After years working in television, the accomplished Australian director put her experiences with Scorsese and Scott to good use for her debut feature film.
19 Jun 2013 - 2:50 PM  UPDATED 2 Sep 2021 - 5:13 PM

Catriona McKenzie may be a first time feature film director yet there's something very polished and very professional about her movie Satellite Boy. The fact that this is the first film shot in the remote Bungle Bungles, and that she was able to gain approval to shoot there, indicates there's something special about her as a director and as a human being. Especially when you consider the heartwarming coming-of-age story she has produced.

you really have to be independently wealthy to make films in this country

Satellite Boy follows 12-year-old Pete (Cameron Wallaby), who lives with his grandfather Jagamarra (David Gulpilil) in a crumbling outdoor cinema near a satellite dish in the Kimberley region. When their home comes under threat from a mining company, Pete and his best friend Kalmain (Joseph Pedley) set out for the city to try and save the only world they know.

While non-actors Wallaby and Pedley are true discoveries, it's wonderful to see the majesty of Gulpilil, who hasn't appeared in a film since Baz Luhrmann's Australia (2008), which interestingly was filmed nearby.

McKenzie, never one to sing her own praises, is more accomplished than she at first seems. While any American director would broadcast the fact, McKenzie only reveals towards the end of our interview that she had studied several courses at the prestigious Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and New York University (NYU) and that she has worked for Ridley Scott.

While McKenzie has clearly honed her storytelling and cinematic craft, it didn't hurt either that she managed to enlist the consummate skills of Geoffrey Simpson, who, now that I look back on it, has one of the most fascinating of resumes. Simpson shot Shine, Green Card, many films by Gillian Armstrong and interestingly a recent string of films dealing with sex: The Sessions, directed by Australian Ben Lewin, as well as the Australian movies Sleeping Beauty and the upcoming My Mistress, an Australian film starring Emmanuelle Béart whose naked form on the cover of French Elle in 2003 led to the entire print-run selling out in three days. (Béart plays a French S&M mistress in the film, which marks the directing debut of by Stephen Lance, an award-winning director of short films, commercials and music videos for Powderfinger, Washington and Silverchair.)

Satellite Boy had been gestating for a decade and the results are there on screen.

How has it been watching Satellite Boy screen to international audiences and now to see it release here?

I am really exciting we are releasing in Australia because it's how it goes in Australia that always matters. We were in Toronto and then it went to Abu Dhabi and South America and we won two prizes in Berlin and there was a rapturous response.

You are of Aboriginal descent?

Yeah, my dad is of Aboriginal descent from Victoria, but I was adopted by white people – mum and dad up in Sydney. I've got the best of both worlds. I've been alive longer now knowing and living as a Koori person than I have not.

You didn't know about it?

No, I was adopted and I didn't know until I met my father when I was 19-and-a-half.

How did the film come about? It's deeply personal I believe.

It started off as a love letter to my dad; I am adopted. He was an older man; he was like my grandfather and when I went to find my real biological mum, there were a couple of years where I turned my back on him and on my mum and dad. But then actually what I realised is that it's in the day-to-day grind where love really comes out. I could have done a different film that would have been better for my career, but when I am on my deathbed, I want to die without any regrets and I know that this film is good for that.

You also wanted a change from your television work.

Yes, TV is very plot-driven. Bang, bang, bang! I really love TV, but it's hard to feel a great depth. The big screen allows people to go on that journey and to feel what it's like to be in the country.

Whether you are black, white or brindle in this country, Aussies love to go fishing and they love to go camping. We've got so many beautiful national parks and beaches, and we really hook into that stuff. We are on this rock floating through space and we've all evolved on it and I think humans have deep, deep aching connections to country. I think that's why international audiences have really hooked into the film. It's not a political film; it's an allegorical film.

Where did you find Cameron Wallaby?

Jub Clerc, the casting director and myself – of course, Faith Martin was doing the east coast – we drove from Broome to Balgo to Wyndham. We just drove everywhere with our kids, with our swags camping at the side of the road, lighting little fires at night and we spoke to every kid we could find!

We found Cameron in Fitzroy Crossing, where no one had turned up for the casting audition. People came but everything just takes a bit longer. So we basically said, “Come on, come in and have this little audition.” So Cameron came in and he was with his cousin Pumpkin and he was just brilliant. When you cast non-actors, you've got to cast close to the characters they are playing and Cameron was fragile, but when he smiles the world lights up. He is sensible but he is also young and I just love him.

He is a great actor. It's amazing that kids can just turn it on.

Yeah, and Joseph Pedley, he is from Wyndham. (He boards at Christchurch Grammar School in Perth and is two years older than Wallaby.) He is a great young man. He is a leader and he has his head screwed on. Those guys didn't know each other at all and you'd think on screen that they'd known each other since they were little because I thought they had a really good chemistry.

Was it was difficult getting to film in the Bungle Bungles?

This is our little claim to fame: we are the first feature film in the world to film on the ground at the Bungle Bungles and I find that hard to believe. But I guess the interesting thing is, I think it was in 1983, that the white community went, “Oh, what's this?” That was when it was discovered, so to speak, and it's almost as massive as the Grand Canyon. It's got a World Heritage listing and it's this massive unbelievable thing. We sat down with the two different traditional owners and told them the story, what we like, and they just listened. They sort of taught us what we needed to do. It actually wasn't so difficult.

What was it like once you got there?

It was bloody hard work because it's a World Heritage site; you've got to walk everything in from the departure point. The ground was so hot the rubber was bubbling on the soles of our shoes. I think normally we need two litres of water per day and we had eight litres because it was that hot. People were kind of dropping but no one complained. This is a very low budget film with small resources. We were in tents; these guys just lived really rough.

Geoffrey Simpson was such an asset because it's so beautifully filmed.

I started talking to him a couple of years ago explaining it was going to be low-fi without any trucks or nothing and he was up for that.

Why did he do it? Obviously it wasn't for the money.

No, it wasn't for the money. There was Geoffrey Simpson and our editor Henry Dangar. Both of those guys are absolutely fantastic and they are masters at what they do and they love that it's beautiful country. Geoffrey has a great eye and he also has quite a formal eye and I was really interested because when you are working with non-actors on these sort of shoots, it's chaos because kids get tired, they don't want to do it just when the perfect light's happening. But Geoffrey was like, “Oh, there's perfect light but the kid's are too tired”. It wasn't like a normal shoot; there wasn't a strict schedule.

Cameron was 10-years-old and he'd get tired. You'd be up at 4am and he is pretty much in every scene. But we took Geoffrey's classic eye and we put it over that chaos and I think the tension between that is in the film. Clearly there were moments over the five-and-a-half week shoot when Geoffrey was pulling his hair out and we didn't have enough resources at times. I think that I was pretty lucky to have Geoffrey Simpson, I tell you.

Was he up to roughing it?

He loved it. We did all that time-lapse stuff of the stars, The Milky Way, on El Questro land called Boggy Marsh.

What is El Questro?

It's a million hectare, the biggest property. It's where they shot Australia and there is a facility attached to that resort, but they also have pastoral leases with cattle. The Boggy Marsh was where we had the satellite dish and I wanted to have a time lapse with the dish in it and with the stars moving. But Boggy Marsh in the wet season is full of saltwater crocodiles. Not just one but they are everywhere.

So Geoffrey would get up, he would have his shoot of the day and he would go, “Alright, I am going to do some time lapse now.” He would take his swag and he would basically go and sleep at the foot of this satellite dish. It wasn't the wet season but the crocodiles weren't far away. There are five rivers that come together in Wyndham and they are all these brown kind of briny rivers that are full of crocodiles. There was probably only a kilometre behind the satellite dish before you hit the rivers where all the crocodiles are.

There were still a lot of crocodiles?

They are in plague proportions in Wyndham because there used to be an abattoir there and they used to drain all the offal into the river. Even if it hasn't been there for 30 years, because the crocodile brains are so ancient they still turn up to the same spot every day waiting for the food. There are thousands of crocodiles, thousands! And they are not just there; they are actually hungry.

You should make a movie about that!

Someone was interviewing me for the EPK and there is a point in it where he goes, “Oh hang on, what's that? There is something moving in the water behind you.” We keep talking and then he goes, “Hang on, it's a bloody crocodile coming up!”

Did you have security?

No. You can treat a snake bite, but we just told people, “Do not swim in the river. Just don't go to these places. These are what Taipan snakes look like.” We had antivenom on set.

Did you see any?

We had Taipans living under they house. Luckily, snakes don't like to hang around.

You clearly love this country.

I'd helped a friend do a documentary out that way near Tunnel Creek, near Gibb River Road, and it's the same all across the Kimberly for me. It's like there is an energy; it's like there is a generator under my swag. It's just really amazing country; I'd love to do another film up there. I can see why Baz did Australia and why Mad Bastards was filmed there. It really is cinematic. It's built for film.

Tell me about your career.

I do a lot of television work, because to make films in Australia I think is a rich man's game and I am not wealthy. It's like having horses or yachts; you really have to be independently wealthy to make films in this country and I really love TV work. I was set-up director on Redfern Now and I just did [the six-part series] Gods of Wheat Street, which is coming out on the ABC. I am writing another film called Min Min. It's a supernatural thriller.

What's it about?

The Min Min lights out in the bush. They are basically orbs of light. The western scientific explanations get close but don't quite explain that they're geo phosphorescents, or gases out of the ground, like a mirage. But the Aboriginal myth is they are spirits of the dead returned. They can either help you or they can hurt you. It's sort of like a Poltergeist meets The Shining. That's what I am going for.

Aboriginal genre filmmaking.

We've gotta do it, hey! All we talk about is scary stories and ghost stories. It sort of felt to me like it's about time we did something like that.

You were a writer first and did directing after that. Where did you study writing?

I did writing at AFTRS and then I went to NYU and then I went back and did directing in fact at AFTRS. NYU was writing and directing – it was both. I went back to AFTRS as I felt I'd better consolidate, because at NYU they don't have any resources. You have to be wealthy in America to make films. But the people who would come in and teach us were Martin Scorsese, one of my favourite filmmakers, Spike Lee, and Jacques Derrida, who was speaking in French most of the time but he was really interesting.

Derrida, the French philosopher who died in 2004?

Yes, he would expand your mind. We made a few black-and-white short films, so there were incredible teachers, kind of the icons of filmmaking. Still back at AFTRS there were incredible teachers as well and I was able to take that and actually apply it. My first short film was a black-and-white boxing film called Box—of course, we completely looked at Raging Bull with Scorsese.

You were a director's attachment on the US series Prison Break in 2007 and worked for Ridley Scott.

After I studied filmmaking at NYU, I drove across America in a bongo van from New York to LA and I did an attachment with Ridley Scott. It was reading script after script after script. A lot of it is formulaic rubbish, but every now and then an original idea would come across. I am interested in taking our really cool ideas and putting them in a structure that is more palatable to an audience and seeing what happens. Hollywood does that sort of genre really well. We don't know if we do genre really well in Australia, because we don't even get the chance to do it.


Watch 'Satellite Boy'

Saturday 11 September, 6:50pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 12 September, 1:00pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 13 September, 6:50am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Australia, 2011
Genre: Drama, Family, Adventure
Language: English
Director: Catriona McKenzie
Starring: David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Joseph Pedley

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