The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce tells the story of Australia’s infamous cannibal convict, based on four written accounts of the events. Producer Nial Fulton and director Michael James Rowland tell Simon de Bruyn how they brought this compelling story to the screen.
When producer Nial Fulton came across the harrowing tale of Irish convict Alexander Pearce, he was amazed it had not been adapted into a film already.
Despite having similar themes to both the Ned Kelly and Burke & Wills stories, as well as being the basis for part of Marcus C. Clarke’s classic For The Term of His Natural Life, Pearce had become a footnote in history, a monster spawned from the monstrous hell of the penal colonies.
Every so often his story resurfaced. Robert Hughes included him in The Fatal Shore; Weddings, Parties, Anything and The Drones wrote songs about him; and more recently his story was bent out of shape to provide the mythical backdrop for Dying Breed, the cannibal horror film set in the wilds of Tasmania.
“Its kind of that underbelly of Australian history that I was shocked hadn’t been made. I think it can claim to be one of the seminal Australian stories, certainly up there with Ned Kelly, but it’s harder to look at. Pearce’s story has more layers to it, I think,” Fulton says.
“Pearce had been labelled a monster but nobody knows the story of their escape and why they turned to cannibalism. Also if you look at his journey, it’s remarkable that feat of endurance from Sarah Island to Macquarie Harbour to Jericho, even today. If you get out of your car on a Tasmanian road and walk ten metres into the bush on the side of the road you’re fucked. It’s a terrible country to cross.
“Another thing is that Irish people have tendency to romanticize their history, but I found the whole idea of this sort of punishment shocking and I wanted to show that,” he says.
Although not a writer himself, Fulton – who had previously produced Ten Pound Poms with Essential Viewing – set about writing a treatment to bring the story to the screen. His treatment grew to 40 pages, and then became a 90 page screenplay, with Fulton then pitching it as a documentary, or at best, a hybrid drama-documentary, to broadcasters.
It was then that Fulton had the idea to approach Michael James Rowland, and see if he could get the director on board to polish the screenplay and bring some of the cinematic magic he had developed on his acclaimed feature Lucky Miles.
He saw Lucky Miles as a “similar story about a group of people lost in the wilderness, looking for salvation” and pitched the rough screenplay to Rowland, but as a drama. By this stage the screenplay was an amalgam of the four recorded accounts of Pearce’s story, with his confession to the Catholic priest, Phillip Conolly, at the centre.
“Pearce gave four confessions, almost like the gospels,” Rowland explains.
“On one hand you can say he was an unreliable witness to the events of which he was the sole survivor. But at the same time there’s this remarkable consistency between the accounts and what is reflected in the accounts is the person that took them: the priest; Cuthbertson the military guy; Knopwood in court; and the jailer. To tell the story truthfully [we decided] to show these characters who largely are the authors of what we know, and that gave us a structure.”
“To be true to the story you need to show Cuthbertson, you need to show Conolly, you need to show the social context and consequences of them hearing these sorts of things. So Cuthbertson was a military guy, very cut and dry; and Knopwood was a bit of a lush and had lost all his money gambling and had really come to Tasmania as the only way that he could preserve his lifestyle outside of England.
“For Conolly this was a really inconvenient story because he was the first Catholic priest in Australia and in so many ways this story confirmed all the prejudices the English had about the Irish, and the last thing he needed was an Irish cannibal on his books. And Conolly was a callous and hard man, sincerely trying to scare the hell out of Pearce, trying to get him to confess for his own soul’s sake.”
Fulton says the screenplay gained clarity when the pair decided that it was more Conolly’s story than Pearce’s they were telling, not only because the priest survived the narrative and thus could provide the backbone for the story.
Pearce’s confession to Conolly was also the last of the four accounts Pearce gave, and they decided that the convict should come across as “a grey man” who faded into the background – which is pretty much how he survived the culling process after the escape. Instead the focus is on the priest, who is profoundly affected by his short time with Pearce.
“Conolly before Pearce and Conolly after Pearce were different men. He later became what we would now term a prisoner’s rights advocate and he certainly wasn’t that beforehand,” Rowland explains.
“His cosmology was falling apart in the context of Tasmania. So he had God, the Pope, and order – but he’s come to a land outside of history where nothing fits together and in the worst possible way he’s having his notions of what’s good and bad tested sorely. He’s such a great tragic figure and the terrible thing is watching him effectively lose his faith in a lot of things. It’s like watching a drowning man in a way; there’s a bit of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in his story.”
The resulting drama, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, is a gritty and haunting morality tale, a masterfully sketched portrait of religious faith, human guilt and what divides men from beasts.
Shot in Tasmania in the actual locations where the events took place in 1822, the 55 minute television drama has recently been nominated for Best Drama at the Irish Film & Television Awards.
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce screens at 8:35pm on 25 January on ABC1