Great Australian Directorial Debuts

March 14, 2016
With Simon Stone making an auspicious behind-the-camera debut with this week’s The Daughter, here’s 12 other highly impressive first films from some of Australia’s best directors.

Fred Schepisi (1)FRED SCHEPISI: THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND (1976)

Along with the likes of Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong, Fred Schepisi helped to revolutionise the Australian film industry in the seventies. For years moribund and virtually non-existent, the combined output of these filmmakers re-energised the local cinema scene, and launched a movement that would continue to rumble along for decades. Fred Schepisi began his production career in the advertising world, and served as head of The Film House for almost twenty years, where he directed both commercials and documentaries. In 1976, he directed his first feature film, which was pulled unceremoniously from his childhood experiences. The dark hued The Devil’s Playground tells of a young boy (Simon Burke) caught amongst the repression and rigorous religiosity of a Catholic boys’ boarding school. Awash with joy, sadness and moral panic, the quietly menacing drama courses with homoeroticism and sexual confusion. It takes big, unforgiving swipes at the hypocrisy of the church and those who implement its laws, and was something of a cause celebre upon its release, sparking debate amongst critics and social commentators. The Devil’s Playground was also a box office success, and triumphed at the AFI Awards. Schepisi equalled The Devil’s Playground with his next film, the masterpiece The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, and remains one of Australia’s foremost directors on the international stage, with films such as Plenty, Roxanne, Last Orders, Six Degrees Of Separation, and The Russia House. His debut film, however, is still his most deeply moving and highly personal. Recently receiving kinda-sorta sequel treatment via the impressive TV mini-series, Devil’s Playground, the film has even greater resonance today in light of the recent controversies surrounding the Catholic Church. “I actually held back on a few things because I just did not believe that people would actually buy it,” Schepisi told FilmInk of his often confronting film. “It may have seemed a little too exaggerated or preposterous if I’d gone all the way with it.”

George Miller GEORGE MILLER: MAD MAX (1979)

1979’s Mad Max is the kind of wild, anarchic movie that could only have been made by a first time filmmaker. Its sense of urgency and immediacy (which the 71-year-old George Miller astoundingly managed to recapture with his stunning, much loved, Oscar winning reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road) literally tears its way through the screen, as its bleak but utterly arresting tale of an honest cop, Max Rockatansky (a fresh faced Mel Gibson), barreling down the highways of a dystopic future in search of the outlaw bikie gang that killed his wife and child, unspools at breakneck speed. The director was then 35-year-old George Miller, who had been funding his burgeoning film career by working as a doctor in a hospital emergency room. With one short film (Violence In The Cinema, Part 1) under his belt, legend has it that Miller created Mad Max – alongside screenwriters Byron Kennedy and James McCausland – after being inspired by the constant sight of battered road accident victims in the emergency ward. Made cheaply and recklessly, with stunt men in constant danger, and limited concern for the safety of anyone involved, Mad Max was a slow-build hit of staggering proportions. “I still get letters from people wanting to write a thesis on Mad Max as classic post-modern cinema, although when I made the first film, I thought it was just a car-chase movie,” director George Miller has said of Mad Max. “And then in every place it seemed to have a resonance. Someone from Iceland said that Max is a lone Viking guy. In Japan, they told me that he was a samurai. I suddenly had the wit to see that I was a storyteller and a servant of the collective unconscious.” Riding on nervy energy and brutal brilliance, Mad Max was vital in kick-starting Miller’s career, which has seen the director revolutionise local TV, triumph in Hollywood, and bring major international productions to Australia.

Phillip NoycePHILLIP NOYCE: NEWSFRONT (1978)

After a series of acclaimed short films, and then the rough, rugged and aggressive 55-minute mini-feature, Backroads (one of our finest works to chart the difficult relationship that still pulses between white and black Australia), Griffith-raised Phillip Noyce’s debut feature film was a far more polished and ambitious affair. In 1978, he directed and co-wrote (with Bob Ellis, David Elfick, and Philippe Mora) Newsfront, which tracked the lives of Australia’s pioneering newsreel cameramen of the forties and fifties. An intelligent mix of fiction and fact, the film won a clutch of major gongs at the AFI Awards, and was also a big commercial hit. In addition to opening The London Film Festival, Newsfront was the first Australian film to screen at The New York Film Festival. Like Backroads before it, Newsfront was also a striking amalgam of entertainment and social comment, and starred a handful of what would become Australia’s most important actors, including Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown, Chris Haywood, Wendy Hughes and Tony Barry, all of whom delivered fine performances. “Newsfront was an unexpected success,” Noyce told FilmInk in 2007. “It sold well because Australians were indulging themselves in reliving the past. Many of the successful Australian films of the seventies were set in the past because of that.” The film’s intelligence, period authenticity, brisk pace, and dazzling sense of economy would become trademarks of Phillip Noyce, who would go on to direct accessible eye-catchers in both Australia (Heatwave, Dead Calm) and Hollywood (Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, Salt, The Giver), as well as a number of more thoughtful, politically inflected films (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Catch A Fire, The Quite American). He may have made bigger films with bigger stars for Hollywood’s biggest studios since, but the towering Newsfront remains not only one of Phillip Noyce’s finest films, but also one of Australia’s most important cinematic works.

Baz LuhrmannBAZ LUHRMANN: STRICTLY BALLROOM (1992)

After directing Romeo + Juliet, Australia, The Great Gatsby, and Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann now stands as one of this country’s most singularly divisive filmmakers; he’s a big proponent of stylistic flourishes, grand statements, and sweeping, larger-than-life narratives. Basically, Baz is not everyone’s cup of tea, and there was no way that the highly anticipated Australia was ever going to please all cinemagoers. His debut feature film, however, is another story altogether. A smash hit upon its release in 1992, the uplifting and wonderfully entertaining Strictly Ballroom was a crowd pleaser like nothing else, with audiences gasping, laughing, crying and bopping away in their cinema seats to the strains of John Paul Young’s perfectly chosen retro-kitsch soundtrack centrepiece, “Love Is In The Air”. The tale of a maverick ballroom dancer (real life dancer Paul Mercurio in a physically impressive and highly sympathetic performance) who challenges the rigid conventions of ballroom dancing’s governing bodies when he takes on a new partner (Tara Morice), Strictly Ballroom is a celluloid bliss-bomb from beginning to fist-pumping ending. Though the film was strikingly cinematic in tone and execution, Baz Luhrmann’s background was in acting and directing for the theatre. He’d studied at NIDA, had successfully staged his own plays (Strictly Ballroom was based on a 1986 stage play written by Luhrmann and Andrew Bovell), and appeared as an actor in John Duigan’s 1981 drama The Winter Of Our Dreams. The huge success of Strictly Ballroom (the film banked an incredible $21,760,400 at the local box office), however, meant that Luhrmann’s future as a filmmaker was well and truly sealed. “Whenever anyone starts telling you in art that there’s only one way to cha-cha-cha as opposed to listening to your inner instinct, then they’re lying,” Luhrmann once said. “I set out to create Strictly Ballroom at drama school as a response to feeling artistically oppressed.”

Gillian ArmstrongGILLIAN ARMSTRONG: MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979)

“It was a terrible thing that my first film was about a female rebel,” Gillian Armstrong told FilmInk in 2001 of her 1979 debut effort My Brilliant Career. “I was forever identified, in the media, with that film. It was a box that I was put in; everybody thought that I was that character. Yes, I’m a feminist, and yes, I do believe that women have the right to have a career and should follow their dream, but it’s not like a mission I’m on.” Whether she likes it or not, Armstrong remains this country’s most successful and high profile female filmmaker, and her themes of female empowerment (which have never been presented in a didactic manner) will always find her tagged with the label of feminist. Gender politics aside, My Brilliant Career is, well, pretty much brilliant. Based on the epochal book by Miles Franklin, the film tells of Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis), an early 20th century burgeoning female writer who chooses her career over marriage. Forever cementing its place in Australian filmmaking history, My Brilliant Career swept the AFI Awards, winning six trophies including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as garnering additional nominations for an Academy Award (Best Costume Design) and the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The film remains Gillian Armstrong’s best and most fully realised work, while its feminist themes (coupled with the fact that it was the first Australian feature film directed by a woman in nearly fifty years) set the tone for the director’s own groundbreaking career, which includes fine Australian works such as High Tide, Starstruck, Women He’s Undressed, and Oscar And Lucinda, and Hollywood fare such as Mrs. Soffel and Little Women. “One of the key things about being a visual artist is actually trying to remember, or to not lose, what you had in the beginning,” Armstrong told FilmInk in 2006.

6876472-3x2-940x627JOCELYN MOORHOUSE: PROOF (1991)

“I’d always been interested in characters that were a little isolated from the rest of the world, and who have a different perception of reality,” writer/director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, once said. “Someone mentioned that they’d met a person who was blind and who took photographs and that stayed with me. I first mentioned it to my husband [fellow writer/director P.J Hogan], who is my creative collaborator, and he looked at me strangely and said, ‘You’re kidding!’” In Moorhouse’s highly acclaimed debut drama, Proof, Hugo Weaving plays Martin, a blind man who proves that physical disability doesn’t necessarily get you a key to sainthood. Self-obsessed, paranoid and mean spirited, Martin still manages to stir the affections of his housekeeper, Celia (Genevieve Picot), and Andy (Russell Crowe), a laidback kitchen hand who he befriends. In a complicated mesh of jealousy, malice and possessiveness, Celia seduces Andy to spite Martin, and sets in motion a chain of events that will unravel them all. Razor sharp, blackly comic and keenly intelligent, Proof was one of the best Australian films of the nineties, and it marked Moorhouse as a bold new female – though not necessarily particularly feminist – voice in local cinema. The film had its world premiere at The Cannes Film Festival, where it opened the Director’s Fortnight section, and received a standing ovation, before selling to territories all around the globe. Proof was also a domestic box office success, with earnings of $2.1 million. It went on to dominate that year’s AFI Awards, winning prizes in six categories, including Best Film and Best Director. After directing two underwhelming films in America (1995’s How To Make An American Quilt and 1997’s A Thousand Acres), Jocelyn Moorhouse finally and joyfully delivered on her debut’s abundant promise with last year’s local hit and critical fave, The Dressmaker.

P.J HoganP.J HOGAN: MURIEL’S WEDDING (1994)

“I wanted to put a character like Muriel on the screen,” Muriel’s Wedding writer/director P.J Hogan told Urban Cinefile in 2004. “I’d had enough of the homogenised, beautiful leads characterised by an act of heroism. I wanted to see a character like I once felt – not good for anything, but with a desire to be noticed. Muriel doesn’t have a talent for anything except being herself. And I put a value on that. It’s really a crushed bud who wanted to bloom.” Awkward, desperate to be loved, confused and sweet-beyond-belief, Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is the ultimate ugly duckling, and eventually gets caught up in a marriage of convenience with a South African swimmer. Once obsessed with weddings and being married, Muriel soon sees the hollowness of her dreams, and starts to live her life realistically. As funny as she is heartbreaking, Muriel Heslop is one of the most unforgettable female characters in Australian cinema, which makes the fact that she was created by a man even more fascinating. Prior to Muriel’s Wedding, Hogan had won an AFI Award for his 1984 short, Getting Wet, while his extensive TV credits included the 1986 telemovie The Humpty Dumpty Man, and an episode of the Seven Deadly Sins series. In 1991, he was second unit director and script editor on the acclaimed film Proof, which was directed by his wife, Jocelyn Moorhouse. With Muriel’s Wedding, however, Hogan hit the big time. The film debuted to a fifteen-minute standing ovation as part of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, raked in a staggering $15,765,571 at the local box office, and picked up four AFI Awards, including Best Film. The success of Muriel’s Wedding saw Hogan whisked to Hollywood, where he directed the Julia Roberts smash, My Best Friend’s Wedding, along with less successful efforts like Peter Pan and Confessions Of A Shopaholic. Hogan most recently reunited with Toni Collette for the underrated 2012 Aussie comedy drama, Mental.

janeJANE CAMPION: SWEETIE (1989)

Though born and raised in New Zealand, writer/director Jane Campion’s 1989 debut feature film, Sweetie, was made in Australia, and remains one of our most unusual, idiosyncratic, and highly stylised films. In short, it’s a true original, and the film announced a major new talent possessed by the same kind of singular eccentricity peddled by the likes of David Lynch and Gus Van Sant in the US. After a series of impressive short films (including A Girl’s Own Story and After Hours) and an excellent television film (1987’s Two Friends, which ingeniously charts the friendship between two teenage girls by employing a backwards narrative), Campion truly asserted a visionary’s voice with the vivid comedy-drama Sweetie, which focuses on the rocky, emotionally charged relationship between the repressed, superstitious Kay (Karen Colston) and her rambunctious, fearless, mentally unstable sister, Sweetie (the sadly subsequently under used Genevieve Lemon is a revelation as the loud, attention-seeking title character), and the kinks in their family lineage which have caused their heightened, often unhappy relationship. Both visually stunning and emotionally acute, Sweetie received near breathless reviews, and quickly established Campion as a critical darling. Despite the film’s crushing central sister act, Campion actually received her inspiration from an ex-boyfriend. “Its inspiration was the deep confusion, that both Gerard Lee, who co-wrote the script with me, and I had had about why our relationship didn’t work when we were in love,” Campion told Bombsite. “We battled away with it in a complete fog, not understanding why we felt like we loved each other and yet didn’t want to have sex; things like that were very confusing and disappointing.” Campion followed up Sweetie with further triumphs: the NZ TV tour de force, An Angel At My Table; a Best Director Oscar nomination for her second masterpiece, 1993’s The Piano; and polarising responses to brave films like Portrait Of A Lady, Holy Smoke, and Bright Star, and TV’s Top Of The Lake.

Rob SitchROB SITCH (WORKING DOG): THE CASTLE (1997)

“It’s a cult,” The Castle director Rob Sitch told US website Indiewire of his professional relationship with Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy, his creative partners in the production company Working Dog. “All the big decisions are made by us together. It’s like a creative collective. We still write, produce, direct and edit and do all those things.” Though Sitch is officially credited as the director of The Castle, this classic comedy is obviously a group effort. Longtime TV comedians (who had worked on seminal shows such as The D Generation and The Late Show), Working Dog’s move into feature films initially appeared to be an inauspicious one: The Castle was shot in eleven days on a budget of approximately $19,000, and looked decidedly rough around the edges. Despite the rugged aesthetics, however, the film was an absolute cracker. A stunning mix of pathos, ribaldry and surprisingly sensitive storytelling, The Castle follows unassuming suburban everyman Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton in one of Australian cinema’s truly iconic performances), who is pushed into a battle of epic proportions when the government tries to “compulsorily acquire” his beloved home – which sits right next to an ear-splitting airport – to make way for runway extensions. Filled with indelible characters, great performances, quotable dialogue (“Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’”), and underdog spirit, the film grossed a massive $10,326,428 at the local box office before being picked up internationally for a princely sum by Miramax. “We simply decided to back ourselves, but to a very small budget,” Sitch told Dark Horizons. “I don’t think we had any grand plans for it at the time, but we got a release and it was a fairytale from there.” Working Dog’s far more polished 2000 follow up, The Dish, was just as successful, though 2012’s highly disappointing comedy drama, Any Questions For Ben, represented the first major creative failure for Sitch and his esteemed team.

Andrew DominikANDREW DOMINIK: CHOPPER (2000)

“I’m just a bloody normal bloke…a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture.” Chopper is a quintessential Australian film, riding shotgun with the hard hearted likes of Mad Max, Sunday Too Far Away and Stone in terms of its iconography, sense of mythology, and lip-smacking understanding of local vernacular. The film takes the real life character of career criminal Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, and turns him inside out. The man doing the cinematic bending and twisting was writer/director Andrew Dominik, in one of the boldest and most successful debuts of modern Australian cinema. A top-notch director of music videos and TV commercials, the keenly intelligent Dominik scratched at his eponymous thug’s hard outer shell and found something truly strange and unsettling underneath. The director was undoubtedly helped immeasurably by the brilliant Eric Bana in the title role – the former comedian embodied the character in such a fierce, highly committed way as to prompt legitimate comparisons with Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Sure, it’s now common knowledge that Chopper himself suggested Bana for the role, but it was Dominik who went out on a limb and actually cast the TV funny man. “Eric was just the best,” the director told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “I tested everyone that you could think of. When Chopper suggested Eric, I looked at his TV show, and thought, ‘What the fuck is he thinking?’ So it was all in his tests. It was only after I’d cast Eric that I watched his TV stuff.” It’s a bravura turn, and the film is a hard-jolting masterpiece: eminently quotable, both hilarious and horrifying, and utterly unforgettable. Andrew Dominik delivered on Chopper’s promise with the brilliant 2007 western, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and the superb but under-celebrated 2012 neo-noir of Killing Them Softly. 

Clayton JacobsonCLAYTON JACOBSON: KENNY (2006)

“The driving force behind us doing the film was predominantly the sudden realisation that no one had done anything on the toilet industry before,” director Clayton Jacobson told FilmInk of his debut feature, Kenny. The extraordinary success of the low budget comedy mockumentary started with its titular character, and the film’s early marketing strategy, which had actor/co-writer Shane Jacobson (Clayton’s brother) hitting the promotional trail (including interviews, screenings, radio appearances and so on) “in character” as port-a-loo cleaner and installer Kenny Smyth. This conceit worked an absolute treat. Why? Because Kenny is a truly great character: a big, bearish, loveable man who espouses the best kind of principles. He’s hilariously funny, with a quip for every occasion; he’s a hard worker who never complains; he’s non-judgemental; he’s a devoted father; and, in short, an all-around top bloke. Australians fell in love with Kenny – and the wonderfully witty and warm film that carries his name – and turned him into an instant national icon. “I remembered when I was cleaning toilets in a factory and how people just saw right through me,” director Clayton Jacobson told FilmInk. “I thought, ‘There’s really something in this…’” When it comes to the acclaim that the film has received, Clayton Jacobson has suffered something of a similar fate, with most of the credit for the film being slapped on his brother, Shane, who is the recognisable face of the film. Clayton, however, was just as essential to the film’s success. A veteran of music videos and commercials, Clayton’s sure hand meant that Kenny never wavered tonally, with every single scene hitting just the right note. The marketing strategy was also largely his idea. Though he’s been working steadily since making his big screen debut (most notably in TV and documentary), Clayton Jacobson’s highly anticipated follow up film still awaits…

Elissa Down (2)ELISSA DOWN: THE BLACK BALLOON (2008)

“Success means a combination of things,” Elissa Down told FilmInk upon the Australian DVD release of her deeply personal debut, The Black Balloon, which found great critical success on its theatrical run. “This is my first film, so maybe in a couple years’ time I’ll have it all figured out, but I’m really happy with the film. It’s hit everything right – good reviews, respectable box office and awards – and, if you can get across all of that, you get to pat yourself on the back.” Down’s heartfelt, lyrical movie is a family dramedy with a coming of age subtext that explicitly concerns severe autism – a story which mirrors the director’s own upbringing with two autistic brothers. That’s potentially difficult material for the most veteran of writers and directors, but Down had previously helmed ten major short films, which had received many accolades in overseas festivals. “The script just happened,” she told FilmInk. “If I was going to tell the story, I should go for broke. This is me getting this story out of my system. It’s therapy disguised as entertainment.” Her therapy attracted an impressive cast: Home And Away fave, Rhys Wakefield; model, Gemma Ward; Oscar nominated actress and Aussie icon Toni Collette; and an impressive find in then rookie, Luke Ford (who went on to star in films like The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and Red Dog), who plays Charlie, the handicapped brother of Wakefield’s Thomas. “The film is funny, but it’s also very upsetting,” Down said, just before the local release. “I hope that it will work with the audience, and that they’ll be willing to go on that journey.” That journey is a profoundly moving and unforgettable one, but sadly, Elissa Down is yet to deliver a follow-up feature to her wonderful debut.

_ROW4105.nefDAVID MICHOD: ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

“It’s a sprawling Melbourne crime drama,” writer/director David Michod told FilmInk of his blistering debut feature film, Animal Kingdom. “It’s cops and robbers and everything in between.” A box office hit, critical darling and AFI Award winning juggernaut, Animal Kingdom is a tough, complex crime drama set in Australia’s southern capital, a city long notorious for its gangland slayings, and tracks seventeen-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (Jimmy Frecheville), a troubled kid perilously caught between his own criminal family, and Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), a cop who thinks that he can save him. Boasting bravura supporting turns from Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver (who took it all the way to Hollywood and scored herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress), the film was a rare local product that became a real talking point amongst audiences, and was just pipped in the Best Film category in The 2010 FilmInk Awards by the monster hit, Inception. Formerly the editor of Australian industry magazine Inside Film, David Michod worked on his complex script for several years, and saw it through a long development process. After an impressive clutch of short films (including festival faves Crossbow and Ezra White LL.B), as well as the compelling 55-minute documentary Solo, Animal Kingdom represented a major bump-up for the thirty-something filmmaker. “It feels really, really big, but somehow that’s made it easier in a way,” Michod told FilmInk just before starting production. “I have to concentrate on what’s in front of me at any given moment, and trust that the great people that I have around me are working away on the rest of it in the meantime.” Now we’re all waiting for the follow up. “This is my first film,” Michod told FilmInk just before the film’s release, “and I’m definitely not going to get sucked into all the hype.” Michod followed Animal Kingdom with the wonderfully gritty and uncompromising 2014 post-apocalyptic thriller, The Rover, while this year will see the release of his Brad Pitt-starring military satire, War Machine.

JENNIFER KENT: THE BABADOOK (2014)

“When I told people that I was making a horror film, some of them looked at me as if I said that I was making porn…it was offensive to them,” Jennifer Kent told FilmInk in 2014. Directing a horror film may have initially drawn sneers, but it’s now put Australian writer/director, Jennifer Kent, right amongst the action in Hollywood. Her debut feature film, The Babadook, scored rave reviews at The Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, which instantly put Kent’s name on the radar of American producers and studios. Hailed by highly regarded US trade paper, Variety, for delivering “real, seat-grabbing jolts while also touching on more serious themes of loss, grief and other demons that cannot be so easily vanquished”, The Babadook marks the striking feature debut of writer/director, Jennifer Kent, who ingeniously expands upon her acclaimed 2005 short, Monster. Richly evocative and haunting in tone, the film focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), whose relationship with her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), has never truly warmed or deepened since her husband was killed in a car accident while racing her to the hospital to give birth. Into this already fraught emotional landscape comes the titular children’s storybook, which unleashes a strange new horror into Amelia and Samuel’s chilly home. But despite The Babadook’s international incursions, the bright lights of Hollywood have not proven blinding for Jennifer Kent, whose next film is slated to be the Tasmanian-set historical adventure, The Nightingale. “I’m s not majorly impressed by Hollywood and the system here, but it’s an adventure,” Jennifer Kent giggled to FilmInk in 2014. “I have an American agent now, and if I can continue to do my own work and have other opportunities to present it, then that’s exciting. I don’t take it too seriously though. I just continue with my own work, and that’s what I feel very strongly about. There have been wonderful opportunities, but I really just want to tell my own stories.”

Leave a Comment