The Elephant in the Room: Murali Thalluri on 2:37

The Elephant in the Room: Murali Thalluri on 2:37

Murali K. Thalluri’s debut film, 2:37 chronicles a mysterious suicide in an Australian high school (the death occurs at the titular time in the afternoon) and does so by backtracking to the beginning of the day. The narrative tracks six different students—all of whom have reason to be angry and self-destructive.

The film received a 19-minute standing ovation at Cannes, yet has been accused of being manipulative and derivative (mainly for cribbing from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). Both of these accusations are valid—especially the former. Coming out of 2:37, I felt used, almost dirty, jerked around by Thalluri’s narrative. The film’s structure treats teenage suicide like a kind of existential game.

That said, 2:37 stays with you. Despite my best efforts and an unceasing barrage of other films, I still haven’t been able to forget it. While I may not wholly agree with Thalluri’s storytelling methods, I cannot doubt that he’s a bold new talent. Only 20 years-old when the film was made, I don’t doubt the Australian filmmaker will have a major impact on the future of world cinema.

Where did the idea for 2:37 come from?

In 2003, when I was finishing high school, a friend of mine committed suicide. None of us saw it coming. I can’t even begin to describe how heart-breaking it was. At the same the time, I hated her for doing it. I thought she was weak. I thought she had taken the coward’s way out. A good six months later, I was going through my own personal problems: the kidney problems I’d had since I was a child were at a peak; I was stabbed in the eye and blinded when I was 15 and was having more problems with that; my girlfriend had just broken up with me; and I was working at the tax office, which is as boring as hell. I tried to take my own life— with codeine and Jim Beam. Thank God I survived. Just as I was about to fall asleep, the last feeling I had was regret. When I got back on my feet and functioning, I was so thankful, and wrote the first draft of what became 2:37 in about 36 to 40 hours. I wanted to show that suicide is not weak and it’s not selfish. It just comes from this indescribable pain that’s so intense it turns into physical pain and the only way to stop it is to stop living.

Before that moment, had you ever given making films much thought?

I’d made something that could be considered a short. I edited it on iMovie and all that. And I’d written. I write a lot. Ever since my attack, I haven’t been able to stop writing. It’s not what you’d want to call brain damage but it’s definitely not within my control. After I’d written 2:37, I went to film school for an interview. They started telling me it wasn’t realistic to want to make a film in my ’20s. I didn’t believe them, so I walked out of the interview and went to Borders, the biggest bookstore in Adelaide, and read every book on the shelf. Then I was off.

How did you go about raising the money for the film?

I found a loophole. I’m not sure if it would be considered illegal, but I got a charity on board called Here for Life, a suicide prevention organization. In Australia, if someone puts money into a charity, it’s 100% tax deductible. On top of that, there’s a government provision that says if you invest privately in a feature film you get a 100% tax deduction. So essentially, if people invested, they received 70% of their money back in accelerated return straight away. So I put this business plan together and I knocked on the doors of the 20 richest people in Adelaide and basically begged them. I knew that all my knowledge from the tax office had to be good for something.

How did you go about finding your actors?

Yeah, that’s another thing that might be considered illegal. I’ve been picked on in the Australian media for doing this, but I faked a certificate saying I’d graduated from a certain prestigious acting school. That certificate got me a job at another acting school as a teacher. I’m not that big a believer in the idea that teenagers should audition. They get nervous and you could lose a gem just because someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed. So I went into these classes and took them for ten weeks and looked out for promising actors and picked the ones I liked. The character of Uneven Steven I saw limping down the street.

So that’s a real limp?

Yeah, it’s real. He’s got scoliosis and kidney problems and heart problems. He’s an incredible human being. I’m tempted to say “a credit to his race.” I just saw Woody Allen’s Scoop and I can’t stop saying that. Anyway, I picked out some actors I liked and we workshopped my script for four months. By the end, they were my closest friends. I got to know them so deeply and they got to know the script so well that, when it came time to perform on set, I could allow them to improvise and I could use things I knew about them to induce whatever I wanted in their performances.

How much changed from that first draft you pounded out in 36 hours?

Well, the actors came in on draft 44 or 45. I did 76 drafts in total. The actors all had a huge amount of input. Not only did I decide to write around their personalities, but they’d have ideas and throw them in. It was so much of a collaboration that I feel bad getting the sole screenwriting credit.

Why did you decide to structure the story as a mystery?

Originally, in the first few drafts, it wasn’t. It was just us going through the day and then we see the suicide. Anyone who’s seen Elephant would know that the visual style is hugely inspired by it. I love that film. But the one thing I found was that I didn’t know where I was being taken as I watched it. 30 minutes in, I remember thinking, “Why am I watching this?” I’m so glad that I stayed until the end, but a lot of people didn’t. I wanted to say to the audience, “Hey, stick with me and I’ll give you something at the end.”

One thing that struck me was how would some of these characters wake up the next day? You put things together in such an extreme way—as a means of making suicide quite likely in certain characters’ cases. But did you give any thought to how, given their circumstances, these characters could ever survive in the future given their circumstances?

There is a funeral scene included on the DVD in Australia. In it, there are three shots: a massive Steadicam shot, a crane shot and a reveal shot. The Steadicam shot is one of the most beautiful things we did, one of the few scenes we shot on 16mm as opposed to digital. In that shot, we go in through the crowd and you’re thinking “Oh my God, someone did die. Who’s it going to be?” We reveal the characters one by one. You see certain characters and say, “Oh, okay, it’s not them,” and gradually deduce who must be in the coffin. In that funeral scene I did hint at a couple of things. Marcus, for one, had a black eye. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant—whether the father had found out and hit him or what. I didn’t totally work out all the details in my head. But I did want to press home the fact that they do survive and move on. There’s a very positive message in there I think.