re­mak­ing an Aus­tralian film clas­sic

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

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.

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