The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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