__The Australian Film and Television Companion's entry begins:
Storm, Esben, 1950: Interesting writer, writer, actor, editor, producer. Are you pleased to be referred to as interesting in all those areas?__
It's better to be referred to as interesting than to be referred to as boring or uninteresting.
27A was a strange choice of subject, given the state of the Australian film industry in the early 70s.
It was a strange choice because there weren't many films being made at that stage really. Libido was the big feature made in Melbourne with three or four directors. But there wasn't much happening.
The main influence on the style of the film was that we knew we wouldn't be able to raise a lot of money. Hayden Keenan, my partner, and I made a little bit of money and had some success with two short films. They'd both won awards at the Sydney Film Festival but we realised that there was no future in short films. This was in the days when you tried to enter a short film in the Melbourne Film Festival and Erwin Rado said, `We don't show Australian short films' - so it's quite ironic now that there's a short film prize at the Melbourne Film Festival named after him.
If we wanted to make a feature film, we'd have to make it cheap. There was a style at that time, sort of pseudo-documentary, with a lot of hand-held camera work - Culodden, Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow, that English, Ken Loach, Peter Watkins realism. I was drawn to the subject in the newspapers and then went off to investigate and research it. I felt that it would suit that style.
Institutions and the people in them?
A basic theme, which is probably a recurring theme, is that of someone trying to break out, someone feeling trapped within themselves, trapped within the system. That probably drew me to it. Then when I went to research it, I found a broader tapestry.
Reaction and response was favourable?
It was favourable. It won a lot of AFI awards. But it was a kind of an art film. Those were also the days when it was very difficult for an Australian film to get mainstream distribution, so Natalie Miller ended up distributing it. Those were also the days before Natalie Miller owned a cinema, when she was distributing 16mm prints from her lounge room or from her little office at home. It had a good season in Melbourne at the Playbox Cinema. It never really had a season in Sydney. The intention was always to blow it up to 35mm. We shot it on very slow stock, so it had a really good grain, but we never got it up to 35mm.
SBS still screens it.
Yes, it's still alive and quite respected. For a while in the 70s it was as if we were getting a call every second week for someone to screen it at a welfare workshop.
In view of the developing industry at that time, it enabled some people to think of the social issues that Australian films could explore.
I guess so. It was made at a time when there was no major funding - there was funding, the AFDC, the Australian Film Development Corporation, had been set up with a view to funding feature films. In those days a feature film would cost $300,000 or $400,000, but there was no situation for funding low-budget features. I think we got $12,000 from the interim fund for the film school. Tom Jeffries put that in. Then Hayden went out and raised something like $20,000 from different private investors who all put in a thousand each, and the budget was $33,000. That was the total budget.
Then a couple of years later, when people like Phil Noyce and Gillian Armstrong came through the film school, they were given $60,000 or $70,000 to make films like The Singer and the Dancer and Back Roads. 27A was 85 minutes. They ended up with 50 minute or 60 minute films, fully funded. So ours was a totally different situation. Films like Pure Shit then followed that low-budget 16mm route. Pure Shit I think was the best of them. That was a great film.
How did you make the transition, after a number of years, to In Search of Anna?
In between I was asked to do a film called Angel Gear. We had won a lot of AFI awards, but then I got a bit carried away because I felt that making 27A was so hard and felt that people were so unsympathetic to our intent, that when we won these awards, I basically told everyone to get stuffed. Everyone was quite shocked. So my career was down the toilet for a while. I'd never thought of it in terms of sucking up to people, so everyone thought I was an arrogant little shit. But I did get one offer and that was to make Angel Gear. It was to be a trucking film. So we spent a couple of years doing that, but it fell through.
Then we set up a business catering to film-makers, cutting rooms, mixing studios and offices, in a big old church manse in Sydney. Hayden and I were still partners. Then I started to think about the past and to get depressed about my situation. I became aware that all the films being made in Australia were period films, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Getting of Wisdom, Between Wars. I felt this reflected a society that was unable to come to terms with where it was at. I know you have to look into the past and find your heroes but it seemed to me that it was reflective of a desire not to face up to where we were at.
That also coincided with where I was at personally in my relationship to women and to Hayden, so I thought I should make a film about leaving the past behind and coming to terms with the present, moving into the future with a positive attitude. That's what I thought I should do personally and that's what I felt Australia should do. It led to In Search of Anna.
You took to the road, an actual journey as well as the road being a metaphor?
Yes, there are two stories. One starts with a guy getting out of jail, someone caught by the system. He comes out and goes looking for what is an idealised memory of love. At the same time he is being confronted, in the form of Chris Haywood, by the debts owed to the past. He's travelling down the road and the past impinges. As regards the structure, you start halfway through a story and then you flash back and flash forward. Eventually past and present build into a climax and spit the main character out. He's able then to pursue his life with the spirit of the present.
We were nominated for six AFI awards that year but we were up against Mad Max, so we didn't have much chance there. I was lucky to get Best Original Screenplay.
How did the public respond?
The public responded well. The film ran for about eight weeks all around Australia and did really well, relatively. I produced it with Natalie Miller as associate producer. After a while I didn't have any money so I didn't pursue selling it any more. It was time to move on. I was basically broke at the end of it - what can you do?
So you contributed to the shift from period pieces to the industry's looking more realistically at the present?
That may have been true, yes. Mad Max probably had more influence, pulled us into the future. But I was very conscious that everyone was making period films. Period's very easy. It's nice and secure, safe and non-confrontational - so it's very easy to feel good about the past.
With Prejudice was one of those tax scam movies that ended up being not too bad. We shot it in two and a half weeks. 18 days, I think. With Prejudice was quite strong and I liked the structure of it, the Rashomon pursuit of truth, where you enact all the various perceptions of truth. I had a lot of problems with the producer, we fought a lot about how it should be, but it still ended up not being too bad a film.
Did it help the cause of the Ananda Marga people and their case?
I think it probably did a little. It was a little drop on the rock. I was trying not to be too overtly biased. I was trying not to put any colour on it, so that the cops would tell their story and our guys would tell their story. I was trying to direct them so that when the cops told their story, audiences would see it as they imagined that the cops would see it. I was trying to make it so that each side's version of the truth spoke for itself and, therefore, left the audience to make a judgment. And the judgment was fairly obvious.
It's an interesting companion piece to Evil Angels.
That's right, the same sort of thing really, except for a lot less money.
Quite a transition to Stanley?
There was a guy called Andrew Gaty who ran Seven Keys. He'd made a film called The Return of Captain Invincible. Andrew Gaty had made a tremendous amount of money, humungous, a lot of money out of distributing Tommy in Australia, more successfully in Australia than anywhere in the world. And then he made a lot of money out of soft porn which came into general release. Anyway, he made Captain Invincible, which was universally hated. He was hated also by other distributors because he was a bit of an upstart.
He had a chap working for him called Steve Kibbler. Kibbler worked for Grundy's and he had employed me to make a feature film for Grundy's called Bondi Blue. I spent a long time after In Search of Anna writing this film that I was to direct. We went into pre-production and on a Friday night I went out to Atlab to look at some tests. We were meant to start shooting on the Monday, and Reg Grundy pulled the plug on it that Friday. I had another story called Dirty Barry, which was a send-up of Dirty Harry. I first wrote it in the mid-'70s and then Dog Day Afternoon came out and it was very similar to that, so I put it aside. Steve Kibbler liked it a lot. By this stage he'd gone to work for Andrew Gaty and tried to get him involved in doing Dirty Barry.
Andrew Gaty was a creative producer. He wanted to make a film in the vein of Arthur and he asked me to read a script. He happened to be in New York and I was at home. I said, `It's a piece of shit'. Then I jokingly said, `Well, either I can come over there and work with you on it there or you can come back here'. The next thing, my wife and I were in New York with him, working on the script with a chap called Stanley Mann from Los Angeles, who's a well-respected scriptwriter. So I worked with him as my script editor, then basically wrote another script which ended up being Stanley, Every Home Needs One.
Andrew had certain things that he wanted, which I had to accommodate, but within that I was trying to make a comedy about acceptance and prejudice. But even though it was hugely unsuccessful, it was my first attempt at comedy, which I really enjoyed. Some people still come up and say they like it and have it in their collections and talk about it being hugely underrated.
Was it a send-up of Australian families?
Yes. Stanley is sent to do an ethnographic study of a middle-class Australian family. The family presents itself normally, but then he finds that the father is gay, that the mother is having an affair with the guy who runs the bowling club, the son's dealing dope and the daughter's having an affair with an Aboriginal boy, and the whole family's busy denying all of it.
So what Stanley does for the family is free them so that they overcome their middle-class inhibitions and accept who they are. Dad goes off with the guy and Mum goes off and everyone's happy.
There are a lot of reasons why it wasn't successful. I think the script was okay. It's very hard to do comedy, and it's either funny or it isn't. I learnt a lot about comedy on that one. I think we would've been better off if the budget hadn't been so high, if we hadn't been trying to be so glossy.
Andrew was very intent on making a sort of glossy big-style movie, and in the beginning the whole thing was all predicated on getting an American or an international star to play the lead. We had Tom Conti but they wouldn't let us bring him in.
That could've made the difference.
You also act?
I started acting after In Search of Anna. I was so broke and I thought, well, I can act, I can write, I can direct, I can edit, so I'm going to do anything, wherever I can get a job. In the acting business in Australia everyone knows everyone and if you can get a couple of roles a year, that's fine. Because I spend most of my time writing, I often feel cut off. So if you can go out and act for a couple of days, you can socialise a little bit. So I talked Ken Cameron into giving me a part in Monkey Grip and that was the beginning. I used to act a lot before I went to Sydney. When I was a kid I did a lot of theatre as a child actor. But when I went to Sydney I thought I was going to become a serious young film director and so I stopped acting, which I shouldn't have done. I don't hang out for it and I don't need it, but when I get asked to do it, it's always a pleasure.
You made some films for television.
The feature was Devil's Hill. Even though it was for the Children's Film and Television Foundation, it was a feature, 96 minutes long. I feel quite pleased with that film. It's about a kid who has to go to the top of the mountain to get his cows back. It was set in Tasmania, based on a Nan Chauncey book. I enjoyed Tasmania and making the film. It was someone else's script but it was terrible so I rewrote it. It brought Patricia Edgar and myself quite close and began to cement our relationship. It was the second film I made for the Foundation. The first was The Other Facts of Life, written by Morris Gleitzman.
Where did Deadly emerge from?
We started writing it about 1987. It was called The Desert Rose, then The Native Rose. Some Aborigines didn't like the word `native', so we changed it to Deadly. With Aborigines dying in custody, where they're .25% of the population and some 18% of the deaths in custody were of aborigines, it's hugely disproportionate. The whole colonisation process and the invasion and stealing the land from the indigenous people is a weeping sore. I think the country needs to come to terms with this or else it will never be able to move on. The present government probably takes the attitude that, if we starve them they'll die out and there won't be a problem any more, which is pretty much how civilisation works.
So I felt that there was a film to be made about the Aborigines, a contemporary film about Aborigines in Australia. Every time a film touched on an Aboriginal situation, it has not been successful - which everyone kept telling us. It wasn't as if we were suddenly onto this theme, there were three Aborigines in 27A. When I was researching 27A in Queensland, one of the things that leaped out was that there was a disproportionate number of Aboriginal inmates in mental institutions. We had an Aborigine, Zack Martin, in In Search of Anna but we cut that part out because we couldn't afford to shoot it in the end. Lydia Miller was in The Big Wish. She played a schoolteacher. It wasn't a particularly Aboriginal part, just a character. We had an Aboriginal girl in the second series of Round The Twist and we had an Aboriginal boy, of course, in Stanley. It didn't matter that the characters were black; they were just another person. That was the idea with the kids' films: they would just be accepted as people, nothing to do with the colour of their skin.
Why did we choose to do Deadly as a cop, murder mystery genre film? Because the problem of racism and prejudice in our society, which is what the blacks have to deal with, is not coming from the enlightened few, the enlightened minority or the concerned minority; it's coming from the great redneck, right-wing mass out there. It's coming from the people who basically don't think about it. The reason the government can afford to take $400,000,000 out of ATSIC is because it won't lose them any votes. Most people don't care, basically.
So the decision was to make a film that would appeal to the people who do not care. You can make an arty sort of film that would investigate the depths of the situation and it would end up at best playing in art cinemas and be shown on the ABC.
This happened with Blackfellas.
Yes, Blackfellas, where you got a very strong, positive reaction critical response, but probably not so many people went to see it. So I was trying to make a film that would go to the heart of the problem. I was trying to make a film that would appeal to the racists and the prejudiced majority.
You have said you wanted a central character audiences could identify with.
Yes. I thought, `what sort of films do these people watch?'. Clint Eastwood. He's an icon of this kind of thing. All his movies are set in the mid-west with rednecks, bounty hunters. The majority of cinema-going audiences love Clint Eastwood movies. So I was trying to make this kind of movie. If I could do that, I would be taking the problem and putting it in the face of these people. If I had a sort of Clint Eastwoody lead character, who starts as a racist, then basically we're saying this guy is the audience. He goes on a journey and by the end of the film he's holding a black man's hand, he's sort of fallen in love with a black woman and has found within himself the capacity to see that these people are just like him and so has overcome his prejudice. That was the journey I was wanting to take the audience on.
Most people aren't members of the Ku Klux Klan. Racism and prejudice are very subtle, insidious. So it was a conscious thing to make a film that would play to the heart of the problem, and not make a film that would play for success or acceptance where it didn't matter.
You filmed in Wilcannia.
In the early 90s there was the Royal Commission into aboriginal deaths in custody. When we came to Wilcannia there had actually been a death in custody and everyone thought we were coming to do a film about that. Originally I wanted to shoot Deadly in Western Australia because I like the light. We researched the possibility of shooting it in a town called Kew, which is right smack-dab in the middle of Western Australia. It's a beautiful town, beautiful corrugated iron buildings and really beautiful light. But we couldn't get any money from Western Australia and it was too expensive to go and do it there. Then we did a tour around Victoria and New South Wales and found Wilcannia. Wilcannia's a beautiful old town with beautiful proud old buildings from the time when Wilcannia was a huge port on the Darling River. It has all this history, but it's a town in decay. There had been riots, really bad riots, so once I chose to shoot there, there was a lot of resistance and quite a few - like the people involved in the production of the film - did a lot to try and dissuade me from going because they thought it was going to be dangerous and that we were putting the cast and the crew into a risky situation.
But eventually we did go and there was not really any problem at all. For the four weeks that we were there, the crime rate dropped by something like 95%. The magistrate would come in every two weeks and was amazed that there was nothing for her to do. I had a good time with those people. They were great.
At one stage, Lydia Miller says of John Moore, `Look, he's a victim, he wants to be a victim, therefore he doesn't have to do anything'. Even in brief moments you continually raise issues.
If you're making a film to preach to the converted or to have artistic praise from the concerned minority, you wouldn't say that. It's very dangerous for a black person to say, `Don't indulge in being a victim', because a lot them do. A lot of people do indulge in being victims. If you're a victim, you're not responsible for your own life. You're basically saying, `It's your fault. It's your fault that I am like this'. And as long as you continue saying this, then you're not responsible for your own actions. You have to get to a point where you say, `Well, I am like I am and it's my responsibility. If I'm going to change or if my situation's going to change, I'm going to accept responsibility for changing it. As long as I'm dependent on others, as long as I say it's other people's fault, then I have no control over my life'. So that's what she was saying to him.
Another thing I was also very conscious of doing was that, when the old black man comes walking down the street and everyone's outside the police station, I was consciously trying to set up a situation where the audience would think, `Oh, now we're going to get into the old black magic stuff', because what happens in films, theatre and the arts in the portrayal of Aborigines is that they have magic. This allows a white audience to say, `Oh, well, they are different', which dehumanises them, `They are not like us'. I wanted to say that they are like us, they're not that different. They don't really have any amazing sort of powers that other people don't have and when their children die, they cry just as much as anyone else and when they're hurt, they feel the pain as much as anyone else. I was trying to cut through the `mystic' stuff.
The scene where John Moore carries the wounded policeman was completely unexpected because each of them had said to the other, `I wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire'. He could have left him there, but you showed him carrying the enemy saving his life.
Yes. I'm almost crying when you tell me that story. I wanted to make the point that he could kill that man, he could kill him there and then, he could leave him to die, but he was a bigger man than that. With the John Moore character we wanted to create a young, attractive, handsome, active, black person, who wasn't so much about talking but about doing, and who could be more than just Tonto, more than just the token blackfella. He was integral to the climax and the resolution. In doing so was standing up for himself and for his people as well. Carrying the police man was to say that by doing this he is better than this man and that he has compassion. He has been hurt by him, but he is strong enough to rise above that and be compassionate. So I was basically saying here is a really strong person, a person who's been hurt and who has gone through a situation where he's blamed everyone else, has accepted his responsibility for his own existence and is now doing something about it. I was trying to create a positive, heroic role model.
Caz Lederman's character is about to kill herself but does not because of the child.
The subtext is that you have this tragedy because the cop (Frank Gallacher) is impotent and unable to satisfy his wife. So you've got the forces of evil being portrayed as being impotent, twisted and crippled in their psyches, but having control over the woman. She had been in love with a black man.
The funeral sequence at the graveside. The clergyman (John Gregg) speaks, is interrupted by John Moore, then the song and the symbolic flock of birds. It is very moving.
We went to another town on the Upper Darling to do research and went down to the river where they were all drinking and smoking and told them what we were doing. They said, `Oh, this boy here, Trumby, he's written a song about this stuff'. So we went back to Trumby's place, picked up his guitar. It started raining and he's standing there singing the song for us and then the cops came down with the paddy wagon and moved everyone on. The song was just fantastic. So we kept in touch with Trumby. Then Gary Foley organised an album called `Building Bridges' and we got Trumby's song on it, `Justice Will Be Done'. In the funeral scene I wanted to have a situation where the clergy, the church, was seen to be trying to do its thing and impose its idea of how things should be. John Moore finally stands up and tells him to shut up because this is his family. The minister was saying, `We can't blame anyone here. No-one is to blame and we must accept...'
`And I'm not angry'.
`... and I'm not angry', yes. And I wanted a black person to say, `I am angry and I am pissed off. When I think about my brother, I don't think of him like that; I think of him... passing the football...' So I wanted a big speech from John Moore that would put the other point of view, because deaths in custody reports are always about statistics. But here's a guy who died. He's remembered as a footballer, he's remembered as a painter, as a lover, as someone's son, as a human being like you or me, not just a black statistic, and that when they cry, they cry real tears and their tears are just as important as our tears and just as heartfelt and just as full of grieving as ours.
You see black families on TV, someone in an African country crying over their child but you're distanced from it. It's ethnographic. So you think, `that's them, it's not us - those poor people'. The medium distances you and you don't think of them as just being another mum and dad. And that's all they are, they're just another mum and dad, just someone's son. That's what I was trying to get to there.
Did you have any denomination in mind for the clergyman?
No, it was just a generic sort of thing.
I have a film called Subterrano, a sci-fi horror movie set in the future, set in an underground carpark - a group of people get trapped in an underground carpark and get killed by deadly remote-controlled toys. There's a kid in it and he's the baddie. It's about God in a way. It's based on the lines from King Lear: `As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport'. One of the themes is: if there is a God, what if that God is a prick; what if that God is just a bastard? For one of the characters, when he thinks that, it all makes sense, it makes sense of the world, that the world is such a slimy world of greed and selfishness and anguish and pain that the only way that it can make any sense is if the person who created the whole thing is... it's all a macabre joke.
It's almost the opposite of Genesis 1: `We were made in God's image and likeness'. If you say, `We are sinful, horrible, we're in God's likeness, therefore that's what God is like'.
I started thinking about it at the time of Desert Storm, with all the remote control intelligent missiles and how war is now remote control, how a rocket will come down our street and turn left and knock on our door and explode in our face and it will all be on the 6 o'clock news. It's that sort of thing. It's also about surveillance, a world where everyone is under surveillance. So, how do you communicate your real feelings, what's true and what's an act, what's real and what's not. In relationships, how do you communicate what's real and what's not?
22nd August 1995