While international productions retreat, new helmers energize movie biz

The past 12 months have seen barely a single international production come to Aussie shores, but the locals have been anything but idle. It seems 2010 was a bumper year for rookie helmers Down Under with a platoon of directors getting kudos and plaudits.

The biggest local film of the year, with a haul of $A13.4 million ($13.9 million), was by a tyro helmer albeit one with a strong track record in other areas. With writing credits “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Australia,” Stuart Beattie is hardly a newcomer to the industry; however, when it came to shooting his first film, the teen action-drama “Tomorrow, When the War Began,” he took his time to pick the project.

“I wanted it to be Australian,” Beattie says. “I wanted it to be a great story and great characters, and I wanted it to be a commercial film and it was all those things.”

Based on the John Marsden books, “Tomorrow” tells the story of a group of teenagers returning from a camping trip to find Australia occupied by a foreign force. They must fight to stay alive.

The crop of talented first-time directors was led by David Michod and his debut, “Animal Kingdom,” which took top prize at Sundance in 2010 and landed Jacki Weaver a supporting Oscar nom, has raked in more than $5 million at the local box office. Not long after his success, a battery of other young guns lined up behind him.

Patrick Hughes, whose first film “Red Hill” stars Ryan Kwanten, recently headed to Los Angeles after his neo-Western landed him a top agent and a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Worldwide.

“It feels like, maybe, there’s a little revolution going on,” Hughes says. “It’s a really interesting landscape and there are some interesting genre films coming.”

There has been industry talk recently that Australia does not make marketable films, but this bunch of directors is set to change that. From oaters to teen thrillers, it seems first-timers are looking for hits rather than kudos — but getting both. There’s also a renegade spirit to these productions since it’s so difficult to get films funded. Hughes mortgaged his home and left his wife and baby for a two-month stint in the subzero temperatures of Victoria’s high country. That same passion meant Kwanten worked for no money.

The director of water-based thriller “Caught Inside,” Adam Blaiklock, ended up funding his Maldives-set thriller himself out of “pure frustration” given some of the meetings with local producers. He jokes, “Having a meeting with (producers) is like seeing someone in the burns unit of a hospital and they are wrapped from head to toe in bandages and they are going, ‘This is what happened to me last time I made a film. What? Do you think I’m going to do it again?’?”

Regardless of the resistance, Blaiklock made “Caught Inside” for under a million dollars, and scored distribution through local genre shingleDarclight.

Another genre maker, Sean Byrne, was on the brink of giving up on filmmaking when he decided to make his horror pic “The Loved Ones” as a “$100,000 credit card film.” But a keen producer and some extra funding meant he could broaden his scope.

The film won the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival last year and went on to $300,000 at the local B.O. “As a first-time filmmaker, it is really hard to get someone to believe in you because you don’t have any runs on the board,” Byrne says.

One filmmaker who hit a home run on his first outing was Ben E. Lucas, whose “Wasted on the Young,” won the runner-up kudo at the Sydney Film Festival, as well as a bunch of critical plaudits. The pic tells the story of a party at a wealthy high school that gets out of control.

“I have always wanted to tap moral fables to tell stories that have bigger themes than the actual subject matter. So this film is a teen thriller at the surface, but I’ve always thought of it as a big fable about justice,” says Lucas. “You take the basic, almost slasher, idea that the producer had, and find the opera in it.”

But with the success comes the onerous next project. Lucas has no illusions about how hard that will be.

“The myth that one day you can draw a line in the sand and step over and say ‘I’ve made it, that’s all behind me and things are different’ it just doesn’t exist,” he says

One thing that unites the posse of helmers is that it’s an interesting time for storytelling Down Under.

“I get really excited, because I know there are a whole bunch of talented filmmakers that are yet to make their first film,” says Hughes. “So I’m itching for those guys to make their films as well.”


More from World Report: Australia:
Waking up Oz pics | Best TV dramas play behind the scenes | Up and comers Down Under | New blood brings new buzz to Oz stage | Oz pursues runaways | Oz at Cannes

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