May 9, 2014
”I REALLY fell for Grace,” says Don Hany. ”She was the one I first met.”
He’s talking about wedge-tailed eagles, the creatures with which he shares the screen in a new Australian film, Healing, now shooting near Kyneton.
The parallels between caged animals and caged humans was a great vehicle to tell a story.
Grace was a rescue bird that had been involved in an accident, Hany says. ”She was probably eating carrion on the side of the road, and got a bit cheeky, and a car hit her before she could get clear.”
She behaves a little differently from birds bred in captivity, he says. ”She’s a bit of a sook” – he mimes putting her on his arm – ”and she did this nuzzle up to my neck, and she just melted me.” Before he first held her, he remembers, he spent half an hour of just sitting quietly, with no eye contact, letting her watch him.
Healing was inspired by an article that writer-director Craig Monahan read in The Age in 1998. Journalist Geoff Strong wrote a moving story about a rescue program at Won Wron prison, run in conjunction with Healesville Sanctuary, that brought together prisoners and birds of prey, with benefits for both. It gave inmates in a low-security prison farms the responsibility for helping rehabilitate injured birds to prepare them for returning to the wild, and the experience seemed to have a profound impact on many.
Monahan made other films, but the story stayed with him, he researched and wrote, with co-writer Alison Nisselle, and found a way to bring Healing to the screen.
Hany (East West 101, Offspring) plays Viktor, a prisoner nearing the end of a long sentence. The cast also includes Hugo Weaving, in his third film with Monahan, as the prison officer who starts the program, and Xavier Samuel (Twilight: Eclipse, and the forthcoming Two Mothers), as one of the young inmates.
Raptor expert and bird-handler Andrew Payne has brought about 14 birds to the set, and prepared the actors to work with them. ”Don was really good,” Payne says. ”He handles a bird well, and there’s the right balance when the bird’s on the glove. Sometimes you’ll put a bird on a person’s arm and they can look all stiff and uncomfortable.” After the pair are introduced ”you can get them, with baby steps, to do more and get the bird accustomed to someone different”.
On set, Payne has his three eagles tethered in safe spots near the aviaries, where they can absorb the atmosphere and get accustomed to the location. Up above, wild birds are soaring and swooping, disconcerted to find these interlopers in their territory. When this happens, the Healing second unit has taken the opportunity to film them in flight.
Meanwhile, Samuel is in one of the aviaries, rehearsing then running through several takes of a scene that also involves Doris, a voluble barking owl that his character has started to dote on.
Hany finds the eagles ”humbling and inspiring and kind of mystical”. Apart from Grace, he works with Stella, ”a bigger female who is very wild. I’d love to cuddle her, but as soon as she gets a taste of food or a hint of weakness, she just goes you. And the other one is Bart, the male, who’s a bit smaller, and he’s fantastic for flying.”
For him, ”the parallels between caged animals and caged humans was a great vehicle to tell a story”, in a setting that has almost none of the images of a traditional prison film. Healing, he says, explores, among other things, something that’s a challenge for long-term prisoners coming close to release – ”the pain of understanding that you need to leave the cage”