In 2008 director Geoff Davis started shooting a feature-length movie set during WWI in the back paddock of his farm near Leongatha in country Victoria. He's not finished yet but aims to shoot a few additional scenes later this year and to release The Stolen in 2013.
“It's been a long, hard slog,” said Davis, whose only previous experience as a feature director was a micro-budgeted 2003 film, Laughing Stock, a comedy about a middle-aged rock band whose life turns sour, which featured Bud Tingwell. Davis works for a software company and has spent 15 years in multi-media so he was familiar with digital effects and the post-production process.
Two of the lead characters in The Stolen are played by his sons and his wife Helen also has a role but it would be wrong to describe this as a vanity project or a family indulgence. Veteran producer Phil Avalon, who is working with Davis, is full of praise for the performances and the production values, and he's confident of lining up an Australian distributor and an international sales agent.
The drama was inspired by Davis' favourite film in his youth, John Ford's The Searchers, which he embellished into a bedtime story he told his sons when they were kids. He wrote a first draft of the screenplay six years ago, the saga of three young Australians, brothers Billy and Jack Kelly and their cousin Paddy, who leave their outback home to go to war and come back to find their family has been attacked by cattle rustlers.
During a Google search to look for real-life heroes and villains on which to base his characters, he discovered the story of Chinese-Australian Billy Sing, who served with the 5th Light Horse Regiment and became a crack sniper known as 'the Assassin' at Gallipoli.
There was a furore in the media when it was reported that Davis' son Josh would play Billy Sing with Tony Bonner as his father. The Australia-China Youth Association, Federal Queensland Liberal MP Don Cameron and former Nationals Senator Bill O'Chee all objected to Aussies being cast as Chinese-Australians.
That was based on a false premise because Billy was written as a fictitious character; in any event, Davis says he could not find a Chinese actor for Billy's dad, who was willing to spend weeks filming in the bush for little money.
“It's not a film about Billy Sing,” he said. ”I don't deserve to make a film about Billy Sing because I don't understand the Chinese/Australian experience. I'm not the person to make that movie.”
Davis raised enough money, including some from friends, to shoot 65 minutes of footage using a RED camera and digital effects to simulate explosions and gun fire. Davis' other son Mat played Jack and Lachlan Hulme is Paddy; much of the cast was drawn from local theatre groups. Subsequently Davis met Avalon who agreed to serve as a co-producer and story editor.
Explaining the decision to use his sons, Davis said, “They are very physical roles. We could not afford stand-ins. But Josh and Mat have done martial arts. I didn't doubt they could do the acting. They got better as we went along. I'm really proud of the movie. Before Phil came on we did it really hard and probably over-extended.”
Bonner says Josh Davis acted very well in his first role and he credits Geoff Davis for “putting his heart and soul” into the project.
Avalon raised the funds to shoot additional scenes dealing with the homecoming. They showed a 95-minute version to an audience of 450 people, including 80 cast and crew, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, and got an enthusiastic
response. Davis plans to shoot for a further one or two weeks.
Next year Avalon intends to direct and co-produce The Killer's List, a thriller about a retired hit man whose young son is kidnapped. The screenplay is by Brian Vining and it will co-produced by Vining and Evert McQueen's Silver Arrow Entertainment. It'll be Avalon's second directing assignment following 2003's Liquid Bridge, which starred Ryan Kwanten.
The Gold Coast-based Avalon was asked by Screen Queensland to help select and nurture three scripts from Queensland writers. “Out of 68 submissions we developed two animated screenplays and one thriller,” he said. “This took 18 months and we finished with three wonderful scripts. Dark Island and Woody-A Cat's Tale have been optioned by producers and I've been told one may soon move into production.”