For first-time filmmakers, Ian Sparke and his son Luke aren't lacking in ambition, vision or resources as they assemble the finance and a top-notch cast for WWI drama The 34th Battalion.
Luke Sparke will direct the film budgeted at just under $20 million from a screenplay he co-wrote with his dad, and shooting is due to start in Queensland in late September or October.
The ensemble cast includes Nick Farnell, Khan Chittenden, Vince Colosimo, rising star Claire van der Boom, Ashley Zuckerman, Andrew Lees, Henry Nixon and veteran Tony Bonner.
The Sparkes are finalising the financing and locking down the A-line cast, with offers out to some very recognisable names. The international sales agent, Los Angeles-based Camelot Entertainment, introduced the project to potential buyers at the Cannes film market in May.
The plot follows a bunch of young recruits from Maitland in rural New South Wales who joined the Australian Army's 34th Battalion in the lead-up to the epic battle to save the French town of Villers-Bretonneux in 1918.
Farnell, whose credits include Summer Coda, Matching Jack, Blessed, The Pacific and Balibo, will play Jonathan Brown, a young Digger described as gentle and kind, who regrets not signing up for the Army when the war began. When the Germany Army unleashes its final offensive against the Allies, Brown and his comrades face a dilemma: Whether to fight or run.
Making his debut as executive producer, Ian Sparke is drawing on his long experience in the film and TV industry in various capacities including military adviser, costume designer, researcher and webbing master. Sparke Films' credits include The Pacific miniseries, the series Terra Nova, Foxtel docudrama Charles Bean's Great War and the films Iron Sky, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Beneath Hill 60, Kokoda and The Great Raid.
“I first started working on this project 20 years ago,” Ian, who first learned of the battalion's heroics when he was a student at Maitland High School, tells SBS Film. “I probably did 15 rewrites before my son Luke came on as co-writer and director.” Luke has directed short films and music clips and has worked alongside his father on most of Sparke Films' assignments since 2006.
Showing a commercial intent which isn't common among even far more experienced filmmakers, Ian Sparke says the film will be targeted at audiences aged 18-35, whom he describes as the “games generation”.
And he's determined to ensure the production's numerous fight scenes will have the immediacy and grittiness of classic war movies such as Saving Private Ryan. That's a big call, but given the expertise of Ian and Luke in battle-themed films and TV, maybe they'll pull it off.