Directorial Debut: Kiwi Filmmaker Makes Waves with ‘Anno 2020’ in Australian Cinema

As the countdown continues for the world premiere of the Australian-produced mystery-drama Anno 2020 – at a red-carpet event in Sydney on April 7 – attention turns to the film’s New Zealand-born director James Morcan.

James Morcan (right) with Anno 2020 producer Gil Ben-Moshe in Downtown Sydney.

The Sydney-based 45-year-old made his directorial debut helming this movie and has the distinction of not only writing the Anno 2020 script but adapting it from his published novel of the same name.

Morcan is also a screen actor, and he goes against type to play the part of an anti-Semite in an unforgettable scene opposite Jewish actor Gil Ben-Moshe, who is also the film’s lead producer.

Morcan describes Anno 2020 as a mammoth, all-consuming, creative book-to-film project he has been working on around the clock since the Covid-19 lockdowns began in early 2020. He was set to direct another feature film in Sydney when he was pulled from it when the pandemic intervened, resulting in the cancellation of the production. Undeterred, he turned his attention to Anno 2020.

“The storyline (of Anno 2020) is my attempt to make sense of, or mentally process, our strangely altered reality and everything humanity collectively endured in 2020. For the last three years I’ve devoted my life to it, from writing the novel and then the screenplay adaptation to directing the filming and finally guiding it thru post-production.”

Morcan says it’s no exaggeration to say, for him, the film was an absolute beast to direct, but he insists it was always rewarding as the quality was evident throughout the production.  

“I lived every scene in my mind over the duration, visualizing how to bring to life this epic, heartfelt story in the most dramatic yet believable way. The result is a film best described as a global kaleidoscope of interconnected characters seeking redemption, forgiveness, and answers amidst the chaos of 2020.

“If I could summarize Anno 2020 in one word, I would say: substance. It has substance in spades and that’s what I always aim for as a storyteller. Early viewer feedback we are receiving confirms that this story makes people laugh, cry, think on a philosophical level and reflect on their own lives in new ways.”

Morcan believes it will feel extremely genuine to cinemagoers, and he primarily attributes that to some of the filmmaking techniques he and his colleagues pioneered during the film’s making.

“Keeping in mind the movie was shot during the strict lockdowns in 17 cities on four continents, we faced unique challenges. Our actors, in the main, were isolated and separated from each other as opposed to being together on set.

“Besides directing all the many Australian scenes on location, remote filming tech allowed me to direct cast members and crews in the various global locations that I couldn’t travel to due to Covid restrictions. This allowed my crew and I to film live all over the world without travelling to every single location.”

Anno 2020 boasts an award-winning ensemble of international actors. They include leading Australians Greg Poppleton (Backtrack, The Chronicles of Narnia) and Erin Connor (Occupation: Rainfall, Dino King 3D), as well as US veterans Kevin Scott Allen (Star Trek, Alias, Prison Break) and Chinese American Crystal J. Huang (Dark Feathers).

“The actors were pushed to their limits as the rare performance style we employed is emotionally raw, semi-improvisational and mostly shot via close-ups courtesy of Zoom technology.

“This was not only reflective of the way many people were forced to communicate during the pandemic, but also it created a never-before-seen way to view characters interacting in movies – showing two close-ups at once. That’s something that’s never seen in regular movies apart from brief split-screen footage.

“Our video-linked conversations provide a real intimacy and dramatically contrast with the panoramic shots in the rest of the film.”

Morcan says those panoramic shots he refers to were all filmed using high-quality cinema cameras.

“Strategically recreating Zoom-style chats proved to be an asset. Our actors infused their own real-life experiences, be they traumatic or joyful, in cinema vérité fashion. That ‘real life’ injection helped evolve their characters into something even more truthful, giving this overall piece of entertainment shades of docu-drama or at least ultra-realism.

“Audiences will definitely feel these honest truths, proving the old adage what comes from the heart, goes to the heart.”

Morcan says one of the groundbreaking methods employed while shooting was to encourage ad-libbed interactions where the actors improvised much of the dialogue around preconceived situations.

“These improvised sequences facilitated a sense of immense spontaneity and realism similar to what auteur directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese did in the likes of those 1970’s classics Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver, and more recently in Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. That approach led to very genuine interactions between actors in character.”

Anno 2020’s lead producer Gil Ben-Moshe, of MoneyShot Productions, says he believes the movie will launch Morcan’s career as a director.

“James proved to every actor involved that he understands story and what it takes to direct an ensemble that boasts Hollywood credits. I’m truly excited for him and look forward to working with him on many future projects.”

Ben-Moshe says collaborating with Morcan on Anno 2020 was confirmation for him that he has directing chops, an admirable work ethic, and the ability to get a performance out of any actor regardless of age, experience, or attitude.

“Directing is a real artform which requires an enormous amount of work, planning and having a clear vision for every scene. James worked around the clock ensuring he was prepared for every possible scenario that could arise during pre-production and primary photography.”

From Morcan’s perspective, Anno 2020 is the culmination of a two decade-long career telling stories in the creative mediums of cinema, television, and theatre – around the world and spanning various genres and historical periods. One notable acting performance was a lead role alongside Berynn Schwerdt (Wyrmwood) in the post-Apocalyptic feature film After Armageddon, which he also wrote.

Other leading roles include the OZ-Bollywood feature films My Cornerstone and Love You Krishna for which he also wrote the screenplays for. Both productions were filmed in Sydney and Mumbai, and incorporated English and Hindi languages. My Cornerstone screened in cinemas Australia-wide and in selected Indian cinemas.

Morcan also performed in Ben Hur: The Stadium Spectacular, starring Russell Crowe, before an audience of 130,000 people over two nights at Sydney’s ANZ Olympic Stadium. Other acting credits include the British TV series Dark Knight, the BBC feature Wild About Harry, and TV commercials for multinational companies like Samsung and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Another acting highlight was playing a vigilante in The Pawn, a gritty feature film set in Melbourne, Victoria, which Morcan’s production company Morcan Motion Pictures produced. The noir-style thriller premiered at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival and screened at the Imperia Film Festival in Italy.

He was also Executive producer on Desired, a New Zealand thriller directed by Amanda Phillips and starring Dwayne Cameron (#211). It was shot in Auckland and premiered at Cannes Marche du Film in France.

Morcan has also made his mark as an author. Writing in collaboration with his father Lance Morcan, he has co-authored some 35 published fiction and non-fiction books in addition to his solo-authored novel Anno 2020. Many of these have been regular visitors to Amazon’s bestseller lists.

The father-and-son writing team’s novels include the bestselling historical adventures Fiji, White Spirit and Into the Americas, and their acclaimed thrillers Silent Fear and The Orphan Trilogy. The pair are progressively adapting their novels to feature film screenplays, and several of these are in early development.

Among their most popular non-fiction titles is Debunking Holocaust Denial Theories, a book that was written in collaboration with Holocaust survivors to document the historicity of the WW2 genocide.

Across film, television, theatre, and literature, Morcan says he has often covered similar themes to those of Anno 2020.

“My stories usually involve twist endings as this film has, as well as powerful, realistic characters that audiences and readers can relate to.”

Looking ahead, Morcan says his goal for the movie Anno 2020, besides commercial success, is to achieve a sense of unity.

“In an increasingly complex modern world that seems to be more and more about divisions in society, where people are all being lumped into political sides or categories and are pitted against each other, a diverse, all-inclusive film with family and community values will prove to be very timely in my opinion.

“And I am confident audiences will be surprised to see all the similarities in the different characters we follow across the many countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities we explore throughout the story.”

Anno 2020 will celebrate its world premiere at a red-carpet event at Randwick’s The Ritz Cinema, in Sydney, on April 7. Beyond that, a Melbourne screening will take place at the Lido Cinema on May 6, and a Brisbane screening at the New Farm Cinema on June 4. The longer-term target includes online distribution on major streaming platforms.

The Anno 2020 trailer can be viewed at: