Some films simply tell a story, whilst others paint a powerful portrait of a world the audience may not have otherwise seen. In his debut feature Mad Bastards, writer / director Brendan Fletcher achieves both the former and the latter, in a heartfelt and haunting story of three generations of men in the Five Rivers region of the Kimberleys in Western Australia. After wowing the crowds at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the brutal and beautiful film finally makes its way to Australian screens. In preparation for the local release, we chat to the delightful director about movies, music, mud flats, and the titular mad bastards.
SW: First things first, congratulations on the film.
BF: Have you seen it?
SW: Yes, I saw it a few weeks ago and I thought it was beautiful.
BF: Thank you.
SW: And congratulations on the success you’ve had so far with it.
BF: Thank you. We haven’t even opened in Australia yet and people are already saying congratulations.
SW: Tell me about that. You’ve spent years making the film, it’s screened at Sundance, an international audience has seen it, but it hasn’t been seen throughout Australia – how does that feel?
BF: That’s a good question. I mean, we’re obviously very, very happy with international recognition at festivals like Sundance. It was just a very exciting time and a privilege to be a part of that. But, in the bottom of our tummies we’re thinking, really, what’s going to happen in Australia? That’s the most important audience for us. So we screened it to the communities where we filmed it, we had some previews that we started even before we went to Sundance, and we showed it to the families and the people were involved in the film, which was really important to us. We really want Aussies to see this film, we really want the home audiences here to hopefully embrace it like we’ve seen with international audiences. It’s a little bit unusual, I suppose, doing it the other way around, but on the other hand it also helps create some excitement and some interest in the film. So it’s working for us, I think.
SW: It’s not that unusual – in the last few years we’ve seen a number of other Australian films do the same thing, touring the festival circuit before they play to a home audience.
BF: Yeah, I think people these days are pretty discerning about which films they watch. It’s a stamp of quality when an A-list festival picks your film, and there are audiences out there that that stamp helps them pick one film over another, or something like that.
SW: You mentioned that you did show it to the communities where it was filmed before you took it overseas. How did they react?
BF: Well, I was nervous because it’s the ultimate home crowd. And we’d made the film so collaboratively – we’d made it with them in so many ways, with their families, shot in their backyards, featuring their cars and their country. So I guess we were really nervous about the response we’d get from them. What’s given us a lot of confidence is that they were just absolutely thrilled with the film. And you’ve seen the film, it’s a fairly hard-hitting film. I was a bit concerned about whether there would be any dramas with that. To be honest, everyone in the community was just so happy that they saw the true reflection of how it is on the screen.
One of the reasons that I made this film was because you so rarely hear good stories. You hear about the violence, and the alcohol, the interventions, and all the stuff like that, but you never hear the stories of what I would call ‘quiet inspiration’. Where there’s someone that’s given up grog, or there’s someone that’s finally got a job, or there’s someone that’s turned their life around, or put their family back together. They were the stories that I heard when I was making all these documentaries and music videos with the Pigram brothers, and those people who had lived those lives and told me those stories were the inspiration for me to make this film. So, I think that when the mob in the Kimberley actually saw this movie, and saw that first of all we weren’t patronising them, we weren’t exploiting them, we were actually telling it exactly like it is, well, it’s a brutally realistic film. But at the same time it is a celebration of redemption and the fact that you can change your life, you can choose your course and you can actually make decisions in your life that lead to a better future.
SW: If we go back to something that you just touched on, which was the positive message of the film. How difficult was it to craft the film to convey that message?
BF: Really difficult. I mean, you never want to preach in a movie, and we worked that out pretty early. You don’t want to have a message film. You don’t want that, especially for a film with indigenous themes or about indigenous people. I think the broader audience, well, there’s so much stigma attached to this subject, that it is really important that people don’t feel like they’re being lectured to, or that they’re made to feel guilty or anything like that. I think the film would have a broader reach if people just get sucked in to a great story, and the music helped us tremendously as well, hearing great music is part of that. So, from very early on we really wanted to be about just making a great film. Making something that was moving, entertaining, full of great music and impactful. And then hopefully, if you want to dig deeper and look at the themes and messages, they’re certainly there. There’s no question that they’re there. But the main priority was to make great cinema first, and if you want to unpack it, well that’s there too.
SW: If we start at the beginning of the process, can you tell me about how the idea came about?
BF: I suppose most filmmakers come up with an idea in their brain, and then they go and cast the film once they’ve written a script. They say “I’m going to make a film about blah blah blah and I’ll get this person to act this part”. For me, that was actually back to front. I met a lot of people that I really thought were movie stars but just didn’t have a movie. People that had great charisma, fantastic presence, funny, charming, but were kind of tough. Really tough, real life tough. And I just thought, man, if these guys can act in front of a camera, then I think that we could have something really original. That was always the guide for me, starting from inside the community and working out from there, rather than coming from the outside and going in with pre-conceptions and with scripts and with actors in mind. I just felt like, me going into that world, spending so much time there, so many years with the Pigram brothers, it was just like another world, almost like another dimension. And I thought that it was no good coming in with all of our world stuff and trying to recreate it, when i could sit inside here and try to craft the story with people who could act in it, try to craft it so that they can actually give good performances because it is so close to their lives.
So that was the process – starting inside the community, finding the people we wanted to be in the movie, and then working the story out with them. We had over five years of script development and casting workshops where, well, the first development grant was in 2003, and we didn’t finish that development process until 2008 when we got the movie financed. Through that five years, I think we went to the funding bodies with 65, maybe 70 scenes that we had shot and cut and put music to. We’d already been through a lot of different actors, and a lot of different stories. We could have had 100 films with the stories we collected, but we just gradually narrowed it down and came up with a story that was very universal, really. I mean, it’s a father and son story, but it is very unique in its place, in its sense of place, and in how we wanted to tell that story. If you look at the credits you’ll see that the three main actors – Dean, Greg and Johnnie, the three main male actors anyway – are credited as co-scriptwriters with me. So that collaboration was kind of tantamount to it retaining its unique voice. We worked out, well, what do we have to offer people going to the movies? We haven’t got Tom Cruise. We haven’t got a big name director – I’ve never made a film before. We haven’t got a big budget, and we’re not going to do lots of action scenes. What we do have is the unique music, and these performers that are really unique in what they have to offer, so we wanted to foreground that as much as possible. And we never really strayed from that choice.
SW: Can you tell me about the process of working with the three main male co-leads as collaborators, and what that meant for you as a writer and director?
BF: Look, it was really challenging to be honest with you. If you imagine anyone’s life, and all the stories they have to offer, and then try to juggle three very significant men, and fit that into one movie. It was very challenging trying to balance all of the material we had. And I have to say, the guys were great, there was not one moment where we had tension creatively about what should or shouldn’t be in the film. Everyone was very respectful. But, for me, it was just a flood of material, a flood of stories. And in terms of how we did it, we always knew, me and the Pigram brothers, that it was going to be a story about men. A story about what your cycle is, what you’re passing on as a man to the next generation coming up, what are you leaving behind, what’s your legacy, your teaching.
So we always knew that, and we knew that we wanted it to be a redemptive film, with a character that wrestles with his demons, but makes clear steps to overcome those demons. We always knew that was the general shape of it, but, basically, I sat down with those guys over years and just talked to them. And it was very, very casual. It was very organic. It was part of fishing trips and camping trips. It wasn’t in a conference room, it was out on swags, near rivers. I started off with notepads that I used to take with me in my top pocket. I started off with them, and I have about 50 at home. Then I started recording them on digital recorders, and then finally I started filming them, because I realised that the whole physicality of how they spoke and the words they used was so much a part of their entity. You’ll see, if you see the film, that some of that is in there, some of those oral stories that I recorded are actually in the movie.
Then it was just a basic case of, well, we’ve got the shape of the movie, how do we plug this story from Dean into this story point where the narrative needs it? Sometimes I’d take a part of one persons story and put it into the other character – it was a very creative process from that point of view, and like I said, very organic. I was living with Dean in Broome for quite a while, so we had many conversations. I’d be sitting there with him, late at night, drinking cups of tea. I remember there was this one night in particular, and he said “I feel like I’ve got a little man inside me with an axe”. And I turned to him and said, “man, there’s a line from the film right there”. I felt like I was living in a movie, there were a lot of times that I felt like I was actually in the movie. I thought that if we could somehow create this, then we might have something.
SW: One of the things I found when watching it was that it looks like a film, as opposed to a documentary, but you feel as though you are watching real people, you don’t feel as though they are acting.
BF: It’s funny, because I think there’s a certain “actor-y” quality that we sometimes expect from movie actors, and I think this feels much more raw than that. This feels like real people just doing their thing. As you said, it has a cinematic quality to it that is really courtesy of the cinematography, Allan Collins and how we shot that. All I really wanted was for it to be truthful, to be really raw and truthful. So it was just about creating a process that supported that.
SW: We’ve touched upon the influence of the Pigram brothers and the importance of music in the film. Can you tell me a bit more about their role in the production, and the role of music in the film?
BF: The film was built on the relationship between myself and Alan and Stephen Pigram. We’re the partners of the company that made the film, and really, the collaboration between us and the two worlds that we come from represents the whole movie and how we made it, in many ways. Basically, we’d made the music videos, we’d made some documentaries, we’d made some short films, and won awards, and we thought “oh well, we’ve made short films, let’s make a long one”. That was literally in 2001. And we had the name ‘Mad Bastards’. We thought that was a good name, and from there we had the general shape. But, from the word go, I knew that the music was going to be a key device to transport people. I think people go to the movies because they want to be taken away, they want to escape their everyday world, they want to go on a journey.
The great thing about the Pigram brothers’ music is that they make unique music from a certain part of the world. They’ve defined the Kimberleys now. And they’re not hugely mainstream, so for a lot of people, when they see this film now they’ll be discovering the Pigram brothers. They’re what I call calypso folk music, that sort of ukulele, the mandolins, and the beautiful folk harmony. I guess their music speaks for the country, and that was always so important to me, that the music was more than a soundtrack. Which is why the Pigram brothers, and even Alex Lloyd, why they’re in the film, because I didn’t want them to be relegated to the background. I wanted them to be in the film, to have a firm place in the film. We looked at films like O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coen brothers movie where the fabulous Soggy Bottom Boys pop up every now and then, sing a song – they’re kind of a Greek chorus, the way the pop up like that. So from the word go, to be honest, we had the music before we had the script. Some of these songs in the film were written for the film, and we’d talked about a certain character or a certain feeling for the film, and before I’d know it Alex and the boys had written a song. There’s some cases where that was even before the script. So that’s how important it was. And in terms of us having a back to front process, that’s how it was. Before we had the script we had the actors, and before we had the actors we had the music.
SW: You mentioned O Brother Where Art Thou as an influence. Were there other films that sprang to mind during the development of the movie?
BF: There were a couple of films. I can’t not mention Once Were Warriors. It was just such a powerful film and even in the Kimberely, where we were making this movie, there were so many people in the middle of nowhere that would talk about Once Were Warriors and the effect that it had on their lives. So that was always in our vision, I suppose. But, at the same time, it was a little bit theatrical at times. I love films from South America – The Motorcycle Diaries and City Of God. Those two films are really visceral films, and really cross over with the use of real people as well. I guess we wanted to give it that feeling you see with some of those Mexican filmmakers, Amores Perros, and so on. The films that really have such a strong sense of place, and a strong sense that you’re in the room, so you feel like you’re running down the street chasing that chicken in City Of God. Or you really feel like you’re on that motorcycle in The Motorcycle Diaries. At the same time, to be really honest with you, we talked about that, and then we just let that go. We thought that the main guide for this film is the place, and the main guide is the country, the main guide is the Pigram brothers for me. I kept coming back to questions like, what are the stories that these boys have told me, what is the music sounding like, what is the place like? And that was really the strongest guide, more than any other cinematic reference.
SW: You’ve taken the film to Sundance, and been through that experience. What was it like?
BF: Look, you know, last year we were just a bunch of mad bastards on the mud flat in 45 degree heat. No one really knew who we were, and we had a really little film. So to go from that to international recognition and reviews in Variety magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, was just incredible. For us it was just such a great validation of all the hard work over so many years. And the American audiences, we worried, of course we worried – would the film translate, would they understand the accent? But people came out, and were just so moved. All our screenings, every one of our five screenings were sold out, and the Q&As were packed with questions. We sold the film to North America, a company called IFC films. They’ve done one release in the States on a VOD platform, and there’s another release coming out theatrically later this year. It was just incredibly exciting for us. And taking Dean, the lead actor, and the Pigrams, and Alex over there – Dean had never seen snow before, and didn’t even have a passport, he’d never been in a plane before. It was kind of exciting going from the middle of a mud flat to an internationally recognised festival. It was very, very exciting.
SW: To wrap up, what’s next for you?
BF: Well, I’ve got to do ‘Cheeky Bitches’ next, don’t IQ! Look, I’m still well and truly in Mad Bastards world at the moment. We’ve got a fairly strong music arm to the project as well. We’ve just been at Bluesfest, and the boys are touring in May, so I’m connected to all that. And I’ve just been living this film for so long, it’s sort of hard for me to create any brain space to generate new ideas. But I’m dusting off a couple of scripts in the bottom drawer at the moment, and just starting to think about what comes next. Watch this space.