‑ a name derived from the original Toy Story movie. Of all the names I could possibly have chosen, there are few that would have been more inappropriate today, given the circumstances of Ben’s death. Not surprisingly that web page has been deleted permanently, and the name is one that still unsettles me whenever I think about it.

But if you feel like casting your eye over that previously unpublished blog article, entitled Buzz and the Rocket, out of curiosity’s sake, you can do so by clicking on the link below:

The acting side of things gathered considerable momentum in the year or two following our return from overseas, primarily because during that period I stumbled across a website called Starnow – a site which allows aspiring actors to connect directly with writers, producers and directors who are looking for talent to participate in their projects. Some of these projects are commercial in nature, although more often than not the budget is small. And many are passion pieces, or film student projects, for which there is no budget at all, at least for the actors. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who had been out of the industry for the better part of two decades, it was mainly roles of the voluntary unpaid kind that I was successful in securing over the next couple of years.

Which is in no way intended to understate the pleasure I received from being involved in projects of that kind, or undersell the respect I have for the people in charge of them. To the contrary, I have generally found the enthusiasm and passion displayed by these admirable characters to be inspiring and infectious.

Two young film-makers who have definitely impressed me with their work ethic and vision are Sangeetha and Marshall from New Order Art House Productions. Around the middle of 2018 I auditioned in front of these two for the role of Tom ‑ husband to a younger wife, and father of a teenage boy, Sam ‑ in a long short film now known as Lost Focus. The scenes I was asked to prepare for the audition made it clear Tom was something of an irascible character: hard-working and driven, but who had allowed the pressures of his job to spill over into his family life. There was nothing in the sections of the script I saw to indicate where the story would lead, or what its outcome might be. But straight away the dialogue spoke to me in a way that made me feel strongly this was a film I wanted (needed) to be involved with.

The audition seemed to go well, although these things are always a bit awkward, and hard to judge. You meet people for the very first time, exchange pleasantries, and then spend the rest of your time trying to convince them you are capable of being someone altogether different. At the end of the audition, with other candidates for the role yet to be seen, it was of course difficult for those casting to give any clear indication of whether they thought I was the one. But thankfully, with the benefit of hindsight, Sangeetha did ask me if I had any questions about the script, or the project in general. I decided to take a risk:

Just reading between the lines I get an overwhelming feeling that this is a film about teenage suicide. Am I right about that?

To say Sangeetha and Marshall looked shocked would be an understatement. They had shown various excerpts from the script to numerous people and, as Sangeetha confirmed, none had twigged to what was intended to be the powerful, but unexpected conclusion to the film – namely, the death by suicide of its youngest character. She wanted to know why I had asked the question, and I confirmed in response that it was this aspect of the project that made me feel so strongly that I wanted to be involved in it. I explained that I had lost my 16-year old nephew, Daniel, to suicide some years earlier, and that it had been the single most devastating event of my life. I explained that my reading of the script had led me to believe this was, in its essence, a film about understanding the warning signs if and when someone close to you is suffering from depression, and experiencing suicidal tendencies. I explained that I very much wanted to be a part of such a film; a film that just might make a crucial difference to someone who saw it.

I was very pleased to subsequently be awarded the role of Tom. Although I didn’t like the character, it felt like an important role to play. The way I saw it, Tom was not an inherently bad person. He was just someone who didn’t understand that the way he behaved, especially around his family, had consequences. And he certainly didn’t understand that those consequences could, particularly in combination with other circumstances to which he was completely oblivious, be fatal.

We subsequently shot the film over the first two weeks of October 2018. The lead role of Sam was played by a young man, Aden, with whom, unlike Tom, I felt a strong sense of connection and affection. However we were unable to finish the film during that initial shooting period because a different, more appropriate location was required for a number of uncompleted scenes – those to be shot in Sam’s bedroom. Although not originally scripted to be so, one of the most significant of these would ultimately become the final scene of the film. It was a scene in which my character, Tom, breaks down whilst visiting Sam's bedroom on the day of his funeral, having finally begun to comprehend and acknowledge, albeit to himself alone, the role he has potentially played in Sam’s death.

Having not heard from her during the latter part of 2018 about the timetable for shooting those remaining scenes, I sent a text to Sangeetha on New Years Day 2019 asking for an update. She advised in her reply that the production team were still looking for a suitable location: “If you [have] somewhere in mind please let me know!”

I responded: “We have 2 boys’ bedrooms at our house which could possibly work?”, and advised I would send photos once we returned from holidays the following week.

On 10 January 2019 I sent photos of both our boys’ bedrooms to Sangeetha. She replied soon after: “I think the 2nd one could work great – similar to what I imagined (the rainbow sheet one)”. She was referring to the photos I had sent her of Ben’s bedroom.

Almost immediately Sangeetha followed up with another text: “Just want to double check with you though that you’d be comfortable to do your final bit in your son’s room”.

I replied: “I will have a think about those questions Sangeetha and discuss them with my family. I will give you a definite answer on Monday if that’s OK?”

On 14 January 2019, after speaking with Linda, Tim and Ben, I texted Sangeetha again: “We are happy to have the shoot here Sangeetha, as long as it is after Feb 17”.

Just before 10pm on 19 January 2019 Sangeetha proposed by text that 21 February 2019 be the date for shooting the final scenes in Ben’s bedroom – scenes in which the character of Sam would contemplate his decision to take his own life, and the character of Tom would confront the reality that he had quite possibly been a catalyst for Sam choosing to do just that.

Exactly seven days later, after spending the final week of his life sleeping in that very room, Ben would be dead. Not by suicide, but as the result of his own actions and free will nevertheless, and just as emphatically gone from our lives forever.

Following a candid meeting with Sangeetha and Marshall on 22 February 2019, a meeting initiated by me, and which proceeded only at my insistence, it was agreed that Tom’s final scene would be shot at a new location on Sunday, 24 February 2019. The sensitivity shown by these two exceptional young people to my emotional needs and welfare, in extremely challenging circumstances, both at that meeting, and on the subsequent shooting date, clearly reflect the fact that they are extraordinarily empathetic human beings first and foremost, and talented filmmakers second. Indeed it was I who had to persuade them, against their initial heartfelt instincts, that the shooting of the final scene was something we needed to do, for me.

On that following Sunday, four weeks to the day from the worst Sunday I have ever known, we shot three takes of that concluding scene. In each of the first two takes I simply gave myself up to the emotion that was coursing through me. The footage was raw and intense, but the character in it was not Tom. It was me. After reviewing those two takes I asked Sangeetha and Marshall if they were happy with what they had. I knew there could be nothing more real than what we had shot from an emotional point of view, but I was also conscious of the fact that I had really had very little control over what I had just done.

Marshall then hesitantly, but bravely, made exactly the right creative decision. He asked me if I would be willing to do one more take. One in which I kept my emotions below the surface for as long as possible. One in which, with all the underlying sensations I was experiencing, I continued to play the role of Tom – a stoic man who would not have wanted anyone else to see what he was feeling, or to know what he now knew; namely, that his son’s death was, at least in part, attributable to him.

And that is what we did.

As I look back at that piece of footage today it strikes me that, in a quite bizarre way, I now resemble Tom. That is to say, what I have become over these past three years, at least in part, is a man who strives to keep his emotions just below the surface every single day. Not, as may be true of Tom, because I regard it as a sign of weakness, or because of a sense of responsibility for the manner of my son’s death – although the decision made to offer up Ben’s room as a film set less than a fortnight before will continue to haunt me, at least on some level, for the rest of my days.

But because fully acknowledging and expressing those emotions whenever and wherever they arise is impossibly inconsistent with living the life Ben would want me to now lead.

Of course there will be days and moments when those emotions spill over, unchecked; I can guarantee you that. There have been many such days and moments already, and there will be many more. And I know full well there is no need to apologise to you for that, now or in the future. Because if there was such a need you would not have taken the time to be reading this today. And for that I can do no more than thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for playing the role I most need of you at the time when I have most needed it.

A shortened version of Lost Focus was accepted into the 2019 Sydney Indie Film Festival, and screened at Hoyts Theatre, George Street, Sydney, on 28 October 2019. It was subsequently awarded the Festival’s Best Mental Health Awareness Film.


bottom of page