April 26, 2014
It didn’t take long for Don Hany to fall for his winged co-star as he prepared to play the lead role in Healing. In this prison film with a difference, birds and humans strive to escape the cages that hold them.
It’s a bright, clear day on the film set. Overhead, in an arching blue sky, a couple of wild eagles are wheeling and cruising. Meanwhile, at ground level, the bird trainer is weighing an owl. It’s that contrast – between two states of being, between wildness and control, freedom and order – that’s at the heart of the movie.
We’re on location for Healing, a new Australian film that will be released nationally next month. Its central character is Viktor Khadem, a long-term prisoner whose sentence is almost at an end. He’s sent to a prison farm to prepare him for life outside. Don Hany – of East West 101, Offspring and The Broken Shore – plays Viktor, a man who seems turned in on himself and alone.
It’s only when he is asked to take on an utterly unexpected task – caring for a wounded wedge-tail eagle – that something in him clicks, and takes him outside himself. The film is based on a real-life story that caught co-writer-director Craig Monahan’s imagination several years ago.
Hany remembers his first meeting with Grace, one of three birds who play Yasmine, the eagle Viktor is entrusted with. It was in a quiet space, he recalls. ”It took about half an hour of just sitting next to her with no eye contact and just letting her watch me, without any food or distractions. And after that we put the hood back on her, and I held her. And she makes a sound that’s more akin to a seagull, she’s got this endearing whinge about her. She’s humbling and inspiring and kind of mystical at the same time.”
She had her own experience of rehabilitation, he says.
”Grace was a wild bird who was probably eating some carrion on the side of the road, and got a little bit cheeky and got hit by a car before she could get clear. She’s a bit of a sook, a bit wobbly, she nuzzles your neck. She just melted me; I fell for her immediately.”
There is, Hany says, an obvious link between the birds and the prisoners, and their preparation for a return to the world. The metaphor is so rich, in fact, that you don’t need to push it too hard. ”The parallels between caged animals and caged humans seemed to be a great vehicle for telling a story. And ultimately it boils down to an examination of the pain or the experience of understanding that you need to leave the cage, but never quite having the emotional maturity or understanding to accept that it’s the best thing to do. That you’re going to be better off in the long run.”
Hany is younger than the character he plays: he’s been made up to look more grizzled, more weary. And beyond learning to be comfortable around birds, there were other things he needed to do to prepare for the role. Viktor is Iranian, and the character speaks a little Farsi. ”I had family contacts to help me learn what I needed to learn, and Craig was very open to me doing research and welcomed anything I contributed,” Hany says.
He also had to think about what it was like for a man who had deliberately cut himself off from his past, his family and his community because of what he had done. Viktor is wary, isolated, deliberately unsociable. He can look after himself in a prison context: he knows how to stay out of trouble and he’s attuned to the way the prison hierarchy works: it’s a life he’s come to know. ”It was fun to play with the idea that he was obsessed with cleaning. It’s religious and it’s cultural, but in a place where you have to share things, it also highlights how anal a man like that could get,” Hany says. ”You get obsessed with managing what you have to manage, because so little is in your hands.”
The person who prepared Hany for his eagle scenes, bird trainer Andrew Payne, came from Queensland with the three manifestations of Yasmine: Grace, Stella and Bart; all up, he brought 14 birds to take part in the shoot. Monahan had made contact with him years earlier, seeking guidance on what could and could not be done when it came to shooting the scenes involving birds. ”He’s a behavioural scientist in his own way,” Monahan says.
As a child who enjoyed climbing trees and finding nests, Payne was fascinated by birds. He was also interested in ferreting, spotlighting and hunting. He read about the use of birds in hunting, and of the art of falconry, whose history stretches back thousands of years. His favourite period is the late 1400s and early 1500s. ”Henry VIII’s falconer was one of the most important people in his entourage,” Payne says. ”I’m playing around with a novel set in that era, because I think it’s so interesting.”
He shows me a hood he’s made: it’s 20 years old but its design is what it would have been centuries ago, apart from the fact that the best quality leather to use is kangaroo.
Hunting with birds is not legal in Australia, so he decided that he would get to know birds of prey through doing rehabilitation work. ”I learnt a lot about them, and I could do positive things at the same time. The psychology of training birds really captivated me, finding out what made them tick.
”People think that a bird in captivity is a bird in a cage,” he adds, but says that’s a misleading image. ”There is a whole gamut of experiences and techniques involved, so that you have control of the animal, but it has freedom too. You build trust when you are training a bird, so that eventually it can be a thousand feet in the air, and you still have that connection with it and can call it back.”
He wondered if there was a career in this work, although he wasn’t keen on going to a zoo or a sanctuary: ”I like to work for myself, inventing things, making things. I like to build things from scratch, I like being self-employed.”
He is now based on the Gold Coast, but started out in Victoria, setting up the Australian Raptor Centre at Moorooduc, on the Mornington Peninsula. People weren’t keeping birds of prey at the time, and there was a demand for what he did. He didn’t want the public to come to see birds in cages; he set up a mobile display and would take birds to schools and fly them on ovals and in open spaces. ”Then I started getting calls for photo shoots, and film crews started to make contact.”
The demand came from the documentary sector, from advertising, and from TV drama: he found himself training birds to follow vehicles for Supernatural, and supplying birds of prey for Beastmaster. He has worked with crows, sparrows, budgerigars, doves and parrots, but he takes a special pleasure in raptors.
Healing has been a long-term project for Monahan. In 1998, he read a story in The Age by journalist Geoff Strong about a program at Won Wron, a minimum-security facility near Yarram. Healesville Sanctuary had approached Won Wron to see if prisoners could help rehabilitate injured birds of prey and prepare them for a return to the wild. Authorities were sceptical at first: it went against all the accepted wisdom about suitable work for prisoners. Yet it turned out to have been a singular success. Won Wron closed in 1994, but the raptor rehabilitation program continues elsewhere.
Monahan was very moved by the story and its implications. He was struck by the notion that taking responsibility for looking after a wild animal had the capacity to change someone’s life. He and co-writer Alison Nisselle saw that as central. ”That always seemed very profound to us.” It took a long time to bring the story to the screen, to get script, cast and funding in place.
Hugo Weaving – who plays Matt Perry, the prison officer who gets the program started – starred in his two previous films, The Interview (1998) and Peaches (2004), and was on board again from the early stages. ”I think I said to him a few years ago, just don’t change your mind on this one,” Monahan recalls. ”And he never has, he’s such a gentleman, and a pleasure to work with. He’s becoming an elder statesman, an actor other people enjoy working with and admire.”
Healing is set in a jail, but there is none of the familiar imagery of prison movies, Monahan points out: no high walls, no towers, no armed guards, no dogs. There are rules, routines and expectations, however, even in a minimum-security facility. And in this environment, the idea of setting up a program to care for wild birds seems like an indulgence. But Perry prevails, and cages and facilities are built. Other prison inmates are involved too – it’s not only Viktor who is affected by the birds, and there are other stories to be told.
Among them is that of a prisoner called Paul, played by Xavier Samuel, who was a vampire in Twilight Saga: Eclipse and a young man who became the lover of his mother’s closest friend in Adoration. In one of the scenes I see being filmed, Paul is talking to a barking owl he’s taking care of, unaware that Viktor is watching him. Paul is a quiet young man who keeps his distance from the others, but he’s more relaxed and confiding at this moment. Yet one of the challenges in rehabilitating wild birds is that you can’t get too close to them. Viktor, observing this, has to work out how to handle it.
Payne had prepared them carefully, Monahan says, so they understood the limits and constraints of working with birds. The main thing, he says, was that they understood they needed time. Watching the scene with Paul and the owl, it’s clear that Samuel has to adjust a little bit on each take, to accommodate the owl’s movements, shifts and moments of distraction.
”I’d fed her a little bit of rabbit to quieten her, to take the edge off,” Payne says. He also took her off to weigh her, partly in preparation for the next day’s activities. ”Birds have a responsive weight that we call their flying weight – in the wild, they would be hunting at that weight. Any heavier, and it’s more than likely it’ll just go and sit.” It only takes a tiny amount, one way or the other, to affect performance on set: it’s like preparing an athlete for a race, he says.
On set it’s not just about the birds, Payne says, it’s also about the human beings who interact with them. ”Some people have a real reservation – an anxiety that you can’t change quickly. In this field you don’t have a lot of time.”
Hany, he says, had no such reservation. ”It was really good working with Don. He handles the birds well, there’s a good balance when the bird is on the glove. Sometimes you can put a bird on a person’s arm and they are all stiff, it’s just not comfortable for either one.” But with Hany, ”it felt good and it looked good”.
Last week Hany returned to Healesville Sanctuary to renew his acquaintance with birds of prey. He was not in character, and it was not for research purposes. His wife, actress Alin Sumarwata, and their small daughter came along too; they watched Spirits of the Sky, a free-flight presentation featuring raptors, owls and other birds.
Hany is still buoyant and enthusiastic about what he learned about the birds at Healesville, and from Payne. ”As an actor, I felt like a dry kitchen sponge, wanting to soak up stuff from him,” he says.
After shooting Healing, Hany appeared in The Broken Shore, a telemovie based on Peter Temple’s novel of the same name, about a police officer who returns to his coastal home town to recuperate after an injury, then finds himself caught up in a grim, complex, far-reaching mystery. His character was in some ways like Viktor, he says, a damaged man, ”someone who’s fallen off the horse physically and emotionally”.
He’s just returned from Vancouver, where he shot a pilot for a TV drama series called Warriors. He stars alongside Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Homeland); she plays an army psychiatrist who goes to work in a US military hospital after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. While there, she has a relationship with an army surgeon, Hany’s character, who’s also been posted to the hospital.
”It was a great cast and a great director,” he says. The pilot was directed by Martin Campbell, who has made a couple of Bond films (GoldenEye and Casino Royale) and whose TV credits include the British series Edge of Darkness. Hany might have to relocate to the US if Warriors is given the go-ahead to become a series – he won’t know this for another few months. In the meantime, he has something to keep him busy: ”I’ve been really excited about working on my own material. I’ve been doing some writing and I’m really excited about the steps it has taken.”
He’s a little reluctant to go into too much detail, but he says it’s a relationship drama, and – as always seems to be the case in TV shows he admires – ”things work best when they revolve around families”.
There’s probably a role for him in it, but he’s not sure. ”I’d have to audition, obviously!” It has also given him more of an appreciation for all that needs to be done before shows are ready to go into production – as he says cheerfully, ”the work that goes into it before someone like me turns up”.
Recently, he’s had another reason to think about families and their dynamics. In April last year, SBS screened Hany’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, a documentary series that digs into the family histories of well-known figures. Hany was born in Sydney, to an Iraqi father and a Hungarian mother; it was his mother’s side of the family that the show chose to explore.
Sometimes these stories go back several generations, he says, ”but mine was more immediate”. The focus was on his maternal grandfather, a Communist Party secretary in a small farming region in Hungary. ”My mum never understood why he had to be such a cruel man at times, and why his public image was so important to him.” What he discovered about the brutal events in his grandfather’s family background provoked all sorts of reactions and questions in Hany. It made him think about estrangement, about isolation, about the divide between siblings, about the challenge of trying to understand someone’s behaviour without excusing it.
Making Healing was something very different for Hany – he had never worked with animals so closely, never had to prepare ”not only a plan B, but also a plan C and plan D for the way they are going to respond to you. I thought there’d be room for error, but I didn’t anticipate having such an enjoyable experience.” Yet in any project, he adds, ”I need something to prepare or train for, or I feel a bit naked walking into a role. There’s always something, even if it’s not on the page.” The research, the preparation, ”building character, travelling through the story, when you’re most relaxed – that’s when the happy accidents take place”.
Healing opens on May 8.