Australia’s Nicholas Verso Talks U.S. Influences on His ‘Boys in the Trees’ and Yoko Ono Song Rights

Director Nicholas Verso Talks U.S. influences
Photo by Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

Australian writer/director Nicholas Verso’s gender-bending “Boys in the Trees” world-premiered late last week in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section, which is dedicated to cutting-edge fare, before segueing to Toronto. Verso talked to Variety about the influence of American movies on his first work and also how he managed to secure rights to its impressive ’90s song list.

“Boys” is a supernatural coming-of-age film set in suburbia on Halloween with skater culture, steeped in a ’90s soundtrack. It all seems pretty unusual for Australian cinema. What’s it born from?

In Australia we grow up watching a lot of American movies. I spent the 1980s and ’90s watching Spielberg, Joe Dante, and things like [Andrew Fleming’s] “The Craft.” What happens when you reach the end of your adolescence in Australia is you kind of look back and it feels a bit hollow because it’s nothing at all like the experience you grew up seeing on screen. So I just found there was a lack of films celebrating the Australian teen experience, and what that magic is like in our suburbia. It’s true, we [Australians] tend not to do that; we tend to make movies realistically. But I’ve always had an overactive imagination. I’ve read a lot of Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman; they are my favorite writers, besides the directors I already mentioned. So when I was growing up I would always look at things through that lens, and wonder why I couldn’t find an Australian film that showed them that way.

Why did you set it in 1997? 

When I started writing the film, it was set in modern day, but all the modern technology kept getting in the way. YouTube and mobile phones and Instagram. I just found them very undramatic; so I went back in my head to when the last time would be that teenagers could really be alone in the night, without contrivance.

The film has a distinctive nighttime look and plenty of visual panache. What was it like working with your cinematographer, Marden Dean?

We didn’t have a lot of time, it was actually a very fast shoot, so Marden and I went to each location and just thought very practically about how we could create that look of magic suburbia that you are now seeing in things like [Netflix sci-fi series] “Stranger Things.” We wanted it to look like a film; we didn’t want it to look too realistic. We wanted it to be stylized and heightened. Bill Henson, the Australian photographer, is a huge influence, and also Gregory Crewdson.

The impressive song list on the soundtrack includes Marilyn Manson’s  “The Beautiful People” and Yoko Ono’s  “Death of Samantha.” Was getting those rights tough?

I have a very personal connection to every song in the film. Luckily [the film’s producer] Mushroom Pictures has a big music arm. The attraction they had to the script was that I was embracing the music. I think if I was with any other producer in Australia I would not have had those songs. Still, there were certain nuts that were tough to crack. I had to write a long personal letter to Marilyn Manson begging him for his song. The one I was most worried about was Yoko Ono but she was very supportive, which was amazing. Until she said yes I was very nervous because I didn’t know how else to finish the film. For all the other songs I had other options. But for that one I had no backup plan.