A new documentary tells the 50-year-old history of On the Beach, a story that still resonates soundly today.  
4 Oct 2013 - 12:27 PM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2013 - 12:27 PM

“The interviews had to tell the story and also had to have an emotional depth,” says writer/director Lawrence Johnston about his new feature-length documentary Fallout. “Actually, with all my films, I want the interviews and the information they impart to have an emotional depth that will intrigue and affect an audience.”

To read a novel with the dramatic concept that the world could possibly
end, that was actually set in Australia, made an incredible impression
on me

Fallout does indeed intrigue and affect while seamlessly telling a complicated story about the writing of the novel On the Beach, the making of a film from that novel, and about the two men who separately drove these two creative endeavours. It also has quite a remarkable contemporary resonance, which makes Johnston's comments about emotional depth particularly relevant – but more about that later.

Nevil Shute, a UK-born engineer-turned-author who lived out his final days in Australia, wrote the anti-war novel On the Beach in 1956. In his story, World War III has devastated the Northern Hemisphere and, carried by the winds, radiation from the conflict is heading towards Australia. There is so little hope that the Australian Government has handed out suicide pills.

“I'm a working class suburban boy from Brisbane and the novel was on the curriculum at high school,” says Johnston. “To read a novel with the dramatic concept that the world could possibly end, that was actually set in Australia, made an incredible impression on me.”

He was not alone. In mid-2007, 50 years after the publication of On the Beach, author and journalist Gideon Haigh, wrote in The Monthly that it is “arguably Australia's most important novel – important in the sense of confronting a mass international audience with the defining issue of the age”.

That the film was made so soon afterwards in Melbourne with Hollywood director/producer Stanley Kramer at the helm and the star power of Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire also says much about the strength of the novel.

But in deciding to make Fallout, Johnston and his producer Peter Kaufmann didn't set themselves an easy task. It's a story of twists and turns and potential distractions, about events more than 50 years past and people who are mostly dead. Also, there was not enough money in the budget to use recreations – a common but not always popular way of telling stories visually – and the decision was made early on not to use voice over, which can be a very handy way of explaining things.

Splendid archival footage and stills were available but, as Johnston says, the interviews had to tell the story. And in the case of Fallout, that meant cutting together eight people with different points of view into one coherent narrative.

“It's about not being scared to ask a question again… because you know that what they say is going to be part of the dramatic kernel of the film,” says Johnston. “They might tell you information and you know the information is strong but you also know that if you ask them again with another direction – just like if you were directing an actor – sometimes they will be more succinct and dramatic.”

To my mind, Haigh is one of the most articulate and authoritative of Fallout's 'talking heads' (as interviewees are called in the trade), and Karen Kramer one of the most mesmerising because of her Hollywood glamour, her charming take-no-prisoners demeanour and her steadfast advocacy for Stanley Kramer, her husband of more than 30 years up to his death in 2001.

When she defends Kramer's decision to add weight to the romance between Peck and Gardner's characters in On the Beach, she uses the cliché “love makes the world go around” and says playwrights and novelists are never happy with cinematic adaptations. This change in emphasis made Nevil Shute “just plain apoplectic” according to his daughter Heather Mayfield, another of Fallout's key storytellers.

Shute was little interested in being involved in the many film and television versions of his many novels, but he regarded On the Beach as his most important book because of its anti-war, anti-nuclear themes. It's easy to see why the making of the film could have, as Fallout implies, brought forward the death of an already unwell man.

In the 1990s, after the success of his short documentary Eternity, about pavement scribe Arthur Stace, and his gripping prison drama Life, Johnston went down the path of trying to remake On the Beach.

“It probably sounds very ambitious now but I'd won the International Critics' Award (at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1996) for Life, had an agent and the sky seemed to be the limit.”

He sparked the interest of Jan Chapman, he says, who not long before had produced The Piano, but they were thwarted because the remake rights had already been optioned and director Russell Mulcahy made the telemovie On the Beach starring Armand Assante and Rachel Ward.

Yet Johnston's desire to explore this material kept niggling at him, hence Fallout, a film that feed straight into today's fears around the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, radiation and the dangers of the nuclear power business, as demonstrated by the Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima disasters.

As Haigh says so chillingly near the end of Fallout, referring to the film's exaggeration of the romance: “Shute was very disappointed and disillusioned by that deviation from his novel because his message all along was that the best and the worst would die alike and it doesn't matter whether you're chaste or promiscuous all will be the same in the end.”

But Mayfield generously notes that Kramer did want to get her father's message out, that it was his message too, and that he fought hard for the film, especially in order to ensure it got released in Russia.

Fallout is most definitely a good story well told and it seems to be pleasing both Shute and Kramer fans: it will be screened at the 8th International Nevil Shute Conference later this month in Hobart, and Karen and her daughter Kat Kramer are showing the film in LA next month.

Lawrence says he wants to do something lighter next and is developing two projects: an autobiographical drama about two children living in the shadow of a tempestuous marriage between an indigenous man and an Irish woman; and a documentary that explores the history, design and heritage of neon signs, a project that sounds reminiscent of Lawrence's whimsical essay film Night.

Fallout is one of only four Australian films in competition at the Antenna Documentary Festival and screens this Sunday at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney followed by a Q&A with Lawrence Johnston. It will be play at the State Cinema in Hobart from October 17, Cinema Nova in Melbourne from October 31, Dendy Newtown in Sydney from December 5, and ACMI Cinema in Melbourne from December 6.