“My career has never achieved great heights. I take that philosophically. I am so lucky to have been able to play in the business/art hybrid that I love for over fifty years. Like Bill and Ted, I’ve had many excellent adventures. So I’m sharing my adventures, successes, and many mistakes to amuse movie nerds worldwide, and perhaps be food for thought and lessons to learn for aspiring filmmakers.” – Brian Trenchard-Smith
A prolific filmmaker and one of the prime movers of what is now fondly looked back upon as the Golden Age of “Ozploitation” cinema of the 1970s and ‘80s, Brian Trenchard-Smith thrilled drive-in and hardtop cinemas with a diverse range of crowd-pleasing films that traversed multi-genres.
His early feature, The Man from Hong Kong (1975), was a rousing martial arts crime flick that starred one-time Australian 007 George Lazenby opposite Taiwanese actor Jimmy Wang Wu (at the time something of a superstar in Hong Kong), while the notorious Turkey Shoot (1982) was a totalitarian action fantasy with extreme levels of graphic violence.
The early Nicole Kidman vehicle BMX Bandits (1983) showed that Trenchard-Smith could successfully deliver a more family-friendly adventure comedy, and with Dead End Drive-In (1986) he gave us a uniquely offbeat and instant cult classic.
Trenchard-Smith’s filmography may comprise a large number of what can be effectively described as director-for-hire jobs, but he rarely failed to leave his own creative stamp on a project.
In Adventures in the B Movie Trade, Trenchard-Smith follows up his 2018 fiction novel Alice Through the Multiverse (adapted from his unproduced screenplay) with an eminently readable and highly illuminating journey through his life and filmmaking career.
Born in England to an Australian father, Trenchard-Smith made his first films while still a teenager, mostly 8mm shorts and a documentary about his school, Wellington College, which was used to entice the parents of prospective new students.
Moving to Australia in 1965, he spent time working at both Channel Ten and Channel Nine in various roles within their news, documentary, and promotional departments, returning to the UK between jobs to work on feature film trailers for the National Screen Service.
Trenchard-Smith’s breakout came with The Stuntmen (1973), a television documentary on stunt performers, which screened on the Nine network and was shot in colour on a budget of $16,000 (colour TV was not introduced in Australia until March of 1975). Comprised of interviews, archival footage and death-defying stunts filmed exclusively for the documentary, The Stuntmen not only won Best Documentary at the 1973 Australian Film Awards, it marked the start of Trenchard-Smith’s working relationship with Grant Page, the acclaimed Australian stuntman who would continue to collaborate with the filmmaker on projects like Kung-Fu Killers (1974, another television special), Death Cheaters (1976), and Stunt Rock (1978).
Grant also provided exhilarating stunt work for The Man from Hong Kong, Trenchard-Smith’s first real theatrical release (his debut was the faux VD sex comedy The Love Epidemic, released earlier in 1975). Originally planned as a vehicle for Bruce Lee before the martial arts superstar died suddenly in 1973, The Man from Hong Kong was the first cinematic co-production between Australia and Hong Kong, and helped to raise international awareness of the growing Australian film industry and its potential commercial power and global reach. With Jimmy Wang Yu and George Lazenby facing off in the lead roles, and an impressive roster of supporting talent that included Bill Hunter, Rebecca Gilling, Frank Thring, Roger Ward and Hugh Keays-Byrne (not to mention Trenchard-Smith himself), The Man from Hong Kong is about as good as an Australian riff on James Bond that you were ever likely to see at that time. The film’s visibility also benefited from the inclusion of “Sky High”, a catchy pop tune performed by an English band called Jigsaw (renamed British Jigsaw in Australia). Played 007-like over the film’s exciting opening credit sequence (where a hang glider soars high over Hong Kong), the song became a top five hit in many countries, including the United States, Australia, and Japan (where it hit top spot). While Trenchard-Smith admits that refusing to cut the film to avoid an R rating in Australia hurt the film financially, The Man from Hong Kong had enough presales in foreign markets to turn a profit.
Brian Trenchard-Smith was finally making theatrical features, and with The Man from Hong Kong he showed that Australian filmmaking did not have to be mired in local character or past tradition to be interesting and identifiable.
While Adventures in the B Movie Trade provides plenty of historical production and behind-the-scenes information, the minutiae of which fans of the filmmaker will love diving into, the book also serves as an endearing testament to Trenchard-Smith’s clear and genuine love of cinema itself, an affection that hasn’t weakened at all over the years. In this regard, it provides a treasure trove of moments that film buffs will devour.
One entertaining early recollection has a young Trenchard-Smith, as part of an exclusive twelve-member Film Circle, visiting the set of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, during its filming at Pinewood Studios in May of 1962. It was a visit that further inspired the fledgling filmmaker to forge a career for himself in the business. Other memorable anecdotes which the author shares include wanting to work for the legendary Hammer Films (he sadly received no response to the spec script for Escape from Blood Island that he sent them), going to a screening of Mario Bava’s horror masterpiece Black Sunday (1960) in Paris with Salvador Dali in attendance, and taking acting lessons in 1980 with Barry Manilow as a classmate!
Also quite interesting is hearing Trenchard-Smith talk about the beginnings of Movie, a quarterly magazine co-published by Greater Union Theatres, which was sold at the ticket box and snack bars of Greater Union and Village cinemas across Australia. Debuting in Christmas of 1972, each issue of Movie also had the year of coverage added to the title (so the first issue was called Movie ’73). Aside from his publishing involvement, Trenchard-Smith also provided a lot of the written material for the early issues. While ostensibly serving as a promotional outlet for the latest local and international movies to be playing at Australian cinemas (in particular, those booked to play at the Greater Union or Village chains), Movie magazine became a seminal part of the moviegoing experience for so many cinema lovers growing up in the seventies and eighties (and was still being published up until the end of 2000). While balancing a magazine with a fledgling filmmaking career may have been a heavy workload, Trenchard-Smith clearly enjoyed his work on Movie, proof of how much he remained a fan and lover of cinema.
“The process required me to deliver copy and photo layout at least six weeks ahead of delivery to cinemas and drive-ins. We were now printing 40,000 copies per issue in Hong Kong and shipping them back to Sydney. It was enjoyable work. It paid the rent, with the added benefit of a free pass for myself and a guest to any cinema in Australia.”
Naturally, Trenchard-Smith also covers his more recent years, directing the horror sequels Night of the Demons 2 (1994) and Leprechaun 3 (1995), as well as episodes of nineties television shows like Tarzan, Time Trax, Flipper, and Stephen J. Cannell’s late-night cult erotic thriller/cop show hybrid Silk Stalkings.
A realist, Trenchard-Smith doesn’t shy away from the financial uncertainties that often come with the business, or the difficulties that a jobbing director faces in a world of changing business models, demographics, and delivery platforms. It’s this honesty that helps make the book connect with the reader, and it’s wonderful to read about Brian’s current life, surrounded by the beautiful wildlife and tall Douglas firs of Oregon, where he now lives (after a quarter century in Los Angeles) with his American wife Margaret, an historian and former actress whom he married in 1975 and cast in several of his subsequent films.
At nearly 600 pages and lavishly illustrated with a plethora of personal photos, stills, poster art and other rare archival material, Adventures in the B Movie Trade is much like a Brian Trenchard-Smith movie itself: fast-paced, unique, chock-full of enthusiasm, and imbued with a healthy touch of DIY spirit. If you have any interest whatsoever in the history of Australian cinema, or just exploitation and independent filmmaking in general, then this weighty tome deserves a place on your shelf.