Robyn Davidson’s epic journey finally is headed to the big screen.
3 Sep 2012 - 10:31 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 4:50 PM

It took Robyn Davidson nine months to travel more than 2,700 km across the outback from Alice Springs to the west coast with four camels and her dog Diggity. It's taken rather longer – 35 years in fact – to recreate her epic journey on screen.

After at least five unsuccessful attempts, the movie Tracks finally starts shooting in South Australia and the Northern Territory on October 8, with Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and Adam Driver (HBO's Girls) as Rick Smolan, the American National Geographic photographer who joined her on several occasions.

The King's Speech producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning have succeeded where others failed in assembling the $12 million budget and securing pre-sales for Australia (Transmission), the UK (Momentum) and Italy (BIM). Director John Curran wrote the screenplay, adapted from Davidson's 1980 novel which chronicled her 1977 adventure.

New South Wales Film Corporation executive Danny Collins was the first producer to option the film rights in the early 1980s, with Nicole Kidman as the mooted lead. After he gave up, producer Tony Buckley secured the rights and he and director Ray Lawrence tried to raise the finance with the backing of the short-lived Sydney offshoot of US studio New World Pictures. Lawrence, who adapted the screenplay, did screen tests with several actresses including Kerry Armstrong in the sand hills at Kurnell but four years later they too gave up.

In late 1993, Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum's Disney-based Caravan Pictures announced it had bought the rights to US screenwriter Ruth Graham's screenplay of Tracks and Variety reported Julia Roberts was signed to an $US8 million pay-or-play deal.

Sarah Radclyffe and Todd Black (Graham's spouse) were on board as producers, offers were out to directors and Roth declared, “This is our Christmas 1995 release”. That fell over; it isn't known if Julia got her fat pay cheque.

Five years ago Sherman read the novel, asked Davidson's agent about the film rights and was told they were still with Disney. Nearly three years ago Disney's option ran out and Sherman and Canning won a spirited bidding war.

Sherman had become aware that Curran was attached to the project when National Geographic Films wanted to make the movie but that company later backtracked due to internal changes. The producer had long wanted to make a film with the New York-based director who started his career in Australia with Praise, followed by We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil.

There must have been times when Davidson, who was 27 when she made the trip, doubted a film would ever happen. “It's been through so many different attempts that I think the film is jinxed,” she said in a 2007 interview.

“Disney Films have it now, and I think the option has just run out, so probably my agent in London will be scouting around as we speak. I try to stay out of it now. The last script that I read, the one that Julia Roberts was going to play, was truly the most gobsmackingly awful script: where Robyn naked is being carried around a camp fire by Aboriginal men as she goes through dreaming initiation.”

When Sherman saw Davidson in Melbourne two weeks ago, she asked if the film is “definitely happening” and gave a wry smile when she was assured it was locked in. He raised the finance from Screen Australia, the South Australian Film Corp., Adelaide Film Festival, Deluxe Australia, pre-sales and Canada's Aver Media, which is cash-flowing the 40 percent producer offset and providing gap financing. Also, Cross City Sales, which is part of Sherman and Canning's See-Saw Films, is putting up funds against international sales.

Davidson had suggested Wasikowska (pictured) even before the filmmakers had begun casting. They met with all the major US talent agencies and, unsurprisingly, many actresses were keen to win the role. “We were lucky that Mia, the person in the world we most wanted, happens to be Australian,” Sherman tells SBS Film. Davidson read several drafts of Curran's screenplay and made helpful suggestions, mostly relating to her state-of-mind at the time.

As for Driver, who plays Lena Dunham's loopy lover Adam in the HBO series, Sherman says he has the right kind of manic energy to play the photographer who initially disturbs Davidson's solitude but forms a strong bond with her.

Sherman has hired Cyan Films' Julie Ryan as co-producer, tapping into her expertise in shooting in outback locations as she did on Satellite Boy, Red Dog, Ten Canoes and The Tracker.

I've sometimes wondered: Why did Davidson embark on such an arduous, solitary journey? Says Sherman, “There are no easy answers; that goes to the core of the film.”