BLURRING the line between fact and fiction, The Tender Hook, starring Hugo Weaving and Rose Byrne, looks at Sydney and Brisbane’s own underbelly.
The story of The Tender Hook is one of misplaced adventure.
The story behind it is more of misplaced geography.
Jonathan Ogilvie is a Sydney filmmaker who has made a story about his home town.
The twist is he filmed it in Melbourne and was inspired, in part, by a scandal that took place in Brisbane.
"It’s a funding issue," he says of the decision to travel to Victoria to shoot his $7 million film about criminal figures involved in Sydney’s boxing game in the 1920s in Victoria.
"The reality of it is that if they gave me the money, I would have shot it on the Moon."
And the decision to go where the money was has paid off, with the first-time feature director able to work with a cast that includes Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne, Luke Carroll and Pia Miranda.
"The film opens and closes on what would have been the old Glebe Island bridge, a swivel bridge, of which there is only about three in Australia," Ogilvie says.
"And one happened to be in rural Victoria, in a place called Sale.
"The nature of the film is that it is a very contained world.
"I had always envisioned it in the same way that you have the light in the boxing ring and everything else fades away to black, that was kind of my metaphor to how I approached all of the locations anyway."
A labour of love
After eight short films, Ogilvie has spent the past 10 years getting this feature film out of his head and on to the big screen.
And the inspiration for the story came, as many wild ideas are prone to do, late at night and with the help of some liquid stimulation.
"I would walk home late at night, often drunk, down these streets," he says of the period a decade ago when he first thought of the film while living in the inner city suburb of Redfern.
"And I started reading about the history, particularly of Surry Hills which at one point was called the Barbary Coast by the police because it was where all the pirates were."
Ghosts of the past
The characters in his film are taken from those he discovered in the city’s past.
The hero of the film is a boxer called Art (Matt Le Nevez), a rugged and stubborn fighter who might not make the big time but is determined to make it in his own way.
Ogilvie based the character on the real Art Walker, a small-time boxer who never made it big but never took a step backwards in a fight.
At one stage, Walker began a feud with a notorious gunman of the time called Chow Hayes.
He was killed when he fell off a ferry in Sydney Harbour while fighting with a sailor.
In the film, Art catches the eye of the jazz-loving gangster McHeath (Weaving) and that of his girl, Iris.
"Iris, which is Rose Byrne’s character for instance, is primarily based on two women in Sydney, Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine, who became famous in their later years," Ogilvie says.
"So it’s kind of like the film is backtracking what they may have been before they became famous as the madams of the underworld."
Sydney’s seedy side
Ogilvie sees the film as a way of bringing the rich history of Sydney’s seedy side to life.
And there’s a tip, for filmgoers, to spot where the film strays from the fact and embarks into fiction.
"The stuff that’s actually a little hard to believe is the truth," the filmmaker says.
"Art Walker actually got shot on the corner of Albion and Riley streets and the bullet bounced off the button of his coat.
"That’s taken straight from the report."
Then there is the unlikely plan of McHeath’s to head north so he can present Art as a visiting American pugilist come to fight his sparring mate, who is a talented indigenous boxer (Carroll).
"That’s actually based on a true event, a ring-in scandal involving Ron Richards, who was a very good Aboriginal boxer, and they had this Al Norwood fight.
"It turned out the guy who was Al Norwood was actually a bowser boy in Sydney, and he was the sparring partner of Ron Richards."
The Truth newspaper reported that Al Norwood was actually Lance May, who got knocked out in the third round giving what the paper described as a "hit run case … (who) gave a fair representation of the dying swan" in front of a packed crowd at Brisbane Stadium.
The sham, which took place in 1936, is now an almost forgotten footnote in the career of the great Queensland fighter who is considered to be one of the greatest boxers to have come out of Australia.
"At the time Ron Richards couldn’t get anyone to fight him because he was too good.
"So they set this all up, and the Truth paper blew it up," Ogilvie says.
Talk to Ogilvie about his film, and he is particularly pleased with the way he’s used coloured pieces of archival footage to set the scene, including one scene where he inserts two of his actors into a Sydney street scene that happened 80 years or so ago.
"I love the temporal play of that," he says.
"It’s something that excites me."
However, it is not just the visuals where he mixes up the present and the past.
Importance of music
The music throughout the film is just as chronologically challenged and just as strategic.
As McHeath, Weaving sings two songs in the film, Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man and Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, both of which come from a generation or more after the rest of the story is taking place.
Ogilvie, who admits to having played in a few punk bands over the years, collaborated again with Chris Abrahams, a musician who he worked with on all of his previous eight short films.
"(Abrahams) came up with this idea of ‘evil ragtime’, which I really liked a lot," Ogilvie says of the film’s music theme.
But having decided his gangster was one who fancied himself as a jazz lyricist, he needed to ensure his lead actor was also of the same breed.
The trouble was, he admits, he wasn’t sure if Weaving could sing.
"He came around to Chris’s place," he says.
"I sung a few bars to get him into it and then I realised he had a better voice than me.
"So I thought ‘that’s good, it will work’."
There is clearly a rich heritage to this film about a boxer who is trying to fight his way, if not to the top, then at least up from the bottom.
Ogilvie says in making his own addition to a popular genre he revisited some of the great boxing films to study their secrets.
"Absolutely, and to me the obvious one is Raging Bull but then there are others," he says.
"Body and Soul (1947) is one of my favourites and actually Fat City (1972), which is one of John Huston’s later films with Stacey Keach.
"I was more interested in the anti-hero boxing story rather than the Rockys.
"Boxing movies tend to set up the boxers as the patron saints surrounded by sinners and he has to walk through that world and see if he’s going to get tainted or not by it."
Having invested a decade of his life into making The Tender Hook, Ogilvie is now looking ahead.
"I’m obviously hoping that the film will do well when it gets released but you’re thinking of your next project," he says.
"Obviously I hope it won’t take 10 years to get made, I don’t have that many years left."
He has started working on his next feature film, which will be a World War II story called The Straggler about a New Zealand soldier fighting in Crete.
"We’ve shot Sydney in Melbourne and now I’m going to shoot Crete in New Zealand," he says.
The Tender Hook is now screening.