Kriv Stenders, director of local hit Red Dog, begins filming the thriller Kill Me Three Times next week in Western Australia. The tale of murder, blackmail and revenge required a sunny seaside location and, because they're plentiful in Australia, the creative team examined costs and conditions in several states before settling on the southwest corner of the continent.
Sucker, billed as Australia's first Asian feature comedy and written by comedian Lawrence Leung and director Ben Chessell, will also be made in the southwest.
“Our story has the lead character Lawrence being sent far away from his parent's home in Melbourne and the countryside and towns in the southwest of WA are ideal for the scams and cons of the lead characters,” says Robyn Kershaw, one of two producers. Other options were examined.
The decision makers behind the crime action picture Son of a Gun considered South Australia before filming in WA earlier this year. Foremost in producer Tim White's mind was to find somewhere that would provide a “Wild West feel” and a point of difference to most Australian films of this genre, which are urban-based. His examples were Sydney's Two Hands and Dirty Deeds, and Melbourne's Animal Kingdom.
Writer/director Julius Avery chose Ewan McGregor as the film's criminal mastermind who breaks out of jail and goes on the run with a young protégé. White emphasised that Avery had been keen to make his debut feature in his home state and that the script's heist would have been filmed in Kalgoorlie no matter what.
The value of film and TV made in WA reached nearly $60 million in 2012/2013, the highest annual level on record. A decade ago WA was lucky to get one feature per year; now film is a key contributor to production activity. Besides Son of A Gun, the year just gone saw writer/director John Soto's crime thriller The Reckoning, starring Jonathan LaPaglia and Luke Hemsworth, Zak Hilditch's end-of-the-world picture These Final Hours (pictured), starring Nathan Phillips, and six 'chapters' of an adaptation of Tim Winton's book The Turning. And there's no slow up in sight.
It is impossible to categorically explain this upswing because many factors influence where films are made besides script requirements, but the West Australian Government deserves some credit. State Governments value the economic and employment benefits of filmmaking and, with producers needing to address financing shortfalls, they can often secure films for relatively little financial outlay. (Federal tax breaks and/or direct investments via Screen Australia are usually more generous than the States but don't carry location obligations.)
While some states have cut film funding, WA has not, hence White describing agency ScreenWest as “cashed-up”. But he also says ScreenWest is “supportive and some of its administrative and paperwork requirements are more simple and straightforward than other agencies”. Others use words such as proactive – ScreenWest was the first to reward crowd funding efforts, for example, and is very active building creative and business links with Asia, which also explains why Sucker is heading west.
“Our script was one of those we could have shot anywhere but both the private investors and ScreenWest worked very hard to convince us we could make the film here in a competitive context with other States,” says Tania Chambers, a producer on Kill Me Three Times. Complicated commercial deals prop up most films and Perth-based Jake Film Finance, which provides loans and equity, is the company she's referring to.
Chambers lives in Perth but Stenders is Sydney-based and her producing partners live abroad, as does key actor Simon Pegg, who talks here with relish about his upcoming turn as a bad guy.
Ian Booth, ScreenWest chief executive for the past six years, deflects the considerable praise he gets for WA's resurgence by talking up talented filmmakers and the State's “lifetime of sustained industry development”, and by noting that filmmaking “requires funding partners in it for the long haul” and Lotterywest's support has grown over 22 years to a high of $7 million in 2012/13.
But he shouldn't be so modest because local and visiting filmmakers contribute to activity and he and his team have to make careful investment decisions. It would be misguided, for example, for WA to vie for “visiting” films just for their economic value without considering their legacy, which might include skills transferral.
Filmmakers have to work up to features and about eight years ago ScreenWest made a very deliberate attempt to target and develop talent and make distinctive, contemporary, well-developed films on a low-budget under its West Coast Visions (WCV) initiative. Chambers led ScreenWest when WCV was established – between then and now she was head of ScreenNSW – and recalls how it was decided to tip $750,000 into one film annually so people would “sit up and take notice”.
Last Train to Freo was the first recipient, then Wasted on the Young, Blame and These Final Hours. The film is not yet fully financed but WCV money has been promised for an adaptation of Charlotte Wood's novel The Children, to be directed by Claire McCarthy, whose debut feature was The Waiting City.
“It's family drama with high stakes – but also light-heartedness – about a successful war correspondent who returns to Australia and discovers that her father, who is in a coma, is not the man she thought he was,” says producer Sue Taylor, who will be passing a lot of what she knows onto co-producer Tenille Kennedy during the making of the film.
Taylor cut her feature film teeth on Last Train to Freo, then made The Tree, filmed in Queensland. She was determined not to be pigeonholed as a producer of children's television, and laughs when she adds that once her children became teenagers she no longer knew what kind of television they wanted anyway.
Taylor is also financing On the Jellicoe Road, which will see Kate Woods direct another adaptation of a Melina Marchetta novel, a dozen years after they collaborated on the box office hit Looking For Alibrandi. The new film could have legs in the lucrative US market – where Woods regularly works as a TV director – given the novel for young adults won the prestigious Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association.
“Melina has a huge following among young adults – and in the fantasy world now too – and a lot of them still go to the cinema,” says Taylor.
Other local producers who have earned their stripes include Janelle Landers and Aidan O'Bryan (Wasted on the Young), who worked with White on Son of a Gun, and Liz Kearney (These Final Hours), a producer on Robert Connolly's big family drama Paper Planes, which will also be made in WA.
“There's now a growing pool of experienced producers who understand funding mechanisms – particularly the producer offset – and want to harness WA filmmaking talent,” says Soto, who made two films in WA before The Reckoning. He highlights the support of the Liberal Government, Culture and Arts Minister John Day, ScreenWest and the “visionary” Ian Booth – and the support and interest of the WA public, something very evident at the recent Busselton-based CinefestOZ Film Festival.
But nowhere is a filmmaking paradise and the very experienced White says there is a shortage of stunt and special effects people – and paying per diems, and travel and expensive accommodation costs for visitors quickly mount up: “But for the right kind of projects – a contained drama or comedy – WA makes absolute sense.”
Distinctive scenery and long days of sunshine also don't go astray when it comes to filmmaking.
“We're on a roll now,” says Taylor, “and young people no longer say 'making a feature is never going to happen unless I leave Perth'.”