It's been a long journey from script to Australian screens for Satellite Boy, Catriona McKenzie's debut feature which opens on June 20.
The tale of a grandfather and his young grandson has been universally lauded by international critics since its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, followed by screenings at numerous festivals including Berlin, Seattle, Palm Springs, Sao Paolo and Abu Dhabi.
“I really hope Australian audiences respond like the international audiences,” she tells SBS Film. “We've had women at the end of screenings in different parts of the world sobbing
and really loving it. I'm really thrilled; I can't wait.”
As part of the national release McKenzie is keen to see the film play in regional areas, including the National Film and Sound Archive's Big Screen travelling film festival.
International sales agent Celluloid Dreams has sold the film to more than half a dozen
territories including HBO Latin America, with other deals pending.
David Gulpilil plays Jagamarra, who lives in an abandoned outdoor cinema with his 12-year-old grandson Pete (Cameron Wallaby). When a mining company threatens to demolish their home, Pete and his friend Kalmain (Joseph Pedley) set off across the outback to try to thwart the developers.
Distributor Hopscotch eOne has delayed the release until Gulpilil finishes shooting a film for director Rolf de Heer and can play a pivotal role in the publicity campaign. McKenzie had wanted to work with the actor ever since she saw his breakthrough film, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), and Henri Safran's Storm Boy (1976). She pitched the concept to him in Darwin and he readily agreed before seeing the final script.
The writer-director, who graduated from Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 2001, developed the screenplay at Screen NSW's Aurora workshop in 2006. The following year she met legendary Hollywood producer John Calley, who offered to let her stay on his luxury boat while she wrote the first 50 pages.
In part the film is an homage to her adopted father, who was much older than her and raised her after his wife developed multiple sclerosis; he passed away in 2007. “It's about culture and the country, whether you're black, white or brindle,” she says.
McKenzie and her casting director Jub Clerc travelled thousands of kilometres across the Kimberley region of Western Australia to find the boys to play Pete and Kalmain. They discovered Wallaby, who was 10 at the time, playing under a tree with some Boab nuts outside a community centre in Fitzroy Crossing. “I bribed him to come inside with a cup of tea and biscuits,” she says. “He had not read the script but I gave him a short scenario and he did this incredible improvisation and created this world. It gave me the chills.”
They found Pedley, who was 12, in the town of Wyndham. They tested the two lads together in workshops to make sure they had the right chemistry.
She's determined to work with Cameron again and is writing a character for him in Min Min, a supernatural thriller. The title refers to the Min Min lights which some Indigenous people believe are the spirits of the dead and can help guide or hinder anyone who sees them. The plot revolves around a family whose lives are affected by the lights.
The director whose TV credits include SBS's The Circuit and RAN: Remote Area Nurse, the first series of the ABC's Redfern Now and the upcoming The Gods of Wheat Street, is also developing the feature One White Crow, the true story of a scientist who proved there is life after death in 1895. The latter project has attracted the interest of international parties and
she's not sure which of the two will shoot first.