Take Two: Mark Grentell and Damian Callinan on making ‘The Merger’
Mark Grentell and Damian Callinan.
Director Mark Grentell first worked with actor and comedian Damian Callinan on his debut feature Backyard Ashes, and the two followed it up by collaborating to bring Callinan’s one-man stage show The Merger to screen. The film, released in cinemas today, follows a struggling small town AFL team that recruits recently settled refugees to survive. Callinan penned the script and stars in the lead, while Grentell directed. The two speak to IF.
My co-creator of Backyard Ashes Peter Cox and I always had this idea to cast Damian as Spock. We knew we needed someone funny, who had good comedic timing and was a bit cheeky, and we’d seen Damian’s work on Skithouse and a bunch of other things.
It was shortly after Backyard Ashes was released in cinemas that I actually went to see ‘The Merger’ [stageplay] for the first time.
Damian is such a different kind of comedian. He’s a real storyteller and a character actor; a lot of his comedy is derived from the quality of the characters that he creates. When I saw the show I just watched the audience. He could shift an audience from laughing out loud to just pin drop quiet when the refugee character was talking about loss and grief and how his family was treated. I thought it was a really beautiful juxtaposition and a very, very well-crafted piece of work.
It was a story about country football and about a regional town of Bodgy Creek. I grew up in Uranquinty which is a population of 700 people and I lived opposite a wheat silo my whole life. I think your subconscious permeates your creativity, and when Damian was telling the stories of ‘The Merger’ I could just connect with the imagery. Cinematically I knew what Bodgy Creek looked like with never having seen it before. I knew what a stump in the middle of the street would look like because I’d seen lots of weird things in the middle of streets in country towns that they use as iconography or to celebrate things. I knew about war memorial statues, I knew about wheat silos, I knew about shitty country football grounds. It just connected with me instantly.
The night after I saw it at the Powerhouse I came up to Damian in the bar and I was like “Hey, why don’t we turn this into a film?” And he said “Mate, I get that comment all the time. People want to turn it into a film, but no one ever does it”. I was like, “Well I do things, so let’s do it.”
The very next morning I woke up early and I went to his hotel where he was staying in Brisbane and we just sat down and just talked through the story, the key characters and the key moments.
It’s very rare you’re ever going to get the writer who is also the lead actor, who is also a co-producer. You have to have real respect for the process and particularly respect for the writers. Luckily enough I wrote Backyard Ashes with Peter Cox, so I was used to actors coming up to me wanting to change their lines, people challenging me on things. So I had respect for how difficult it can be for a writer to have to let go of something they’ve put a lot of time and a lot of thought into. You have to respect that process, but be objective enough to be the director and just do what feels right for the film at the time and make those key decisions that have to be made. And Damian is really great at respecting the opposite side of that argument; he’ll challenge and defend the things that he cares about and I have to convince him why it has to go. So it all comes out of respectful debate; it never gets heated. Everyone knows we’re trying to protect the work and we’re trying to make the best version possible.
There’s also another layer with Damian because so much of this [film] is personal. He wrote [and performed] the stage show for seven or eight years. And the jokes worked with audiences all around the country. So I can’t say that joke doesn’t work, because it worked for 50,000 people.
He lost his father just before we started shooting. There’s this incredible grief that sits underneath this story and lifts the comedy up in a strange way that unites all the dramatic elements. It’s hard for Damian not to talk about that when he’s acting in a scene, or when he wrote that scene from that perspective. It’s so raw and powerful. You can’t go changing those moments because it’s just too beautiful and connected to him.
The first credit before the credit roll is a tribute to his father, because I know how important it is to him and I know how that threads through the film. His dad got to see the stageplay develop for eight years and was so proud of him. Then he finally got to turn it into film, and his father unfortunately wasn’t there to witness it. But he was so present through everything that we did.
Damian and I have become incredibly close friends and just through those shared life experiences that happen around the film.
I don’t think we’ve ever raised our voices to each other or yelled or argued about anything – it was just passionate conversations about ideas. It brings you closer together. The more I get to know about him personally, the more I understand about his writing and his acting. Then I can empathise with those things, and I can try and make those things possible in the story as well.
We call each other multiple times a day, every day, all hours of the night. We’ve driven thousands of thousands of kilometres everywhere, we’ve been on flights together. You can’t help but become close.
I loved working with Damo. I think he’s just such a talented writer. His command and understanding of comedy is one of the finest in the country. He knows everything about a joke, he’s always mentoring other stand-ups and comedians. You can just trust that it works and he has that rare gift to be able to write and construct characters and stories that people connect with.
I got this note sent to me out of the blue for Backyard Ashes. That doesn’t happen very often. You just can’t get sent a script directly.
I was lying in bed flicking through it and the guys were from Wagga. Zilla, my wife, she went to university in Wagga; she studied design for film and television and stage production. I went, “The names look familiar – Mark Grentell and Peter Cox”. I was sure I’d heard her mention them. So I said, “Do you know Peter Cox and Mark Grentell?” And she went “Yeah!” Her very first ever professional job was stage managing a production of ‘Les Miserables’ that Peter Cox directed and Mark Grentell was one of the leads in. So there were these weird connections straight away.
Coincidentally I just happened to be going up a couple of weeks later to do a show in Leeton which only about 45 minutes from Wagga. So Mark and Coxy came down and we hit the pub before I did the show. And that was it, that’s how we started working together.
They were clearly the writers, but they wanted a comedian to play the role that I was playing, and they were very open to me contributing to the ideas. So they even asked me to go away and kind of hack into the script a bit, some of which they took on board – and the ones they didn’t I just improvised anyway on the day.
I was already tinkering with the first draft [of The Merger] when I shot Backyard Ashes with Mark. Just socially after shooting sometimes, he’d ask how it was going and what stage it was at, and I told him about the live show. He showed interest in it and gave me advice.
Early the next year Mark just happened to be in Brisbane while I was doing the Brisbane Comedy Festival with The Merger and he came and saw it. By that point I was six months into working [on the script], and I was getting a bit more serious about it. And he said, “We should work together”, and I said, “Yeah we should”. There was never any question then, and things moved along. Mark doesn’t mess around.
He was the director, but we had a pretty unusual relationship in that he workshopped and chipped in ideas constantly. He never touched a word of the script other than to write notes and thoughts, but he was very instinctive with it from the beginning; he got the heart of it. He had more knowledge of film structure than I did. So we just were listening to each other.
Someone asked me the other day in an interview, “What was it like handing the script over to a director?” and I went “It’s the easiest thing the world.” It was ours.
Mark is eternally optimistic. He doesn’t see the bad in anyone. He just makes things work and that atmosphere transcends onto set. Particularly now that he’s got confidence. When I worked with him on Backyard Ashes I saw a young, enthusiastic guy occasionally stepping off cliffs into areas he didn’t know; I saw that uncertainty at times, particularly early in the film. But by the time he got to this, he was so sure of himself but still open to everyone around him. He assembled an incredible team.
Obviously we’ve just spent a lot of time together, but I felt comfortable in his company straight away. I find it hard to describe our friendship really, because it was one of those instant likes – it’s hard to say how it’s evolved. We communicate quite well with each other; we enjoy each other’s company. We enjoy each other’s crafts. This story – he’s had a very similar passion for it as I have. We live in different places so we’re not in each other’s pockets, but we talk. During the drafting process, that was when we used to talk the most – we’d talk for hours sometimes just going through problems in the script. Sometimes I’d be driving on the road on tour and I’d be on the phone to him for two hours talking about a group of human beings that don’t exist with great intimacy.
Dad passed away in the middle of the auditions and I was about to go on tour with another show. There’s no good time for your loved ones to die, and it was also sad just because I couldn’t share it with him.
On my first day filming Mark made this beautiful speech to everyone. I was already feeling like ‘Oh this is great. I can’t believe this is happening now after all these years.’ I’ve got this entire crew gathered in the playground of his old primary school at Uranquinty and he made this really lovely speech about what we were doing. We’re very conscious – and certainly in the process of it getting closer to being on screen – of how important this story could be as a beacon of hope. It’s not a documentary about refugees, it’s a story. So we can put a little bit more hope in there and craft the empathy. He made this beautiful speech. And I just walked away from the set and burst into tears because I couldn’t tell Dad.
Kate Mulvany’s dad passed away not long before mine. We were supportive of each other and she recognised what was going on. [She said] “It just takes the legs out when you’re least expecting it, so if you’re having one of those days just let me know and I’ll let everyone else know to leave you alone”. I had one of those days – it just came on me. I went and sat in the long grass out near the Downside hall, just trying to be on my own. All of sudden two Country Fire Authority trucks came out of the Downside CFA and just started driving exactly where I was. I had to get up and scuffle away and then Mark and Tony Luu the DOP were in the area; they saw me just like climb up out of the long grass. Mark started calling out “Are you alright Damo?” Then all of a sudden I could hear him running after me – I just went “No, I don’t want to talk to anyone.”
He was really lovely. Some people will either just give you a hug or they’ll just say a couple of things. Mark’s a talker. He just kept talking: “Oh, your dad would be so proud”. He just kept going. Every sentence just made me cry more. It was very cute, but it was also very him. He’s a very kind man.
An original version of this story appeared in IF Magazine #184 August – September.