Melbourne-based filmmaker Nick McGee discusses the origins of his debut feature.
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27 May 2011 - 4:10 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

The new low-budget Australian film Frank & Jerry is a 'Hollywood on the Yarra' story about a bottom-feeding, drug-addicted, over-weight American producer called Jerry (played by Aussie veteran Jeremy Kewley) whose career gets a much needed turnaround once he buddies up, after a chance encounter, with Frank (Benedict Hardie, pictured), a homeless windscreen wiper. Jerry finds that 'the loser' can pitch a story better than the pros…

It is, in other words, a film about filmmaking, which has a long tradition in the history of the movies. Generally, says McGee, these movies like Barton Fink (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, 1991) Living in Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995) and The Player (Robert Altman, 1992) offer a rather sour, jaundiced and brutal view of filmmakers and filmmaking, where ego rules and reason has taken a long holiday.

McGee, who also wrote the script, happily concedes that the plot and characters are seeded with satirical barbs at the expense of what he describes as a “sluggish, top-heavy, bureaucratic” local scene, where the gatekeepers seem to take forever to make a decision about anything. He says it's taken him years to develop a feature, optioned with major US producers, but McGee has meanwhile been working on Australian based projects. He says this has put him in the position to make qualified comparisons between these two very different film producing cultures.

“In the original cut there is a lot more of Jerry's venting and frustration with the Australian scene,” McGee says. “With the Americans I've dealt with, it's amazing how much is done in the room during a meeting or after a screening or during a pitch, where as in Australia we have this agency style – which can get exhausting for a writer.”

Frank & Jerry, explains McGee, who at forty is already a veteran of the local scene, came out of frustration; he had grown tired of waiting for scripts to be green-lit both here and overseas. (“One pal of mine, a successful writer, says that being a professional screenwriter in this country is a hobby.”) The ironic, not quite angry, style of Frank & Jerry is no accident; like his characters, McGee is full one-liners, and in conversation can affect a sort of self-deprecating cynicism about the business and his own ego that's ingratiating. “I guess I felt a degree of stagnation – I suppose its 'sour grapes syndrome' – and I think I thought it was time to engineer my own piece. I think (in the process) I was actualising some of the weirdness of Hollywood… the agents and producers I was meeting about this other film.”

Still, he is quick to point out, the film isn't and shouldn't be construed as autobiographical in any way. “I agree with screenwriting guru Robert McKee, 'Don't write about yourself,' because most of us, and our frustrations, just are not that f---king interesting.”

Shot in about 21 days in September 2009 on the Red camera by distinguished cinematographer Laszlo Baraynai (Noise), McGee says that the film was made without a distributor but with friends and favours. (The producer is his wife Jasmin Tarasin of Renegade films.) While long dialogue scenes drive the action, the visual style is cogent and elegant; a vindication, McGee says, of the production's meticulous preparation. A graduate of VCA and a professional photographer, it was McGee who went out to each of the film's locations, mostly around Fitzroy and Docklands, and photographed “every set up and every angle, and at one time we had these pictures posted all over our production office.”

The plot says McGee imagines what would happen if international industry gold diggers came to Melbourne bent on ripping off the Australian government's filmmaking incentives. “Jerry is a concoction [that comes right out of that situation], he is the foul-mouthed drug pig who gets stuck here after trying to make this hybrid US/Euro/Australian production.” Since Jerry is a bit of crook and deep in debt, Frank ends up trying to help him out-pace two different sets of bad guys with guns.

In a sense, the film is about a clash of cultures; a lot of the humour comes out of the fact that Frank and Jerry cannot understand each other's lingo. Perhaps one of the best things about the film is the language, which has an authentic sounding stink and sweat about it. (“I was channelling guys I had met in Hollywood.”). Still, says McGee, dialogue should not be mistaken for characterisation. “Dialogue is the 'enemy' of the screenwriter,” he argues. “It's what characters do that tells us who they are.”

McGee says that even if the film has satirical possibilities, and his own experience has filled him with dark opinions about the current state of play for Australian creatives in the movie and TV business here, Frank & Jerry is not savage or dour. It's kind of 'feel-good', but it's an emotion earned honestly. “Well, it's Rocky really. And I'm a great believer in screenwriters offering something redemptive in their stories.”

Frank & Jerry will have its world premiere at the Dungog Film Festival on Saturday, May 28th. For more information visit the festival website.