David Parker: Career Opportunities

May 21, 2020
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Aussie writer, director, producer and cinematographer David Parker (Malcolm, Diana & Me) has just uploaded a new short film called Isolation Restaurant [made with life partner and frequent collaborator Nadia Tass] online for free. We chat to him about his long and winding career.

David Parker – prolific cinematographer and occasional writer and director – has enjoyed a long and varied career, much of it happily intertwined with that of his life partner, Nadia Tass, also a producer and director. The pair burst onto the scene in 1986 with the delightful comedy Malcolm, which Parker wrote and shot, and Tass directed, with both involved as producers. Starring Colin Friels as a reclusive, painfully shy mechanical genius and inventor who turns to an unlikely life of crime, the film was a critically acclaimed hit and remains a true, much adored Aussie classic to this day. From there, the duo forged on over a fascinating array of films, with Tass directing and Parker writing and lensing the likes of Rikky & Pete, The Big Steal, and Amy. The duo collaborated on the popular Ben Elton TV mini-series Stark, and also staged an ill-fated trip to Hollywood with 1991’s Pure Luck, starring Danny Glover and Martin Short. Parker has also found success as a director with 1993’s Hercules Returns, 1997’s Diana & Me and 2016’s The Menkoff Method, all of which were scripted by others.

Nadia Tass & David Parker.

Now, despite the restrictions put in place to combat COVID-19, David Parker and Nadia Tass, together with their son John Tass-Parker and his partner Cori Sue Morris, have created the six-minute short film, Isolation Restaurant, in which a restauranteur (played by Parker) realises that now might not be the best time to open a dining establishment. “With our eldest son and his fiancé home from New York, we were all learning how to live under the same roof, which was very different from our usual lives,” David Parker says in the film’s press notes. “Then it occurred to me that if you can’t go out, and if you want to make something, you have to make it where you are. So, I needed to construct a story that would work within the constraints of our own home, with three non-actors and an actor-director (Nadia), and four people with varying levels of experience on a film set. I wanted to encapsulate the little bit of madness that’s in all of us, particularly right now. I hope that it brings people who have been stuck at home a good laugh, especially our industry friends. It’s something that we all need these days.”

David Parker on set.

What were your earliest influences?

“One of my early influences was my dad, who was an organist in cinemas in Brisbane. It was mainly weekends because he had a ‘real job’ as well. He’d play at the beginning, and in that era, there was the B film and there was the ‘good film’, so I would go in with him and he would play at the beginning. Then we would see the B film, and he’d play the interval, and then we’d go home, so I never got to see the good film. This is my excuse for why I’m a filmmaker who likes to entertain. The films that I have been involved in tend to be more commercially oriented than artistically oriented, but having said that, I don’t think I have short changed an audience by not having a good story and good characters.”

Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write films?

“It was pretty audacious of me to write Malcolm. I have the utmost respect for the craft of screenwriting. I admire and have read many wonderful scripts and my initial thoughts in that era were, ‘God, I couldn’t do that’ but I was encouraged by Colin Friels when we were working on a film called The Coolangatta Gold [1984]. I was the stills photographer on the film. For about ten years, I did stills of movies and I did a lot of other stills as well, a lot of rock n’ roll, theatre and ballet. As is the case on film sets, there is a lot of waiting around, and I was talking to Colin about my idea to make my own film, and he suggested that I write it myself. That spurred me on to do it.

An official still of Joss McWilliam from The Coolangatta Gold, on which Parker worked as stills photographer.

Where did your interest in photography come from?

“Always as a kid, I had a leaning towards it. I had two bends if you like, one was mechanical and one was the photography. I would always be taking the engine off the family car, and then trying to put it on my sister’s bike…those sorts of ridiculous things.”

That fits into Malcolm, doesn’t it?

“It does, yes, and I still have that. I certainly don’t have a house full of gadgets, and I’m not a hermit at all, but I do enjoy that particular discipline of designing and building things, which Malcolm demonstrates very well. In many respects, I had the most extraordinary apprenticeship, because as a stills photographer, you read the script, you choose to either work on the film or not, and then you go right through the process – you try to figure out how to pose the shots, and how it’s going to be marketed. You look for opportunities and then you end up seeing the opening night of the film, so you’ve seen the whole process. You can see what works and what doesn’t. I was really fortunate in that respect. There were so many movies that I worked on…some of them were dreadful but some of them were wonderful. The bad ones were generally very cynical exercises in financing where an accountant would get together a bunch of clients and say, ‘We can get this extraordinary tax break – you owe this much tax but you will have to pay this much tax or you can put your money into a film and you can get a tax break.’ So, of course they went into it and I can actually remember talking to Bob Ellis once in that era and he said, ‘I was asked to write a film on Friday that they started shooting on Monday’, so that’s exactly what happened. They had the money, and they had to start on this date. You look at stuff like that and you think, ‘How could that possibly be any good?’ Well, Bob was a terrific writer but no one can make a film from a first draft.”

Colin Friels in a scene from Malcolm.

Where did Malcolm come from?

“I was brought up on Chaplin comedies. We used to sit and watch these things and I just loved them! So that idea of very physical comedy that Charlie Chaplin was famous for and those gadgets, the little side car and the magnet that he attached and got drawn along by other vehicles and things like that… Malcolm doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but it has great heart, which again, Chaplin had too.”

You were brought up in Brisbane. How did you end up in Melbourne?

“I started doing engineering at Queensland University and discovered that it actually wasn’t about building gadgets. It was quite complex, and I wasn’t ready for that, so I went to Mount Isa with a friend and we mined for a year just to get some money. Then there was a fellow that I had met who was from Melbourne, and he went into the photography school in Melbourne and I asked about it. I ended up enrolling into that school, so the following year, I drove down to Melbourne and started doing photography. That was a three-year course and then I tried to get a job after that and couldn’t, so I stayed in Melbourne. I ended up leasing a wedding and portraits studio which was the only thing that was available. I took over from the guy who worked there. He’d started it after World War II. I was terrible at it. I had no skills for it.”

TV Times Magazine…

It’s a very particular type of work…

“Yes, it is. And then I picked up a client who was an Australian magazine called TV Times. I became the Melbourne photographer for that, which was a fantastic way into the entertainment industry. I met all the actors, I’d go to dress rehearsals of plays, and work on television series like Homicide. I was attracted to the business very much. The first film that I worked on was called Raw Deal. I was the stills photographer on that, and it was wonderful: this idea of being part of this group of people who are just in this little microcosm, where their sole purpose for that number of weeks was to make this film. I loved it.”

In terms of switching from stills to cinematography, was that a natural pathway?

“It certainly was. One of the things that I did in Melbourne was to photograph all of the actors and actresses, the head shots basically, and I loved doing that. That was the relationship between me and a person, and the camera was there to record that relationship. I saw that I could move into cinematography because I knew how the light goes and I knew something about performance. But I was asked to do a short film by a guy named Tony Mahood, who was an assistant director. That was my big break in the early ‘80s. That was the first thing that I shot, and then in 1985, we shot Malcolm. That was really my first film.

Colin Friels in a scene from Malcolm.

Were you overwhelmed by the response to Malcolm?

“I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t an easy journey though. The financing of the film was difficult, but the shooting of it was wonderful. The period after that when we tried to find a home for it was difficult…we couldn’t do that here in Australia. The American Film Market was about to happen, and we went over there and showed it. I remember sitting in that screening and thinking, ‘We need to re-edit this film…we need to fix it up.’ When I came out from that, Nadia and I were surrounded by people. There were people from Fox and Warner Brothers who said, ‘Look, this isn’t a film for us but we love this film and we want you to come and meet with us and see what we can do together.’ Then we had two people who wanted to buy the movie. There was a bidding war, and it was the most extraordinary time. So suddenly this film that I had lost a bit of faith in – Nadia never lost faith in it – was alive and accepted and it happened in America. So we came back to Australia and went back to Hoyts and said, ‘Look at what all these people in your industry are saying about this film.’ Eventually they said, ‘Alright. How much do you want?’ And they then had a screening of it, and they were gobsmacked by the hugely positive reaction. They couldn’t feel the film but when they saw the reaction from the audience, that’s when it took off.”

There are so many stories like that…what’s the issue in Australia? 

“We have a negativity in our culture, which I’m sorry to say exists. In the US, they are so positive and they want you to like something and they are absolutely open. In Australia, the people who matter go into things saying, ‘Well, another Australian film…they’re so difficult. How do we market it?’ They put all that baggage on it. Maybe it’s part of the tall poppy syndrome. A number of films have been acclaimed and awarded overseas before they’ve been appreciated in their country. There’s a new culture out there now, which is big and based on a Marvel comic or whatever. There’s a ready audience and studios are much more willing to spend millions on something.”

Toni Collette and Dominic West in a scene from Diana & Me.

There was a twenty-year gap between Diana & Me [1997] and your latest feature, The Menkoff Method [2016]. What have you been doing in the interim? You’ve been working in theatre?

“I’ve written. I wrote The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe for the stage in 2000, and that was quite a successful production which predated the big film version. That was before it was branded, yet there were a certain number of people who knew C.S. Lewis and his writings, but it wasn’t as well rounded and infused into our world as much as it is now. We did well with that, and it’s fantastic because the shows go on and you keep getting money for them. Nadia directed it. And then we did other live theatre, where I worked a lot on the lighting. It’s associated with Nadia’s work as a director in theatre, and I thoroughly enjoy lighting theatre, I love it. It’s such a different, complex animal, because if we are lighting for effect in a film, it’s a scene that might be three minutes long, and it’s very controlled. We set it up and shoot it, but in a play, you might be on a set for two hours, and you want to pin those moments that are important and light them accordingly. You can’t have this bright little light that suddenly appears. You need the moment to work, but also you need this moment in twenty minutes’ time to work as well, so how do you do that? How do you do very slight fades and things to make it all work? It’s challenging and fascinating work.”

There wasn’t much happening in Brisbane when you were coming up, while in the last few years, it’s really been happening…

“Yes, that’s right. In many respects, Queensland is where Victoria was when we did Malcolm. There is a wonderful underbelly of talent there. Younger people are coming through and making interesting films. When I shipped out of Queensland, my dad was an actor as well as a musician and a teacher and he was one of the founding members of one of the theatre groups up there called Twelfth Night Theatre, so I was brought up in that world. I can remember having holidays with these wonderful old thespian women who were very theatrical and weird and wonderful. My mum is totally removed from this world. She is a really down-to-earth nursing sister who had been through WW2 and had been in Singapore when it fell. She is an extraordinary woman. I have no idea how she could have possibly handled all these crazy people.”

Noah Taylor in The Menkoff Method.

Directing is a bigger responsibility than cinematography…

“It’s lovely that the role of being a director rather than being a DP on a film is obviously very, very different. I have a lot of help from Nadia as well. She has so much skill when it comes to storytelling and finding where an actor should be put in a particular scene. She can recognise what isn’t working and knows how to correct it. She was wonderful in the rehearsal stage when I was working on The Menkoff Method. The actors were very open to that as well, and on set, they were very well prepared and I was able to direct it with the idea of the storytelling being the most important thing. My skill is not in refining a particular nuance in a person’s acting. I can do that to a certain extent, but not to the level that I am used to seeing with Nadia.”

David Parker on set with Nadia Tass.

In terms of the relationship between you and Nadia, has it been complicated when you’ve stepped out to direct?

“Nadia is probably the most mentally healthy person that I have had anything to do with, much more than I am, I must hasten to add! She absolutely embraces it when I ask to do something. On Diana & Me, I can certainly remember getting her in with Toni Colette and Dominic West, and running them through their paces. That was great because that’s her world. I’m good at the frame and what’s going to happen in that frame as part of the story. It’s a good combination. It’s been working well for many years now!”

For more on David Parker, head to Cascade Films. Check out Isolation Restaurant below.

Isolation Restaurant – A short film made during COVID-19

A pandemic may not have been the best time to open an Italian restaurant….

Posted by Nadia Tass on Wednesday, 13 May 2020

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