A long-time documentarian and short film director, who has received praise and won awards for his work on Black Chicks Talking and Kulli Foot, the prolific Fletcher finally makes his feature film debut with the indigenous drama Mad Bastards.
The film stars newcomer Dean Daley-Jones as TJ, a “mad bastard” who sets off on a journey across the country to visit his estranged son Bullet (Lucas Yeeda). While doing so he evokes the wrath of Bullet’s grandfather and local police officer Texas (Greg Tait).
Filmed in the heart of the Kimberley region and performed by non-professional actors whose own stories were intertwined in the screenplay, Mad Bastards also features an original soundtrack written and performed by legendary indigenous musicians the Pigram Brothers (who also produce the film) and acclaimed singer/song writer Alex Lloyd.
Screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and closing the Adelaide Film Festival, Mad Bastards is set to be released to the masses on the 5th of May, and is sure to be the Australian film to see this year.
I spoke to Brendan about the making the film, its origins, and the Sundance experience.
You are primarily known as a documentary filmmaker. Why make the jump to feature films?
I always had it in my mind that I would like to make dramatic movie, but I decided I didn’t want to hurry it and not make a film just for the sake of making a movie. I suppose because I worked with the Pigram Brothers up in the Kimberley making videos and documentaries, it was kind of around that period of the late ‘90s that I thought, “Hang on…there could be a movie here”. Then they started to introduce me to their extended family and their friends, and they were these larger than life characters and I thought “Why have movie stars to make a movie?” So that was the inspiration at the start.
Mad Bastards is a unique title. Is there an official meaning behind it, or is it open to interpretation?
Completely. I love the boldness of the title. I love the fact that you don’t really know what the film’s about from the title, that it’s a doorway that could lead anywhere. The film kind of announced itself through the title and said “Here I am”, and it’s a very masculine title which is appropriate for the film.
This seemed like a very organic filmmaking process, in that the screenplay was constantly evolving as the cast grew and brought their own stories. Would that be a fair description?
That is a fair description. An example of that is Dean Daley-Jones, who played TJ. He and I were living in Broome and were from similar circles, but I was from Sydney and he was from Perth. We had this very clear vision of the film that it was a Kimberley movie, and that it would be filmed and set in the Kimberley, and when I met Dean I thought, “God. This guy is great! But he’s not from the Kimberley.” So originally I wrote him in as this blow-in who comes from out of town, and gets into some trouble, or something.
I started doing other screen tests with other folks from the Kimberley and I used Dean in the tests because he worked in the film industry as a grip, and he understood the mechanics of how a film works. When I got to the edit suite and saw all of this footage my eyes went from the other people and to Dean all of the time, so I started to think “Hang on. I think this guy has got something.” So we started to make him the focus, and we rewrote the whole concept where initially it was about a Kimberly man and someone he adopts as his son, to where Dean’s character travels down south, blows into the Kimberly to find his actual son…it was sort of similar, but I liked the idea of having the audience be the outsider just like the main character, and it actually turned out in our favour.
Was the idea of casting people who have never acted before something that was there from the beginning?
Yeah, definitely. I really wanted to make this movie where people would say “Who are these guys? What’s this music? Why haven’t I seen this country before?” I just feel like it bursts the bubble when you see the Home and Away actors or the actors from the last film, so it was much more exciting for me to make something that was really fresh and really strong, but with people, music, and images you have never seen before.
You were adamant with shooting in the heart of the Kimberley. Logistically it seemed like a filmmaking nightmare. Did it ever brew in the back of your mind that this might not be the best idea? Or was it you’re doing it no matter the cost?
It was both. (Sighs) It was doing it no matter what the cost, but sometimes I was thinking “Why did we make it so hard for us to organise?” But I really wanted to film something people have never seen before. It’s one thing to shoot a documentary up there, but making a movie? A whole different story. But it’s worth it. I mean, look where we are. We were at Sundance, so I’m very happy that we did it, but it was very hard.
At times we were just in the middle of nowhere, and if you’re not a big production you can’t afford catering or a Port-a-Loo so people can go to the toilet. Sometimes the nearest town was 1200 kilometres away. I couldn’t see the rushes until much afterwards and I suppose from a technical point of view I didn’t mind that, because I made short films with the Pigram Brothers and we followed a similar process, so it was ok to not see the material straight away. But it was just the logistics that was the difficult thing.
I felt the film was essentially about manhood, or what it is to be a man. Is that the primary message which the film is promoting?
Oh yeah! I mean, it’s whatever you take from it, but even though it sound like we were open to anything in terms of our writing process, from the word go we wanted to make a movie about the cycles of being a man.
What imprint are you leaving for the next generation as a man? The people who are looking up to you as a role model, what are they seeing? In TJ’s case it is an absence of a father figure, which means he goes off the rails and it’s the same for other characters.
I used to talk about mad bastardry as a male energy, a sort of jet of energy that I think every man has. It’s about what you do with that force and what you do with that power. Do you put it into being the best brawler in town? Do you drink it away? Or do you sort of focus it on a career or family? I think a lot of men go through this point in their lives, and they realised being a drinking, blueing hero is not a sustainable way to live, and it will either land them dead or in jail. So they have to work out how they reshape that mad bastardry for the betterment of the next generation.
How did the idea of embedding the songs into the film come about?
I always wanted to do that. I just never wanted the music to be a soundtrack, like the radio in the background or in the next room. I always wanted it to be in the movie, as if it was in the movie. Films like Nashville or O’ Brother Where Art Thou? where the Soggy Bottom Boys would pop up kind of like a Greek chorus, they were the only movie I could compare it to.
To me it was about mixing unique music into a unique movie, from a unique part of the world, and the music has such a strong element that I didn’t want to let it be relegated to the background, so I just put the Pigram Brothers playing the songs into the scene. I am very happy how it turned out, but one of the most difficult things was the balance of the music and the story.
What was the Sundance experience like?
Sundance itself was incredible, to go from this little film that no one really knew about, to the international scale with The Hollywood Reporter and Variety magazine…it was just incredible. We didn’t know how it was going to play. We hadn’t really shown it to anyone. Would they understand the language? Would it be too aboriginal? Would they get the story?
The great thing was that afterwards we had people from the screenings coming up to us from all over the world. Americans, Europeans, guys from Hawaii…everywhere, and they were all saying “I’ve been through that”, or “I know someone just like that”, or “My next door neighbour is like that all the time”. It was a fairly universal story. It might be set in a very unique part of the world, but it was about a story of a family reconnecting and trying to live their lives together. The great thing about it was that it resonated across the board. Not just with the Aboriginal audience, or an Australian audience.
Mad Bastards will be released in Australian cinemas on May 5th through Transmission Films.