Greer Simpkin: Something to Say

December 3, 2019
At the recent Screen Forever conference, the producer discusses what appeals to Bunya Productions and why it’s a great time right now to be a creative in Australia.

As a key part of Bunya Productions’ recent rapid growth, Greer Simpkin has worked on the award-winning series Mystery Road, acclaimed films Sweet Country (Special Jury Prize at 2017 Venice Film Festival) and Goldstone (Toronto Film Festival), documentary The Troublesome Priest for the ABC; and the VR film Every King Tide for SBS.

Prior to Bunya – which is co-owned by producer David Jowsey and writer-director Ivan Sen (Mystery Road, Loveland), in her previous role as Deputy Head of Fiction at ABC, Simpkin oversaw series including Jack Irish, Rake, Janet King and Mabo.

2019 has been as busy a year as any for Simpkin, who is currently overseeing post-production on features Loveland (Hugo Weaving) and High Ground (Simon Baker, Jack Thompson), feature documentary The Leadership; and another series of Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road.

To cap it off, Leah Purcell’s feature directing debut, The Drover’s Wife, is currently filming; a foray into podcasts with award-winning filmmaker Lynette Wallworth was recently announced, Bunya-produced sketch A Cancelling! A Cancelling!, by Australia-based sketch team, Nice Shorts, was just acquired by the New York Times; and the Bunya Talent Indigenous Hub, an LA-based initiative in association with Screen Australia’s Indigenous department and Netflix, was just announced.

We caught up with the producer behind some of the world’s most exciting films and series to get her perspective on the market, what she looks for in content, and what’s next for one of Australia’s most respected production companies.

You were head of fiction at the ABC for five years, prior to your role as Head of Television at Bunya Entertainment. The market seems to be changing all the time. How do you view the current landscape as a producer?

It’s a really interesting time to be a creative in Australia. There are enormous opportunities. There are very specific places to go now. There are many more people in the market and there are great opportunities. I’m really hoping to see a whole lot more productions come to Australia from streamers, which would be terrific. What Matchbox is doing with Clickbait looks really exciting. It would be great to keep having those commissions come to Australia. We’ve got incredible creatives and crews here in Australia and it’s just so amazing that there’s this golden age of drama and I’m just so proud of my peers and some of the amazing content that’s coming out of Australia right now.

With the marketplace so complex, what catches your eye in a project as a producer?

For us at Bunya, we’re really interested in content that has something to say. Quite a bit, we’ve used genre as an entry point for audiences as a bit of a trojan horse to then have something to say. We do want to entertain, but our modus operandi is to try and make content that has a point of view and has something to say. In all of our content, I would say that’s the key to it all.

How do you see the appetite for theatrical films now?

It’s an interesting time with all the discussions about windows and just seeing what’s happened with some films that have had a very limited release and have gone to a streamer. It’s a really complex time for features. We’re still very buoyant at Bunya. We’re shooting Leah Purcell’s film The Drover’s Wife right now in the Snowy Mountains. We’ve got several feature films coming up including High Ground (Simon Baker, Jack Thompson) and Ivan Sen’s Loveland (Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten). We’ve got a total of three films coming up. But, yes, it’s pretty tricky for distributors at the moment.

Sweet Country resonated strongly with audiences overseas. What did you take away from the film’s global success?

I think Sweet Country really had something important to say. It was beautiful, almost painterly. I think visually it was really stunning and impressive. And Warwick [Thornton] got amazing performances from the cast. Some who had not really acted before. This was created by Indigenous storytellers from (writers) David Tranter to Steven McGregor to Warwick Thornton. It was really interesting to do a kind of Australian Western and use a bit of genre but have something to say.

Are you working on another film with Warwick Thornton?

I would always love to work with Warwick. We are in the middle of post-production on Mystery Road, which Warwick directed with Wayne Blair. It was an absolute dream. We did something really interesting. They co-directed in a way with Warwick the DOP across the whole series. It’s testament to their relationship. It was absolutely amazing, and a great process and I’d love to continue to work with both of them.

What are the pertinent challenges you’re facing in the marketplace, as a producer?

In the sphere we’re working in, there are lots of challenges in the theatrical world to get the budgets that you really need. We’ve often made features at the lower end of the budget scale. I read last week an article about what’s happening in America with the budgets of some series. It would be good for Australian producers to have some of those high budget production values. It would be really terrific. I think Clickbait is in that space, which is terrific. We’re really interested in making content that not only resonates in Australia, but resonates internationally. We are internationally focused, and something like Mystery Road did really well. The storyline within that landscape had universal themes in many ways. Themes about the effects of colonization, but within a Western frame, Western tropes. Interestingly, in Australia, there are a lot of people that didn’t know about those landscapes in the Kimberley. To actually make drama that’s on the scale of what’s being made internationally is a really big challenge for us, and certainly there are creators and producers in Australia that absolutely can if they’re able to access those budgets.

Are you optimistic about the state of the industry in general?

It is a really exciting time. There’s some really great content coming out of Australia now. There was a huge amount of local films at Sundance and Toronto this year. It is a really crowded, difficult market, to get films released. Sweet Country was seen all around the world. It was a film to be seen in cinemas. And that happened. It’s that alchemy. It came together. And it really worked. Wining the Special Jury Prize at Venice and a week later winning the Platform Prize at Toronto was just fantastic. So, I am very optimistic about what’s possible. It’s always challenging though.

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