“Specifically, it really started when I found out that I was going to be a dad,” Abe Forsythe tells FilmInk of the genesis of his new comedy, Down Under. “That was on the back of doing these Tropfest films, and specifically winning Tropfest in 2010. I was feeling that with the kind of humour that I was experimenting with in those films, the next logical progression was a feature. Then I started thinking that if you were going to make a comedy about something that had been happening in Australia that was socially relevant, and making a comment about something, what would that be? Then that coincided with finding out that I was gonna be a dad and feeling really responsible about what kind of world I was bringing a child into. Then that led me to the Cronulla riots.”
2005’s infamous Cronulla riots – which saw violent young Anglo youths wreaking havoc on the streets of Sydney’s famous beach suburb, looking for people of Middle Eastern background to assault in retaliation for what was perceived to be an attack on two local lifesavers – are merely the launch point for Down Under. This is no doco-style dissection of the horrors that occurred on that now blackened day in Australian history. Written and directed by Abe Forsythe (who dealt just as pithily with our national identity in his hilarious 2003 comedy, Ned), Down Under offers a far more relatable, intimate approach, distilling the essence of the riots into two car loads of young men – one full of Cronulla “Aussies”, and the other driven by “Lebs” from Sydney’s south-west – caught up in the day’s heated aftermath, which saw retaliatory violence explode in different parts of the city.
A successful and prolific director of TV series and commercials; an aforementioned winner at Tropfest (making a major impact with shorts like Being Carl Williams and Shock); and a now kinda sorta retired actor (Forsythe appeared to great acclaim in TV series like Marking Time, Laid, Always Greener, and Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War), Forsythe had no trouble refocusing on his first feature since Ned. “In just three weeks, the first draft just poured out,” he explains, sitting on the balcony of a high-rise overlooking Sydney’s Kings Cross, where he’ll be doing press all day for the film. “We then spent four-plus years working on the script post that initial draft, and by the time that we’d shot it, there’d been about eight or nine drafts. We’ve gone through one round of development with Screen Australia, and with each draft, the structure stayed the same, but one or two really significant things were added each time. The movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as complete without those changes.”
But what of those Cronulla riots? What kind of effect did they actually have on Forsythe? “I was living overseas at the time, and it was really surreal to be watching it from so far away,” he replies. “I was looking at this country that I love, and that I’d been homesick for. I’ve always thought that up until that point and even now that we are pretty racist as a nation. I think that we’re viewed that way overseas too, but other countries are racist too, in different ways. It all comes up in different ways. I’ve always thought that our kind of racism is more casual, and a big thing for me in seeing that was like, ‘Oh, okay, it’s this now? We’re all acting on it now, are we?’ It comes from both sides…it comes from everywhere really. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh, it’s just these people’s problem.’ It all just fed into this big, ugly thing that just blew up.”
An Aussie of Anglo appearance himself, FilmInk wonders whether Forsythe had any difficulty in conjuring up his carload of boys from Sydney’s multicultural south-west? “It was more like, ‘Okay, this is who they are’, and then it kind of took care of itself,” the filmmaker replies. “It became really interesting as soon as casting started. We had all these actors coming in auditioning for these roles, and I was really hearing these lines read out for the first time. I’d never heard them read out any better than by all of the people that we ended up with. That was the first time that I went, ‘Ah, this is great! This doesn’t sound like what one of my regular scripts usually sounds like!’ People were bringing in all this other stuff…all of this cultural stuff. We were shooting in Lakemba with this entirely Middle-Eastern cast saying these lines that are intended to be funny – and they are funny – but there was something else going on, and I loved it. It’s a really good way of seeing your work play in a completely different way. I’d love to do another film with a big multicultural cast, because it’s much more interesting.”
Forsythe’s approach to the issue of multiculturalism – and those that kick hard against it – is one of the most fascinating elements of Down Under. Despite its serious, hot-button subject matter, the film is uproariously funny and in your face. It’s also profoundly heartbreaking, and horrifyingly familiar. In short, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this film, both tonally and subtexturally. “Honestly, once the cast was in place, I thought that the shooting was going to be fine,” Forsythe says of the tightrope that he constantly had to walk with the film. “It was more about making sure that the actors felt safe to do some of the material that they had to do, and that they could go to the places that their characters go. Everyone just did it. It was more in the editing that it got hard. It was difficult calibrating all of these things to let the audience know when it’s okay to laugh and when it’s not okay to laugh. Then there are scenes where we want the audience to be a bit uneasy, and to work it out.”
Creating that near-impossible-to-nail mesh of social comment and comedy (many far more experienced and better paid film directors have aimed for it and fallen horribly short) has been nothing less than a labour of love for Abe Forsythe. “I learned a big lesson making this,” the director says. “I’ve spent six years on this, and it has to be worthwhile. If you’re going to put all the effort into making anything – because you get very little if any financial reward from making a film like this – it has to be worthwhile. You’re investing a big part of your life into a film like this. You could be out making money, or you could just be spending time with your loved ones, and your family. You’re choosing to burrow into something that’s going to be – no matter what it is – a huge investment into your life. You’ve just gotta make sure that it’s something that’s worth it. Even during the most difficult times of making this movie – and there have been many at different times, even up until recently – I remember going, ‘Well, I believe in what this movie says, and it was such a challenge articulating that in the correct way.’ So that alone makes it worthwhile.”
Down Under plays at The CinefestOZ Film Festival, which runs from August 24-28. To buy tickets to Down Under, head to the official site. Click for our review, our interviews with the film’s stars, Lincoln Younes and Justin Rosniak, and to see the first four minutes of the film.