ROSALIE HIGSON meets JULIUS AVERY FILMMAKER
FIFTEEN years ago, Julius Avery was teenage, tall, gifted, restless and in trouble at high school. His mother, Justine, said he could forget about school if he wanted and offered to buy a farm so he could grow vegetables. But young Avery decided to follow in his artist mother’s footsteps and go to art school. At 16 he left behind semi- rural Mount Helena, Western Australia, the youngest student to be accepted into Perth’s Claremont School of Art.
Now 31, bearded and voluble, Avery is emerging internationally as a filmmaker to watch. His student films have won a swag of awards and earlier this year he won the Cannes Special Jury Prize for his first mature short film, the 13- minute Jerrycan.
Avery is driven by his interest in Australian masculinity, particularly as it affects people living in places that are neither here nor there: not the outback, where boarding school or work on the land are the options for a white boy; not the city, with its many work and leisure opportunities; but towns such as the Mount Helena of his childhood that don’t have much to offer their youth, explaining why Avery grabbed art school with both hands.
He says: ‘‘ My dad died when I was about five and my mum, she’s always been there. She understood the stress; you feel a lot of stress buried down you as a kid and you need someone behind you to say: ‘ Look, it’s fine, you’re fine.’ My grandmother, Pat Chappell, was also a huge supporter. When it comes to my films, she said: ‘ Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.’ ’’ She was a photographer and when she was working she had four studios.
‘‘ She was a very successful woman in Perth at a time when it was a very male- driven occupation. So she was always eager to ensure that I kept that fire in my belly. They interviewed her on the news when I was in Cannes. She was wearing a pink sweater and said, ‘ I’m tickled pink.’ ’’ He laughs affectionately.
Arriving in Perth as a 16- year- old art student, Avery homed in on photography. ‘‘ You could hire a video camera, and so I took that out every week and followed my friends around,’’ he says. ‘‘ I started realising that there was something in this, that I could make stories about my mates.’’ The more Avery hung around with the camera, the more everyone else forgot about it.
‘‘ That was my first directing realisation, that when people become natural in front of the camera they become so much more interesting.’’
Diploma under his arm, Avery went on to Perth’s Murdoch University, where he struggled with the written subjects and, again, couldn’t keep away from the video equipment. ‘‘ I just made a complete nuisance of myself, doing as many things as I could on the side, shooting documentaries, experimental short films, music videos, anything,’’ he says. ‘‘ I realised that the best of the school was getting out there and just doing it and being on set with real people.’’
His next move was east, to Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, where in 2006 his graduating film, End of Town, was awarded the Melbourne International Film Festival’s emerging filmmaker of the year award. Then came Cannes. Now in the process of making his first feature, Avery is ‘‘ at the pointy end of filmmaking’’. His feature is called End of Town and it reprises his favourite themes of isolation and disaffected country youth. It’s a wrong- side- of- the- tracks love story and drama set in a small town. In Cannes, he relished the bold, bolshie films he saw: ‘‘ I mean bold as in films that have something to say about the world and say it in a very in- yourface way.
‘‘ End of Town has that, it’s talking about kids in the bush, about racism, about all those dangerous things that young kids get up to: drinking, taking drugs, underage sex, the whole lot. But I don’t want anyone drawing parallels with Larry Clark,’’ he says firmly of the contentious US filmmaker who made Kids and Ken Park.
‘‘ Clark works with kids, he does the sex, but this is more about the male ( situation), about men and how they sort of go through life growing up, the very macho side of Australian men, which I don’t think is explored enough.’’
When he was doing the groundwork for Jerrycan, which had its Australian premiere at this year’s MIFF, Avery wanted to locate a town and cast the local kids so they were comfortable with their surroundings. Someone suggested the Victorian town of Clunes. When he arrived, Avery met Dave, the local bicycle shop owner.
‘‘ Clunes is about 20 minutes from Ballarat, which is a lifetime away for a kid, you know,’’ Avery says. ‘‘ He’d started up this little bike shop in the main street. The kids in the town didn’t have any bikes because the ones they got at Christmas or birthdays got a puncture or the chain fell off, simple things that needed fixing. So he knew all the kids in town, and he said to us: ‘ If you guys want kids, come back on Wednesday and I’ll have them all here.’
‘‘ So we did, and there were 15 of the most rowdy, most obnoxious little shits, but they were just right, just perfect for this film, raw and rough and ready. The kids were all great, it was just a matter of picking the ones that were right for the roles. And when I saw them, they were so similar to me.’’
This scene in Clunes reminded Avery of his early years in Mount Helena, hanging out at the milk bar with his mates. ‘‘ The problem was there weren’t many kids, so sometimes you’d hang out with your worst enemy. One kid was a bit older and he was the bully. We used to follow him around and get up to mischief because it was all about flying under the radar in those days. You didn’t want to be outside of the group and you’d do anything. Would you jump off a bridge if you were told to? You probably would because otherwise you’d be called a pussy.’’
Jerrycan ’ s reckless young boys and cans of petrol make a combustible mix. Avery laughs: ‘‘ You do come away thinking this is really dangerous, but it turns into something with the same tone as ( the film) Stand By Me,’’ he says. ‘‘ There’s a lot of humour and lightness and a dark subject matter, but no one dies.’’
Avery is keen to point out his Cannes success rests with the young cast of Jerrycan : ‘‘ Everyone concentrates on the director, but I’d really like to thank Clunes. These kids are the ones that made this film and without them it would be nothing. They’re so willing to give you everything and that’s why I like working with them, they’re so open to new ideas. They are the heroes.’’