Interview: Neil Triffett, writer/director/composer of EMO the Musical

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We sat down for an interview with Neil Triffett, the writer, director and composer of Aussie comedy, EMO the Musical.

EMO the Musical has found critical success, both for its 2014 short film version, as well as for the feature released this year (and in cinemas now, so go watch after reading this interview. DO IT!). We met up for a chat with the master-mind behind the movie, Neil Triffett.

neil triffett emo the musical
Neil on set with Ethan during the EMO the Musical shoot. Source: FilmInk.

First and most importantly, do you have a favourite director? If so, who?

I have two. I love Hal Ashby. He did Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, amongst other things. Being There is also a beautiful movie. But I also love Alexandre Payne; he always just gets it right. Election is one of my favourite movies.

Interesting choices. So, EMO the Musical. What was the inspiration?

The idea began a few years ago. Just the concept of trapping an emo inside a musical is a bit funny. But it’s a little bit gimmicky too. So I was sitting on the idea for a long time thinking, “Oh it’s just a gimmick; we don’t want to make that.” But then after I finished film school and I was kicking around for a few years and hadn’t done anything for a while, I wanted to do something that was a bit more fun. It was a good musical idea I had so I started scripting it. And as I was scripting, this weird holy war came out in the middle of the film. It’s about emos versus Christians. So when that emerged I realised it was something a little bit more fun; it had legs. From there we just developed it further.

Why ‘the musical’? Was it because you just thought it was quirky and eccentric and a hilarious dynamic between emos and musicals?

The dynamic between the emos and musicals was the main thing. But there’s just so much drama when you trap an emo inside a musical. And there are these wonderful metaphors that music allows you to do. The emos perform more realistic songs in the movie, whereas the Christians break into Sound of Music song numbers that aren’t realistic. And the emos hate that. So automatically there’s this fight in the movie between different musical styles, which kind of adds to the drama. 

You composed this film and obviously enjoy and recognise the potential of movie musicals. Are musicals an area of film you want to stay in?

It’s so difficult and it’s so difficult to do in an indie level. I’m not sure that I could just launch straight into another musical. Also, you’ve got to have a really good idea; you’ve got to have something inherently musical about your concept to launch into a musical film. Musicals are actually really popular. I mean, look at Glee. Glee was a new concept but it really wasn’t risky because they were picking songs everyone had heard before and known.

Jukebox musicals are really popular, but that means we don’t have films where the music is written specifically for that film. And I think that’s a little bit of a loss. So that makes it harder to sell your movie. But in theory movie musicals are more popular than regular movies in a way. A lot of audiences like to see them. But being an indie film is just difficult anyway, musical or not. So I think I’m going to be focusing quite heavily on straight film for the time being. 

neil triffett emo the musical
The outcasts of EMO the Musical. Source: McCleod Casting.

Emo culture. It kind of seems like an obscure focus and one that you wouldn’t think of unless you’re in or surrounded by that world. Is that something you’ve been around? What draws you to it?

I was never an emo.

Yeh, that was what I was asking. [Laughs]

I really wish that I was though! I grew up in this country school. I’m from Port Arthur in Tasmania, which has its own history. And the beautiful thing about Tasmania is that you get separated from your high school friends in year 11 and 12; they send you to a different institution. So we’re all forced to Hobart, and in Hobart I saw my first emos. I would have been 17 when I saw my first emos, and they were out of this world.

Life changing moment. 

It was life changing! Because they were… not always angry, but they were sad and they were dressed depressingly and they were kinda like “screw you” to society. That was the first time I’d seen that. And that was our movement at the time. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s been a better youth movement since then. You could have written Hipsters the Musical and done a similar thing, because the fact that it’s emo isn’t that important for the movie – it’s about peer pressure and fitting into different groups. So you could explore that in different ways. But emos are the most intense. And they do say screw you to happiness. And they are sexually quite out there. And they have also glamorised suicide, which I think parents found really uncomfortable. I don’t think people have scared parents as much as emos have. So I think that’s why they’re still the most exciting group.

It’s kind of interesting to see we are going full circle on emo culture. 13 Reasons Why came out a few weeks before EMO did. And there was one community in Australia that felt a little uncomfortable about our film being out in their small town. It was just going full circle, with parents getting hysterical. Back in the early 2000s parents were going nuts that emos were forcing their kids to kill themselves. And we know that was wrong and just hysterical behaviour. But it’s interesting to come out all these years later with our film and know the parents are still hysterical about the same things.

What I found cool about the film though is that despite it centring around emos and their depression and melancholy, there’s so much about happiness and finding happiness. Was that your intention? Is that a theme that resonates with you? 

Absolutely. I think we’re in this really interesting place, especially on the internet, where everyone is obsessed with being happy. If you watch vloggers from out of LA at the moment it’s all about empowering people, telling people to achieve their dreams and things like that. And I think it’s just really unhealthy crap; it’s not true. And the people telling them that are really beautiful attractive people who are making money out of them by selling them that message. It’s kind of ugly.

So yes, we have a drug company that takes over the school, who want to pump out this message of happiness. They’re not just selling a drug, they’re selling a message. And emos fight against that – and I fight against that. I think that’s really unhealthy. I think it is time to talk about the fact that we’re not going to be happy all the time, and maybe we shouldn’t want to be.

And perhaps that happiness as a concept is kind of subjective, in that these emos may not be happy and smiling all the time, but they’re content in a way.


The Aussie film industry. How hard is it to get a film up and running?

We were really lucky with this film. With the short film doing so well – it was accepted into festivals and received a special mention at the Berlinale – it opened a lot of doors for us. And that means we were given a dream run. We had a concept that was quite commercial and the scripting process was quite successful, which meant we got it up really quickly, in a period of 3-4 years.

So in some ways that’s not how the industry works. We’re the antithesis of how it works. There are films that have spent 10 years in development that are probably never going to get up. They’re just not quite the idea that’s right for that time. I think it’s quite difficult to get a film up here because only a certain amount of films can get up every year. But also I think it’s the same in America. It’s difficult to attract money and it’s difficult to get out of development. And that’s the same everywhere.

What’s your favourite Aussie movie?

I think in my top three movies anyway is Mary and Max. It’s just a beautiful film. But then again, the last couple of years have just been great. Predestination is so good. I saw it in the cinema with a bunch of young people who would have been about 18 or 19. And it’s really nuts sci-fi. It’s a sci-fi that is about the paradoxes of time travel. So it’s basically the least sexy thing you could possibly do. It’s a very theoretical film. And at the end of it the young people were cheering things like, “Fuck yeh, that was great!” And I thought that was cool that an Australian movie was able to pull off a really intellectual concept but in a really sci-fi fun action way. I thought that was bloody cool.

I’m always surprised at how good Aussie films are.

Yeh. Probably 5-6 years ago people were like, “Oh, Australian films are really depressing.” And now they’ve started to pump out a lot of genre pieces. They’re not genre pieces like America makes; they’re really interesting pieces that tackle really interesting subject matter. But I still think we are getting over convincing people that Australian films are as good as American films. Because they are. 

Neil Triffett Emo the Musical
Ethan stars in the EMO the Musical feature film. Source: The Finishing Room.

Well that’s the issue. You can have a great Australian movie, but at the end of the day, what will Aussies go to see: Guardians of the Galaxy or EMO the Musical? People just won’t go because of silly assumptions.

Poor Chris Pratt, he really struggles. Mention him as much as you can in your interview please, he’s really struggling. [Laughs]

We’ll tag him. On the counter argument, does it piss you off when you see massive budgeted Hollywood movies like Suicide Squad that suck?

I get annoyed by nostalgia; I think that is absolutely toxic. I think it’s great that the superhero fans are getting their superhero movies, because some of these people have been waiting years for these matchups, to get all the Avengers together, etc. That wasn’t achievable 10 years ago. So on the one hand you’re like, well done, you guys are getting what you want. But they’re pumping them out so quickly and it’s really killing the rest of the market. People are going more to those movies, but it also means that arthouse movies are getting cheaper and cheaper to make. They have to be cheaper.

But I get as angry about arthouse movies these days, because either you have Guardians of the Galaxy or you have super arthouse French – I don’t want to bag the French – but super arthouse French movies, and the arthouse crowd will only go and watch certain French films. So you’ve kind of got a schism in the market where there are such niche audiences who are so far apart and will never watch what the other person’s watching. And that just means the dialogue between those audiences is a lot smaller. As a result, any film that’s in the middle just won’t get an audience, because the arthouse people say, “Oh that’s too commercial” and the commercial people say “That’s too arthouse for us”. Which means the really interesting work that is always stuck in the middle just doesn’t get made or doesn’t get financed. So I think that’s the most depressing part about cinema at the moment.

Interesting. Definitely a good time to be a superhero fan. Do you have any advice for aspiring young Australian writers and directors? 

It’s hard. You’ve just got to make a lot of stuff.

So what, shorts? Web series?

Yeh, make a lot of shorts, web series. Learn to be really good at what you do, because if it happens, when you come up with the right idea, it will come up really quickly. So you’ve got to be ready to be respond. Don’t just rely on script gurus and lecturers and shit like that. Actually sit down and work out what you like and what works for you. And hopefully the breaks will happen. 

It’s a bit of luck, isn’t it?

It’s just totally luck, yeh. If you’re working hard. You have to have the content to be able to do something with the content, so just have the content.

Final question. What’s up next?

I am writing at the moment, so I’m back to scripting. And scripting is so lonely. You kind of lock yourself in a room and you just write. So that’s what I’m doing now. And as far as what I’m working on now, I’m working on 10 things at the moment. Which one will rise to the surface and be worth looking at, I’m not sure yet. 

Are these features?

Features at the moment. I’m looking at… it’s not a web series but it’s more along the lines of short-form content. Serialised short form content. Because I think that’s exciting; I think that’s a good place to be at the moment.

EMO the Musical has a short stint in selected cinemas around Australia, before being released online. For our full review of Neil Triffett’s EMO the Musical, click this sexy hyperlink. You can watch the short film on this less sexy but still very sexy hyperlink here.


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