Though born in New Zealand, Andrew Dominik, the director of this week’s “Killing Them Softly,” moved to Australia at the age of 2, and was raised there. And around thirty years later, he provided a firecracker up the arse of the nation’s film industry by directing “Chopper,” a biopic of colorful criminal Chopper Read that made Eric Bana a global star, and firmly launched Dominik as a filmmaker to watch.
Australia’s film industry has had its bright spots — the grindhouse scene of the 1970s, the emergence of directors like Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the feel-good 1990s comedies of Baz Luhrmann, Stephan Elliot and P.J. Hogan. But “Chopper” seemed to launch a decade for the nation’s film culture that might number among the finest in its history, with a host of uncompromising directors emerging over the following decade that have led some to talk of an Australian New Wave or New Australian Cinema movement.
And while Dominik has moved away from home, delivering his second slice of brilliant Americana with “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” being followed by “Killing Them Softly,” we thought the release of the latter this Friday seemed like a good opportunity to shed a light on some of the other key figures of this movement. So below, you’ll find five of the most important Australian directors to emerge in recent years. We didn’t have space for everyone (“Samson & Delilah” helmer Warwick Thornton might have made the cut, but he’s mostly been MIA since that film came out), but readers from the Southern Hemisphere, and elsewhere, can let us know who else they tip in the comments section below.
Older and more experienced than most of the names of these five, Hillcoat was born in Queensland, Australia in 1961, but spent a portion of his childhood in Canada and Connecticut. By the 1970s he had returned to Australia, working by filming bands on the Melbourne post-punk scene, where he befriended a promising musician named Nick Cave. Hillcoat stayed principally in the music world, making his directorial debut with the INXS documentary “Swing and Other Stories” in 1985, but had stayed close to Cave, and the duo teamed up for the director’s feature film debut, 1988’s “Ghost Of The Civil Dead,” a tough, brutal prison movie co-written, co-starring and scored by the musician. Despite the presence of Cave, by then an international superstar, and a Venice Film Festival premiere, the film, while well received, didn’t make too much of an impression around the world. However, Hillcoat embarked on a successful and lucrative career helming music videos for the likes of Bush, Suede, Depeche Mode, Manic Street Preachers, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Another feature followed, the romantic drama “To Have & To Hold,” starring Tcheky Karyo and Rachel Griffiths, but that too rather disappeared without a trace. Nearly a decade later, having continued in the promo world, Hillcoat came roaring back, reteaming with Cave on the western “The Proposition.” Starring an international cast of character actor favorites including Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson and John Hurt, it’s a grubby, nasty tale of violence and loyalty, with an uncommon emphasis on the Aborigine people (still a somewhat taboo subject in Australian cinema) and a hall-of-fame score from Cave and Warren Ellis. It picked up great reviews around the world, and ever since Hilllcoat has ensured that similar decade-long gaps wouldn’t lapse between his next films. 2009 saw the release of “The Road,” another typically bruising, powerful widescreen epic, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel. And this year brought his most commercial film to date, in the shape of Prohibition-era crime tale “Lawless,” an entertaining picture that proved a modest hit. All share a no-nonsense muscularity, an almost classical, John Fordish style, and an ability to extract fine performances from performers as diverse as Viggo Mortensen and Shia LaBoeuf. Next up, all being well, is L.A. cop thriller “Triple Nine,” and we’re looking forward to Hillcoat bringing his skills to the big city.
“I’d like to see your film, smartass” — the common refrain of internet commenters, incensed at a bad review given to their own personal favorites. It’s a silly idea (you don’t need to be a chef to know when someone’s pissed in your soup), but even so, David Michôd, a former journalist with Australian film craft magazine Inside Film, must have left a few tails between legs when he premiered the astonishing “Animal Kingdom” at Sundance back in early 2010. Michôd was born in Sydney before heading to university and film school in Melbourne. When he moved back to his birthplace, he ended up answering phones at the magazine. Within six months, Michôd was Deputy Editor, and he went on to be Editor there for three years. But directing was always the end game, and he left his job in 2006 to focus on it, with short film “Ezra White, LL.B” hitting the festival circuit that year. Two shorts followed in quick succession, “Crossbow” and “Netherland Dwarf,” playing Sundance and picking up awards around the world. It was ‘Dwarf”s run at Sundance that saw him come into contact with Nash Edgerton and Spencer Susser, who also had shorts at the festival, and they joined forces to create Blue Tongue Films (see below), putting “Animal Kingdom” into development. The film — which saw Michôd return to the crime-riddled Melbourne he remembered for his college years — was a powerful, rich and complex crime tale, immaculately helmed by the director, and it launched half its cast to stardom; Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn and Sullivan Stapleton have all gone on to greater things, while a cameo-ing Joel Edgerton has only gone from strength to strength since. Michôd has reteamed with the latter for his next project, a futuristic Western developed from an idea by the director and the actor named “The Rover,” which has Robert Pattinson, Guy Pearce and Scoot McNairy set to star. Filming is slated set to start soon, so fingers crossed, we’ll see before 2013 is out.
Nash & Joel Edgerton, And The Blue Tongue Films Gang
Blue Tongue Films has become inextricably linked with the recent renaissance of Australian cinema. And at its center are two brothers: Joel Edgerton, whose Hollywood career has grown gradually from small roles in the “Star Wars” prequels and “King Arthur” to leading man turns in “Warrior” and “The Odd Life Of Timothy Green,” and his stuntman-turned-actor/director elder sibling Nash. Set up by the Edgertons in the 1990s in order to make an action-packed short called “Loaded” to show Nash’s stuntman skills, and named after the pair’s then-recently-deceased pet lizard, it’s more of a collective than a company, assembling a group of like-minded filmmaker types who collaborate on each other’s projects. Nash Edgerton helped to make his name as a director with the ouststanding short “Spider” (watch below), and within a couple of years the group was seemingly everywhere with Nash’s feature debut “The Square,” a taut noirish thriller, arriving in theaters soon after “Animal Kingdom” had hit theaters. Meanwhile, the editor of both films, Luke Doolan, had been nominated for an Oscar for his own short, “Miracle Fish,” while Kieran Darcy-Smith, who appeared in both that and “The Square,” opened Sundance this January with his own film, “Wish You Were Here,” which stars Joel Edgerton. And that’s all without mentioning the group’s sole American, Spencer Susser, who operated the camera on several shorts by Edgerton, and co-wrote his debut feature, “Hesher,” with David Michod. Phew. And big things are on the way for the group with Nash Edgerton premiering his new short, “Bear,” a sequel to “Spider,” at Sundance and SXSW earling this year, and he’s developing feature projects. Meanwhile, in addition to recently directing a music video for Bob Dylan, he also acts alongside Joel in Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Zero Dark Thirty,” while Joel has written a starring role for himself in the thriller “Felony” with Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney, another Blue Tongue production, and he’ll crop up next year in Baz Luhrmann‘s “The Great Gatsby.”
As uncompromising and brutal as some of these films have been, nothing within New Australian Cinema so far could have prepared audiences last year for “Snowtown” (or “The Snowtown Murders” in the U.S.), the debut feature from director Justin Kurzel. The helmer started off as a designer for theater and film before heading to film school at the Victorian College of Arts. His graduation film, “Blue Tongue,” (which coincidentally shares its name with the production company, although Kurzel isn’t actually directly involved with them), about two teenagers and a lizard, saw him win the prize for Best Australian Short Film, and the project ended up selected for Critic’s Week at Cannes 2005. Since then, he mostly directed music videos for bands like The Vines and The Sleepy Jackson, but when Warp Films, the British company behind films like “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Kill List,” opened an Australian offshoot, Kurzel was the first person they came to. The result was “Snowtown,” an unrelentingly bleak examination of the real-life Snowtown murders, where killer John Justin Bunting was responsible for a ring that led to the death of at least eleven victims in the 1990s. The killings took place near where Kurzel grew up, in Adelaide, and it’s clear from the finished film the extent to which the events haunt him, and there’s an extraordinary matter-of-fact feel to the movie, reminiscent of Gus Van Sant‘s more experimental work. It was one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of the last twelve months, and marked Kurzel as one of the most thrilling talents in world cinema right now. The director had been developing a feature film expanding on the themes of “Blue Tongue” at one point, but he’ll join Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, among others, as one of the directors of portmanteau picture “The Turning,” as well as writing a dark coming-of-age comedy set in the tennis world called “Ivan Lendly Never Learned To Borrow,” also with Warp Films. But it looks like his next feature will be his first step into Hollywood territory — he’s working on the John Le Carre adaptation “Our Kind of Traitor,” penned by “Drive” writer Hossein Amini, with production aiming to get underway soon, with Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain and Mads Mikkelsen rumored to be taking the lead roles.
One can certainly say that many of the films of this Australian New Wave are pretty testosterone fuelled; bloody, brutal crime pictures, for the most part, with women often absent or minimized (bar Jacki Weaver‘s Smurf in “Animal Kingdom.”), so it’s fortunate that this year saw the return of the much-missed Cate Shortland, with her second feature. Shortland graduated from film school with the Southern Star Award for the most promising student, and was behind a quartet of acclaimed shorts in the 1990s and early 2000s, in the shape of “Strap On Olympia, “Pentuphouse,” “Flower Girl” and “Joy.” From there, she went on to helm ten episodes of the cult Australian twentysomething soap “The Secret Life Of Us,” which helped introduce the world to Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton and “Fringe” star Anna Torv, among others, before getting her chance in the features world with 2004’s “Somersault.” Revolving around the complex realationship between a teenage girl and a sexually confused farmer’s son, the film was responsible for kick-starting the careers of both Abbie Cornish and “Avatar” lead Sam Worthington. And looking back at the film, it’s no wonder; it’s a lovely, delicate film with tremendous performances from the two leads (anyone who’s found Worthington’s Hollywood work wooden needs to take a look at this), beautifully lensed and scored. Premiering at Un Certain Regard at Cannes, it went on to win a record 13 awards (from 15 nominations) at the AFI Awards (the Australian equivalent of the Oscars) that year. Despite the success, the next few years saw Shortland return to the small screen, helming TV movie “The Silence” with Richard Roxburgh, and serving as a writer on the acclaimed miniseries “The Slap,” starring Melissa George and Sophie Okonedo. But fortunately, the start of this year saw her return to tthe feature world, and in an unexpected manner, with “Lore,” a German-language tale about the children of Nazi parents embarking on an epic journey as World War II comes to a close. Winning acclaim on the festival circuit (read our review here), and picking up top prizes at Locarno and Stockholm, the adaptation of Rachel Seiffert‘s novel has, fingers crossed, put Shortland right back on the map again, particularly with the film selected as Australia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Oscar race, and Music Box Films releasing it in the U.S. in 2013.