laughing at my accent and asking me about kangaroos, but that all dried up as the years wore on because it became less of a novelty to have Australians on set. Now it is kind of strange but comfortable to hear another Australian accent as a department head in a production meeting.’’
As more Australians work on international films, and increasingly in American television, more are recognised with kudos at the increasing number of industry awards ceremonies.
Consequently, it is easier for them to remain working offshore. After all, Australians can’t just waltz on to international film sets. In order to work in the US, they must be sponsored by someone willing to attest that they have an ‘‘ extraordinary talent’’.
At least that’s the term used for passports and visa papers, laughs Smith: ‘‘ It’s kind of an embarrassing wording. You have to have an ‘ extraordinary talent’, and as an Australian I cringe at that. The Customs guys in the US are notoriously unhappy anyway and they look at you and say, ‘ Well, you must have an extraordinary talent.’ It makes you feel like a goose.’’
Awards only make them more extraordinary and allow them to qualify for US guilds and unions. That is a very practical benefit, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does little to dispel the notion that Academy Award recognition, for anyone, will bring fame and fortune.
But the effect of these awards on the individuals and on the wider Australian film industry is not always as positive as might be expected. Martin Brown, who as a co-producer of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! was an Oscar nominee in the best-picture category, admits that ‘‘ anyone would rather have a nomination or award than not. But that being said, I think you’re only as good as your next project, not your last’’.
‘‘[ The Oscar nomination] certainly helped in terms of opening doors, and in terms of access, it’s a great calling card but you’ve still got to have the goods,’’ he says.
Award recognition certainly increases a person’s professional status, access and asking price within the industry. It also increases misconceptions. Nikki Gooley was an Oscar nominee for her make-up on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in 2006. She claims some local producers have become gun-shy of her, saying they didn’t approach her for their project because they thought she was now too expensive.
‘‘ There’s a lot of presumptions,’’ she says. ‘‘ People think if you’re out of work, ‘ Well, you’ve had a good run.’ If you get sacked from the Commonwealth Bank after 20 years, do people say, ‘ Oh well, you had a good run?’ This is my work and my business and I still have the same bills to pay as everybody else. People and the Government think it’s a luxury industry where everyone’s all right, but it’s not the case.’’
The domestic film industry is not all right. It certainly cannot offer the continuity of employment people such as Smith and Carlin enjoy overseas. Even worse, international films shooting in Australia have dried up and the advertising industry, in which many film crew members make their living, has ground to a halt.
Someone like Gooley could work internationally, and has done so, but she has a young family that requires stability after periods of travelling with her for work.
Smith has somehow managed to school his children overseas as he worked in London and Los Angeles for years at a time on The Dark Knight and The Prestige . ‘‘ I won’t say it’s been easy, and full credit to my wife for figuring it all out,’’ he says.
Smith is almost sheepish when he talks of working overseas. His last Australian film was 2002’ s The Rage In Placid Lake . He concedes it’s hard to refuse ‘‘ such great work internationally’’ as Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
‘‘ Maybe it’s just me but when you’re editing on these bigger-budget films, the level of excitement goes up because you’ve got all these toys at your disposal,’’ he says. ‘‘ I had my skills well and truly tested on normal budget Australian films. They’re continually testing your ability to cope with just enough money to get by, but internationally, you can test every creative possibility. As an editor over there you can keep rejecting things because they keep doing it [ shooting] until they get it perfect.’’
Carlin has had a fine recent run on The Last King of Scotland , Mr Bean’s Holiday , In Bruges and The Duchess but he is keen to return home. He is an oddity in the Australian creative diaspora, having left Australia 20 years ago as a sculptor pursuing an Englishwoman. He married her and moved into production design based out of London, so he feels less a part of any film diaspora than ‘‘ the guys and girls who made their career in Australia and then went to LA’’.
Carlin’s tale is similar to that of our greatest Academy Award winner, Orry-Kelly ( or John Kelly) who left for New York to become an actor before moving to Los Angeles where his old flatmate, Cary Grant, opened a door for him at Warner Bros. He designed gowns for Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis and in the 1950s became our only triple Oscar winner, for costuming Les Girls , Some Like It Hot and An American In Paris .
‘‘ I can’t claim to be part of the Australian film community in that way but I certainly feel Australian, and doing The Duchess , for example, I was looking at England from the outside rather than the inside,’’ he says. ‘‘ So in that way I do feel part of [ those] Australians going elsewhere and looking at things from an Australian point of view.’’
Carlin hopes his international accolades make it easier for him to work here, drawing him to the attention of Australian filmmakers. He is envious seeing the landscapes on films such as The Proposition .
While he hankers after Australia, he admits ‘‘ it’s got to the point where it’d probably be as foreign to me work-wise as Prague is . . . When I heard they’re going to make a film out of Dirt Music , for instance, because I’m West Australian I feel like I own it and I’d kill to do something like that.’’
But at what price? Most Australian films can’t pay a Smith, Carlin or Gooley the fee they attract internationally, or give them the resources their talents require.
Thankfully, Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel is likely to have a major budget by Australian standards and will support international-calibre crew.
Yet the question of whether our increasingly successful international actors and crew will continue to work in and support the domestic film industry has been simmering for some time.
Rumours abound of Oscar-winning actors known to be unwilling to drop their fees to work on Australian films. In a catch 22, some of those same actors are among the sought-after eight or so locals that financiers or international sales agents are willing to back in an Australian film.
Few Australian films can afford the $ US3 million-plus these name actors can negotiate internationally. And if a film did stump up such cash, its budget ballooned because other costs, such as producers’ fees, are based on proportions of budget. A film budget is set up to be inflationary and therefore tends towards parsimony. Consequently, it ain’t the stars that got smaller, just Australian film budgets. And that’s before an Oscar winner or nominee contemplates how a risky, small Australian film might affect their reputation if it doesn’t work.
The Film Finance Corporation ( now part of the merged Screen Australia) was even believed to have considered as recently as two years ago implementing a cap on actors’ salaries.
Many, including Brown, believe the new producer offset system of federal Government rebates will alleviate this because bigger-budget films are now possible or encouraged. And a cap on what ‘‘ above the line’’ expenditure ( that is, payments negotiated before filming, such as actor or director salaries) qualifies for the new rebate lessens the inflationary pressures of major payments to actors.
Brown is sympathetic to the top echelon of actors and crew. ‘‘ Personally I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to give up two to five months of their time to work on an Australian film because it’s not a charity,’’ he says.
‘‘ The reason you want an internationally known star is that they help your film perform at a higher level and that’s a commercial part of the business. I respect that but I think most Australian actors want to come home and do good material. It’s our responsibility to come up with good enough stories so they can come back and work on films that won’t be bad for them.’’
Another producer, Antony Ginnane ( also president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia but not speaking on its behalf) agrees the new producer offset scheme should alleviate the talent drain by bringing more of them home on internationally competitive market rates.
‘‘ I don’t see in a market-based economy that there should be pressure or the actors should feel obligated to give back to the industry,’’ he says. ‘‘ Some will choose to do that, and if they don’t they don’t, but if someone needs $ 5 million or $ 7.5 million or $ 10 million to do a picture here, fine, we’ve got the structure to do that now.’’
That’s the future, though. The present is tough. Gooley says she is now being offered less money to work on medium-level Australian films than she was on smaller local films in years past. ‘‘ The size of the budgets has definitely become smaller,’’ she says.
But it’s not all bad. Gooley has fond memories of her award run, and two shiny ornaments. Gooley won a BAFTA but as soon as she missed out on the Academy Award she raced back to the Roosevelt Hotel for a drink. Her partner, Aaron Cox, disappeared, only to return minutes later from a tourist shop with a replica Oscar engraved: ‘‘ Nikki Gooley — Most Gracious Loser.’’
‘‘ It was fabulous,’’ she recalls. ‘‘ We were worshipped by security guards and doormen at parties for the rest of the night!’’ Winners of the 2009 Academy Awards will be announced on Monday.
Slumdogs shame our dogs — Page 40