David Caesar is tired of what he sees as a strain of pessimism that streaks through the current pop culture. He's especially tired of pessimistic movies.
“I think some critics see a film, and it's depressing, they think it's good,” he says. “Some critics see (values) like 'hope' and a 'character' arc as a kind of a sell-out.”
Writer-Director Caesar's features, Dirty Deeds (2002), Mullet (2001), Idiot Box (1996) and Greenkeeping (1993), careful blend the dark possibilities of humanity with a sunnier, even optimistic worldview. He happily admits that he has dragged his latest project out of the shadows of nihilism into a place where Good Things Can Happen.
Set in the stark flatlands of the outback, Prime Mover is a romantic drama about an idealistic young fella who wants to run his own trucking operation. Thomas (Michael Dorman) gets his prime mover (the big kind, used to haul great road trains), starts a family with Melissa (Emily Barclay), only to quickly get in over his head with a loan-shark, played with a chilling kind of glee by Ben Mendelsohn. Drugs, fits of temper and violence invade the sparky tenderness that distinguishes Mel and Tom's love affair, but Caesar tempers the grim aspects of the story by giving the film a playful visual style, a lot of humour and a lovely romance, so that the dark side of life only really invades the edges of frame. Even the photography, by cinematographer Hugh Miller, with its poppy pinkish hues, and glistening highlights, invests the film with an air of bright possibilities.
“We consciously tried to make the film like a fable,” Caesar says, “that had no particular setting in terms of time.” The film's mood, a kind of magic-realism is perhaps a little reminiscent of Amir Kuristica (Underground).
Caesar, who got the idea for the film while working briefly as a truck driver, says part of the inspiration for the story was a notorious incident that occurred near Uluru in the early 80s, where a young truckie drove his enormous rig right through an outback pub, resulting in many casualties. “I did a lot of research on the original story,” he says. “I looked up court transcripts and news clippings, but over time I lost interest because there was nihilism about the real event that I just wasn't interested in.”
Enrolling at the Australian Film TV and Radio School in the mid 80s, Caesar pursued Prime Mover, conceiving it at one point as a “weird” feature which combined documentary and fiction: “I was inspired by Dusan Makavejev's WR Mysteries of the Organism.”
Writing the first draft in 1991 early versions of the script were bleak. Indeed, he says: “It started off as a kind of Taxi Driver with trucks.” Thomas, his mind bent by speed (the only way he could keep to a punishing schedule), begins to hallucinate. In the final film version these fantasies have a sort of mischievous even whimsical quality; more cartoony Twilight Zone, than feverish David Lynch. “I think the tone changed over the years because I got older and as I got older I want to make something with more hope to it,” Caesar says. “I got interested in a broader emotional palette than just something that was really intense.”
Over the years Prime Mover has had a lot of false starts (“though people were always enthusiastic about the script”). At one point Russell Crowe was interested in the lead (“an odd dalliance”, Caesar remembers). Finally producer Vincent Sheehan (Mullet, Little Fish) put the relatively modest budget together. “It's a delicate thing financing an Australian film – it's not going to one source or studio like you do in America…here it's you get $50,000 here, a little bit there…it's a jigsaw puzzle,” says Caesar.
Captured digitally, the film was shot over five weeks last year, (four in Dubbo and one in Bourke), and the director says that Prime Mover was an enormous technical challenge simply because of the truck action. “The trouble was that every time we did anything with trucks it was like doing a major stunt sequence,” Caesar says.
“You do a take and something goes wrong you have to wait 20 minutes while there's a re-set (they have to be turned around).” Because they are just so hard to manage and set up, he says. “Its there sheer size and to get them in the right position (it was like) trying to manage a battleship.”
Caesar and Sheehan put the script though the Screen NSW's (then known as the NSW Film and television Office) Aurora script workshop in 2003 and it was this 'happier' version that finally made it into production. “For me the really huge question is why you tell certain stories. I think the portrayal of working class people, so much of it has been really about destructiveness, and I think that's not a good thing.”
What interested him, finally, and what drove Prime Mover to its final incarnation, was a story about overcoming obstacles: “It's about how sometimes you can't see beyond your dreams”. A personal project, Prime Mover was a chance, Caesar says, to “put in stuff that I really like to see in movies; a bit of darkness, a bit of action, and a bit of a homage to Mad Max 2 and characters that you can believe and care about…oh, and a few jokes.”
Prime Mover is released November 12.
Read our review of the film here