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How Lee Matthews and Neil Triffett turned their short film into a full-blown feature.

Making a feature film is no mean feat. Only two or three dozen films 'get up' in Australia each year; competition for funding is tough and many films spend years in development hell, with the promise of completion always just around the corner.

For director Neil Triffett and producer Lee Matthews, the journey from script to screen was relatively speedy. Their short film, EMO the Musical, was completed in 2014. Barely two years later, EMO the Musical, the feature version, has debuted at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). With a fresh idea, and a lot of determination, these filmmakers have caught a tide of success and ridden it in to shore.

Neil and Lee's professional bond began at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2010, where Neil was studying narrative filmmaking while Lee did a post-graduate diploma in producing. Their first film together was Shoplifting, a 15-minute short. After graduating, they worked together on a range of concepts for future shorts, web series, TV concepts and features. When Neil expressed his interest in making a musical,  he had Lee's enthusiastic support. Their concept was classic - star-crossed lovers. But their story had a twist. What would happen if an 'emo' kid fell for a devout Christian? This is the ripe comic territory that EMO the Musical would explore.

EMO, the short film, was initially self-funded. Neil and Lee invested their own money to produce a 20-minute rough cut, which was submitted to Screen Australia in the hopes of securing completion funding. Recognising the darkly comic appeal of their ABC2-meets-Eddie Perfect short, the agency gave the filmmakers a grant to re-shoot the ending and engage a professional post-production house.

Still from the film Emo the musical 

When completed, Neil and Lee's short film met with an excellent reception. It was selected for the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival where it was runner up to the Crystal Bear for Best Short Film in the Festival's youth cinema section. The short went on to screen at film festivals around the world, from Palm Springs to Edinburgh to Mexico. Neil was awarded the Best Young Filmmaker gong at the Adelaide Short Film Festival while the film won Best Comedy, Best Score and the Craft Award at the 2014 St Kilda Film Festival, judged by a panel of industry peers.

'The attention changed our lives forever,' Lee says. 'Agencies and industry took notice.' The industry encouragement allowed the filmmakers to build a business case around creating a feature version of their short film. With additional help from Screen Australia, Neil and Lee engaged a script editor to help develop a draft screenplay.

'We took the feature script to the 37 South market [at MIFF] in 2014  and immediately attracted interest from international sales agents,' Lee explains. 'That interest, combined with our relatively low-budget aims, made it easy for local funding bodies to get behind the project.'

Neil and Lee needed less than $2 million to bring the EMO feature to life. Funding came from Screen Australia, Film Victoria and the MIFF Premiere Fund, while their domestic distributor provided an advance against sales. Both Neil and Lee reinvested their own fees and further gap financing was provided by Lee and a private investor.

The filmmakers also raised $40,000 through a Pozible crowd funding campaign – a necessary proof of the film's appeal. 'I fundamentally believe that films need to know and talk to an audience, and the best way to prove there is interest is to go to the public and ask whether it's something they want to support.  It immediately gave us an online community of supporters,' Lee says.

With a ready-made audience and strong industry support, EMO was ready to roll.

'Emo is a twisted high school musical about young people for young people.  The funding bodies recognised that, and supported as making an elevated, escapist, entertaining film for a mainstream audience,' Lee says, 'We were able to fast track it from feature script to MIFF premiere within two years!  Film Victoria and Screen Australia were pivotal in that process, and enthusiastically supported us creatively and financially. We really have had a dream run."

Still from the film Emo the musical