Crime Pays: The Making Of Two Hands

April 7, 2017
In the week that the late, great Heath Ledger would have turned 38, we take a look back at the making of 1999’s Aussie crime classic, Two Hands, the film that made this extraordinary actor famous.

“Something that we haven’t really seen in Australian film is the gangster side of Sydney. We see the American godfathers driving around in their Rolls Royces, but we don’t see the Aussie godfathers driving around in their Stubbies and singlets, drinking VBs in their Holdens.” Heath Ledger on Two Hands

In the mid to late nineties, Australian cinema was in the vice-like grip of excessive quirkiness. Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert had been mammoth, highly deserving hits, and their kinky brand of comedy had seemingly infected every film that had come along in their wake. They were upbeat, heartfelt and slightly camp. Tough, meaningful films – particularly in the crime genre – were at a premium, and when they did come along, audiences didn’t quite know what to do with them.

Heath Ledger in Two Hands

David Caesar’s superior 1996 crime thriller-come-black comedy Idiot Box failed to make the inroads that it should have at the box office, and Jon Hewitt’s tough police procedural Redball vanished without a trace. On the big screen, Australia’s mean streets were rarely visited, and when they were, audiences didn’t want to go along for the ride. Until, that is, Two Hands came roaring along. “I’ve always been interested in crime as a genre in terms of gangster movies and things like that,” writer/director Gregor Jordan told FilmInk on the film’s release in 1999. “When I came to write Two Hands, I had an office in [Sydney’s notorious vice centre] Kings Cross, and I just started to write about things that were happening right outside the window. I combined that with the idea of the Australian crime scene. I had an interest in it as a milieu. I was always into movies like The Godfather, but I was especially interested in black comedies. Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, The Coen Brothers. I’m more interested in black comedy than crime cinema. In Australia, the humour tends to be a little more camp. It’s usually more like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding.”

Two Hands couldn’t have been any more different. Gritty, darkly comic, and with a steadying dose of laidback charm, the film literally jumps off the screen, all jittery energy and punchy characters. Tough but innately sensitive Jimmy (Heath Ledger) is a backstreets renaissance man: he’s a smalltime hood, a Kings Cross strip club spruiker, and an occasional underground fighter. Jimmy, however, isn’t totally happy with his lot, and is desperate to move up the ladder in Sydney’s criminal underworld. He steps up by wiring into local drug dealer and vice big-shot Pando (Brown), but trips up almost immediately when he loses ten thousand dollars of the mobster’s money when he’s given a start-up courier job. If Jimmy doesn’t get the money back, he’s as good as dead. “We’re gonna have to find the cunt, and do ‘im,” snarls Pando of the seemingly doomed Jimmy.

Bryan Brown in Two Hands

The only answer seems to be a funds-raising bank job, mapped out by Jimmy’s hooked-in sister-in-law, Dierdre (Susie Porter). Nothing, however, comes easy for Jimmy. The laconic but dangerous Pando, and his equally hot-headed henchmen – Acko (David Field), Wally (Tom Long) and Eddie (Tony Forrow) – are never far away, and a sweet, tentative romance with innocent country girl Alex (Rose Byrne) further complicates things.

Shot through with a needling sense of street urgency, Two Hands is a sharp, highly amusing piece of entertainment. Flames lick around its cartoonish credit sequence as Powderfinger’s “Pure Belter” thrashes away on the soundtrack. Blistering bare knuckle boxing scenes, bloody shoot outs, comic crims and shady drug deals are all part of Gregor Jordan’s grubby mis en scene, but they come with a refreshingly Australian twist.

Rose Byrne and Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Two Hands is enjoyably, recognisably Sydney-centric at every turn. The crims wear footy shorts and thongs; the shoot-outs tear their way through Kings Cross; Jimmy’s money gets stolen while he’s having an ill-advised swim at Bondi; crimes are organised while kids are put to bed; and there’s a moment of truth under the now gone monorail station in Liverpool Street. The film’s already full-throttle narrative is kicked up another gear by its dramatic take on sights and sounds that are just around the corner. That’s not to say, however, that this is just a meat-and-potatoes crime flick. Jimmy’s dead brother (Steven Vidler) also makes his presence felt in a series of supernaturally-tinged scenes, and the romance between Jimmy and Alex has a real sweetness that sets the film apart from your standard grunt-and-thump thriller.

Two Hands marked the feature film debut of then-33-year-old Gregor Jordan, who first made his name with the bleakly hilarious short film Swinger. A quick, one-take black comedy about a man who decides that he doesn’t want to commit suicide a moment too late, the film took out the top prize at The Tropicana Short Film Festival (which would eventually morph and evolve into what is now known as Tropfest) before nabbing the Jury Prize at The Cannes Film Festival in 1995.

Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Jordan then won an AFI Award for his second short film, Stitched. With the right people watching, Jordan was well on his way. After directing episodes of television’s Big Sky, he made a connection that would ultimately hold him in very good stead. Producer/actor Bryan Brown was handpicking young filmmakers to direct episodes of his darkly comic compendium TV series Twisted Tales, and exciting young short filmmaker Gregor Jordan was one of them. His episode, “The Confident Man”, proved to be one of the series’ most popular, and when Jordan eventually arrived on Brown’s doorstep with the screenplay for Two Hands, the Aussie icon was more than happy to read it.

“The money wasn’t there, and it wasn’t up at that stage,” Brown explains to FilmInk. “I’d worked with Gregor, so I owed it to him to read it. I remember saying to him, ‘What is it? I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s meant to be a love story between these two people, but I’m not sure.’ I never said anything about whether I’d like to play the part or anything like that. Then about a year later, I heard that he got the film up. I rang Gregor and asked him about the script. He said that he’d got it up, and he was just about to ring me about it. I read the script and I thought that it could be fun; it was as simple as that.”

Rose Byrne and Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Though making his debut, Gregor Jordan was already a highly assured, confident director. “He had a clarity of vision and a real confidence about what he wanted,” says producer, Marian Macgowan, who was brought onto the project by executive producer, Tim White, to sub for original producer, Mark Turnbull, who turned out to be unavailable for the proposed shoot dates. “The tone of the film was the most distinctive aspect of Gregor’s vision. You have to follow the director’s vision, and that’s what we were focused on achieving.”

Bryan Brown was equally impressed with Jordan. “I was so surprised that Gregor was such a sophisticate,” he says. “I wasn’t ready for the sophistication. I didn’t know that this young guy who had come out of Home And Away or whatever, and had done a couple of shorts, would deliver such a sophisticated film. He’s intelligent and interesting, and he was a lovely young bloke. He had a very clever movie in his mind, and I love it when you’re surprised like that: when someone who you know actually surprises you.”

Director, Gregor Jordan

If there’s one thing that Two Hands is full of, it’s surprises. Jordan mixes violence and horror with common everyday activities in a way that few filmmakers have mastered since. In one unforgettable scene, Pando lovingly plays with his young son, teaching him how to make an origami pterodactyl. In the middle of this familial sweetness, however, the crime boss gets a phone call informing him of the whereabouts of Jimmy, the man who has lost his money. In a heartbeat, Pando shrieks from nice guy dad to cold-eyed killer.

It’s a subtle, perfectly played tonal shift, testament not only to Bryan Brown’s often underrated brilliance as an actor, but also to Jordan’s emergent gifts as a writer/director. “I didn’t get the tone until I was on the set,” Brown explains. “The tone gives you the liberty to play something in a certain way. Everything had to be real, but there was a slight element here and there that gave it something different. You need the director to go, ‘Yes, you can go there, but pull it back here. Play a little more if you want to.’ A good director will help keep the tone stay consistent through it all. Two Hands is a very funny movie, but it’s also fucking chilling.”

Steve Le Marquand in Two Hands

Despite the film’s intensity (a young boy is run over by Pando’s thugs and then horribly discarded in one confrontational scene), what most people remember about Two Hands is its humour. Jimmy’s charmingly rough-as guts mate, Wozza (superbly essayed by Steve Le Marquand), is hilariously concussed during their jumbled bank robbery, and when the pair make their getaway, they’re accidentally caught up in a daggy radio promotion. “The scene when the bloke hits his head while they’re stealing the money from the bank is a highly original one,” Bryan Brown laughs. “That says a lot about Gregor.”

It was also Jordan who weaved the film’s highly original aesthetic, putting his gangsters in shorts and thongs, having them suck on beers, and continuously letting them drop foul language in the most distinctly, profanely Australian way possible. “He did all that,” Brown says of Jordan. “He had all of that in his head. Gregor said to me, ‘I want you in thongs, Stubbies and a T-shirt. I want you to look like you’ve just walked out of the RSL.’ When I had those things on, suddenly Pando was allowed to emerge. If he’d been in a suit and tie, trying to be Mister Big Guy, it wouldn’t have come through.”

Bryan Brown and Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Equal to his mastering of tone and humour was Jordan’s casting. Bryan Brown’s performance as Pando is borderline genius; the actor manages to find the shading in the character at every turn, and it’s right up there with his best work. “It’s a great character for Bryan, because he’s not the lead but he’s the villain,” Jordan said in 1999. “He’s this huge presence throughout the film. I didn’t immediately think that he was the perfect person for it, but I realised that there was no one else in the world who could really play that role.”

Jordan’s biggest coup was his casting of Heath Ledger as Jimmy. The young actor had appeared in the TV series, Sweat and Roar, and was starting to get noticed internationally. He’d just filmed the American teen comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, and his star was truly starting to rise, though to the general public, he was still something of an unknown quantity.

Bryan Brown and Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Fresh, honest and charmingly raw-boned, Ledger is pure dynamite as rugged nice guy Jimmy. “Casting the role of Jimmy was always critical,” said Jordan. “When you’re presenting a character who basically does very stupid things, you have to have an actor who’s likeable. Otherwise everyone will just think he’s a fuckwit. I was really lucky to find him. You have to look at unknowns when you’re casting a nineteen-year-old. There just aren’t that many famous nineteen-year-olds in Australia, unless they’re soapie stars. I didn’t want a soapie star, because it’s too hard for people to get past it. I was doubly lucky with Heath, because he was so perfect for the role. He could really act, he looked amazing, and he had great screen presence and a great voice. He also had a lot of experience.”

Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Ledger and Jordan became firm friends during the shooting of the film. “I love working with Gregor; he’s fantastic,” Heath Ledger said in the film’s EPK. “He’s one of the few directors that I’ve really clicked with. After I do a scene, he might stand there and look uncertain. I’ll look at him, and without really saying anything, we’ll know what changes to make. So we are connected, and we’re in the same picture in terms of the film. Gregor’s fantastic.” After working together again on the epic Australian western Ned Kelly, Jordan was still keen to sing his director’s praises. “He’s my best friend,” the actor told FilmInk in 2003. “There’s nothing like working with your mates; it’s the way it should be, as far as I’m concerned. We know each other like the back of our hand, so it was great.”

Jordan and Rose Byrne (making her major big screen debut after appearing on the TV soap, Echo Point, and doing a few television guest roles) had a particularly charming on-screen chemistry. Amongst the blood spray and bad language, their tentative relationship emanates an optimistic glow. Both would obviously go on to have highly successful international careers, but when FilmInk asks Bryan Brown if he could sense that they would have big futures, he explains that it’s difficult to make predictions like that. “You could never sense that about anybody,” he says. “You can sense that someone knows what they’re doing, but you don’t know what their real quality is. It’s not just saying the words right or being a good actor; it’s got nothing to do with that. Anyone that’s in a movie is a good actor. It’s a quality. In many cases, it has to be likeability – even if you like to hate them! It’s a quality where you like to spend time with them. I found Rose and Heath to be delightful people. When I see either of them in a movie, I find them to be delightful. They deliver characters that I like to be around. That’s what they had – a warmth. With both Heath and Rose, during their early ten years of work, there’s a degree of honour about them. They’re likeable, but you can rely on them. They’re never going to do something dirty to you, and of course when you look at Two Hands, here they are fighting the dirt around them. He realises that he doesn’t want to be one of those guys; they’re not people that you want to spend your life with. Often you will see someone be sensational in a scene and never hear of them again. It’s a very strange thing, and it’s to do with the innate quality of an actor. You could see straight away when the movie came out what a lovely quality Heath and Rose had.”

Rose Byrne in Two Hands

Like everyone else involved with the film, Ledger and Byrne mucked in and made it happen. In standard local film fashion, Two Hands was patched together on next to nothing, with a lot of location shooting and a minimum of takes. Though not quite at the guerrilla end of filmmaking, Two Hands was shot hard and fast. “Making movies is such hard work,” Brown sighs. “The thing about Australian movies is that you hope to have a nice camaraderie with the people that you’re with. It’s always nice to be able to relieve the tension, and to crack a joke. It’s nice when the other person does too. All that was there with Two Hands. As I’ve said, Heath and Rose are such delightful people, so it’s not like there was going to be any stupid stuff going on. There was a lovely feel about it. Gregor really knew what movie he was making.”

Producer Marian Macgowan thoroughly agrees. “It was a good experience from beginning to end,” she says. “It was a good working relationship, and we realised a good film.” Macgowan, however, experienced a few unexpected ups and downs of her own while the film was being put together. “I was pregnant whilst we were shooting the film,” she says. “I recall standing on set whilst we shot the bank robbery sequence. When the gun [stunt] went off, the baby leapt up inside of me – I had to stand outside whenever we let off firearms after that!”

The only minor problem was the weather. “The story takes place in summer, and we ended up shooting in the middle of winter, except for the Bondi swimming sequence, which we snuck in early before the film’s finance was confirmed,” explains Macgowan. “Rain was a problem with the dead brother sequences with the location we chose – we ended up cutting most of these scenes in the final cut, so perhaps it was a sign.”

Steve Vidler and Heath Ledger in Two Hands

That brings us to the only real speed bumps experienced by Two Hands. In the original cut of the film, Jimmy’s dead brother (ultimately revealed to have been murdered by Pando) plays a much bigger role. The film opens with him literally digging his way out of hell, and resurfacing in the film’s far earthier, far more recognisable criminal milieu looking like something akin to a zombie. By the time the film was released in cinemas, this somewhat incongruous character’s involvement had been considerably whittled away. Though still present, Jimmy’s dead brother (played by veteran actor, Steve Vidler) was far less influential than he was in early cuts of the film. Rumours began to circulate that Jordan had been forced to squeeze out Two Hands’ supernatural subplot by either the film’s producers, or its distributors (allegedly tipped off by unsatisfactory test screenings), who clocked this element of the film as detracting from the gritty Aussie criminality that sat sneeringly at its centre.

When FilmInk asks Jordan today about the cuts made to the film, he explains that nothing quite so sinister went on. “The script is like a description of a movie,” he explains. “There are plenty of things that change. Two Hands was a very low budget Australian film, and we didn’t go through the previewing process, which is very normal for Hollywood films. That’s when you put the film up in front of an audience, and you have them fill out questionnaires and give you their opinions on the film. [A film is often then recut after this testing method according to the audience response.] We never had that with Two Hands. The first time that we ever screened it to anyone was at The Sundance Film Festival. After that screening, I realised that the film was too long, and that there were little pieces all the way through it that we didn’t need. I thought that it could be trimmed down and tightened, which would make the film flow better. After Sundance, we went back and did some lifts; there weren’t even any complicated cuts. We just took little pieces out here and there, and just tightened the whole film. That was the version that was released.”

Heath Ledger in Two Hands

That was pretty much the only bump experienced by Two Hands. Upon its release, the film was greeted with a positive and enthusiastic response. “Clever, hip and razor sharp,” said Craig Mathieson in Rolling Stone. “A fast, fun, sexy ride,” wailed Peter Castaldi on Triple J, while FHM proclaimed it “a must-see”. “It’s always wonderful when the critical response is good,” says Marian Macgowan. “It’s always surprising and comforting at the same time.” Audiences quickly followed suit, and the film was an undeniable hit.

When the AFI Awards rolled around that year, Two Hands bashed aside its competitors, and took out gongs for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Bryan Brown, with Heath Ledger and Susie Porter picking up nominations as well. It was also named Best Film by The Film Critics Circle Of Australia. After winning over audiences and critics, and triumphing at the awards ceremonies, the writing was on the wall: Two Hands was an instant classic.

While its rough edges just cut it short of swaggering into masterpiece territory, the film is much loved, often quoted, and still successful on DVD, pay television, and streaming services today. “I still get called Pando,” laughs Bryan Brown. “People still like to talk to me about it, or quote a line. Interestingly, sometimes you have characters that are quotable, and sometimes you don’t. Pando is definitely a quotable character.”

Shots from the set of Two Hands

With the success of Two Hands, Gregor Jordan experienced something that many “hot” young filmmakers went through in the nineties and the first years of the new millennium: the mincing machine marked Miramax. The major indie American studio – and its human caricature boss Harvey Weinstein – liked to make plays for any directors that looked like they might have been going places. “They offered me this three-picture deal, which was this sort of mythical thing at the time,” explains Jordan today. “The reality was that Harvey Weinstein would offer these young filmmakers a three-picture deal, which pretty much meant that he owned their arse. He could control what happened to them; if they suddenly started getting offered big projects, he could then use his leverage with the three-picture deal to either jump on board the big picture that they were doing, or take them away. Three-picture deals were not a good thing to have with Miramax. Harvey Weinstein was such a fucking arsehole, but I signed it. They give you a whack of cash and tell you that they’re going to make all these movies with you.”

Heath Ledger in Two Hands

Despite the temporary sourness that followed it, Two Hands still holds special memories for Gregor Jordan, who has since directed the likes of The Informers, Buffalo Soldiers, and Unthinkable. “I was writing with a very Australian sensibility at the time,” the director says. “It was unashamedly Australian, but that was the point of the exercise. I wanted to make it very Australian – what made it different was its very ‘Aussieness.’ I was aware while I was making it that overseas audiences would struggle with it. At the same time, I thought that Australian audiences would like it a lot. There was a unique Australian humour to it, but I didn’t know that it would have the longevity that it has, or that it would be influential or anything like that. I was walking through Kings Cross [way before the now infamous “lock out laws” put a choke-hold on the area’s renowned seediness], and I had a look at the strip club where we shot, and it had been renamed ‘Two Hands Required’, and it’s got this neon sign with ‘Two Hands’. I went, ‘Wow! If I never achieve anything else in my life, at least I will have successfully contributed to the renaming of a strip club! [Laughs]”

Additional reporting by Dov Kornits. Two Hands is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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