The Australian two-hander thriller managed to overcome a major casting glitch only weeks out from shooting.
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30 Oct 2012 - 12:48 PM  UPDATED 30 Oct 2012 - 12:48 PM

Just two weeks before director David Pulbrook was to start shooting the psychological thriller Last Dance in Melbourne, he lost his lead actress when the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance objected to the casting of Gena Rowlands and her work visa was cancelled.

In the end they got the best actor

It might have been a disaster for the first-time feature director but Julia Blake stepped into the breach. Arguably the casting switch enhanced the film as Ms Blake delivers a superb performance as Ulah Lippman, a Holocaust survivor who's held hostage by a radical Palestinian.

“In the end they got the best actor,” declares Firass Dirani, who plays Sadiq Mohammad, the confused young man who takes refuge in Mrs Lippman's apartment after he's injured in his cohort's suicide bombing.

Despite the short lead time and Pulbrook's inexperience as a film director, shooting the film was a very satisfying experience for the cast. “I was given more power to interpret my character and the way I played her, and more freedom than I ever had before,” says the actress whose lengthy resume includes My Brilliant Career, Travelling North, Innocence, Matching Jack, The Boys Are Back and TV's Bed of Roses. “There was a terrific atmosphere of trust on that set.”

The two actors talked to SBS Film at a Sydney hotel, clearly enjoying meeting up a year after filming had finished, and exhibiting a healthy mutual respect. Blake spent one week learning her lines and on reading and research because her character's back story wasn't fleshed out (she's a widow, she lost her son and she was a nurse), then one week in rehearsals on the set.

Both sparked immediately to the script by Terence Hammond, based on an idea Pulbrook first had 25 years ago of a film about a Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian would-be terrorist who are stuck in a room. Pulbrook directed multiple episodes of Crawford cop shows Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police in the 1970s but has since worked primarily as an editor on films such as Squizzy Taylor, Brilliant Lies, Ground Zero, Hotel Sorrento, Visitors and The Cup, and as a commercials director.

“As an editor there are a lot of things you find frustrating; you just wish directors had done certain things and often they don't, and you develop a good sense of how to construct a sequence cinematically,” he says. “It's not that big a leap. The biggest transition is learning to work with actors, which is a lovely thing.”

Pulbrook was working with Simon Wincer on The Cup when he told the director he had shown the Last Dance script to a number of producers who liked it but couldn't figure out how to finance the project. Wincer suggested he talk to producer Antony Ginnane, who saw the movie as a two-in-a-room thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Rope, and raised the budget from Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund, the producer offset, several private investors and an advance from London-based sales agent High Point Films.

Pulbrook had gone to the US to meet with Rowlands and was dismayed when the union vetoed her. “Gena would have brought something to the film but I'm not at all unhappy about how it turned out,” he says, ”Everybody said Julia is the obvious choice for this role. Gena is six years older than Julia and I think she would have found the 20-days shoot very difficult. Julia was an absolute joy to work with.”

The director tested at least 30 actors for the role of Sadiq and rated Firass as the “stand-out”. The film was shot in sequence which helped the actors convey the shifting dynamics in the relationship between the hostage taker and his victim. The script deliberately takes an even-handed approach to the issues of the Holocaust and the occupation of Palestine and makes no political statements. “We tried to make it as balanced as we could and not take sides,” says Dirani.

Pulbrook says, “The film at its core is about an old woman who's a mother and a young man who is lost and has lost his family and they find a common ground. It's a story about humanity much more than about the Middle East conflict. They just happen to be from the two opposing sides.”

The film, which was well received at the Melbourne International Film Festival, opens on November 1 via Becker Film Group at the Cremorne Orpheum and Chauvel in Sydney and on single screens in the other capitals, with hopes of securing nominations for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts' AACTA awards and adding a few screens if the initial box office. results are encouraging.

Blake acknowledges the constant challenge of persuading people to see low-budget Australian films but in this case says she's confident that “the majority of audiences would really love this film, the thriller component, wanting to know what happens next, it's such a bloody good story”.

Pulbrook noticed a stark difference in the techniques of his two leads, seeing Dirani as an intuitive actor who could immediately snap into character and Blake as an intense, Method-trained actor. Told that, Julia laughs and says, “David didn't see me the minute I left the set: I am a great teller of filthy jokes. A lot I make up on the spot. ”

Dirani, who starts shooting the second season of House Husbands in February and has starred in Underbelly, The Straits and Killer Elite, says he's still learning his craft. He describes seeing himself on screen as akin to an athlete watching a race, evaluating his “technique and execution”.

As for Pulbrook, he's been bitten by the directing bug: “I have three scripts I'm working on. I want to do it again, but a little bit bigger and more open, not such a contained piece.”