There's an old film industry adage that states that what goes on behind the scenes during a film shoot is often far more interesting than anything that ends up appearing on-screen. To make such a claim about Sons of Steel, while undeniably true, is also frighteningly surreal.
Because on-screen, Sons of Steel is nuts.
A 1989 production that was one of the last films to be financed under the 10BA tax-shelter scheme, Sons of Steel is the story of Black Alice, a hard-metal rock singer and pro-violence leader of an anti-nuclear peace movement. Betrayed by a government fearful of his underground forces, he is imprisoned in a hologram, only to be awakened by four post-apocalyptic survivors in a bleak, contaminated future. He learns that his own peace movement was responsible for the catastrophe, following a collision between his 'Rainbow Warrior'-like flagship and the nuclear-powered submarine moored in Sydney Harbour. Black Alice travels back in time to avert the disaster, but is he too late...
The film's director is Gary Keady, who was a veteran of the Australian music scene by the time his first (and to-date, only) feature film began production. Sitting with SBS Film at Sydney's Fox Studios, he remembers the Australian film landscape of the late 1980s as one rich with unique visualists and ripe for a film as bracing and unique as Sons of Steel.
“There was a plethora of really out-there filmmakers, born of the MTV generation,” he recalls. His contemporaries include Russell Mulcahy, Alex Proyas (“Alex did stop-motion and filmed with me, a clip for my band Two-Up, called 'Parallel World'”) and Rolf de Heer, who worked with Sons of Steel writer/producer James Vernon on Incident at Raven's Gate (1987). “I saw a lot of people jump from the music industry to the film industry; people with an independent mentality, willing to put their necks out there and have a crack at something and not worry about the consequences.”
No one represented this attitude more than Keady, who had dabbled in what he calls the “rock'n'roll genre” of film-making with his short film, Knightmare. The pre-cursor to Sons of Steel, the short unleashed upon the world the frantic heavy-metal musician Rob Hartley (with whom Keady had worked closely, since they met on the club circuit in Perth) and his alter-ego, the terrifying yet compelling 'Black Alice'.
Keady toured the world with Knightmare (“A French projectionist, a terrific bloke, snuck it onto the reel ahead of the premiere of a Rolling Stones clip at a huge video festival in France!”, Keady remembers with a laugh); Hoyts agreed to screen the short ahead of the David Lynch blockbuster, Dune (“We did a survey outside cinemas that showed most people preferred the short to Dune”). It was following a screening at the famous 1980s Sydney nightclub Jamisons that Keady got his break. “Charles Waterstreet, the barrister, said 'Gee, if you could do a feature version of this...' and I told him what I had planned and he funded me to write the script. It started the ball rolling.”
The script was gathering heat; financing and pre-production was a very positive experience. “It was the fastest-filling script in prospectus history under the 10BA – it filled in a week and a half, $3 million, BANG!”. Talent, too, was attracted to this wildly-anarchic vision. “I had the best production designer in the business, (Graham) 'Grace' Walker, coming off Dead Calm, who'd read the script and gone 'I'm going to do this, it's a killer film'. We had Joe Pickering, who would do Wildside and Underbelly, a terrific DOP.” Keady recalls a heartening sense of unity during the film's production. “I had the greatest crew, all in love with the script and that's what independent filmmaking is all about – everybody has to have the same vision.”
The film was pushing technical boundaries. “It was the first time digital sound had ever been used on a film in Australia,” Keady recalls. “Then it was struck to an optical print, and (post-house) Colorfilm couldn't even do that; we had to invent that.” Early in the shoot, distributor interest was enormous. “There was a groundswell amongst Hoyts, Village Roadshow and Greater Union all vying for Sons of Steel; they came to the set, trying to negotiate the rights with (producer) James (Vernon) and I.”
Soon, however, circumstances began to turn against the filmmaker. “Out of the $3 million budget, I ended up with $800,000 to make the film. That's how much money went to the vultures – the bankers and lawyers and QC's. I only knew about that the day before we went to shoot.” Keady is pensive, bows and shakes his head a little. This response manifests on several occasions during the interview, as though recalling the details taps a little bit of Keady's repressed bitterness.
“Out of a 120 page script, there were only 92 pages when we finished it. Pages were ripped out every day because we couldn't shoot it.” Keady's and Vernon's desire to create a believable fantasy world in the abandoned subterranean bunkers under the streets of Sydney was backfiring on them. “Everything about the film is location – it was all nights, a frightful shoot. James was coming to me saying 'Change it, we can't shoot that'. I was sitting there crying!”
Tension developed between the talent and the technicians, too. Hartley was a volatile 5'4” personality whose body-building methods fuelled his temperament (“He jabbed himself with steroids before every shoot and he was built like a Sherman tank”). When a stuntman miscalculated a set-up involving a blank cartridge and scarred Hartley's forearm, 'Black Alice' took matters into his own hands on take 2: “I call 'action' and he looks at me and goes 'Watch this' and POW, he decks the bloke, knocks him out cold,” says Keady, with a roll of the eyes. “The crew didn't even say anything, they just walked off the shoot and it took a long time to get them back.”
The film screened at the 1989 Cannes Film Market, accompanied by full page ads in trade paper Variety and the very vocal support of David Stratton, but the distribution sector had no idea how to handle such a project. “I took the film to Melbourne to show Village Roadshow, and the wife of the boss of Village Roadshow at the time walked out in the middle of it, saying it was the biggest heap of shit she's ever seen. And I said, 'Well, you'd know!”
With a broad release strategy now unviable, Keady negotiated a cut-throat deal with Hoyts, essentially paying them to screen the film at midnight-sessions in Sydney and Melbourne, ensuring some publicity prior to the film's home video release (also a disaster, as distributor Virgin Vision collapsed in the days prior the VHS release date). Keady and his producing team were falling deeper into debt (Keady had mortgaged his home to pay for mounting debts associated with the films production; a lawsuit involving botched legals and an unpaid Colorfilm bill would send him bankrupt) and suffering personal hardship (the stress would finally prove insurmountable for Keady's wife, who moved to England with their son, Brandon).
Despite recognition from the International Festival of Fantastic Film in Brussels, where it won official selection and after winning a place at the Festival of the Imagination in Clermont Ferrand, France, Sons of Steel was banished to apparent obscurity in its homeland. Keady felt the ultimate humiliation when the film's negative went missing. “When Colorfilm was bought by (leading Australian post-house) Atlab, their vault, where James and I believed the negative for Sons of Steel was in storage, was relocated. Minus Sons of Steel; the negative was gone.” Further investigations led Vernon and Keady to the National Film and Sound Archive, though searches have proved fruitless.
That any watchable digital version of the film remains at all is pure luck. “The remastered DVD, from which I have constructed this Director's Cut, was taken from a telecine copy that Virgin Vision had done in 1991, to produce their VHS stock,” Keady recounts with a grin. “The oxide on the tape was so old, it would only play once. Had that tape broken, Sons of Steel would have been lost.”
Gary Keady is not quite sure why the film is finding favour and fervour with audiences 20 years after its bungled release. When asked why the film hasn't just faded away after all these years, he seems genuinely perplexed: “....I don't know...I don't know,” is all he can utter, humbly ignoring his commitment to the film's growing cult. He knows it has a kitsch element that is adorable, but there's more to it than that. “It didn't take itself that seriously, but it had serious issues in it,” says the director. “I know it is a time capsule but it also has a timeless quality.”
It is also a film of a period when there was a fearlessness about Australian film. “Maybe the legacy is that there have been some great films out of this country that may not have happened had it not been for the little bit of shit that we went through. Maybe that's great....,” says Keady.
Watch The Movie Show's original review of Sons of Steel, and an interview with Gary Keady here