When Robert Connolly picked Bangarra Artistic Director Stephen Page to direct Sand – one of the episodes of the film adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning – he brokered a marriage between an established dance talent and another medium. By Caroline Baum.
Now the two are reunited in Spear, a unique feature-length dance film generating considerable buzz beyond the dance world. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery Programme in September to great acclaim, ahead of its Australian premiere at the upcoming Adelaide Film Festival. Connolly is currently juggling special event screenings at art festivals and a limited art house release ahead of its ABC broadcast, all in 2016.
“We want to make this a special occasion experience,” he says. “It’s the kind of film that is wonderful to see on a summer night in the open air.’
The film features a slather of new screen talent including emerging Indigenous producer John Harvey, who worked closely with Rob Connelly.
“John is an exceptional producer,” says Connelly. “He brings terrific storytelling skills to his big picture approach to filmmaking. He joined Arenamedia under Screen Australia’s mentorship program and is now producing in his own right. Spear is his first feature and we’re also working together on the TV show The Athletes for the ABC.”
Based on a half hour work about men’s business originally created for Bangarra, the film is a sumptuously shot rites-of-passage story about a young man straddling two worlds – played by Page’s son Hunter Page Lochard (who also stars in upcoming Indigenous drama Cleverman, directed by Wayne Blair). Developed through the HIVE – an interdisciplinary initiative to commission bold arts projects to premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival – Spear allows Page to work seamlessly across two media.
“The beauty of the HIVE laboratory is that it allows for an outside-the-box approach – a leap of faith, without the dogma of script. I don’t think Spear could have been made any other way,” says Connolly.
“He did the application in two days,” laughs Page. “I provided a one page synopsis and a wide shot of the stage work on a USB stick. I was shocked when I heard we had been picked. Then I realised I did not have even have Spear in our program for the next season so when were we going to rehearse? I also knew I wanted everyone in Bangarra to be involved so they became producers.”
The result is so polished no one would ever guess this was Page’s feature film debut, perhaps because he has surrounded himself with familiar talent to guide him on this new journey.
Co-writer Justin Monjo (The Code) who was also his collaborator on Sand helped craft what Page jokingly calls the thirty nine page scriptment (script/treatment) (“It’s a term I learned from Rolf de Heer” says Page) that forms the spine of Spear.
DOP Bonnie Elliott ( 2nd Unit on The Slap and Offspring and another of Page’s team on Sand) provided stunning visuals from a three week shoot on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour and the remote outback bush and coastline of Arnhem Land near Yirrkala, cut together by Simon Njoo (editor of The Babadook).
“I’m used to working with irresponsible order,” says Page. “Bangarra spoils me by supporting that. I did find the shoot gruelling; Bonnie taught me to prioritise and helped me achieve the anti-theatre look I wanted from watching the kind of films that Europeans make.
“In just five weeks, Simon massaged the cinematography with movement. We had such laughs in the cutting room telling stories, that other guys would come to the editing room and say ‘ look, directors and editors are usually a bit more intense, they don’t have so much fun!’ That’s when I fell in love with the film making process for the second time.”
The film’s haunting original soundscape is by David Page, Stephen’s brother and Bangarra’s long time music director. Costumes are by the company’s regular designer Jennifer Irwin, using latex and fabric to create fish and lizard scale textures borrowed from nature for some of the spirits creatures who move alongside the male human cohort.
Spear’s cast features members of the Bangarra troupe with a stand-out performance by actor Aaron Pederson taking on the role of the Suicide Man that Wayne Blair performed in the stage production.
“I only had him for three days,” says Page “and he made me cry. He liked being given a role that was not his usual ‘quiet man’ part for a change. I just gave him a dilly bag of ideas rather than a script, but I think he loved the physicality of the character.”
Page is already thinking ahead to the next possible film he might direct.
“This experience has rejuvenated me” says Page, who turns 50 in December. “It was like being given a second beginning.”
Spear will screen in its Australian Premiere as part of the Adelaide Film Festival 6pm 18 October at Palace Nova. It will have theatrical release in Australia and be broadcast on ABC TV in 2016. For more details visit www.adelaidefilmfestival.org