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‘Attracting Chaos’: An Old Style of Filmmaking Meets a New Breed of Director in James Morcan's 'Anno 2020'


Maverick first-time director, James Morcan, harkens back to the havoc of pre-blockbuster Hollywood with his ‘Altmanesque’ and unruly, 'Anno 2020' (2024). Rhoyce Nova sits down with the best-selling author turned auteur to discover the method to his madness.



A man in a mask in New York City
Andre Doc Williams filming on the deserted streets of New York City during lockdown.

“Think you know what 2020 was about? Think again,” teases the tagline of Anno 2020. A mystery drama based on Morcan’s novel of the same name, Anno 2020 is set in, and was filmed during, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. Described as, “A global kaleidoscope of interconnected characters seeking redemption, forgiveness, and answers amidst the chaos of Anno MMXX (Year 2020),” the film features a core cast of more than a dozen performers from around the world. Spanning seventeen cities in five countries on four continents, it was shot over two years amidst international travel bans on a nano-budget of US$6000. Set to premiere at The Ritz Cinema on April 7, Anno 2020 was a Quarter-Finalist at the International British Film Festival 2023 and won the ‘Best Experimental Film’ award from the Titan International Film Festival in Sydney.



A man in a wheelchair in a graveyard
Author-Director, James Morcan, also appears in 'Anno 2020' as the disaffected, wheelchair-bound, 'Byron'.

New Zealand-born Morcan may be a directorial debutante but as an author, he has considerable clout. The novel upon which the film is based is the first solo-authored title from the dozens of books he has written with his father, literary polymath, Lance Morcan. Among the duo’s oeuvre are two best-selling novels, White Spirit and Into the Americas, the gripping international thriller series, The Orphan Trilogies, and the new release horror, Silent Fear, which their production company, Morcan Motion Pictures, is developing into a feature film. Also slated for production is the author’s controversial non-fiction franchise, The Underground Knowledge Series, which spawned a popular YouTube podcast and one of the largest and most lively discussion groups on Goodreads. Also an actor of note, Morcan has appeared alongside the likes of Russell Crowe. Most recently he co-starred in three highly-rated features, After Armageddon (2016), and the Oz-Bollywood productions, Love You Krishna (2013), and My Cornerstone (2019), all of which he penned. His feature films have screened at cinemas in Australia, New Zealand, India, Italy, and Cannes.



A Black man in his 30s wearing a mask and standing in front of a Black Live Matter sign in NYC.
Andre Doc Williams filming during the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City..

The making of Anno 2020 is seat-of-the-pants guerrilla filming at its finest. The fact that the ambitious project was even started, let alone completed, is a triumph of collaboration and experimentation. Morcan divulges how a conglomeration of suddenly unemployed headline actors and bored, under-utilised crew members helped to piece the film together while the rest of the world sat glued to their couches in their pyjamas. “People were in lockdown, and they really wanted something to do, so we just attracted people who… were primarily more actor-producers who just wanted to join us.” Explaining how he navigated the logistical and technical challenges of filming remotely in so many locations during travel bans, Morcan says that much of the filming was facilitated organically, adding that the timing was equally as important as the technologies they used.


People just said, ‘Well, I've got a film crew and they're bored in Los Angeles or… I've got this red camera, or we've got friends in China,’” says Morcan, adding, “and it just grew and grew and grew to the point where we barely recognised it, you know, from our original plans. 


A young woman in a mask walking down a deserted street in China
Promising newcomer, Jessica Castello, during filming.

As the location shoots expanded across borders, so too did the cast. In Anno 2020, a melange of instantly recognisable faces and high-profile international artists appear alongside a band of promising, lesser-known, performers. American perennials, such as Star Trek’s, Kevin Scott-Allen, Brooklyn.Blue.Sky’s, La Rivers, and consumate veteran actress, Sheila Ball, join with seasoned homegrown talents like The Chronicles of Narnia actor, Greg Poppleton and Blue Murder’s, Gil Ben-Moshe, while esteemed Chinese American actress, Crystal J. Huang, and standout newcomer, Israeli actress, Lital Luzon, are among the multicultural cohorts who round out the cast. Quizzed on how he managed to attract such a stellar line-up of performers on no budget during a lockdown, Morcan explains,


It was basically like, you know, the cooperative theatre productions of yesteryear where everyone would get a slice of the pie,” adding, “It was about making everyone a type of producer… so everyone is getting something out of it.

True to this collaborative ethos each of the lead actors and key creatives on Anno 2020 received producer credits.



A close-up of an older Asian woman, actress Crystal Huang
Crystal J. Huang delivers a measured yet moving performance in Anno 2020.

Anno 2020, despite its setting, is not about the Covid pandemic. Instead, it follows the cast of core characters as they navigate the relationship schisms, clashing beliefs, and core internal wounds that are made manifest by the forced confinement of the lockdowns. There are no hackneyed, ‘My boyfriend and I were separated by the travel ban’ narratives here, rather, in true 'Altmanesque-ensemble' style, a series of distinct narrative vignettes unfold and intersect. We see an alienated mother and daughter finding their way back to each other online when the mother is diagnosed with cancer and cannot access medical treatment. We see an aging gay man seeking connection with the family who ostracised him many years earlier, and we see a formerly-young man who realises he has wasted his life when he finds himself single and loveless while staring down the barrel of middle-age during lockdown.



A young woman in a yellow sweater lies in a bed
Jessica Castello delivers a convincing, nuanced performance in her feature film debut.

Describing himself more as an ‘author-director’ with ‘actorly’ leanings, Morcan reveals his literary roots in the dexterous handling of the complex storylines, while the empathy his acting background fosters shows in the performers’ ability to feel safe to express their vulnerability. "I think author-actor is the key background for me," says Morcan, adding, "because my style, I guess, is very act pro-actor." In a nod to Altman’s signature style, Morcan encouraged his actors to improvise and integrate elements of their own lived experiences in their performances. As a result, Morcan reveals that 75% of the dialogue in Anno 2020 was improvised and that, going in, he deliberately underwrote the screenplay to foster overlapping dialogue and allow for ad-libbing. As Morcan puts it,


I got to know each actor and, and I thought, this is almost docu-drama style acting that will really suit people to put in their own trauma,” adding, “I know that sounds bleak, but… that's the conflict of drama and people, but I had to check about, ‘Are you happy to explore something that's really happened in your life?’

The tactic led to some startlingly moving moments, like when the character of ‘Esther’, played by Lital Luzon, who is easily the breakout performer of the piece, blurts out that she deserved to be abused by her ex-partners. Morcan says, “I tend to believe that big truths like that… will resonate at a deeper level.” 



A close-up of a young woman with dark hair, Isreali actress Lital Luzon
Isreali actress, Lital Luzon, performs with unparalleled intensity and authenticity in Anno 2020.

Judging from the intimacy of his actors’ performances, they seem to be revelling in Morcan’s loose and free directing style.


I think the thing people forget is that writing can be done at any stage. So, there is what we know of writing, but then if you think of the equivalent of songwriting, sometimes a band would just sit there. They're not actually physically writing. And I think it's a similar analogy for me with the filmmaking process, in that in the editing room, we're rewriting.

Morcan reveals that the initial edit of Anno 2020 was eight hours long and he wanted to get it down to around two and a half hours. With the final cut standing at 2:25, the film is still on the long side by current standards. In cases like this, the old writing and filmmaking adage, 'kill your darlings' comes to mind, but a novelist and screenwriter of Morcan's pedigree is well aware of this. One gets the sense that he has gloriously disregarded contemporary Hollywood conventions like certain renegade directors before him. Robert Altman's Nashville comes in at around 2:40, and Lars von Trier's Dogville runs just shy of three hours. Bold moves like this mark Morcan as a maverick movie maker who is determined to do things his own way.



A Black man and woman in their 30s argue while in bed together
Shaun Huff and La Rivers play a couple whose values clash during the pandemic.

While the performances in Anno 2020 are, on the whole, strong, the visual stylings are raw, rough, and ready. Do not expect high production values and finessed filmic finishes. The movie looks just as it was shot, randomly and chaotically with different cameras and camera people, and a collection of Zoom videos. Perhaps the film could have benefited from greater visual integration and a more interestingly rendered zoom interface, however, over-editing would be out of place in a film tackling topics of disconnection and alienation, particularly given its Cinéma Verité ethos. In the final analysis, the unfiltered visual language of Anno 2020 actually fosters the sense of connection we feel with the characters, as when the performers are addressing each other in the zoom windows, the fourth wall is thinned, without entirely breaking. In describing the style of filmmaking he wanted for the film, Morcan says,


We had this phrase like, ‘It’s not just realism, but ultra-realism’. That's what we were going for,” adding, “The goal was… let's say you were watching the movie and a friend of yours just popped in and looked over your shoulder, the goal was for them to say, 'What documentary is this?' because it feels so lifelike, you know?


A young girl around 13 sits against a wooden fence with her head down
Young actress Audrey Nitschke, who plays 'Sophie' in Anno 2020, is a talent to watch out for.

This kind of immediacy and authenticity lies at the core of Morcan’s style of directing, which he likens to the wild and free filmmaking techniques of the pre-blockbuster era in Hollywood. “I'm a big fan of 60/70s movies before there were these massive blockbusters,” says Morcan, adding, “Then I think so much money was involved that they were basically getting directors… to sign off on the script… but then what if something amazing happens that you go, ‘Gee, I wish I could have just done this, but you're not allowed to… and that's a restriction not only on directors but everyone." Morcan says, "When you free a director, you're freeing everybody."  


Morcan's embrace of this off-the-cuff, seat-of-the-pants, 70's style of filmmaking, paired with his 'author-actor' sensibilities, mark him as a new breed of auteur to watch out for. In his words,


I'm big on the planning, but for this movie, I think it shows that there are other ways to make films and the film industry has kind of forgotten about that,” adding, “like, with that sort of preparation, you're trying to reduce any chaos, but Anno 2020 was almost about attracting chaos, chasing it, because that's what made it dangerous. That's what made it lively.

RHOYCE NOVA'S RATING


"INNOVATIVE

INTIMATE

BRAVE"

SAYS RHOYCE NOVA



Rhoyce Nova is an award-winning writer, director, and film critic

who is passionate about elevating stellar independent cinema.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments


I was unaware of the existence of an eight-hour edit. Perhaps, with the film's production during the pandemic, it will be regarded as a historical snapshot in the future. It is advisable for the producers and director to preserve all the footage, ensuring that the entire eight hours are available for future generations.

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Yes, that's a good observation. Such a project as this is unprecedented, and we probably can't even begin to understand its significance until we have more distance and can view it through the lens of time. I will pass your comment on to the filmmakers.

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