Australian sci-fi director Shane Abbess has returned to Australia to make Infini after seven years playing the waiting game in Hollywood. In this frank interview, he reflects on what his time in LA has taught him.
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7 Aug 2014 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:29 AM

This story begins in 2007 with Gabriel

When I was serving as film writer for The Australian in 2007 I wrote the following: “It is not often that you come out of a film with the thought that it is unlike any other Australian film you’ve ever seen. Well, I just have. The film is called Gabriel and it is a moody stylised action film with something quite mesmerising about it. The title character of Gabriel is an arc angel determined to save the souls of the inhabitants of Purgatory.”

Gabriel was Shane Abbess’ debut feature and the US studio/distributor Sony Pictures ended up buying worldwide rights. When the local branch office released it here in Australia, it grossed $1.8 million, which was nine times more than what it cost to make – bear in mind, though, that cinemas take a big slice of ticket sales – and it went on to become a major success internationally. Soon after, Abbess headed for the US, with the security of picture deals with both Universal and The Henson Company under his arm.

“All of a sudden I found myself in the same room as Joel Bruckheimer and Joel Silver and all my [other] directing and producing heroes,” says Abbess when I spoke to him this month.

Fast forward to Hollywood in 2012

Five years later Abbess was deeply embedded in Hollywood. He hadn’t directed a feature since Gabriel but was attached to nine films in development with renowned producers – today he says he’s still attached to “six or seven” – so he was earning an okay living and living a life many aspire to. He’d probably been offered another 15-20 films, most of which were based on pre-existing films or sequels.

“Everyone has a point of view on how you get ahead in filmmaking but I’ve never seen filmmaking as a career,” he says. “I see it as a life. It’s never been ‘If I get this film up, it will get me this film, then a $100 million studio picture’. I see stories and if I think they must be told and I can bring something unique to them, great; but to be honest, there’s not a tonne of original, new material out there I feel needs to be made other than to satisfy a hole. That’s fast food cinema. I’m looking more for soul food.”

It was not an approach that some people approved of and he was losing confidence that he would get to make a film that he wanted to make in Hollywood, and he was getting a bit cynical of the promises. (The figures on how many films are developed in Hollywood compared to how many are actually made are frightening after all.)

“LA doesn’t have bad intent. It wants everything to happen but the reality is, it can’t all happen.”

"I knew he had to make himself more relevant again"

By this time, Abbess was good friends with Brett Thornquest, an Australian film accountant and tax advisor who was working in both Sydney and LA. They first met as a result of Thornquest handling financial matters on Gabriel after the sale to Sony. (It’s at Thornquest’s office at Contrarian Group at Sydney’s Fox Studios, that I’m interviewing he and Abbess for this article.)

“Shane wasn’t attached to little suburban dramas,” says Thornquest. “These were big event films costing anywhere from $40-$80 million. But it had been six years since he made Gabriel so he was no longer one of the latest hot young directors that come out each year. People in LA were saying to him ‘It could happen any day,’ but I was saying ‘You’re not going to get an $80 million film now’. He only had that window for two years after Gabriel.”

Thornquest continues: “There’s also $25-$30 million films, but they’re presale and star-driven. (A presale is when distributors buy the rights to a film in advance of the film being completed). There are maybe only 20 actors in the world that can green light those films and the same actors are on everyone’s list. Shane is an awesome director – and his agent was telling him that and also that any day one of ‘his’ films would get the go ahead – but I knew he had to make himself more relevant again. He had to get that heat back around him.”

“Come back to Australia and I will have you back on set by the end of 2013”

Abbess knew Thornquest had similar motivations for being in the business and knew that he was talking common sense.

“I had this realisation: ‘I have to do something right now and it has to be different, drastic and contain the elements of originality I’d been preaching on about’,” says Abbess. “Then Brett said to me towards the end of 2012: ‘Come back to Australia and I will have you back on set by the end of 2013’. You hear that sort of thing a lot from people but I trusted Brett. There was a sense that it was now or never.”

Films are very difficult to finance but Thornquest knew a few high net worth individuals who might be interested in investing, hence his confidence – and despite the fact he’d never produced a film before.

“After 10 years in the business, I felt I understood whose ideas and approaches were distinct and unique and capable of travelling internationally, and [as the producer] I felt I could distil a film down to entice a savvy business person, especially because of the producer offset.” (The offset is a 40 percent tax rebate on the cost of production of Australian films.)

A psychological thriller with a sci-fi backdrop is born 

At around the same time, Abbess, his wife and producing partner Sidonie Abbene, and long-time Australian collaborator and composer Brian Cachia moved to Australia from LA. (Cachia did so for similar reasons to his friend.) From February 2013, the group spent long weeks in the Contrarian boardroom with a whiteboard workshopping script ideas based on a thriller concept they’d been looking to crack for some time. Thornquest had drawn up a strict timetable of when various stages of the process had to be finished in order to be in production by last October.

Infini eventually emerged as the film that could be made on the funds Thornquest secured and had the potential to make an impact. In the story, an elite search and rescue team encounter a powerful enemy when they travel to the space station Infini to rescue Whit, a lone stranded soldier.

(After raising the money for Infini, but before going into production, Thornquest was told by his investors that they also wanted to fund a second film and commence an ongoing business in this arena. He and Abbess identified Marc Furmie’s Terminus as that second film. How successful both films turn out to be will help determine whether there is something bigger happening here: namely the emergence of private investors for Australian films and a vibrant new company.)

“It starts like a late 1970s sci-fi film and then goes off the rails,” says Abbess of Infini, which went into production in October last year and includes Daniel MacPherson, Luke Hemsworth and Luke Ford in its big cast.

How he took full advantage of his creative freedom and established a truly immersive environment for he and the actors during his eight weeks on set is a story for another day. Here’s a teaser from his lips: “It started to become more than a film and for me that was really exciting because when life and art blur to the point where you don’t know which one you’re in, that’s the real place you can create something honest and special from.”

Infini is scheduled to be released sometime in 2015.