“It can take a long time to get a movie up in Australia.”

A CONVERSATION WITH WRITER/DIRECTOR DAVID CAESAR AND PRODUCER VINCENT SHEEHAN

“I first wrote it as a two page short story,” says David Caesar, director of Porchlight Films first feature, Mullet. “Its genesis comes from a pretty bleak period when I’d not long been out of a seven year relationship. We’d broken up the year before and suddenly she was getting married. I found that very confronting. I was doubting whether my career would set the world on fire at that stage and I seemed unable to keep a relationship going, and I began to think what would happen if I decided to go back home...”

At this early stage, Ben Mendelsohn wasn’t in Caesar’s mind for the lead role. “It’s about a thirty-something and when I wrote it in 1991-92 Ben was too young for it. So the character came first.”

Caesar says that even though the script sprung from a challenging time for him personally, Mullet is only auto-biographical “in an abstract way in that like Mullet, I came from a coastal New South Wales town and found I had to move to the city for life to really begin. But unlike Mullet I didn’t just up and leave - it took about three or four years. Where I grew up it was a four-hour drive to Sydney and I went from driving back to see family and friends every weekend, to every fortnight, to every month till it was just maybe twice a year.”

The script had been kicking around for a couple of years when producer Vincent Sheehan took an interest in it. “That would have been 1995”, Caesar remembers, “so we started talking about it.” Caesar then secured backing and the green light to begin production on Idiot Box, and “that consumed everything for more than a year... it can take a long time to get a movie up in Australia.”

Like Caesar, Sheehan also grew up in a coastal community and was attracted by the script’s central themes of love, relationships, alienation and belonging. “These are universal themes. Young people the world over who grow up in small towns inevitably leave them for the promise of big cities. But that promise isn’t always fulfilled and everyone at some point makes that journey back to their roots - whether to settle for good or to just to remember why they left in the first place”.

“So before we began to consider the film itself we commenced a dialogue around the main themes that are found in the film- like the idea of leaving, or who leaves and why they leave, and who stays and why they stay.”

“The script attracted me because I want to make distinctively Australian stories and tell them to the rest of the world - fiction films that have a core of truth and reality about them. I’m excited by and interested in working with people who share that vision. But as an independent producer in Australia making my first feature - it’s been very hard to get this film made! It’s a character piece, not a genre film and getting finance to make films like this is often harder, regardless of budget, even with a relatively marketable cast and an experienced director like David. But we agreed from the outset we wanted to make a quality film, and we both believe that there is an audience for films about real Australians, real people - that was the vision.”

The dilemmas facing the modern Australian male is a terrain Caesar has explored before in almost all of his previous work, especially in his two features, Greenkeeping and Idiot Box. “If there’s one thing I know about, it’s the dilemmas of being male in post-industrial society,” says Caesar. “One of the things about the way men have been portrayed in Australian films since, say, Romper Stomper, is there’s a proud hopelessness about their characters. You see films which very stylishly say that ‘everything’s fucked for men’ and I think that’s a hollow thing to say. Hopelessness is a smirking adolescent response to the world and when it’s combined with intellect I think some people mistake it as art. By the time I finally made this film, I’d been through - and way beyond - what Mullet is going through that I could bring clarity to the character. I felt that level of distance from the character really satisfying. It allowed me to be able to take the story and create a new world. It’s a very confusing time to be male. All my films are trying to understand what it means to be a ‘bloke ‘ in today’s society.”

Mullet was made for just over AUD$1 million but up on the screen it looks like a film with five times the budget. “We developed a shooting philosophy that accounted for compromise on budget but not style or flair,” says Sheehan. “This approach to production allowed us to pay homage to the classic traditions of widescreen cinema, rather then the expectations of low budget production. I feel proud that what we’ve made here is a film that qualifies as cinema - widescreen 35mm with six track Dolby sound.”

Sheehan believes Mullet’s low budget philosophy has contributed to realising a stronger final product. “You have to be very clear about what you want and how you’re going to get it. From the outset we knew we wanted a small, tight, highly-skilled movable crew. And there is incredible freedom and flexibility in making a low budget film - on more then one occasion the crew were able to go back to a location and re-shoot scenes. One crew member said she’d worked on films ten times our budget where that would have been out of the question. We shot the film in a relatively short four week period.”

“A big part of why this film works,” says Caesar, “is that I’d never worked before with three of our principal crew - Robert Humphreys, the DOP, Elizabeth Moore, the production designer, and Paul Healy, the composer. There’s a freshness to this film, a lightness of touch which, thanks to these three, lends the film a stylistic unity. For instance, the music underscores the drama but also comments on it. Robert Humphreys and production designer Elizabeth Moore enabled Caesar to realise a rich and diverse visual style, capturing the breezy atmosphere of an Australian seaside town. Production designer Elizabeth Moore said Sheehan and Caesar’s “very cohesive philosophy and vision meant their preparation paid off for everyone.”

On working with Caesar, Moore says, “We achieved a unity to the world we were portraying, via a less is more philosophy. Less dressing, less colours - which can sometimes mean a richer film.”

For DOP Robert Humphreys the clarity of purpose allowed the rest of the crew to concentrate totally on doing the best possible job. “David was pretty much the ideal director under which to make my feature film debut. He was clear about what he required from his crew and confident he got what he wanted.”

After more than eight years in the making, Mullet arrives in the cinema as an honest and grounded film that, despite the long road to the screen, both director and producer feel has been well worth it. “I think there’s a broad audience for this film,” Caesar enthuses. “I think there are guys like Mullet in New Jersey, New Zealand and New Delhi. People were expecting it to be darker but they come out and they feel positive.”


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