A Place in the Sun
Bran Nue Dae is an anomaly. An indigenous feel-good musical with a high profile cast, the film skirts the political, racial and religious without ever becoming mired in despair.
The combination has already won over audiences at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival although director Rachel Perkins knows the light brush strokes that paint the film may polarise some viewers.
“If you want to be cynical and cool it’s not going to be the film for you,” she says. “And I just have to go [takes a deep breath] it’s not made for the critics necessarily.”
“I’ve made a lot of serious indigenous films and this one is not that, and it’s great to be clear and brave not to be serious. That was quite challenging.”
It has been seven years since Perkins first signed on to direct the screen adaption of Jimmy Chi’s well-known musical play.
Set in Western Australia’s Broome, Bran Nue Dae’s high-energy mix of celebration and provocation proved an immediate breakout hit when it opened in 1990.
“I’d seen it when I was probably 21 in Sydney – I’d just moved from Alice Springs – and it was showing at the Parramatta River theatre and everyone wanted to be in it – I wanted to be in it too,” Perkins says. “Everyone fell in love with it.”
The film is centred on schoolboy Willie (played by newcomer Rocky McKenzie) and his journey back home to Broome after his mother sends him to a religious mission in Perth.
He escapes and, with the help of Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), attempts the 2,500 km journey back to his idyllic life with Rosie (played by singer Jessica Mauboy) with Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) in hot pursuit.
The film’s journey to the big screen has been almost as long.
Producers Graeme Isaac and Robyn Kershaw both met Chi in the 1980s, when the songs that would form the backbone of Bran Nue Dae were in their infancy.
Isaac later took out an option after witnessing several standing ovations during the musical’s long-running East Coast tour. Kershaw, then at the ABC, came on board in 2002 with the aim of turning the play into a telemovie.
Perkins, who had just finished her musical-imbued drama One Night the Moon, was keen to revisit the musical genre and began working with West Australian actor and writer Reg Cribb (Last Train to Freo) on an adaption.
“We looked at films like Fame, Chicago, Hairspray… O Brother, Where Art Thou was a big reference for us,” Perkins says.
“None of them were really overtly helpful – except for O Brother, Where Art Thou with its sort of quirky humourous style, because the rest were classic musicals where people sing to each other. We looked at them a lot, desperately trying to find answers to our problems.”
Ultimately Bran Nue Dae’s original loose collection of 26 songs was pared back to 12 originals (plus a few classics including Stand By Your Man) and the storyline centred on Willie’s journey home.
Those choices remain central to the rough energy and originality that imbues the film. While many classic Australian films are defined by their music – such as the killer soundtracks to Young Einstein and Strictly Ballroom – few have fully embraced the musical genre.
The principal characters in films such as Muriel’s Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Moulin Rouge! sang popular songs, but rarely to drive the plot.
Even Gillian Armstrong’s 1982 musical foray Starstruck was criticised for not addressing serious issues raised in her earlier work.
“When people sing a musical number it’s an expression of an internal dialogue – it’s what they can’t say, but they can do it in song somehow,” Perkins says. “And that should drive the narrative, not stop it.”
“For us, There’s Nothing I’d Rather Be Than To Be An Aborigine, is what this kid feels inside and can’t necessarily express.”
That high-energy musical scene – signifying Willie’s rebellion and prompting his journey home – was shot in a single day with an extensive cast choreographed by Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page.
“With a musical like Chicago, they recruit fabulous dancers and performers,” Perkins says. “But we had to use young Aboriginal boys who had never danced before, that we grabbed from the local Perth high school because we had only budgeted for 100 extras.”
“We had to get volunteers to come in, dress up and be in the dance scenes. So we were doing a musical but we didn’t have that whole pool of talent that other productions would draw across.”
An impressive cast, which also includes Deborah Mailman, Ernie Dingo, Magda Szubanski, and singer Missy Higgins, rounds out the ensemble and is largely the work of producer Kershaw.
A scene from Bran Nue Dae
“We all had certain people in mind that we always thought would be the only people that we could imagine delivering those characters and we were lucky enough that their schedules worked with our schedule,” Kershaw says.
“These things are like a jigsaw puzzle – you put one piece in place and then you have to make sure the other pieces fit that piece.”
The two lead characters – both under 18 – were amongst the most difficult to find with first-time actors McKenzie and Mauboy the only two who auditioned for their roles.
“I was really interested as a young girl growing up in a small town, we kind of had similar upbringings,” Mauboy says of her character, Rosie. “So she’s becoming a woman and all she wants to do is sing, so I kind of had this relationship with the character; similarities, I think that’s why I wanted to go ahead with it.”
Unlike many Australian Idol alumni, Mauboy’s musical career is continuing to surge with her platinum-selling album Been Waiting and recent local tour with Beyonce.
“A lot of people are coming up to me this year and saying ‘I’m not really watching this year’s [Idol] and some of the contestants are trying and stuff,” she says.
“I think it needs a bit of a break but I don’t regret it at all. I think it’s a great way of positioning yourself and giving yourself a profile and making people come and see potentially what you have.”
Despite the rigours of the Idol process during her run to the final some four years ago (won by Damien Leith), the Bran Nue Dae auditions brought out a different level of anxiety.
“It was just so terrifying. I went to the first one and we had to improvise and I was like ‘What?’ I didn’t kind of understand – it’s a whole other world plus the language is totally different …”
“[But] I had so much fun working with professional actors and actresses it took me to a place where I want to explore the film world.”
Rush advised her to “have fun with it and be loose with it” while Deborah Mailman mentored her through the process.
Mailman’s role as “proper Kimberley” woman Roxanne (based on a character in Ningali Lawford-Wolf ’s play Solid) was specifically added when the producers realised she was available.
“Watching her personally in the room – and then watching the film – she’s such a mad and wild character and so crazy,” Mauboy says. “To see that ‘on’ and ‘off ’ is like ‘Wow, how do you do that?’ But obviously she’s had lots of years to do that and explore that side.”
The seven-week shoot in hot and dry conditions was conducted in Broome, Perth and Western Australia’s Kununurra.
Perkins shot the SBS documentary First Australians on film and digital, but felt only film could adequately bring the spectacular colours of Broome to life while filming a predominantly Aboriginal cast in high-contrasting light.
“We wouldn’t have been able to shoot those dark skins on those big white skies – it would have just meant trouble for us,” she says.
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (I Am Legend, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) ultimately turned to the seldom-used Techniscope format – a two-perf 35mm widescreen format developed by Technicolor in the early 1960s – in an effort to keep costs down.
“Director Rachel Perkins and I were keen to shoot this old fashioned romantic comedy in 35mm and to preserve the landscapes on the finer grain and contrast of the 35mm gauge,” Lesnie says.
“The initial budget was rather tight regarding shooting ratio, so it was fortunate that both Arriflex and Panavision had started offering two-perf movements.”
The format essentially allowed double the amount of footage to be shot on the Fujifilm Eterna 250T and 500T stock.
Sound complements the package, which, at times, is larger-than-life thanks to Warner Bros cartoon-styled effects and gags.
The overall feel-good effect is intended, Perkins says.
About 40 per cent of the dialogue was replaced later through the ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) process in an effort to retain a clean and crisp feel.
“I think that’s ok because it is corny and schmaltzy and embraces stupidity. At one point I was going ‘This is so stupid …’ and Magda Szubanski said ‘My life is dedicated to stupid. Stupid is good. Embrace stupid.”
This article was originally published in the November 2009 issue of INSIDEFILM.