The public knows Eric Bana as the Prince of Troy, Mossad agent, time traveling Chicago librarian, and easily angry Berkeley scientist. But as his Hollywood career took off, they rarely saw the Melbourne native play an Aussie.
Overall, “there is just no Australian part in international films,” Bana said in a video interview from her home in Melbourne, adding: “When you consider the impact Australian actors have had Internationally over the past 30 years, they must be quite used to hearing our voices – because we’ve done a lot of talk shows. “
Even in Australia, audiences tend to flock to the latest imported Hollywood releases rather than films made in and about their own country. But in February, for apparently the first time in the country’s box office history, the top three films were all Australian. Two of them – “The dry,” with and produced by Bana, and “Heights,” with Simon Baker – are receiving US releases this month, while the Naomi Watts led by “Penguin Bloom “ World premiere on Netflix in January.
“It seems significant that the stories originated in Australia and that they have Australian tracks and that the characters are Australian,” Bana said.
It’s been decades since “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Muriel’s Marriage” had a similar joint theatrical coup in 1994, and even longer since “Crocodile Dundee” became the biggest commercial success of the country, a record that still holds.
“We have a double whammy. We get all the American content, plus we have huge connections with the UK, so we watch all the UK stuff too, ”said Graeme Mason, managing director of Screen Australia, the government agency responsible for supporting the local cinema and television. production. “It puts real pressure on Australian stuff to cut in theaters.”
But then came the pandemic. As Hollywood studios delayed many of their blockbusters, they gave way to Australian productions to capture ticket sales in a country with relatively few cases of coronavirus. Again, it was not obvious that the public would introduce themselves.
Baker, the actor, who is based in New South Wales, believes that “Australians get a little cultural thrill seeing their own accent on screen” and “an inferiority complex,” he said. declared. “People said to me, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw this movie the other day. You should see this. I’ll warn you, however, it’s Australian. ”
Additionally, Australia’s strict Covid-19 containment measures, which included border closures, phased lockdowns and widespread contact tracing, meant many residents were reluctant to return to theaters despite the extremely low risk of community transmission. in most areas. “We had to remind them that it was safe to go to the movies and go there,” Mason said.
In the weeks leading up to the release of “The Dry”, “High Ground”, “Penguin Bloom” and the Indigenous dance documentary “Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra ”, Screen Australia and local distributors mounted a generalized campaign to encourage audiences to return to the cinema and support Australian films. Their efforts have paid off.
“The Dry,” based on Australian author Jane Harper’s 2017 bestselling novel about a Melbourne detective who returns to his small town after a gruesome crime, has grossed over US $ 16 million in Canada. the country’s box office after its January start. This places it in the top 15 highest grossing Australian films of all time in the country.
Shooting in over a dozen small towns across the state of Victoria in 2019, Bana and director Robert Connolly worked closely with local communities to highlight the realities of life in the Australian region, which was then grappling with a drought and historic bushfires. When the town’s hostels ran out of rooms to accommodate crew members, locals welcomed them into their homes.
“I always felt that the only chance we had to reach an American audience was the success of the film in his homeland,” Bana said. “And for it to work for Australians, it had to be really real and authentic.”
Bruna Papandrea, whose Made Up Stories banner produced the adaptations of “The Dry” and “Penguin Bloom,” said there was no way “The Dry” could have been Americanized the way the Australian author Liane Moriarty “Big Little Lies” and “Nine Perfect Strangers ” were reset as series, which she also produced.
“The landscape was such a massive character in ‘The Dry’,” she said. “That’s not to say it couldn’t have been California, because I think California in terms of climate mimics Australia in a lot of ways. But it was not a consideration for me to reset it. I didn’t even lift it.
She hopes viewers of “The Dry” (in theaters and on demand) will have a different understanding of the country. “Everyone thinks there are kangaroos running around the streets here. Which, by the way, there are sometimes, ”she said. “But one of the reasons I really want ‘The Dry’ to work internationally is because it shatters that idea of what people perceive to be an Australian film.
As the pandemic has seen a slew of overseas (and celebrity) projects hit Australian shores, like Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” and Julia Roberts-George Clooney’s upcoming romantic comedy “Ticket to Paradise”. Many take place elsewhere and star non-Australians.
Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis Presley, which co-stars Tom Hanks, wrapped up production earlier this year in Queensland. This film, like previous ones shot locally with “Moulin Rouge,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Babe,” is technically considered “Australian” because it features Australians in top creative roles, Mason said. – although the audience may not see an obvious connection on screen. Meanwhile, George Miller’s “Mad Max” prequel, “Furiosa”, will be start production in New South Wales in June. Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian called it “the greatest film ever made in Australia” in a tweet, claiming that it would support more than 850 local jobs and bring the equivalent of more than US $ 272 million to the economy.
“I don’t tell a painter what to paint on the canvas,” Mason said. “But we would like the majority of the list to reflect Australians in themselves and the world.”
‘Furiosa’ and Elvis’ film qualified for government Producer offset, which offers a 40% tax reduction for films that meet certain Criteria, including location, nationality of filmmaker or subject. Movies like “The Dry” and “High Ground” also depended on this lag, and a motion to reduce the discount to 30 percent earlier this year, a backlash was seen.
“’The Dry’ wouldn’t have been done without that extra 10 percent,” said Papandrea. “We invested every penny we had in it. There are a lot of forces that came into play to hopefully make this a monumental moment for Australian cinema and show the importance of maintaining our own stories.
Baker also intended to put the spotlight back on these Australian stories. After spending more than two decades in the United States, appearing in “The Mentalist” on television and appearing in “The Devil Wears Prada” and other films, he returned to Australia five years ago. He has largely turned to local projects, notably “High Ground” (available on request).
Shot in the country’s Northern Territory in collaboration with First Nations communities, the fictional story paints a heartbreaking picture of the actual massacres of Indigenous peoples by white settlers and police in the early 1900s. Director Stephen Johnson said It took more than 20 years to make “High Ground”, in part because of its purpose.
Baker said there was a reluctance to see Indigenous history on screen that stems from the “shame” white Australians feel in the face of colonial atrocities. And after the film’s January theatrical release in the country, some viewers were in disbelief that the gruesome events could be based on reality, said Witiyana Marika, a leader of the Rirratjingu people who produced and co-stars.
“There was a lot of confrontation and questioning and saying, ‘Is that true? Is this what happened here in Australia? ”Said Marika. “People thought it hadn’t happened in their own backyard.”
This disbelief underscores the importance of bringing a range of Australian stories to the screen. Asian-Australian actors, for example, are grossly under-represented, and artists like Chris Pang (“Crazy Rich Asians”) have been outspoken about the lack of opportunities, which has driven them to pursue careers in the industry. foreign.
Baker supports the Make It Australian campaign, which urges the government to require streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime to pledge to spend at least 20% of their local revenues on original Australian content.
“We’re a storytelling nation,” Baker said. “It’s in the DNA of this place long before the English landed on the shore. I think we can find a balance in which we can try to stimulate the economy with the arrival of overseas production, but also protect local content, protect the cultural significance of local stories. “
Yet the nature of Australia’s film industry is likely to change again after the pandemic. Bana predicted an “exodus” of international talent to Los Angeles, while Mason admitted that Australian films were unlikely to take over the box office on a regular basis.
“I’m not stupid,” Mason said. “When Marvel and James Bond start to come back, they’re still going to be popcorn highlights. But I think it’s time to remind ourselves that we can make great stories that Australians want to see and the world wants to see. We need to do more. “