In Burning Man, we meet Tom (Matthew Goode), a sex-mad, workaholic chef who runs a fine-dining restaurant in Bondi and suffers from a bad case of road rage – in other words, a fairly typical Sydneysider.
But as Jonathan Teplitzky’s film progresses, jumping around in time and keeping us guessing where various women fit into Tom’s life, we gradually realise that Tom is in a state of turmoil due to the death of his partner Sarah (Bojana Novakovic).
Teplitzky, whose previous films are Better Than Sex and Gettin’ Square, has made a vibrant, erotic, rule-breaking movie that is also, sadly, autobiographical. Teplitzky’s former partner, costume designer Amanda Lovejoy, died some years ago of breast cancer.
“There’s a whole subgenre of grief films where people just kind of stare out of windows for long periods of time,” says the filmmaker, “and that wasn’t my experience of it.
“I wanted to try to make a visceral kind of film that not only told a story but gave the audience a feel for what that headspace is. It’s a tidal wave of stuff that you go through. I tried to make it as close to my experience as I possibly could.”
Burning Man rockets around in time the same way Tom zooms from bed to bed and around Sydney in his Volkswagen Beetle. He tussles with his wife’s sister (Essie Davis) over custody of his young son Oscar (Jack Heanly), and we see him at pivotal moments in his relationship with Sarah, juxtaposed against sexual encounters with subsequent women. These include a prostitute (Kate Beahan) a grief counsellor (Rachel Griffiths) and a married woman (Marta Dusseldorp).
While trying to translate his experiences into a script Teplitzky was working on a separate project about a chef. “I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants over the years and my brother’s a chef. One morning I woke up and thought, these two ideas could go together very well. Tom’s behaviour is reflective of that world. There’s a lot of drinking and drugs and transient relationships in the restaurant world.”
He met UK actor Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited, Watchmen) through a mutual friend. “His career to that point was a relatively planned Hollywood career. He wanted to do more challenging and darker work and he really responded to this.” Goode’s innate likeability was part of the attraction. “I like films where the main characters behave badly but they have to bring a warmth and charm to the role even though they’re unsympathetic. Matthew’s got that.”
Novakovic, the young Sydney playwright/actor who appeared in Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson, gives a phenomenal performance as Sarah. “She was a revelation. The emotional journey that character takes is huge, obviously, and Bojana brought so much to it. I think she has a huge future ahead of her.”
But the question has to be asked: did Teplitzky react to his partner’s death in the same way Tom does – by rampant bed-hopping?
“What I found,” says Teplitzky, “is you have this period of time where it's almost like you’re carrying around a get-out-of-gaol-free card, and you don’t have relationships – you collide with people to a certain extent.
“The alcohol, the drug taking, the promiscuity, it’s all about trying to make sense of something that really doesn’t make sense: the randomness of someone passing away from an illness. You’re searching out all sorts of things that can somehow compensate for the pain, the sadness and the tragedy that you’ve just lived through.
“There’s a thing that rarely gets explored when people talk about grief. Once you get past the sadness and the tragedy, there is certain exhilaration as well. Suddenly all responsibility and all rules disappear. You’re a 40 year old who has had a lot of life experience, and you’re allowed to behave like a 20 year old.”