“This is go­ing straight to the pool room”

It’s 20 years since a low-bud­get Aus­tralian movie cap­tured hearts on both sides of the Tas­man. To cel­e­brate, The Castle’s stars join Sa­man­tha Trenoweth in the pool room of Aussie cin­ema his­tory.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - 20-year anniversary - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ALANA LANDSBERRY STYLING BIANCA LANE

It was 11 o’clock on a dark and chilly win­ter’s night in Mel­bourne. A tiny film crew hud­dled around a pair of iron­work gates at­tached to the front of a Toorak man­sion and some­one had called the cops on them. They’d just shot a scene in which an evil prop­erty de­vel­oper had threat­ened to call the cops on The Castle’s heroic ev­ery­man, Darryl Ker­ri­gan. With only one scene left to shoot, a real neigh­bour shouted down to the crew that he had phoned the po­lice. There was nei­ther the time nor money in the bud­get to shoot this scene an­other day.

“We had one shot at it – and we had to get it be­fore the cops ar­rived,” says Michael Ca­ton, who played Darryl. “So we chained the gates to the back of the tow truck and I jumped in and drove away. There were no stunt peo­ple. I took off, swung left and tore up the road with the gates bounc­ing and spark­ing off the bi­tu­men – per­fect! It was a on­cer.”

It will be 20 years in May since

The Castle pre­miered in cin­e­mas

and etched it­self into the Aus­tralasian iden­tity along­side the no­tion of a fair go. The movie, which was writ­ten in a fort­night, filmed in 10-and-a-half days and pro­duced for roughly $750,000, was the lit­tle cin­e­matic bat­tler that made good.

The film’s stars, Michael Ca­ton and Anne Ten­ney (Darryl’s de­voted wife, Sal), are help­ing to cel­e­brate the an­niver­sary by spend­ing a morn­ing rem­i­nisc­ing in the pool room with

The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly.

A per­fect script

“I’ve got noth­ing but fond me­mories of The Castle,” Michael says, smil­ing. “My ca­reer was dead in the wa­ter be­fore it came along. I’d said to my­self, ‘Well that’s it,’ and I was do­ing a bit of writ­ing and paint­ing houses. In fact, my wardrobe for The Castle ac­tu­ally came from my own wardrobe and ev­ery­thing was splat­tered with paint be­cause I’d been paint­ing for the past 12 months. Af­ter the film, I do­nated the Ugg boots, sloppy joe and jeans to the Pow­er­house Mu­seum.”

Anne, who had won an en­dur­ing fan base a decade ear­lier as Molly Jones in TV drama A Coun­try Prac­tice, wasn’t quite so hungry for work. In re­cent years, she had been rais­ing a daugh­ter and work­ing only in­ter­mit­tently, but she was won over by The Castle’s script.

“It was a per­fect script,” she re­mem­bers. “That’s quite un­usual. I read it and I was in. It worked right from the word go. There were no changes; there was no ad-lib­bing.”

“I read that script and went, ‘Thank you, Huey,’” says Michael. “That was on a Satur­day and, on the Mon­day, I was in Mel­bourne re­hears­ing.”

Anne also ar­rived in Mel­bourne that week, with her hus­band, fel­low ac­tor Shane Withing­ton, and their five-yearold daugh­ter, Madeleine, in tow. And, when di­rec­tor Rob Sitch an­nounced they would be mak­ing the film in 10 days, none of the cast re­sponded with, “Tell ’em they’re dreamin’.’” In­stead, they set about re­al­is­ing Rob and his Work­ing Dog pro­duc­tion team’s dreams.

“When you don’t have a lot of money, the only thing you have is scriptwrit­ing,” Rob said at the time. “There’s no crutch in the film, there are no spe­cial ef­fects, there’s no kung fu, the cam­era doesn’t move and it’s not a par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive lo­ca­tion. There’s noth­ing but the script and the per­for­mances.”

The Work­ing Dog crew – Jane Kennedy, Tom Gleis­ner, Santo Ci­lauro, Michael Hirsh and Rob Sitch – had met at univer­sity and later earned a rep­u­ta­tion for mak­ing edgy TV com­edy, in­clud­ing The D-Gen­er­a­tion and Front­line. They had never made a fea­ture film be­fore, but they were a no-frills, high-oc­tane cre­ative op­er­a­tion and their script had emerged from a shared sense of fam­ily and Aus­tralia.

Rob grew up in the Mel­bourne sub­urb of Avon­dale Heights and, as a kid, he couldn’t imag­ine a more per­fect place on earth. He spent week­ends watch­ing planes at Essendon Air­port and he idolised his dad, Char­lie Sitch, who had been an air­craft nav­i­ga­tor in World War II and was an un­flinch­ing be­liever in “the fair go”.

That the char­ac­ters in The Castle spring from real peo­ple like Char­lie gives them their flesh-and-blood hu­man­ity and the script its high-wire mix of wry hu­mour, em­pa­thy and re­spect. Rob of­ten speaks of a “spe­cial kind of warmth” and “spir­i­tual truth” that un­der­pin the film’s comic ban­ter. The Castle’s spir­i­tual heart rests on the dual pil­lars of Darryl Ker­ri­gan’s re­lent­less op­ti­mism and Sal’s love.

“Sal’s a gen­tle per­son,” says Anne. “She has this unerring faith in her hus­band – she adores him – and an un­con­di­tional love for her fam­ily.

The fact that her son, Wayne, is in jail doesn’t faze her – he’s a good boy. The film is a fairy­tale in a lot of ways.”

Michael sees the film’s heart in

“Darryl’s im­pos­si­ble op­ti­mism – his be­lief that ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to be all right. I ad­mire that naive op­ti­mism. He’s about to get clob­bered. It’s like a car crash com­ing and he can’t see it.” “Mas­ter of lost causes”

Michael feels a sense of kin­ship with Darryl in other ways, too. “It be­gan with The Sul­li­vans, back in the 70s,” he says. Michael was play­ing Un­cle Harry and “the floor man­ager, a won­der­ful man called Lau­rie Levy, got us all in­volved in the Save the Whale cam­paign. That sparked some­thing in me. Then peo­ple kept ask­ing me to do things and that’s how my en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism be­gan.”

On week­ends, you’re likely to find Michael speak­ing at a rally to save some lo­cal land­mark, such as Syd­ney’s Bondi Pav­il­ion, or to stop fund­ing cuts to Le­gal Aid. “Darryl’s a bit of a mas­ter of lost causes,” he muses, “and I un­der­stand that. You lose a lot more bat­tles than you win.”

“The Castle is a po­lit­i­cal film,” says Anne. “There was this strong sense that the home was a home – that it wasn’t an in­vest­ment prop­erty. I think that’s a lovely thing in the film and it does seem like we’ve lost it a lit­tle bit.”

In The Castle’s pre-IKEA utopia, ev­ery­thing in the home has sig­nif­i­cance, from the tro­phies in the pool room to the house­hold items made with love in one of Sal’s craft fads. The sig­nif­i­cance of the idea of home is un­der­lined in the film by ref­er­ences to the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment’s 1993 Mabo land own­er­ship leg­is­la­tion.

“Mabo, it’s the vibe,” Michael quotes from the film. He sees mod­ern-day equiv­a­lents in home­own­ers hav­ing their prop­er­ties “com­pul­so­rily ac­quired” for mo­tor­way de­vel­op­ments and farm­ers who “lock the gate” against coal-seam gas min­ing. He sug­gests that Aus­tralian protest group Knit­ting Nan­nas Against Gas (KNAG) are keep­ers of the Ker­ri­gan flame. “They asked me to go on the bus with them up to Queens­land,” he says. “They’d eat you up,” Anne jokes. Whether it was its pol­i­tics, its big heart or its abun­dance of side-split­ting one-lin­ers, Aus­tralasians adopted this lit­tle film as their own.

“The first time I saw it with an au­di­ence, I thought, ‘Oh wow,’” Michael says. “There was so much laugh­ter in the room. Peo­ple still come up to me in the street and want to talk about it. Some­times I think that, when peo­ple come through Cus­toms, they must be given a copy of The Castle be­cause, when­ever I’m in Bondi, I’m ap­proached by peo­ple from all over the world.”

David and Mar­garet dis­agree The en­thu­si­asm wasn’t uni­ver­sal, how­ever. On TV’s The Movie Show, pre­sen­ter Mar­garet Pomer­anz was ef­fu­sive in her praise, while co-host David Strat­ton missed the joke. Mar­garet: It takes a while to get rid of the nig­gling thought that th­ese char­ac­ters are be­ing laughed at by the film­mak­ers, but then you’re sud­denly over­whelmed by the enor­mous af­fec­tion that th­ese film­mak­ers have for Darryl and his fam­ily. Part of this is due to Michael Ca­ton’s won­der­ful per­for­mance as Darryl... It’s not the best di­rected film of the year, nor does it have the best cin­e­matog­ra­phy, but the rough­ness around its edges doesn’t de­tract too much from the heart of the film. It’s a sim­ple first ef­fort from the Front­line team, shot in a short space of time, but for me, it was a win­ner. David: Well, I’m afraid it wasn’t for me. I re­ally didn’t get onto the wave­length of this film at all. I thought it was pa­tro­n­is­ing to­wards its char­ac­ters. I didn’t find it funny. It re­minded me of the sort of hu­mour that I thought had gone out years ago.

Mar­garet: I think it’s a very Aus­tralian sort of hu­mour.

David: I just thought it was silly. And, tech­ni­cally, it’s very rough.

Mar­garet: How many stars are you go­ing to give it?

David: I’m giv­ing it one and a half. Mar­garet: I’m giv­ing it four stars.

Michael Ca­ton ad­mits Mar­garet and David were right about the film’s tech­ni­cal fail­ings. “It wasn’t even shot on 35mm film,” he re­calls, grin­ning. “It was 16mm. Santo [Ci­lauro] was on one cam­era and a lovely Czech di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, Miri­ana Maru­sic, on the other. There were usu­ally just the two cam­eras and they didn’t move. Ev­ery­thing was shot in one or two takes. In the cor­ner of the kitchen, if you look care­fully at the wall­pa­per, you can see the scaf­fold­ing un­der­neath it. And I re­mem­ber look­ing at Anne and think­ing, ‘There’s no light on her at all.’”

“You can see that in the film,” Anne says, laugh­ing. “It just goes to show that tech­ni­cally things might not be ab­so­lutely per­fect, but if you’re swept along by the plot and the char­ac­ters, you can still have a huge suc­cess.”

The pro­duc­ers of the film reaped the re­wards of a box-of­fice hit. The Castle grossed about $10.3 mil­lion in Aus­tralia and in­ter­na­tional rights were sold to Mi­ra­max for a re­ported $6 mil­lion, or, as Rob Sitch said,

“a lot more than it cost to make”.

The ac­tors, of course, reaped their re­wards in glory. The film kick-started Michael’s ca­reer and, now 73, he’s known for a string of iconic Aussie bloke roles, in­clud­ing Ted in Packed to the Rafters and Rex in Last Cab to Dar­win. Anne, 63, has worked con­sis­tently in TV (Wa­ter Rats, Al­ways Greener, All Saints) and the­atre, and she says, “Peo­ple still come up to me and quote The Castle. They know it by heart.”

“We ac­tors didn’t make a lot of money out of The Castle, but we got some­thing bet­ter than money,” Michael says. “We got a lit­tle gem of a movie that will out­live us – a lit­tle bit of im­mor­tal­ity.”

ABOVE: Darryl, Sal and Dale (Stephen Curry) pon­der the ac­qui­si­tion of their “castle”. RIGHT: To­day, Anne says her dream home would be a “one-room castle”, while Michael would opt for “a shack in the coun­try”.

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