Craig Silvey & Rachel Perkins

Australian cinema has been going “great guns” over the past few months with the success of Hacksaw Ridge and Lion.  Jasper Jones is the next cab off the rank and it’s a terrific film that skilfully mixes genres and features some wonderful performances.  I sat down with author-screenwriter Craig Silvey and director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) to talk about the film. You can listen to the full interview by clicking here.

Matt:  I was talking on my radio spot last week about film adaptations and we had a debate as to whether it’s best to read the book first or to see the movie first.  I don’t think I’ll be in a better position to ask that question given I’ve got the author of the book and the director of the movie.  In general, what are your thoughts on it?

Rachel:  Tough one.  I think the nation is divided on that issue.  I’ve been talking to people at the screenings because we’ve been taking it around the country.  Some have seen the film and then bought the book.  There’s something good about that because what awaits them is all these other riches in the book whereas if you’ve read the book first, you’re doing more of a comparison and thinking about what’s been left out.

Craig:  I think that’s a good point.  They’re two different processes I suppose.  A lot of people who are coming to see the film have read the book and loved the book.  They’re happy to celebrate it and see it in a different way on screen.  With the film now out, people will go the other way.  They’re looking for extra content and something else they can explore because they want to spend more time with these characters.

Matt:  Craig, not all authors get a chance to adapt their own novels for the screen.  You got the chance to do it here for the first time.  Can you tell me about the experience?

Craig:  It was a huge challenge.  I was brought it to write a fresh draft before we went into production and so I didn’t have a lot of time.  I only had about 6 weeks and it was my first screenplay.  I was thrown right in the deep end but I adored the opportunity.  It was difficult work but I think we had a terrific collaborative team around us.  Rachel was a great help and had a really strong vision for the film.

Matt:  Do you ever have a thought that it might one day become a movie?

Craig:  When you’re developing a novel, you want to avoid thinking about all those things that are out of your control like reception, publication, criticism and adaptation.  You’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other and develop the work as honestly as possible.  From time to time it occurred to me that this structure may lend itself well to an adaptation but back then I was less interested in film and seeing my stories told using film.  These days, it’s all changed.  At the inception of an idea, I think to myself “What is this?  Is it a novel?  Is it for the stage?  Is it a film?  Is it television?”  I run it through a filter of structures before decide where to go with it.

Matt:  Rachel, can I ask how you became involved with this project and came across Craig’s novel?

Rachel:  Like the other half-a-million people who have read this book, I came by it after someone recommended it to me.  It’s often the way it happens – through word of mouth.  I picked it up and then couldn’t put it down.  I felt it was a book that I could adapt or direct for the screen.  I procrastinated for a while and then went to the publishers and by then the rights had gone.  I was devastated and assumed that someone really famous and talented would make it who I could hate for the rest of my life (laughs).

A few years later, I heard that a friend of mine had the rights so I rang up and asked if I could be put on the list of possible directors.  He agreed and I think he helped push for me to do it with the other producers.  I wore them all down with my enthusiasm I think and it was nice for the project to come back to me in a way.

Matt:  If we get into the filmmaking process itself.  Craig, as the screenwriter, you put a script out there but does it stay that way during the shooting process?  Or are there a lot of changes you make along the way when you see the actors and how they interact?

Craig:  Film seems to be all about adjustments.  You don’t know what’s going to come up in a day and you don’t know what’s going to work in rehearsals.  You don’t know if your dialogue is going to “sing” on a day or whether it’ll be problematic.  You’ve got to be agile and there were a raft of re-writes.  There were also ideas we’d have on set and also some concerns which we’d try to solve on the fly.  

Matt:  Rachel, let’s talk about the cast.  I know a lot of people in Brisbane might be interested to hear about Levi Miller who was born here and went to Holland Park State School.  He’s already got a couple of big movies under his belt.  He comes across so well in the film – Charlie is this very awkward, uncomfortable kid.  What can you tell us about him?

Rachel:  Yep, he’s Brisbane born and bred.  All he wants to do is act and so far he’s realising that dream.  His mum looks after him and brings him to set.  They’ve got this really good family unit and they’ve worked out how he can do school and acting together.  He’s on an incredibly trajectory.  He was selected out of thousands of kids to do Pan and then he did Red Dog: True Blue.  By the time he came to us, he had more experience than I had.  He’s also the face of young people’s attire for Ralph Lauren.  He’s so grateful for the work and so grateful he can act.  He’s down-to-earth and very talented I think.

Matt:  It’s funny because he was with Hugh Jackman in Pan and now the two of them are going head-to-head at the box-office this week in Australia because we’ve got Logan versus Jasper Jones.

Rachel:  Yeah… and who will win?  I’m asking all Australian listeners out there to please go and see our film instead of Logan.  I’m just going to say that straight out (laughs).  I don’t want to beat around the bush.  It’s just a clear request to the people of Australia.

Matt:  There are some great actors in this film like Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette, Dan Wyllie and Angourie Rice.  How easy was it pulling them all together?

Rachel:  It was frighteningly easy.   I thought it would be much harder.  We had a great time making this film.  Whoever we wanted for the cast said “yes”.  Toni Collette tried to adapt the novel early on herself.  When she heard about the film, she rearranged her U.S. schedule and came over.  Hugo Weaving immediately agreed too.  Kevin Long, who plays Jeffrey Lu, we found in a kung-fu class in western Sydney.  He’d never acted before but is like a child genius.

Matt:  Can Kevin play cricket?

Craig:  He can now.  I fell in love with the kid when I first met him.  He’s such a sweetheart and he really is that character.  There’s a pivotal cricket scene in the film so he had to really know his stuff.  Kevin didn’t know much about cricket at all so I took him under my wing as a fan of the game.  I spent every spare hour down at the nets in Pemberton and taking Kevin through his paces and teaching him how to hit a cover drive.  I was like a proud dad during the two days that we shot those scenes.

Matt:  Rachel, there are a lot of different tones in the film.  There’s comedy and romance but there are also much darker themes which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it.  How do you balance that up when making the film and putting it all together in the editing room?

Rachel:  It’s a good question.  A murder-mystery usually has a tension and dark edge that runs all the way through the movie.  This work was very different.  The novel is loved by so many because it has a mixture of elements.  It has a murder-mystery that opens the work and that drags you through because you want to know how it ends.  Between these young characters though, there’s the humour and the romance and it’s all wrapped up in this coming-of-age tale about a young guy growing up in this town and realising things aren’t the way he’s been led to believe.  It’s a beautiful combination of different genres which is why I was attracted and why audiences are responding to it.    

Matt:  Craig, I was fortunate enough to host a Q&A with you on Tuesday night and it was remarkable how many people in the crowd had read the book.  There were even school teachers saying how they’ve been teaching it to their kids for years.  What’s this publicity tour been like and interacting with these people who collectively have all read the book at various stages over the last 8 years?

Craig:  It’s been overwhelming and moving for both of us.  There’s a passion for this story and a lot of goodwill around it.  The support for this book is now culminating with a rapturous love for the film.  It’s impossible not to be inspired and moved by that.  These people have come out in such generous spirit to see our film and to see this story in a different way.  It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking what you guys have got in the works?

Craig:  I’m working on a western set in the gold fields of Western Australia in the late 19th century and it’s called The Prospector. 

Matt:  And you guys will collaborate on that again?

Rachel:  I think we’re going to go through it again together.  It’s so far, so good.

Matt:  I’m excited about that already but in the meantime, we can all go out and watch Jasper Jones smash it at the box-office.

Rachel:  Let’s hope so.  The preview screenings we’ve had so far have been incredible.  We’ve had 200 people coming up to Craig after the screenings to sign copies of the book.  The screenings with the Q&As were sold out weeks in advance.  I hope the passion continues and I hope we live up to people’s expectations who love the book so much.