When Melbourne filmmaker, Glendyn Ivin achieved the incredible accolade of winning the Palme d'Or for his short film Crackerbag at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival it set in motion a series of events that are now coming into view.
What the award did, says Ivin, was let him make the film that he wanted to make. Ivin says he was initially determined to write the script for his debut feature, until his agent surreptitiously handed him a screenplay by Mac Gudgeon that was based on Denise Young's novel, The Last Ride. Ivin's reaction was from the gut: “Very early in, it spoke to me,” he says. “It was my sensibility about characters and as I went further along it felt very close to my own experiences, my own heart. It felt like a story that I could collaborate with, and [it was] definitely something I could contribute to and put fingerprints all over.” Ivin “jumped onboard straight away” – even before he had finished his initial reading. “I knew I was going to make the film,” he says. “It was almost a like a gift.”
The characters of Kev (Hugo Weaving) and Chook (Tom Russell) are certainly not ones that everyone would be as open to. Kev is a dangerous presence. He is a damaged man who lacks the emotional tools to function as a member of society, let alone as someone who knows how to be a father to his ten-year old son. Yet Kev is a character that novelist Young loved; in her blog she has expressed relief that the screenplay “stayed true to the spirit of the book” and that screenwriter Gudgeon loved the characters as much as she did.
Kev is a violent man who struggles to communicate with his son. In Kev, director Ivin says he found a chance to explore fatherhood and “psychical and practical fathering techniques”.
“When I read the script I'd just become a dad – my son was a year old. For me the film became about the cyclical nature of parents and children, about how our parents influence us and how we then grow up to become parents. Chook's a character who in a roundabout way, could be growing up to be just like his dad. But maybe he has a chance to say no.”
During pre-production, Ivin spent a lot of time “trying to gain an understanding” of Kev. He conducted a series of interviews with men he whom calls “big, tough, masculine characters who'd been in and out of prison.” The men are “really charming if you're on the right side of them, but if you get on the wrong side of them they don't have the ability to control themselves. They see the world in a very different way because of the way they've been brought up.”
Research like this created the foundations for Kev's backstory and was developed further with Weaving during the three-week rehearsal period. Says Ivin, “Hugo and I sat in a room for those three weeks. We didn't go through any scenes but went through the script line-by-line and word-for-word and attacked it. We really broke it down: What does Kev know? What does the audience know? What does Chook know? What does Hugo know? What do I know? The rehearsal was really hours of discussion so on the day that you call action, Hugo knows what to do and how to be that character.”
The information gleaned from these sessions was then reported back to screenwriter Gudgeon, who worked the new material into the script.
While Weaving is one of Australia's most accomplished and beloved actors, Tom Russell is a first time novice and Ivin admits that directing the pair required him to wear “two very different hats”. He says, “with Tom it was much more direct and immediate. The moment you started talking about anything about character, or process or subtext he just started to glaze over. He'd ask when lunch was.” Despite the vast differences in process and experience, the young actor stands his ground on screen opposite Weaving and Ivin believes both actors took a lot away with them from the experience.
For Ivin himself the experience of filmmaking is all about “forming relationships with people you can work with” and cites his first meeting with Weaving as the start of a friendship. It's a working ethos that carries over to crew. Director of photography on Last Ride is Greig Fraser who also shot Crackerbag. Fraiser, whose profile is constantly gaining more traction, worked second unit on Baz Luhrmann's Australia. It seems that this experience informed some of the shooting choices of this film. Says Ivin somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Greig would frame up and say “this is Baz and this is Last Ride.” Not that we were being contrary to that film, but we didn't want to make a postcard film.”
The locations of Last Ride are indeed defining. Ivin accrued serious miles on a number of eight-day road trips across South Australia's Flinders Ranges and “fell in love with that part of the world.” When he and Fraiser travelled the region together they developed an understanding of how Last Ride would look. The result is a shooting style that blends the brutality of the story with the magnificence of the landscape. “Not just pretty backdrops,” says Ivin “but a landscape that is inclusive and metaphorically matched to the story.”
Perhaps less organic are the issues of identity that pulse through the narrative. At one stage, Chook finds some traditional Afghani clothing and asks his father if it is to that culture that they belong to which Kev replies, “we're mongrels, us. We can be whatever we want to be.” There is also an Aboriginal story running through the film. Says Ivin, these stories and the idea of ancestry were “not the parts that I felt most connected with but they add another layer to who the characters and who we are as a country.” Says Ivin, “It's not denying they could have Aboriginal blood or even Afghani blood. For Kev, he's very opportunistic and if it's good that he's Aboriginal, Afghani or if he needs to be charming to sleep with someone, that's what he'll do.”