Sunday, November 27, 2011

Masterclasses: The challenges of writing for Tasmania; and Tasmania, the perfect location

Jonathan auf der Heide, Vicki Madden and Stephen Dando-Collins; Vincent Sheehan and Bradley Patrick
BOFA 2011

“How can you know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from?” Jonathan auf der Heide

It’s been two years since Jonathan auf der Heide’s first feature film Van Dieman’s Land screened and he’s still paying off the debt. Now the 32-year old Director is working on a horror film shot in Tassie, “a sort of zombie film with Tasmanian devils. It sounds tacky, but it will sell to Americans.”

One has to wonder why iconic Tasmanian films such as Van Dieman’s Land and The Hunter that have stayed true to their Tasmanian roots have had such mixed commercial success. (Granted, The Hunter may be a somewhat more accessible story for audiences to engage with, and auf der Heide admits to knowing that the feature was always going to be an uncommercial film.) But if place has such a profound impact on our history, culture and identity, on who we are as artists, is it possible to have a successful career as a writer, director or producer while living or working in Tasmania? Could Tasmania become the perfect place for television and filmmaking?

Bradley Patrick, BOFA’s Artistic Director, certainly thinks so, explaining that he was so “amazed” when he first saw Launceston, he’s decided to film his new romantic comedy here, instead of France. He describes it as “a perfect location”, with its atmospheric gothic architecture, the Gorge, Seaport, vintage shops and Tamar Valley vineyards, and believes it looks like Bordeaux or Nice.

Vincent Sheehan took advantage of Tassie’s “misty mornings, long days and longer twilight” to film The Hunter and even used the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Hobart, rather than Paris, to film the opening sequence. Sheehan suggests that “any genre can be done in Tasmania”, and particularly believes that a period drama could be filmed here, explaining that the Georgian architecture and English-style vegetation makes the scenery so like northern Europe.

While Sheehan had $6 million dollars (not the $35 million that was reported in The Examiner – Sheehan said the error was in misinterpreting his comment that he had shot the film on “35 mm”), Jonathan auf der Heide shot Van Dieman’s Land on $600,000. But of that, $340,000 was in salaries. Because there isn’t a studio system in Tasmania or, therefore, people with the required skills in the state, it’s pricey to get skilled crew in for filming, auf der Heide explained, but he always knew he’d make a feature film “out of the system”. Despite the lack of commercial success, the first-time Director believes that there are many Tasmanian stories yet to be told and that “some of Australia’s best writers are in Tasmania”.

Writer Stephen Dando-Collins agrees that it is expensive to film in Tasmania (“and filmmaking is almost always about costs”), but believes that it’s not necessary to film here, even if the story is set in Tasmania – it doesn’t matter for the audience, even if it does for the author. He suggests that passion is the key for Tasmanian producers, filmmakers and writers, and that they should take advantage of the fact that Tassie is seen as “exotic” to Americans.

Vicki Madden, who has written extensively for television series such as The Bill and Water Rats, believes that we don’t tell stories that really reflect the way Australians live their lives. “Kath and Kim, in a way, is more reflective of our society than Packed to the Rafters.” She suggests that we should tap more into “our parochialism”. Madden has returned to Tasmania after spending two years in Ireland. Their strong culture and identity reminded her of home and made her think about who she is as a writer and who we are as Tasmanians.

Madden believes we need to debunk the myths about Tasmania, such as that we are too far away for the industry, and while she comments that she has missed out on “a few jobs”, she can sustain a career here utilising technology. She commented that we don’t have a TV culture in Tasmania, but she’s trying to change that, and wants to develop a unique Tasmanian television drama so that it helps build infrastructure here. “People are starting to take notice of our history.”

To have such intimate access to such esteemed film directors, producers and writers is one of the highlights and privileges of attending this festival. Hearing firsthand about their creative processes, successes, difficulties and future plans provides such an incredible opportunity for up-and-coming Tasmanian writers and would-be film-makers to make connections, gain knowledge and, most importantly, confidence that it can be done from our tiny, remote island.

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