After playing supporting characters in a host of shows including Jack Irish, Wake in Fright, Secret City and Last Cab to Darwin, Alan Dukes has finally landed his first lead role.
In writer-director Heath Davis’ feature film Book Week Dukes is cast as Nicholas Cutler, a smart yet self-destructive, once famous novelist who is stuck teaching English to iPhone-addicted teenagers at a working class high school.
After writing a trashy zombie story he recaptures the interest of publishers who are willing to give him a second chance as long as he can prove he has cleaned up his act. However, what could have been the best week of his life spirals into chaos and he’s forced to finally put others first ahead of his selfish dreams.
The black comedy starts shooting in the Blue Mountains on January 20, produced by Davis with Fergus Grady, the former head of acquisitions at Umbrella Entertainment, Jonathan Page, Julia Scales, Anne Robinson and Josh Pomeranz as EPs.
Davis got the idea years ago when he was a teacher in the Blue Mountains, compounded by the frustration of many kids being addicted to their iPhones and YouTube, a preoccupation which he says is “corroding imaginations and destroying real connection.”
Dukes has big shoes to fill as Davis originally wrote the role for Brendan Cowell, a good mate. Cowell was keen to take the job but could not make space in his schedule and he helped Davis find a replacement.
Cowell and Dukes had worked together in the Sydney Theatre Company production of True West directed by Philip Seymour Hoffmann.
“Brendan saw some of our character in Al’s DNA,” Davis tells IF. “I’ve always been a fan of Al. Everyone knows he’s got great comic timing but it’s the pathos in his eyes that excites me. He is usually cast in supports and too often is better than the leads – so I’m excited to be able to give him a shot carrying a movie. It’s long overdue. “
The cast includes Susan Prior as Cutler’s head teacher and casual lover, Airlie Dodds as a prac teacher with whom he forms an unlikely friendship, Toby Schmitz as a publisher, Nicholas Hope as Cutler’s disapproving father as well as Khan Chittenden, Steve Bastoni, Tiriel Mora, Steve Le Marquand, Matilda Ridgeway and Vanessa Buckley.
Screen Australia funded the development. The production budget is less than $500,000, derived from private investment and crowd-funding.
The DOP is Chris Bland, who shot Davis’ debut film Broke, a drama starring Steve Le Marquand, Steve Bisley and Claire van der Boom which dealt with the topical issue of gambling in the NRL world.
Of Bland he says: “I don’t know why he’s not working in Hollywood yet. I’m very lucky to have him.”
Bonsai Films is the Australian distributor and Odin’s Eye Entertainment will handle international sales.
“The story is semi-autobiographical. I’ve been teaching on and off for a long time in order to cater for my artistic aspirations,” he says. “Juggling the double life and holding on to artistic integrity in the modern world of corporate capitalism is getting harder and harder.
“This film is for anyone who has ever had a creative dream or aspiration but gave up because of the cost of modern day living.
“It’s also a social commentary on social media and the digital age. I like to say collectors of vinyl records will dig it. Our target audience is 16-plus much like, say, Juno.”
There is an altruistic aspect to the film. The producers will partner with Dymocks Children’s Charities, hosting screenings to raise money for disadvantaged schools across Australia and New Zealand. Dymocks will double the value by providing new books which the kids can choose for their school libraries.
“As a teacher and a writer, I’m very passionate about literacy,” he says. “I even started writing classes last year. Getting kids at school to put down their phones and open a book is harder than ever. So we thought if we can make a difference and encourage them to experience the joy of reading with the movie, then why not?”