It Came From Down Under
Aussie films swarm SXSW 09
You'd be hard-pressed to find an American who can speak on Australian film without mentioning the names Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger, Nicole Kidman, or Olivia Newton-John. But away from Hollywood, the lucky country is brewing ace comedy, pulse-quickening thrillers, and social commentary filmed and produced on home soil. True, those Aussies talk funny, and it's hard to say if the U.S. is ready to trade lowbrow laugh tracks for a subtler brand. However, current caustic comedy sensations like The Office and 30 Rock point to an American audience that's ready for change. Ta, Obama.
Australia has given us tales of crazy villages in the outback (Welcome to Woop Woop), cross-dressers on the rampage (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and, of course, hard men with big hearts (Crocodile Dundee), but this year at South by Southwest, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade wants us to know it's not all about kangaroos and costumes anymore.
The filmmakers of seven Down Under films, which range from slashers to piss-your-pants drollery, will attend SXSW 09, the result of a government grant for the Australia International Cultural Council through film body Screen Australia. Seeing as there's a 17-hour difference between Austin and Sydney, the Chronicle spoke with three of the films' directors, writers, and actors via e-mails from the future.
"A secret affair, a ruthless betrayal, a brutal revenge ... some things can't be buried." Aha! The glorious thriller mired in lust, passion, and greed. But The Square, directed by Aussie stuntman Nash Edgerton and written by brother and actor Joel, isn't your typical grab-the-money-and-run heist movie. The cinematic line between good guys and bad guys is blurred when married contractor Raymond Yale (David Roberts), who is building the titular luxury condos, finds his life flipped ass-end-up after getting involved with the beautiful Carla Smith (Claire van der Boom).
"My theory was that in real life, no one is only bad or only good," explains Nash from Sydney, "and the more I could base the characters in reality, then the more tense the film would be when the shit is going down."
The Square survives in a deceptive, paranoid world. It twists and jerks, and just when the rain clears, it implodes. The younger Joel –a bona fide Australian TV star – spent seven years on the script, his first as writer, along with late addition Matthew Dabner. After nearly a decade in preproduction, The Square shot in seven weeks with Joel in the part of Billy, a guy just trying to make a buck. And as might be expected from a stuntman behind the lens, the result is panicked, tense, explosive.
"Having worked on a lot of films as a stuntman ... has just made me feel comfortable on a film set," Nash says. "It's where I have spent most of my adult life, so even though it was scary as hell directing a movie, at least I felt like I was at home."
'Three Blind Mice'
Matthew Newton might not be a stuntman, but he's tackled nearly every other task. As writer, director, and co-star of Three Blind Mice, his second feature, he made a contemporary wartime film sans any Michael Moore politicizing. Newton tells a story of fear and consequence through three mates on leave the night before shipping out for Iraq with the Royal Australian Navy: the conflicted Sam Fisher, brilliantly acted by Ewen Leslie; the straight-laced Dean Leiberman (Toby Schmitz); and the class clown, played by Newton.
"It's an anti-war film that's unashamedly about people, not politics," Newton says. "I didn't want to debate the shoulds or should-nots of governmental policy. ... I wanted to look past the uniform and see the faces of these people in whose hands we place our 'freedom' and to show them experiencing what I think young men should be doing with their time as an alternative to killing or being killed: meeting potential partners, being with friends, getting into trouble on their own terms, and trying to sort out the question of what it is to be a man."
Three Blind Mice is simultaneously horrific and hilarious and, perhaps ironically, walks alongside mumblecore, allowing dialogue to lead the dance, naturalism proliferating intimate scenes, whether tension is emanating from an angry, betrayed boy seeking escape or from Newton's joker. Despite the context of the film, Three Blind Mice comes down to friendship in hard times. The former child actor has found his outlet.
"There are many different pathways to expressing what you want to express," Newton says. "Some people are singers; some people fire paint out of a cannon. If you have something you want to put out there, you do it in some way no matter what your background is."
'Rats and Cats'
"I was having a shower at Adam's house, and he had a big wall mirror in the bathroom," Jason Gann snickers. "I came out and said to Adam, 'I wanna be nude in a movie!' We started there. Some people expose themselves to people in a park to get their rocks off. I dress it up as art and expose myself to thousands!"
Rats and Cats, written by Gann and longtime friend Adam Zwar, is the story of Darren McWarren, a washed-up film star who has escaped to the small town of Gladdington, Victoria. Gann and Zwar also star as the film's dynamic duo, Darren and journo Ben Baxter. This is the kind of offbeat, dark humor that Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow traffic in.
Darren quotes his former lines offhand, he sings in a band called Black Diamond, and he shags anything with a pulse. He survives on Claw game proceeds, is a certified Scuba instructor, and is shadowed by the duncelike Bruce (Paul Denny).
"We always liked the drama in Russell Crowe's career, and in a way, he was part of the inspiration for the character," director and third arm Tony Rogers explains. "Have you ever heard of Russell's band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts? Darren is really a bit Russell, a bit of Jason Gann, and a whole lot of other influences."
Nothing really happens in Rats and Cats. There's no third-act epiphany, no mind-blowing twist, no acting. And that's beautiful. The dialogue rips with wit and sarcasm, the result of two friends who have been working together since well before their hit Aussie TV show, Wilfred, now airing stateside on IFC, about a protective pot-smoking dog played by Gann in full furry gear. Oddly, he plays a monkey in his next show. An animal, that one.
Despite Gann's wildly eccentric personality (onscreen, at least), it's Zwar that keeps the film balanced. His Ben is unflinching and nonjudgmental, a true journalist, even if he works for the print equivalent of VH1's Where They Are Now?. His pointed questions serve as set up and boundary for Darren, who is always looking to impress. All told, Rats and Cats is half commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture and half buddy movie that relishes in the rapport of its two leads.
"Australia has been in the wilderness with our own films in recent years," Gann admits, "but things look to be firing up again." Given the potential of the Gann-Zwar-Rogers troika, we'd say there's Buckley's chance that such fair dinkum dags will rack off Down Under for long.
The New Wave of Australian Films
Midnighters, U.S. Premiere
Friday, March 13, 11:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Wednesday, March 18, 11pm, Alamo Ritz
Saturday, March 21, 11pm, Alamo Ritz
Rats and Cats
Emerging Visions, North American Premiere
Monday, March 16, 1pm, Alamo Ritz
Thursday, March 19, 6:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
Spotlight Premieres, North American Premiere
Friday, March 13, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Three Blind Mice
Spotlight Premieres, U.S. Premiere
Sunday, March 15, 5pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 17, 10pm, Alamo South Lamar
Friday, March 20, 3pm, Alamo Ritz
Intangible Asset Number 82
24 Beats per Second, North American Premiere
Saturday, March 14, 9:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 17, 8:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 21, 9pm, Austin Convention Center
SXSW Presents: Fantastic Fest at Midnight, North American Premiere
Monday, March 16, 11:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 17, 11:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
'Children of the Eclipse'
SX Global Shorts
Sunday, March 15, 4pm, Hideout
Tuesday, March 17, 4pm, Hideout