remaking an Australian film classic
There’s something undeniably special about Mr Percival. His pale, pinkish bill is enormous, even by pelican standards. More than that, he’s proving himself to be every bit the shameless showman. Perched on the edge of a rough wooden plank verandah outside a ramshackle fisherman’s hut, Mr Percival – an exhibitionist if there ever was one – is holding court on the set of Storm Boy, this year’s cinematic remake of the classic Australian coming-of-age story about a boy and his friendship with a pelican.
Mr Percival, of course, is the star of the show. Gathered about him in a wide circle is a breathless throng of fans, most of them cast and crew, all oohing and ahhing, and waiting eagerly for his next stunt.
His handler, a neat woman dressed in khakis and boots, tosses the pelican a small fillet of fish. He catches it in his vast beak, a tiny morsel disappearing down a suddenly yawning gullet. The audience cheers and Mr Percival spreads his wings out wide, much like an applause-starved actor taking a long-awaited bow.
It’s a rare thing to see a bird upstage actors on a film set. But here in the isolated sandhills of the South Australian coastline, a cold, strong wind whipping up the sand, that’s exactly what is happening. And, even more strangely, the actors don’t seem to mind a bit.
“The birds are absolutely incredible,” says Finn Little, the 11-year-old actor who stars as Mike Kingley, the title character in Storm Boy. “They are so funny and so good at everything they do. They understand so much and they can do things on cue, just like actors do. It’s amazing to say this but it’s almost like they are human. I had to spend a lot of time with them so we could bond, and they wouldn’t freak out when it came to filming. But now we are like best friends.”
The pelicans, of course, are crucial to the story of Storm Boy, the classic Australian novella by Colin Thiele that became a box-office smash as a movie in 1976. It helped lead a resurgence of Australian cinema during the ’70s and remains a fond memory for many Australians who grew up then. That immense popularity, of course, puts enormous pressure on the makers of this latest version, whose challenge is to tell the story with all its warmth, tragedy and charm, to a new generation of film goers.
Set in the Coorong region of South Australia, the story revolves around Mike growing up in isolation with his father, known as Hideaway Tom, in a fisherman’s hut. Their secluded lives begin to change when they meet an Aboriginal loner named Fingerbone Bill. And that trickling change becomes a torrent when they all fall under the spell of three orphaned pelicans, whom
“There is a message to look after what we hold dear.”
they save and name as Mr Percival, Mr Proud and Mr
Ponder. No prizes for guessing that Mr Percival is the star turn, and he has a profound effect on everyone’s lives.
“I’ve always regarded Storm Boy as one of the great Australian stories,” says producer Michael Broughen, whose previous films include Tomorrow, When the War Began and The Loved Ones. “I studied the book when I was in school and I was blown away by the 1976 film, but it wasn’t until I discovered that it had been turned into a stage play that I began to think about just what a wonderful story it is. Though it was written in the ’60s and set in the late 1950s, it has such a strong message about loneliness, love, friendship as well as loss and hope. It also deals with ecological issues. It’s not overplayed, but there is a message in it that we need to look after what we hold dear, for ourselves and for future generations. I think it will resonate with audiences all over again.”
The narrative unfolds in flashbacks through the eyes of a grown-up Storm Boy (played by Geoffrey Rush), recalling his long-forgotten childhood and the bond he shared with his adopted friend, Mr Percival. Finn, the childhood Storm Boy, brings those memories to life.
Before landing the role, Finn appeared in several TV commercials and stage roles but this is his first major film.
“I have always wanted to be an actor, from as far back as I can remember,” he says. “Even when I was little, I would put on plays for my family in the backyard. So just being here is like a dream come true for me, let alone working with someone such as Geoffrey Rush. It’s such a privilege to meet Geoffrey and work with him. I love his films and I am a big, big fan. When I was a little kid, I watched the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I was all over it.”
Storm Boy’s father, Hideaway Tom, is played by Jai Courtney, who was thrust to international stardom by his lead role in the series Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
“This was an absolute no-brainer,” says Jai, who came back from Hollywood to take the role as Hideaway Tom. “My mother was a primary-school teacher and I grew up very much aware of the book and its importance in childhood teaching programs. It’s such an iconic tale. It’s heart-breaking, it’s gripping and it’s uplifting but reimagined with a contemporary thread running through it. So, the chance to play Hideaway Tom was too good to pass up. He’s lost his wife and daughter and has withdrawn with his son to a secluded life as a fisherman. He can’t deal with the noise in his life that follows his loss and he’s escaping. It’s such a good role and I jumped straight onboard.
“The beauty is that we are filming in the place where the book is set so you don’t need to work hard to transport yourself to that place. There are scenes where we take a boat and go into town to sell some fish and get supplies and we don’t need to use our imaginations because it’s here, all around us. There is no make believe. It feels so good to come home and tell this story and be a part of it.”
The producers gained permission from the South Australian National Parks Authority to build a temporary fisherman’s hut on the shores of the Younghusband Peninsula, just south of the town of Goolwa and the mouth of the Murray River. Not only is the area stunning, but it is also home to countless species of birds and wildlife. While we watched the filming, flocks of Australian pelicans
roamed the skies, landing and taking off on the vast waterways just off the sandhills. It’s hard not to be awed by the area’s exquisite beauty and all-pervasive seclusion.
“The setting is really important to the story, not just from the narrative’s point of view but also from an international sales point of view,” says Michael Broughen. “This part of Australia is truly unique in many ways because of its environment and the wildlife that lives here. It’s also a crucial part of the story so it was really important to us to be able to film in the locations where the story was actually set. There’s a whole feeling and atmosphere here that we don’t think could be recreated anywhere else.”
For actor Trevor Jamieson, being part of the cast has given him a chance to meet one of his inspirations, iconic Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. “I am so glad I landed this role, it’s been so much fun,” says Trevor, who plays the enigmatic Aboriginal loner, Fingerbone Bill, the role played in the original 1976 film by David Gulpilil. “I read the story when I was growing up and I always had an idea I could play Fingerbone Bill. I played the role in the stage production a few years back and, while it didn’t guarantee I’d get the role, it helped to have that background.
“I loved Colin Thiele’s work. There is a sense of timelessness about this story and that’s what I love about it. I have the greatest respect for David Gulpilil. He is a national treasure who just commands the lens. He has an amazing magic. But I am in no way like him. The great thing was that he has a small cameo role as Fingerbone Bill’s father, so we got to catch up with him when he came on set and it was almost like he was coming full circle because this role skyrocketed his career in the industry and he was able to be involved again. It was beautiful to have him on set. It was just such an honour to have him next to me.”
Of course, it’s the pelicans who are the show stoppers in this film. There were seven pelicans in all, each at various ages to depict the developing bond between bird and boy. Now that filming has finished, the pelicans have all been found safe and secure homes in locations around South Australia. But, as is fitting, the star spot is reserved for Mr Percival. He is now a resident in the Adelaide Zoo, the same place the original Mr Percival made his home in 1976.
“We’ve made sure the pelicans are safe and cared for,” says Michael Broughen. “It was the least we could do considering how vital they are to the film. The original Mr Percival lived at Adelaide Zoo until he died in 2009, so I’m sure that the new Mr Percival will have a long and happy life there and make a lot of people happy along the way.”
Storm Boy is in cinemas from January 17.
“He is a national treasure who commands the lens.”
Left: Hideaway Tom, played by Jai Courtney, has withdrawn with his son to a secluded life.
Above: Geoffrey Rush plays the adult Storm Boy, and narrates the story. Below: Behind the scenes with director Shawn Seet (right).
Above: David Gulpilil, who played Fingerbone Bill in the 1976 film, has a cameo in the new film. Below: Trevor Jamieson as Fingerbone Bill.