There's been chatter aplenty for 'The Moths Will Eat Them Up'. The short film has been a colossal success on the festival circuit, playing everywhere from North Queensland to northern England. It's also been bestowed with several honours - most notably, it received the Dendy Award for Best Live Action Australian Short Film and is currently in the running to receive a prestigious AACTA award in the same category. Some even believe it could secure a place at next year's Academy Awards. But for filmmaking duo Luisa Martiri and Tanya Modini, one of the most important things the film has given them was the chance to tell a story most women know all too well.
The film follows an unnamed young woman (played by Ling Cooper Tang) on her train ride home. From early on, she notices a man staring at her menacingly each time the train stops. Other men on the train disregard her pleas for help, and she has to confront the crisis alone. The plot adroitly explores gendered violence against women. Martiri and Modini place you in this woman's shoes as you experience the same terror and claustrophobia she does. For many, it will be a real eye-opener in understanding the fears most women carry with them every day. It's a potent tale that's deserving of the audience and accolades it's received thus far.
In the midst of the film's festival run, Martiri and Modini spoke with me about wanting to shine a light on how terrifying it can be for women to go about their lives, why they wanted to tell the story in a thriller format, and how they feel about those Oscar murmurs. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story contains spoilers for the film 'The Moths Will Eat Them Up'.
CONNOR DALTON: How did you two meet each other?
TANYA MODINI: I put in an entry for the RIDE Short Film fund with Screen Queensland in early 2021, I think. It was just a script, and my script got chosen. I didn't have a team put down - it was just me as writer and director. They hooked me up with Luisa - the executive producers, Unless Pictures, said we have somebody in mind who we think would be a really good fit as producer and co-director, and she was, and here we are.
DALTON: What made you want to tell this story?
MODINI: I've worked extensively in the prevention of violence against women sector and as a police officer. So I've had a lot of exposure to this sort of thing through my work. But I had a similar thing happen to me on a train [ride] home one night where a guy kept coming in and out of the toilets before each stop. At the time, it was terrifying, but it was also a really sensory experience that I thought would actually make a pretty good short film.
DALTON: When the film began, I found it interesting you chose to open with a Bible verse. What made you decide to incorporate that into the film?
MODINI: When I was writing the script, I had to end it differently to how it ended for me on the train, which would have been a very boring ending for everybody. So I was thinking of protective elements to bring in, and every time I was Googling, moths were coming up as kind of like a protective entity and spiritual thing. So then I thought, "Oh, that could actually work." And then, as I was Googling all things moth related, that verse from the Bible came up, and I went, "Wow, that's actually really relevant [to] what we're doing here." So I thought that might be an interesting way to start it.
DALTON: I wanted to ask you what your inspiration was for having moths be such an omnipresent part of this story because when you think about it, compared to other animals or creatures, moths don't have much on-screen representation.
MODINI: No, they don't. I think the last time I saw a moth featured was [in] 'The Silence of the Lambs' back in the day. Honestly, it wasn't something that I went, "I'm going to write a script about moths, and I'm going to write them in somehow." The script was there, and I just had to finish it off. They came up, so that's how it went.
DALTON: The film does a brilliant job portraying how terrifying a nighttime train ride can be. Was there a reaction you were hoping to elicit by using that setting?
LUISA MARTIRI: I mean, that kind of setting of a woman travelling home on a train, [it's] kind of irrespective whether it's a train or walking to your car or walking home. Not that the setting is irrelevant. But I guess what we were hoping to achieve and what Tanya set out to do was to show how terrifying it is for women to just go about their lives, especially at night, and how women are constantly needing to do risk assessments every single day of their lives to protect themselves.
Particularly that's at night, and particularly on a train where you are isolated, and there is nobody. You're not on a bus where there's a driver, which, even so, doesn't necessarily mean you'll get help, but you are very, very isolated in a carriage. So the setting [does] play a big part in that, but it's an issue that happens everywhere in women's day-to-day lives.
DALTON: Later on, the film moves towards a more ethereal tone once you introduce the female spirits who come to protect your protagonist. Was that always your plan for the climax, or did you tinker with other ideas?
MODINI: No, that was always the plan for the climax. There were moths featured in the first few minutes, and I'm sure people are thinking, "How come there's moths? Now they're in the carriage!" [but] then we just cut them. We actually did have some more going through the film, but we decided we'll cut the moths here, and then people will forget about them. Then when they come back in, it'll be a smoother transition because they'll be in the back of people's minds - "Oh yeah, there's that moth thing again!"
DALTON: Ling Cooper Tang's performance is quite powerful. What was it like to work with her?
MARTIRI: Oh, she was phenomenal. She was so amazing.
MARTIRI: Yeah, she's pretty much perfect. What we loved about her and why we cast her was because she had an incredible screen presence in her self-tape. So if she had an incredible screen presence in her self-tape, we knew she was going to have one in the actual film. For a film that had almost no dialogue - all the key moments as well were moments without dialogue - we really needed someone who we knew could carry the film in that way. So she was just the perfect choice.
MODINI: And a dream to work with!
DALTON: I did want to touch on the film's ending. The introduction of another woman anxiously waiting for a train felt quite bleak because it pointed to a very cyclical issue. But when the moth places itself on her shoulder, to me, it implies hope. Could you elaborate on what you were trying to convey?
MODINI: Sure. Because I've worked in the prevention of violence against women for so many years, it becomes incredibly frustrating that the sector is carried by women. It's women running the organisations, women doing the support, [and] women fighting this battle every single day. And my overarching thought about this was the best protection women have against men's violence is other women at the moment. So that informed the women standing behind her at the ending part. But it was also that protective factor of the moth coming and sitting - it's like there's people in the background sort of working to keep you safe here.
We know from everyday media that this isn't working, and we're trying very hard to make this stop, but the problem is just getting worse, actually. But still, there's that little bit of hope that people are working. There are some protective forces going on there. So that was essentially what's behind that.
DALTON: The film has played in many festivals across several countries. Did you ever anticipate this kind of success?
MARTIRI: Look, not really [laughs]. I think I've learnt, having made a few shorts now, to have no expectations because it's impossible to gauge what the reaction is going to be and what the reception is going to be like. I think the best thing you can do as a filmmaker is just go into it making the best possible film you can and just hope and pray that someone out there - whether they're on a festival board or they're an audience [member] - just responds to it, wants to program it, or they just really enjoy it. So no, we didn't anticipate this reaction, but we're very, very grateful that we've had it [laughs].
MODINI: We're happy.
DALTON: It must be rewarding to know that the message the film imparts is being seen by so many people.
MARTIRI: Yeah, absolutely.
MODINI: Yeah, and we put it into a thriller form so that it wouldn't just be the normal audience who go to watch films that incorporate violence against women. So by putting it into that thriller format, we hope to throw the net a little bit wider and pull in more of an audience and just make it overall entertaining as well as having that little punchy message.
DALTON: How did you both react upon hearing the film had been nominated for an AACTA for Best Short Film?
MARTIRI: I think I opened the email at 6pm on a really horrible work day [laughs], so it was a really, really great moment for me. But I think I then called Tanya immediately, and we just freaked out [laughs].
MODINI: A lot of messages with a lot of expletives in them, I think.
DALTON: There has been discussion that the film could garner a nomination in the live-action short film category at next year's Academy Awards. Have either of you given much thought to that?
MARTIRI: Look, we've entered, we're in, we're up for consideration for the Oscars. We were eligible due to winning the Dendy Award for Best Live Action Australian Short Film at Sydney Film Festival. So I truly have no idea whether we have a chance. I think there's about 170 [short] films globally that are eligible for an Oscar. So it's incredibly hard to judge, being however many miles away we are from L.A. and the hub of the Academy. So it's possible, but we have no idea, really.
DALTON: I hope I haven't jinxed you.
MARTIRI: [Laughs] I'm sure it's fine.
DALTON: What's next in store for you both? Do you plan on collaborating again?
MODINI: We'd love to collaborate again. It would be great if we could do a series where [I direct] one, [and Luisa] directs the other or anything, really. I think we worked well together, and I think there'll be more - definitely more things to come with the two of us.
'The Moths Will Eat Them Up' is currently touring with the Sydney Travelling Film Festival and can be viewed by AACTA members on AACTA TV.