By Denise Young
It’s no limo that delivers me to Quorn in outback South Australia to visit the set of the movie ‘The Last Ride’ based on a book with the same title that I wrote. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach and deep misgivings as I putter up in the gutless pram with an engine that I hired in Adelaide, through the flatness of Spencer Gulf country towards Port Augusta: misgivings about what I’m doing there and how I’ll be treated. After all, I’ve seen ‘Adaptation’, where the writer Charlie Kaufman is evicted from the set of ‘Being John Malkovich’ for getting in the cameraman’s eyeline. Mac Gudgeon, the scriptwriter who turned my book into the movie currently being shot, told me writers were about as much use on set as spare pricks on a honeymoon.
There’s a bigger question as well. ‘The Last Ride’ is my baby. Strangers are about to turn my baby into another kind of beast altogether. Will I like or hate what I see?
Everything seems good on paper. Mac showed me the first two drafts of the film script, even though he wasn’t obliged to under the terms of the contract in which I’d sold him the option, and he encouraged my feedback. I felt that he’d stayed true to the spirit of the book and, above all, that he loved my two main characters, father and son, Kev and Chook, as much as I did. Indeed I thought that as a man he’d found some other more masculine elements in that relationship. However, I haven’t seen the final shooting script and don’t even know how it ends. The endings that Mac has come up with in the drafts I’ve seen so far are more dramatic than the one I chose in the book, but I’m prepared to take on trust whatever they arrive at, knowing that film demands a more dramatic climax than literature.
The director, Glendyn Ivin, and the director of photography, Greg Fraser, are both highly regarded. Producers Nick Cole and Antonia Barnard have steered the film through all the hoops and hoopla with love and terrier-like intensity, snapping at the heels of funding bodies till they got the money to make it.
Nick bought the option to turn my novel into a film six years earlier, before it was published. He’d seen the manuscript courtesy of our shared agent. The option ran initially for three years then was renewed for another three. During that six years Nick moved steadily through the various stages required to get a film funded.
First of all he engaged the Melbourne scriptwriter Mac Gudgeon, author of many TV scripts and the film ‘The Delinquents’, and the various drafts of the script were then funded by Film Victoria. Another producer came on board, the very experienced Antonia Barnard, one of whose recent productions was ‘The Painted Veil’.
Then an up and coming director, Glendyn Ivin, who won a prize at Cannes for his short film ‘Cracker Bag’ in 2003 and was looking at various ideas for his first feature film, became attached to this project. He told me later that what drew him to it was its exploration of the father/son relationship.
Finally internationally and locally acclaimed actor Hugo Weaving committed. Films need all these alignments of enthusiasm from big and well respected names to attract funding from government and private investors if they’re to have a show of attracting even the minimal budgets they need. This film’s budget is $4 million.
I checked my stars that morning: Taureans were promised a great day, with exciting events about to unfold. There was a hitch the night before which perhaps signalled a bad omen however. I was staying at a friend’s government flat in Port Augusta when we managed to lock ourselves out at 11.30pm on a freezing winter’s night in our pyjamas without money or phone, while going to check on something I’d left in the car. The only place open in town was MacDonalds. Its car park was a bleak place, the icy wind whipping round our pyjama clad legs while we tried to persuade the two astonished kids on duty at the takeaway window to lend us a phone and let us ring the only locksmith in town, who eventually woke up, got out of bed and came round to let us in around 12.30 am.
I didn’t get a lot of sleep with all that going on and know I’m not looking my best when I hiccup into Quorn looking for Fifth Street. It isn’t hard to find. They go in order, in the tiny and very attractive town, with broad streets, old stone houses and an ancient steam train that run on the weekends through the Pichi Richi cut. I see that Fifth Street is blocked off with tape to stop cars entering, and there are the usual large vans and film people bustling purposefully about. There’s a crowd of neighbours hovering, waiting for excitment to strike.
Somebody with an armful of costumes is getting out of one of the ubiquitous four wheel drives that power and transport a film’s cast and crew when I pull up, so I nervously introduce myself. Her reaction is reassuring: ‘Oh how wonderful to meet you. I loved your book!!!’ The producers have been kind enough to order a dozen copies of my book for cast and crew to read while they were hanging round on set.
It’s remarkable how many people have read it and come up to talk to me about the book. I’m not silly enough to believe they all loved it, but at least the presence of the book on set gives credibility and respect to the work on which the movie is based.
I spot Hugo Weaving who is playing the main character, Kev.
He comes straight up to tell me that he also loves my book and relishes playing the character of Kev, a violent man, but one who in his own way loves his ten year old son, Chook, and is trying to do the best he can, according to his not-very-bright lights. Hugo’s passion and commitment to the project shine out and, no matter what the result, I know instantly that there is deep integrity as well as talent at work here.
Tom Russell, the boy playing Chook, is a great choice. He looks wonderful and his acting is instinctive and ‘in the moment’. He and Hugo already seem to share an easy rapport, which is important as the film depends for its impact on the relationship between these two, who are almost never off screen. And Tom adores the Jack Russell, Mr Right, introduced into the film as Kev’s girlfriend Maryanne’s pet dog. This feels freaky because I had no Jack Russell in my book but have just lost a much loved one as a pet.
The whole crew seem to share Hugo’s passion for the project. I’m told again and again how beautiful this film is going to be. ‘Think Wim Wenders with an Australian accent’, they assure me. Even allowing for the hype and enthusiasm that comes from a shared endeavour, this is heady stuff.
There is one slight hitch: they’re not actually shooting any scenes from my book while I’m there. All the scenes being shot during my two days on set are new ones from Mac Gudgeon’s script. In my book the old girlfriend that Kev hopes will give them shelter is not home when the pair turn up on the run after a crime committed by Kev. They sleep on a park bench in Broken Hill, now translated to Quorn. In the movie script, the park bench has become Quorn Cemetery. I’ve missed the dawn shoot where the two wake up and steal flowers from graves to take back to Maryanne’s house, in the hope that if she’s home the flowers will sweeten things between her and Kev.
I arrive in time to see the two forlorn figures, carrying cheap luggage and limp sleeping bags, turn up on Maryanne’s front porch and present her with the flowers. The house’s real owner, Tim, is ever present on set. In the movie, Maryanne is living with a home renovator and Tim’s house was chosen because it was in a partially renovated state. Unfortunately before the shoot started Tim was unable to resist doing a bit more work and the producers have had to beg him to leave the kiichen unrenovated.
Kev and Maryanne end up in bed, again a scene not in my book, but one that you might expect on film, leaving Chook playing with Mr Right and peeping in the bedroom window. Despite the brief physical connection, Maryanne is not prepared to shelter the two and they’re soon on their way, though not before Kev steals some money from her wallet, watched by the dog Mr Right.
Over dinner that night the director shares with me via his laptop some stills already shot and some locations coming up. They reveal a dark, moody intensity and a landscape whose vast emptiness mirrors the moral and emotional emptiness within Kev. The landscape looks as if it will truly be a character in the movie, with the inspiring red terrain of the Flinders Ranges a particular highlight. Though I set my book around Broken Hill I can see that the locations the producers and director have chosen are more than its equal.
One new element introduced into the shooting script comes from Glendyn’s life, he tells me. It’s a memory from his Melbourne childhood of seeing a neighbour killing, skinning and butchering a sheep in his backyard. He has Chook watching from the car window as his father’s friend, Max, does just this. This moment of horror mirrors some of the horrors he has already witnessed in his young life. As well, instead of Max coming from yet another Australian farmhouse, as he does in my book, Glendyn has found a perfect post industrial, semi-rural place for him to live and work in a car wrecking yard. This fits perfectly with the harsh events that unfold there and gives a quite different visual interest. I like these changes. They make visual metaphors where the book has to rely on words.
Glendyn also tells me of an upcoming scene to be shot on a huge salt lake in SA , Lake Gairdner, where father and son quarrel in the car and Kev puts the boy out and drives off. The image of the small boy plodding across the vast lake sends shivers up my spine. That is the stuff film can do that no amount of written description can achieve.
The crew of around 45 people (small by international fim standards) are currently shooting Week 2 of a six week schedule. They still have large parts of outback South Australia to traverse from Woomera to the Flinders and back to Adelaide. It is, Antonia confides later, a very tiring shoot, with such an intense emphasis on two main characters, including a child actor who cannot be worked as hard as an adult and locations throughout the outback that are universally freezing.
They wake up to mornings with ice on the windscreens of the cars, and so on. Film shoots must be the most cohesive, collaborative and intense periods, with so many people working away from home at such close quarters. They are the polar opposite of working alone as a writer, when, in the privacy of your study/bedroom/attic/coffee shop if you’re JK Rowling, you create characters which, one day if you’re lucky, someone will want to bring to life and animate through the skill of the scriptwriter, actors, director, camera, sound, set building, costume and make up people. Of course this is fraught with dangers and difficulties for the reader as well as the writer, who may not see the characters in the way they are interpreted on film.
Indeed, that is the question people are most interested in asking me: How does it feel to see my baby being interpreted by all these other people? The answer is that it feels thrilling. I am fortunate to have an excellent cast and crew, but I’ve always understood that film is another animal entirely. The baby that was and is my book has been out in the world for nearly four years. I no longer feel possessive of it. It has its own life and that life can’t be touched by the movie, which has its own life and being.
The way I see Kev and Chook, they may not look exactly like Hugo and Tom and there is no Mr Right in my book. But the movie is Glendyn’s and Mac’s and Hugo’s and Tom’s and Greig’s and Antonia’s and Nicholas’s and everybody else’s baby now. It’s a communal expression that I can’t wait to see when it comes out later next year. Before its general release it will be previewed at the Adelaide Film Festival in late February and may even go to Cannes, since Glendyn is a past winner. That would be just perfect. But whatever happens, I will treasure my two days with people passionate about their work, and equally passionate about mine.
There is a taste of the movie on the internet now, at www.lastridemovie.com and my book, published by HarperCollins, is available in good bookshops everywhere