Big Screen Battles: The Making Of Tomorrow, When The War Began

August 30, 2017
We return to the battlefield to look at the making of the 2010 adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began, the hugely popular novel about teenagers at war.

When asked whether the massive success of Tomorrow, When The War Began and its subsequent sequels surprised him, Australian author John Marsden replies with quick confidence. “No, it didn’t,” he laughs. “I’ll have to justify that. I knew when I was writing it, that it was going to be enormous. I thought that it was going to be the most enormous novel published in Australia for teenagers. I could feel it. I just knew that it was incredibly powerful to offer them a scenario that they could believe in, and which put them in a heroic role where they could go around and blow things up and wage war in a legitimate way. That’s the secret ambition of many adolescents,” the good natured author grins. “I felt like I was almost trying to hold the book down on the table while I was writing it because it was almost lifting up, like it was ready to go into space. Nothing surprised me about the book’s success.”

John Marsden’s book series.

Indeed, Marsden’s predictions were proven correct. Tomorrow, When The War Began, the first in a series of seven books, became a runaway success when it was published in 1993. The franchise is considered one of the most popular series of novels in local literature history, selling upwards of 2.5 million copies in Australia alone. While Marsden has written various critically lauded books, it was this series which cemented him as Australia’s most popular writer of fiction for young adults. The series is narrated by a resourceful teenage girl named Ellie. When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find their houses deserted, their pets dead, and the power and telephone lines cut off. Gradually, they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded by a foreign army, and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, the teens are forced to make a decision: run and hide, give themselves up to be with their families, or fight back. After a couple of life threatening skirmishes with the occupiers, the teens retreat to their isolated campsite in the bush and make plans to fight a guerilla war against the invaders. Throughout the series, the books depict the terror, violence and fear of war with incredible realism. Amongst all the carnage is the story of a group of teenagers who find courage and bravery within themselves, with each character having to ultimately decide where their moral boundaries lie.

When it was announced in 2009 that the first book in the series, Tomorrow, When the War Began, had been picked up by Omnilab Media through its production arm, Ambience Entertainment, the resulting question was an obvious one: why hadn’t it happened sooner? Marsden, however, had no interest in adapting his books for the big screen, despite being sent more than a hundred offers over the past decade. When he explained the reasons behind his reluctance to FilmInk in 2010, the English teacher – Marsden’s day job – in him unmistakably started to emerge. “My feeling was that I would in many ways be very happy to never have these books made into movies, partly because I didn’t want kids to feel that every book has to get turned into a film. I wanted them to think that some properties can remain as books and just stand alone. I still have that feeling about it, but it’s a bit late now,” Marsden laughed. “I’ve never had the slightest interest in having the books made into movies. To this day, I would never have sold the rights to anyone unless I thought that they had pretty convincing arguments.”

Tomorrow, When The War Began author, John Marsden.

Marsden first sold the rights to Australian producer Matt Carroll and screenwriter Ian David (Blue Murder), but the contract expired. The author then handed the rights over to veteran Sydney writer/producer, Esben Storm, who had directed the children’s television series, Round The Twist, based on the popular books by Paul Jennings. “I really liked Esben and his commitment to the books,” Marsden told FilmInk. “He was unique in the people who approached me. Esben never talked about money. He talked about his passion for the books, and he knew them incredibly well. He knew them better than I did, and you’ve got to admire that.”

Storm, however, ultimately lost the rights to the film, the reins of which were eventually passed on to Australian screenwriter, Stuart Beattie. Marsden was impressed to learn that Beattie was on board. “I didn’t know about him being recruited by Omnilab until late in the process, but when I found out, I thought, ‘What a hell of a CV this guy’s got!’ I was excited that they were treating the books with so much respect that they had gotten someone of that stature to direct it.”

Sydney-born Stuart Beattie is a major name in Hollywood due to his scriptwriting for films including Australia, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Collateral and G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. Having worked on such impressive large scale commercial projects, the screenwriter was an ideal fit to translate Marsden’s books to the big screen. Beattie, however, despite being an avid fan of the series, initially declined.

Director, Stuart Beattie.

“Omnilab approached me and said that they had the rights to the book and were interested in me writing the screenplay, but I said no,” Beattie told FilmInk just before the theatrical release of Tomorrow, When The War Began. “I told them no for about six months,” he laughed. “They kept telling me that they really wanted me to write it, and eventually I said that I would be happy to write it if I could direct it too. They agreed.”

Beattie’s past experience had shown him how a solid script could fail when placed in the wrong hands, a risk that he wasn’t willing to take with Tomorrow, When The War Began. “I’d been in situations where the chefs would come in and play around with the recipes and destroy what was so great about something. To me, it would have been too soul destroying to write it and then see it wrecked by any number of hands. I knew that if I directed it, that it would be my recipe, and that I’d have a much better chance to protect the book.”

According to Beattie, Tomorrow, When The War Began also presented the perfect opportunity for him to make his directorial debut. “I’ve always wanted to direct. Writing screenplays has always been my way to get into directing. It enabled me to work with amazing directors, and to see how they work. I wanted to learn from them. It was really just a matter of getting to a point where I would feel comfortable to take on that job. It reached that time for me. I knew that I wanted to be an Australian director, because we’ve got so many great stories to tell. I also wanted to direct a commercial project, because those are the kinds of films that I like to see. Tomorrow, When The War Began was such a perfect combination of what I was looking for.”

John Marsden and Stuart Beattie.

The film’s epic scope appealed to Beattie. “It’s a coming of age story set against the extraordinary setting of a war zone. You grow up really quickly in the battlefield, which is great because drama is about extremes, and nothing is more extreme than war. It’s where you see the absolutes of good and evil in humans. It’s also an exciting place to see teenage characters growing up fast and having to rise to the occasion.”

While the novel’s content offered Beattie the chance to create an exciting action film, the first time director wanted Tomorrow, When The War Began to remain grounded in the characters. “I really worked on sharpening all the characters so that they all had their own stories and moments. That was important to me from the start. I needed to know who these people were in the beginning, and who they were in the end. All of them change drastically.”

The book also contains a number of romances and love triangles, which remained intact for the film. “They all have different relationships going on, and that’s part of it too. The main character of Ellie is always controlling and in charge and on top of everything. The big thing that she learns is that when everything goes to hell, you’ve got to lean on your heart. She tries to stay intellectually in control, but then she realises that if you suppress your feelings, you become a basket case. A lot of the movie is about not only how you survive physically, but also spiritually. And Ellie’s love story is very important in telling her journey in this film.”

The film’s theatrical poster.

In adapting the book, Beattie had to make slight changes in order to fit the content of the novel into the space of a film, but remained close to the spirit of the book. But while the ethnicity of the invaders is never mentioned in the books – a deliberate choice by Marsden – this was difficult to maintain for the film adaptation, though Beattie’s interpretation stuck with the source material’s intent. Though the invading military force is Asian in appearance, they speak in a fabricated language, sampled and scrambled from various international dialects.

“It was very smart of John not to identify the race of those characters in his book,” Beattie said. “As soon as you identify a nation, it suddenly becomes this big political story. That was never the point of the series. It’s not about, ‘Look out! These people are going to invade us!’ It’s not a cry of panic, and it’s not an alarmist piece of literature. It’s about eight teenagers and how they react and survive when their country is invaded. It’s a completely different canvas to work on that was cool and really smart. I wanted to keep that. If I’d said that it’s this specific country, then the film would become about that country. It was a matter of not treating the army as the villains. It’s similar to how the shark was treated in Jaws, or how the aliens were treated in Independence Day. They’re a menacing threat, but you’re not characterising them as villainous characters. You’re not getting into the whys, whats and hows. It has simply happened. That’s a very authentic way to tell the story, because these eight teenagers living in this small country town wouldn’t start off wondering why the invaders were here or what was going on in the greater scheme of the war. That’s not their world.”

Despite remaining faithful to the book, the scriptwriting process wasn’t a collaborative one, with Marsden offering very little input. “John was fantastic,” Beattie told FilmInk. “He really did understand that it’s a completely different medium, and he was very trusting right from the beginning. Essentially, I worked on the script on my own, and when it was ready, we sent it to him. I went down to Victoria and met with him at his school. I remember very clearly when we sat down to talk about it, he said, ‘On page one…’ I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go!’ He said, ‘I don’t think a teenager would say this word.’ So I said that I would change that. Then he picked out a word here and a spelling mistake there, and that was it. He made about six notes out of the whole script!”

Lincoln Lewis, Deniz Akdeniz and Phoebe Tonkin in Tomorrow, When The War Began.

Indeed, in speaking to the laidback author, FilmInk got the impression that he is not easily phased, and that he was more than happy to leave the project in Beattie’s hands. “They’ve been very courteous and kept me informed, but that’s fine,” Marsden said. “It’s their creative project, and I know nothing about film.” Although he wasn’t involved in any step of the filmmaking process, this didn’t stop a wave of hopeful teenage girls from approaching him in the hopes of being cast. “I got about 18,000 emails from young girls who believed that it was their destiny to play Ellie. They asked if I could please make sure that they were chosen in the role,” he laughed. “I had to write back and say to all of them, ‘I have no idea what the casting procedure was!’”

According to the film’s producer, Andrew Mason – who worked on the trilogy of Matrix films – the casting process was quite an extensive one. “It’s hard to find a major star of the right age,” he explained. “Obviously, we weren’t going to pretend that someone who was 25 was in their last year of high school. So once you come back down to the right age group, there’s a very small number of people in the world who have legitimate movie star status and are under that age so early in the process. Everyone got used to the idea that we wouldn’t be doing this with movie stars. We’d be doing this with the right people for the roles.”

The young actors eventually cast mostly came from the stage and the small screen, with Caitlin Stasey, who had featured on Neighbours, beating hundreds of other hopefuls to play the strong and determined central character of Ellie. Home And Away‘s Lincoln Lewis scored the role of the sturdy Kevin, with British actress Rachel Hurd-Wood (Dorian Gray, Perfume) tapped to play his on-screen girlfriend, Corrie. Hurd-Wood was the only international actor in the Aussie cast, which also included Chris Pang (The Home Song Stories) in the role of the introspective Lee; and theatre actor Deniz Akdeniz as the loud-mouthed Homer. Ironically, the film’s real eventual breakout stars turned out to be its two least experienced players: Ashleigh Cummings (who would go on to star in TV’s acclaimed Puberty Blues and the chilling thriller, Hounds Of Love) played good girl Robyn; and Andy Ryan (Love Child, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart) stole his scenes as the group’s rebel, Chris.

Phoebe Tonkin in Tomorrow, When The War Began.

Attesting to the long audition process was the final member of the group of eight teenagers, Phoebe Tonkin, who scored the role of Fiona after four callbacks. The young Australian, who is best known for her role in the hit television series H20 – Just Add Water, initially auditioned for the character of Robyn, but was called back as Fiona, the sweet but pampered princess of the group. “She’s a sweet character to play,” Tonkin told FilmInk in 2010. “She’s very naïve, but she’s also incredibly intelligent. It was great to play against the stereotype of the ditzy blonde. I mean, she’s ditzy in the sense that she doesn’t know what two-minute noodles are, and she’s never been camping in her life, but she’s also very aware of what’s going on, of this war and the reason for it. Throughout the film, she has an incredible arc. She starts off being so sheltered and ignorant to everything outside of her little world, and by the end, she’s toting an AK-47 and blowing up bridges.”

The effervescent actress, whose enthusiasm for the project was clear, found Beattie to be a very trusting and open director to work with, giving the actors room to develop their characters as they saw fit. “Stuart gave us license to essentially change his lines, and add or take things away. He encouraged us to just speak the way that we thought our characters would speak.”

Prior to shooting, Beattie and the cast spent a month in rehearsal, which Tonkin says was more of a way to develop a bond between the cast which would translate believably on screen. “Even in the rehearsal process, we never did a line-read with the whole cast, because Stuart was terrified that all the magic was going to happen sitting at a table at the studio. Everything that we did in the rehearsal period was improvisation. The eight of us spent that time becoming best friends and becoming the characters that we were going to play so that when it came to actually filming, it was second nature, as opposed to just rocking up at work with our lines learned and pressing ‘play’ on the camera. When we actually got there on the first day of shooting, in the bush and in our costumes, it really was the first time that we had spoken these lines to each other. That was exciting.”

Caitlin Stasey, Chris Pang and Ashleigh Cummings in Tomorrow, When The War Began.

Shooting took place largely around The Hunter Valley in New South Wales, with Tonkin telling FilmInk that the shoot and its preceding training course were two of the more intense experiences of her life. “We’d have personal training at the gym with the eight of us in the morning, and then we’d have motorcycle practice. We were all riding around Fox Studios on motorbikes! It was pretty funny!” she laughed. “Then we’d have gun training. Some of the characters, like Fi, have never really held a gun before, so they didn’t really teach us how to use it, because they obviously want it to look like it’s the first time that we’ve ever held a gun. That said, we still had to go through all the safety elements.”

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the film? “Definitely the hours! We were starting at six at night and essentially going through until seven in the morning…we were all loopy! It was so cold, and waking up at five in the afternoon and eating breakfast at six at night, your mind is just rubbish. You don’t know where you are or what you’re doing, but we’re toting guns and blowing things up. It was a crazy, crazy experience!”

Beattie agreed that being an action-based film, the shoot was tough going for the actors. “It was a very physical shoot, and it was really quite scary for them, with all those explosions going off around them. They all got banged up, and most of them were injured and ended up in the hospital at one time or another. I apologised to them daily, especially when I was going through the edits and watching take after take of poor Kate slamming into the ground, or Lincoln flying through the air. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe that I made them do this again and again!’”

Chris Pang, Phoebe Tonkin, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Deniz Akdenis, Caitlin Stasey, Ashleigh Cummings, Lincoln Lewis and Andy Ryan in Tomorrow, When The War Began.

Based on a hugely successful book series, and layered with impressive action sequences and special effects, the commercial prospects of Tomorrow, When The War Began were undeniable. “But just saying, ‘We’ve got an audience because people have read the books’ is not enough,” producer and head of Omnilab, Christopher Mapp, asserted to FilmInk. “You need to be able to translate that book into something that is an event, if you want it to be a wide release. When you consider that it has to stand up next to all the blockbusters, people would be very quickly disappointed if you delivered a lacklustre version that looks more like television. This is going to be a major event. This is why we ended up spending a significant amount of money, because we aspire for this to be one of the top ten movies at the Australian box office.”

Just prior to its release, Mason promised that the film wouldn’t disappoint. “It just exudes a huge sense of adventure. It’s big on action, and there are hundreds of visual effects. That’s going to be a fairly remarkable thing. Hopefully, audiences will come out with ears bleeding and ribs broken, and they’ll know that they’ve had a great time. It’s exciting to have the possibility that we might get a mainstream teenage audience into a movie which is about Australian life, and that’s a sadly rare event. It’s a long time between drinks for young Australians to find a movie that they think honestly represents their life. That’s a very sincere hope for all of us. It’s an adventure, but it still has strong and realistic characters, so I’m excited that a whole generation of Australians might find something Australian to identify with.”

In the current cinematic climate of literary franchises, there was already talk of sequels before the film had even hit the cinemas. With another six books in the series following Tomorrow, When The War Began, there were whispers that the second and third books would be made into films, and the final four potentially spun off into a television series. “All that is just dreaming, but the potential is there,” Beattie said in 2010. “If we’re fortunate enough to make them, then we would absolutely do that. It all depends on the crowds and who shows up!”

Andy Ryan, Phoebe Tonkin, Chris Pang, Caitlin Stasey, Deniz Akdenis and Ashleigh Cummings in Tomorrow, When The War Began.

One person who seemed largely bemused by talk of sequels and commercial prospects was John Marsden. While the author seemed happy to let the director, producers and actors handle the movie, the author was clearly amazed at the enormity of the project, and the response that it has generated. “I went to Fox Studios in Sydney to visit the set,” Marsden recalled. “Watching the scenes was fantastic, and I really had goosebumps hearing the actors say the lines. But the greatest moment of the day for me was at lunchtime. There was this huge area full of people, and I said to someone, ‘Do all these people work at Fox Studios?’ And they said, ‘No, all of these people are working on Tomorrow, When The War Began.’ I realised that my little book that I wrote at home on the kitchen table has given all these people a project that has become part of their lives. They’re giving months of their life to it, they will get income from it, and it means something to them. That was a really powerful moment.”

When asked what he hoped audiences would take away from the film, Marsden reflected for a moment. “I would love teenagers or the young people who watch it to get the same sense that I hope they got from the books, namely that they have heroic possibilities within them…yeah, that’s what I’d like,” the author smiled.

Rachel Hurd-Wood, Caitlin Stasey, Phoebe Tonkin, and Deniz Akdeniz in Tomorrow, When The War Began.

Audiences and critics responded well to the film, with Tomorrow, When The War Began rating as the top grossing Aussie film of 2010, with a $13.5 million box office haul. It scored a few technical awards from a fair list of nominations at The AFI Awards, but disappointingly failed to find an international audience. That aside, most were certain that the film’s local success would guarantee the hoped for sequels. But despite Stuart Beattie’s own attempts to kick-start a follow-up, negotiations stalled. “That was crushing,” he admitted to FilmInk in 2014. “I loved that series, and where it went after the first film. I had written very detailed outlines for a second and third film. I was pushing the producers to commission a screenplay for a year, and they kept saying that they would. I think that they had every intention of doing it, but six months after the film came out, they still hadn’t made a deal.”

Beattie eventually had to walk away from the series, and took on his sophomore directorial effort. “It came down to the fact that I had to keep working,” he told FilmInk. “[The 2014 locally shot international horror film] I, Frankenstein came along during that period. It was a great idea, and a story that I could do something with, so I took the job.” And with that, a rare potential Australian mainstream film franchise had become a casualty of the war known as development hell.

The cast of the 2016 TV series, Tomorrow, When The War Began.

But though dead on the big screen, the appeal of Tomorrow, When The War Began was too great, and the literary property was eventually resurrected, though this time for television. In a total restart of the book series, Ambience Entertainment teamed up with the ABC to produce a television series (of six one-hour episodes) based on the first book in the series. Broadcast to acclaim in 2016, the TV series was produced by Michael Boughen, who was also a principal producer on the 2010 feature film, and a huge fan of Marsden’s series of novels. He has the right to all seven books, and though only one made it to the big screen, it looks like the hoped-for sequels might become a reality on television. “It would be nice to have seven series, though I don’t think we’ll get there,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016. “Realistically, we’re thinking three or four.”

May the war continue…

The film and TV series of Tomorrow, When The War Began are available now on DVD.



  1. are they going to make any more movies on the other books in the series.All the books hold your attention and are hard to put down till you finish reading them

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