Having funded their first two films without one red cent of taxpayer's money, you can forgive Perth's married filmmaking duo John Soto and Deidre Kitcher for thinking they've hit the jackpot with their third and most ambitious film yet, The Reckoning.
The dedicated duo - she producers, he writes and directs - gleamed their first-ever funding injection of $450,000 from ScreenWest for their twisting murder-mystery thriller. Now they're up for Australia's richest film prize - a cool $100,000 - after being nominated for best film at the WA film festival CinefestOZ, which is on at various locations across the South West from Wednesday.
Not bad for a husband-and-wife duo who ditched their day jobs in accountancy to become filmmakers.
"To be nominated is an honour because it means you're in an elite group of films," Soto says diplomatically over coffee. "For us, that's wonderful. We'd love to win the prize but there are five other quality projects. It just depends on who the jury likes on the day."
The pair's WA-made film - shot last year in Perth - faces stiff competition from Joel Edgerton's more fancied Felony, The Mistress and the WA-made films Son of a Gun, Paper Planes and The Waler: Australia's Great War Horse. But there is no denying the 40-somethings, who have four children and work from their Brentwood home, are extremely proud of their manhunt movie, which was shot in five weeks with a mostly WA cast and crew.
"We like to play with our audience's heads," Kitcher says with a wry smile.
Unlike their first two supernatural horrors Crush and Needle, The Reckoning is a thriller that follows two parallel stories; a detective (Jonathan LaPaglia) who investigates the murder of his partner (Luke Hemsworth), and two teenagers (Alex Williams, Hannah Mangan-Lawrence) making a documentary about the death of a sister. Soto promises plenty of twists, turns and surprises.
"Essentially, we've made two films in one here," he explains, hinting at the kind of filmmaker trickery in Memento or Kalifornia. "But this was a very difficult film to write. Each of the parallel stories has both a protagonist and an antagonist, and trying to interweave two timelines and make it all make sense was particularly hard to write. I've written 14 drafts of the script since 2011."
Easing the pain was their first government funding injection of $450,000 into the $2.3 million project, with the remainder coming from the producer offset and private investors.
"It was a great relief, like 'finally!'" Soto says of ScreenWest's endorsement. "It's wonderful to have the recognition and for them to say 'Hey, you did good jobs on Crush and Needle and we trust you to make something worthy of being screened around the world'. But we still had a low budget. It is one-fifth of The Rover and one-quarter of Son of a Gun. We had lots of actors to pay and lots of locations. It was a very lean operation."
Indeed, the duo have run a lean, steady and productive ship since quitting their safe careers just six years ago, when Soto tired of the nine-to-five grind.
"It was like Groundhog Day," he sighs. "Each day was the same. I did my film writing at night but there was only so much I could do. After 15 years of Groundhog Day, I'd had enough."
Following their real passion, the duo taught themselves to direct and produce, putting their business and finance skills into practice to blaze a trail in the insecure filmmaking world.
"John focuses on the creative side and I focus on the business end," Kitcher explains pragmatically. "As filmmakers, we put everything we've got into our films. We just love the craft. It's our passion. It's all-consuming for us. But it's a hard slog."
"It's not really a dream," Soto points out. "It's a career choice. And it's like working at any other job, though you work harder. I do a minimum of 60 hours every week. Sometimes 80 hours."
While Crush and Needle received middling reviews, the crafty bean-counters worked their skills to sell the films into dozens of international markets on DVD, video-on-demand and TV. It's a strategy that has worked well for them.
"If you release in cinemas, you compete with Hollywood blockbusters and the exhibitor gets about 70 per cent of the takings," Soto says. "The distributor controls the release date and if you go wider, you lose more money and it takes longer to recover. So theatrical is not necessarily the right way to go. I think it makes more sense for us to release via video-on-demand in the US because then you get exposure to 200 million Americans versus about 25,000 in cinemas."
"Most films lose money at the cinema," Kitcher adds. "They go into the DVD deal in a loss position."
Soto says: "If you make a film that is commercial and appealing to global audiences."
"Then you can sell your film to the Middle East, Portugal, Turkey, South Africa, Mexico and so on, as we have done. Those countries pay good money for the right to release in that country. Then they pay you royalties."
Learning with each experience, the pair believes The Reckoning will be their most successful yet.
"Once you are on to your third film, you know what you are doing," Soto says. "We're pretty ambitious in our techniques this time, using found footage, high speed and slow motion, flashbacks and dream sequences. It's busy!"
Kitcher adds: "We're definitely happier with how this turned out.
"We've already sold it in 40 countries, including some theatrical releases. We are so much more confident."
With a new deal to make co-productions with China's huge Hengdian Studios next year, and a Canadian co-production in the works, the couple have clearly found their niche and are not looking back.
"We are in this together for the long haul," Kitcher smiles broadly. "We're working hard but we're loving it."
The Reckoning premieres at the CinefestOZ Film Festival which runs from August 20-24. It opens in cinemas on September 3.