Robert Connolly Interview

Blueback in a new Australian family film being released to start 2023 and I recently spoke with director Robert Connolly (The Dry) about the interesting project…

Matt:  I remember talking to you a few years ago about family movies and how Aussies tend to rely more on American imports instead of making our own.  Is Blueback an attempt at balancing the ledger?

Robert:  Yeah.  We know there’s been a great success of Australian films here going right back to my own childhood with Storm Boy.  We’ve then had movies like Red Dog and my own movie, Paper Planes, which did really well.  I think Australians love taking their kids to films that reflect their own world and are familiar to them.  It’s fantastic that Blueback continues that tradition. 

Matt:  I know you’re a fan of Tim Winton having produced The Turning about a decade ago.  What was the spark that made you think Blueback deserved a cinematic adaptation?

Robert:  I read it when it came out back in 1998.  It’s such a great book about the ocean and Tim calls it a “fable for all ages”.  It’s a beautiful, optimistic story about the ocean and our responsibility to it while also being about a mother and a child, and a fish.  It had all these elements which spoke to me.  Australians flock to the sea and we swim on amazing coral reefs and we just love it.  A film like this is a rare gift to get to make.

Matt:  So when did you first approach Tim about making it into a movie?

Robert:  When the book came out in 1998.  I couldn’t work out how to do it though and so I took some time off and returned to it after the success of Paper Planes.  Eric Bana and I had some discussions and we went and made The Dry which was successful but we wanted to make another film and bring it to audiences for our families. 

Matt:  The central character in Winton’s book was a boy but here it’s been changed to a girl.  Any reason behind that?

Robert:  Yeah, I’ve got two daughters and they were giving me a bit of grief about having another male protagonist like Paper Planes.  They were right actually.  I spoke to Tim and he said “go for it” and explore the idea.  It’s a universal story about a child and the power of a mother to instill a value system in that child about the environment.  I think it speaks to both young boys and girls but it was fun changing it for my daughters.

Matt:  The book is 25 years old.  Were there many other alterations you and Tim felt needed to be made to reflect today’s way of thinking?

Robert:  Yeah, it’s a really good question.  The book deals a lot with biodiversity and we know that a many marine reserves have been established which has had a beneficial impact on our oceans.  We stopped hunting whales and now the ocean is full of them.  They are wonderful stories about how when you change your ways, the ocean can heal itself.

The big thing that’s happened since the book has been the continuing dangerous curve of climate change.  That’s something Tim and I spoke about to reference and address in the film.  Particularly when you think about our great coral reefs which are under threat from the rising temperatures of the ocean’s waters.  That was a new element that Tim and I intertwined into the film but with a sense of optimism to show there is a path forward through activism and change.

Matt:  The story in the novel is told in chronological order but with the film, you mix that up.  What was the motivation behind that creative choice?

Robert:  I’ve always loved that going back to my earlier films and I know people did with The Dry.  I have this feeling that cinema is a great form to show how the past and present are “hand in glove” in our lives.  I remember someone asking in any given day, how much time do we spend between thinking about the past, the present, and the future?  It’s probably in equal measure because we live our lives in three different time frames.  Cinema is an amazing artform in that I can blend those timeframes together in a poetic, lyrical way.  It’s a credit to my editor that it’s so seamless and easy for an audience to follow.

Matt:  Without giving too much away, I’ll like to get your thoughts on the way death is covered in the film.  Particularly in terms of what is seen and what is not seen.

Robert:  Yeah, it’s a family film.  Babe director Chris Noonan was a great mentor when I made Paper Planes and he said there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of sadness when it comes to family movies.  Walt Disney knew this and the Pixar films are the same.  I want to offer a range of emotions but not in a confronting way.  There’s no point about being graphic because if you’re targeting this audience, you need to make sure they can trust it.

Matt:  Movies often rely on make-up artists to help age characters but you’ve gone with a different approach here with Radha Mitchell playing the younger Dora and Liz Alexander playing the older Dora.  Was consideration given to the same actor playing both roles?

Robert:  I think actors are amazing and there’s this tradition of different actors playing different time frames.  I sometimes feel it’s artificial if you take a 40-year-old actor and age them to look like a 70-year-old.  The role of Abby is played by Mia Wasikowska, Ilsa Fogg and Ariel Donoghue – these three women play the one character and I think when you watch the film, you effortlessly move between them.

Matt:  Where was this shot?  It looks like a stunning part of Australia.

Robert:  It’s in Bremer Bay in Western Australia between Albany and Esperance.  It’s an incredible part of the world which is about a 6-hour drive south-east from Perth.  Some days its beautiful and idyllic and other days it’s tough and visceral.  It has an incredible marine life.  We lived there for many months while making the film.  It takes the audience to somewhere they’ve never been and I love that about cinema.  We’re above the water, beneath the water, we see Bremer Bay, and we see the Ningaloo Reef.  I have to pinch myself that I get to direct these films because it’s very exciting.

Matt:  The house in the film is fantastic as well.  Did it have to be constructed or was it always there?

Robert:  We built the house.  Clayton Jauncey was my amazing production designer and we stood on that plot of land overlooking the bay and he said “I can build the house for you here.”  A lot of American films do stuff in a studio whereas in this, we see young Abby come from inside the house and step onto the verandah and we follow her out and there’s the view.  You get a sense of what it would be like to grow up there and have that as your view every morning when you wake up – looking out at the clouds and the whales beneath your house.  Building the house was a critical choice we made.

Matt:  A fair chunk of this film is shot either on a blustery coastline or under the sea.  Did things go to plan or were there unexpected challenges?

Robert:  I’ll be frank – it was pretty tricky.  It’s not easy… but making films shouldn’t be easy.  We took the crew there and taught these actors how to free dive so they could do their own stunts.  Ilsa dove 20 metres down and swum along the bottom of the bay.  It did have its challenges.  We had shark mitigation drones looking for sharks for example.  We pushed the film to the edge of what was possible but I’m delighted with what we were able to achieve.

Matt:  There are some beautiful underwater shots.  Did you end up in the water yourself or was that left to trained experts?

Robert:  I did but I don’t scuba dive.  The first thing we shot were the whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef and that was incredible.  I was with Tim Winton and our underwater camera operator and they said if a shark turns towards you to get out of the way.  A shark then turned our way and my adrenalin went through the roof.  It’s the most incredible thing to see this majestic marine creature in front of you.  We also spent time with the titular character, blue gropers like Blueback, in Clovelly in Sydney.  They’re called the “puppy dog of the ocean” because they come right up and you can pat them.

Matt:  Central to the story is the blue groper which I’m going to assume is special effects?

Robert:  That’s for the audience to work out (laughs).  The only thing I would say is that we didn’t do any VFX.  There’s a tradition of puppetry which goes back to E.T. and Yoda in Star Wars that families love.  There’s so much VFX in some movies now that it’s almost like animation.  As spectacular as that is, I’m more old-fashioned and I like the idea of putting actors in the real world.

Matt:  You’ve got three recognizable Australian stars here in Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell and Eric Bana.  How did you settle on them being the right fit for the roles?

Robert:  It was during the heart of the COVID pandemic and they’re all my friends.  They had to do two weeks quarantining to be able to film.  They are three of this country’s great actors and they really gave me 150%.  I can’t thank them enough.  Eric Bana did two weeks quarantining to play that small supporting role.  We haven’t seen him do comedy for a long time and it was fantastic.  There’s also a great love of Tim Winton which helped lure them in.

Matt:  It’s not a big role but I’m always impressed by Eric Bana.  He comes across in this film as a very chatty, fun character.  Was that part of your instruction to him or did he create that himself?

Robert:  He’s very clever.  He did a lot of research and grew the hair and the beard.  He learned how to drive boats and tried to understand what an abalone fisherman would be like.  He’s a detailed performer who went right into the heart of the character.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Robert:  Eric and I are current finishing the sequel to The Dry called Force of Nature.  We’ve finished the shoot and are currently in post-production.  Sometime next year I’ll be chatting to you about that.

I had the chance to see 190 cinema releases during 2022 and, as I’ve done every year since 1996, I like to put together a list which outlines my favourites.  We’ve all got different tastes but hopefully it inspires a few people out there to hunt down these movies and watch something great they may otherwise have missed.  I went this through this list on ABC Brisbane breakfast radio a couple of weeks ago.

Honourable mentions this year which I couldn’t quite squeeze into my top 10 were – A Hero, Barbarian, Red Rocket, Blaze, King Richard, Belfast, Decision to Leave, The Good Boss, Petite Maman, All Quiet on the Western Front, Cyrano, Moonage Daydream, Happening, Triangle of Sadness, Bardo False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths, and Nowhere Special.

The above films are all worth a look but to narrow it down to my top 10 of the year…

10. Full Time (out Jul 28) is an intense French drama about a single mum (Laure Calamy) having a tough time. We may not personally relate to her problems but, thanks to the skills of writer-director Eric Gravel, it feels like we’re walking alongside her throughout, and this provides us with a deep appreciation of her troubled life and fragile emotional state.

9. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (out Jun 2) is the first movie from Bhutan to be nominated at the Oscars for best international feature film. It's the tale of a young teacher who is posted to "the most remote school in the world" to educate a small group of kids. This is a beautiful film which offers much to reflect upon.

8. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (out Aug 18) is an interesting, progressive character study that offers up material we don’t usually see on the big screen. It’ll provide great talking points with family/friends and is not to be missed. It's the tale of 60-something-year-old Nancy (Emma Thompson) who, having had a disappointing sex life with her late husband, hires a young escort to fulfil her needs.

7. Quo Vadis, Aida? (out Feb 17) was nominated at last year’s Oscars for best international feature. Taking place in July 1995 and based on actual events, it’s the story of a Bosnian woman, working for the UN, who tries to save her family when Serbian troops invade the town. Shot like a documentary, this is a powerful, depressing piece of cinema that shines the spotlight on events that should never be forgotten.

6. C’mon C’mon (out Feb 17) is the story of a unmarried man with no kids (Joaquin Phoenix) asked by his sister to care for his 8-year-old nephew while she deals with family issues. He finds the experience both rewarding and exhausting. The way writer-director Mike Mills can make audiences care so deeply about characters in the space of two hours is a skill many other filmmakers struggle to master.

5. Flee (out Feb 17) is the first film to be nominated at the Academy Awards for best international feature, best animated feature and best documentary feature. It’s the story of a boy who fled war torn Afghanistan with his family in 1980s and sought a new home and a new future. Blending different styles of animation, this is an incredibly moving film that highlights the emotional scars forever carried by refugees.

4. The Banshees of Inisherin (out Dec 26) is an engaging, throught-provoking 1923 dark comedy about two friends on a remote Irish island who have a bizarre falling out. There are many rich, fascinating layers to peel back here. Every member of the cast is in peak form.

3. Top Gun Maverick (out May 26) is a sensational film that surpasses its predecessor in almost every way. The flight scenes will have you twitching in your seat, the splashes of comedy are perfectly timed, and the story is kept short and straightforward. I can't imagine too many people being disappointed. Editor Eddie Hamilton deserves a lot of praise.

2. Lost Illusions (out Jun 23) is a French 19th Century drama which won seven César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) including best film and best adapted screenplay. It’s a fascinating tale about a young journalist caught up in a dodgy media world. It’s filled with rich, interesting characters playing power games and trying to outmanoeuvre their adversaries.

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once (out Apr 14) is one of the year’s best and most original feature films. It's like Sliding Doors on steroids. A storyline which is insanely crazy (characters existing in multiple universes) with a touching finale offering heartfelt joy and significant life lessons. A rich, wonderful, audacious project.

Kaitlyn Dever Interview

Ticket to Paradise is a new romantic comedy filmed here in Queensland, Australia.  I recently spoke to one of the film’s stars, Kaitlyn Dever, about the film…

Matt:  What stood out for you when you first came across this project?  What made you want to play Lily?

Kaitlyn:  So many things.  The script was incredible and so much fun.  I had met Ol before and was excited to work with him again.  To be part of a rom-com was something I hadn’t done before and I’m always looking to do something different.  This was all of those things packed into one.  Maybe also, working with George Clooney and Julia Roberts was an element I was kind of interested in (laughs). 

Matt:  George and Julia are two of the best in the business.  Had you met them before this movie?

Kaitlyn:  No but I love both of their work.  I’m such a big fan of the two of them.  They’re so talented and I was nervous to meet them for the first time.  They were just the best.  They were both so sweet and nice and kind to me and my sister, who was with me on the shoot.  We had the best couple of months making this movie.

Matt:  It’s not quite my backyard but you shot the film in my home state of Queensland here in Australia.  What did you enjoy most about the time you spent here?

Kaitlyn:  We loved it.  We stayed in Broadbeach for the second half of the movie and for the first half, we were on Hamilton Island.  I had never experienced anything like it.  Shooting in such a beautiful location was mind-blowing to me.  The island itself was a standalone, singular experience.  It’s so small that we could all just drive golf carts around and have adventures.

We shot the film over Christmas and my family was able to come down and it was one of the best Christmases we’ve ever had.  My parents still talk about Queensland to this day and we can’t wait to go back.

Matt:  You mentioned it being a romantic comedy.  How do you approach that in terms of developing chemistry and comedic timing and the like?  Is it an easier film that others or more challenging in some regard?

Kaitlyn:  You find challenge in everything.  I never try to have too many expectations going into something.  I follow a gut instinct when I first read something and this was immediately something I felt that people were going to love and they really needed right now.  I had never played a character like this before.

In terms of the chemistry, it really starts with the script.  Ol’s writing is so brilliant and natural.  It was really easy to be George and Julia’s daughter because they were so sweet.  We were constantly telling stories and making each other laugh.  It was a special thing to bond with them and it became easier to create dialogue with them.  With Max, he’s the sweetest person in the world.  We had a lot of fun doing our scenes together.  It was the easiest thing.

Matt:  Talking specifically about your character, Lily goes to Bali, falls in love, and gets engaged almost immediately.  Was it easy tapping into the character in that regard and playing someone who could do something so impulsively?

Kaitlyn:  It is impulsive but I feel like I could do that if really falling in love with someone and a place.  It shows you how powerful the love is she has for Gede and that he has for Lily.  When I first read the script, I admired her determination for her career and how, throughout the course of the story, you discover she’s a more curious person who is open to new ideas and change.  Especially when she meets Gede.  I think he opens her mind to things she never thought about which is really exciting.  I had a great time bringing this character to life.

Matt:  In the film, we see you prepping for a Balinese wedding.  What did you find most interesting about that process and their traditions?

Kaitlyn:  It’s really beautiful but it’s also a lot about celebrating family which I appreciated.  I loved my dress as well.  It was quite a process which required many fittings.  It was made from actual, traditional Balinese fabric.  Our costume designer had an incredible mind and I love her a lot.  The wedding sequence in general has a real representation of peace and you could feel that when we were shooting it at that location over two days.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking about the Emmys coming up this week.  You’re a first-time nominee.  Are you going to the ceremony?

Kaitlyn:  I am going.  I’ve never been to the Emmys before and I’m really, really excited.  I’m taking my parents and it’s going to be an exciting night.  I’m looking forward to celebrating with the cast and it’s going to be really cool.

Beast Interview

Beast is a new action-thriller from Iceland director Baltasar Kormákur.  I recently had a chance to speak with Kormákur and one of the film’s stars, Sharlto Copley, about the project…

Matt:  The long, continuous shots stand out and they do a great job building tension in key scenes.  Can you take us through that thought process?

Baltasar:  That’s exactly why I used it.  I wanted to create a more immersive, claustrophobic feeling with you being stuck there with the characters and see things coming at you.  I didn’t want to cut to them and tell audiences what was going to happen.  I started with the shot where the lion attacks for the first time and hits the window.   That’s where I started the thought process in the prep.  I was thinking about that shot and how we could make the most impact.  I then started to work that throughout the film with some quieter scenes in between to give it a better flow.

Matt:  Are the longer takes more difficult to shoot?

Baltasar:  Way more.  You need a crew who is totally with you and actors that are ready to work it out with you.  The first few takes are always going to be awful but you have to be shooting the whole time because you don’t want to miss “the one”.  I think it’s very rewarding once you get it.  There’s a shot in the beginning which is 5-6 minutes which is CGI lions interacting with characters – it’s a lot of prep but it was a great high when we got the shot.  We’ve seen films in this genre but we haven’t seen them shot like this and so I wanted to take the idea of a blockbuster and add a different taste to it and see if it would work. 

Matt:  Action movies often fall into the trap of having characters do dumb things to prolong the story but here, I really liked their smarts and the rational way they speak and go about things.  Was that all part of Ryan Engle’s script?

Baltasar:  Some of it was.  I did work with Zack Snyder as well who isn’t credited.  Being there on the ground in Africa helped inform so much of what you do and say in the end.  The singing in the car was just made up while we waited for the next shot.  I was “hey guys, that’s family, let’s use it.”  Ingmar Bergman said something that’s always been close to my heart – “the more you prepare for a scene, the more you can let go of it and meet what is presented to you on set.”  It’s never going to be as you imagine in your head. 

Matt:  Idris Elba is very good – a role that requires him to be physically strong but also emotionally vulnerable at times.  How did he become involved with the project?

Baltasar:  It was very early on.  He loved it because it was different from what he’d done previously.  He was the right choice for me because of exactly what you said.  There aren’t many movie stars of that calibre who have that mission as actors.  He also has a physicality which you can believe in the end.

Matt:  Shartlo, You’ve made movies across the globe but getting to shoot a big Hollywood production in your home country – it must be pretty cool?

Sharlto:  It’s fantastic.  You get very few opportunities to do it.  This one was very personal to me with the poaching theme and wildlife stuff.  I love being in the bush, being in the wild.  It’s something I wish I can do more of.  They said I can play a character hosting Idris and his daughters and in real life, you can basically be the guy from South Africa that hosts everyone from Hollywood, and you can stay in a game lodge where you’d be normally be paying $5,000 a night and stay for a month and half and do safaris on your off days.  I was like “are you kidding me?”  Of course I’m going to say yes.

Matt:  Baltasar Kormákur has crafted some wonderful long, continuous shots in this movie.  Does that make the rehearsal and shooting process any different from the perspective of the actors?

Sharlto:  It really does.  I’ve never done anything like that before to that degree.  There’s a scene where I engage with the lions which is 7 minutes long and we spent a day rehearsing it.  You then get three chances to do it right at the end of the day.  It’s a totally different way of working.  I love the freedom of being able to mix it up and change lines.  We had to do that up front in the rehearsal – “what if tried this, what if I tried that?”  We’d nail it down during the day.

Matt:  Without giving too much away, you’re playing a badly injured person throughout much of the film.  Is there a secret to doing that?  I must say that I felt your pain at times.

Sharlto:  On the days when I wasn’t working, I would ride a mountain bike through the safari park by myself.  It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done and I was terrified all the time.  When I got back, the fact I was still alive would be the most unbelievable feeling.  You’re reminded of how vulnerable you are and many humans won’t experience that – being in the wild with nothing to protect yourself.   A buck could lose it’s cool and panic and kill you… let alone the things like lions that are designed to kill you.

I’d be in that space about understanding how vulnerable we are and it therefore wasn’t a difficult stretch to imagine myself being with a lion.  I actually got chased down by a black rhino.  If they see something they don’t know which makes them uncomfortable, they just start running at it.  When they can see, which is about 3 metres away from you, they decide if they’re going to hit you.  I was trying to get off the bike so I could throw it at him, and then I tried to sound assertive by doing a Steve Irwin “no boy, not too aggressive” and he decided to turn away. 

Matt:  I like the connection you build in the film with Idris Elba and the way you both come across as old friends.  Did you know each other at all before the movie?

Sharlto:  I did not.  We hadn’t met.  We had a very similar energy.  When you have that, I think it’s much easier and I think our acting style is very open and accessible.  It was a real pleasure working with someone so phenomenally impressive.  There was a scene where he acts drunk and it was during the first take where I zoned out of my character and thought “that is a fucking amazing drunk performance… what is this guy doing?”  He’s just really good.