The new feature documentary Wayne charts the life and career of Australian motorcycle racing legend Wayne Gardner from his early days in industrial Wollongong to his global triumphs in the ’80s and beyond. Director Jeremy Sims, best known for his dramas Last Train to Freo and Last Cab to Darwin, tells us about his connection to Gardner, the difficulties of mining the pre-digital age for material, and the odd but fitting connection between the Gardner legend and Japanese animation
Back in the day, where did Wayne Gardner sit in your personal pantheon of Australian sports? What was your awareness of him?
I guess it was the winter of ’87 and I was at UWA and I was 21, and SBS was showing the races live between midnight and 2am. For whatever reason there was a lot of buzz, as people realised we might have a world champion in whatever. There was Pat Cash, there was Jeff Fenech, and cricket and footy were what we’d all grown up on – I don’t think anyone had ever heard much about motor racing.
So it was ’87, and for whatever reason it got momentum and all of us – young men that didn’t follow motorcycles at all – we’d stay up late at parties and put the motorcycle racing on, and everyone would sit up and watch it. I just really vividly remember watching that whole season – I remember the parties and I remember my friends, because I was 21 and it was that time of your life.
I think a lot of people lived vicariously through his experiences in that year. Sports coverage has become more sophisticated since then, but in those days to tune into SBS where you had to wiggle your coat-hanger antenna to get it, and to watch live racing with [noted SBS personality] George Donikian and people in the studio – it was kind of funky.
But I didn’t give it a second thought after that – I didn’t follow motorcycle racing afterwards. So really, my interest in the story when it was brought to me was reading his biography and seeing a pretty clear sort of old fashioned hero three act structure in it, but then also being intrigued by his relationship with Donna, his wife, but then also being able to celebrate the late ‘80s. The Bicentennial was 1988 and for anyone who’s my age those years, the late ‘80s, was when Australia stopped being a provincial, post-colonial backwater and entered the world. Crocodile Dundee was a huge hit, and INXS were suddenly global, and Midnight Oil were driving their trucks out the front of Exxon in New York, and Paul Keating was calling anyone from the Liberal Party an old fogey. So the late ‘80s was a really crucial time in Australian history, and Gardner happened to win the world championship and go straight into “Celebration of a Nation” – the 1988 celebrations.
The Celebration of a Nation stuff, the Bicentennial, was also when I moved to Sydney to become an actor, so it’s all deeply embedded in my brain. It was nice to go and explore it, and I got an appreciation for motorcycle racing.
For all that the film follows Gardner’s racing career, you also spend a lot of time on his relationship with his now ex-wife, Donna. Can you tell us what drew your attention there?
I was thrilled when I interviewed Donna for the first time and realised that we had a really interesting character to work with. I was thrilled when I met [racing rival] Eddie Lawson and realised that we would have a fantastic antagonist, so that was great. All of those things – it was an unusual thing to do, but I love feature docs – I love watching them. I was kind of thrilled and flattered to be asked to direct one, because I had no idea what I was doing.
So the producers approached you?
Yeah. I met Matthew Metcalf at Toronto International Film Festival. I was there with Last Cab to Darwin and he was there with 25 April, which is a feature doc, an animated Anzac doco. He’s the motorcycle nut – he’s the guy who had posters of Wayne Gardner on his wall, he’s the guy who always wanted to make a movie of it, and he got it into his head that he wanted an Australian drama director to do it, and as soon as he saw Last Cab to Darwin he decided that I understood the Australian psyche and that I should do it. And to be perfectly frank, at the time I thought I could just do it in my spare time while I was getting my next film up – and as anyone who’s made a feature doc can tell you, that’s not how they get made. It turns out to be three years of seriously hard work and it works out at about $1.70 an hour to do it.
What do you think you brought to it as a filmmaker? What does your voice add?
I think an interest in the way a person, a character, fits into the world as it stands, so his journey from Wollongong through his career and out the other end – in the end it’s drama, but it’s drama that wasn’t necessarily scripted. But the interesting thing is once you shave it all down it was almost scripted to some degree. We followed the outline I first wrote very closely, it’s just that the telling was very interesting.
But I brought a narrative voice to it. I knew what I wanted to build between him and Donna, and I knew what I wanted to show in terms of his journey.
How did you find the process of tracking down footage and other archival materials? This all happened pre-internet, pre-smartphones pre-digital…
No, it was a nightmare! It was a fucking nightmare! We presumed that everyone in the story would have their Super 8 films and their photos and that we’d be cobbling all this beautiful sepia-toned stuff together, but nobody had anything! And in fact, all of the races, particularly the SBS coverage, which was from the principal broadcaster in each country that the races came from, that was all kept on one inch tape and then thrown out about five years ago. The only race that has the proper coverage of it was the Australian Grand Prix because Channel 9 covered that and kept some of it and even that, they didn’t keep much of it. But the rest of the race footage we had to use was from another company that, in those days, used to cover all the races, but not from as good an angle as the principal broadcaster. But they kept it and archived it, and they make a fortune now selling it to people.
And then, obviously, if you’ve seen the film, I tell a lot of the personal stories in manga [Japanese animation].
How did that come about? Obviously there’s a tradition of motorsports animation in Japan – Speed Racer is an obvious example – but the animated interludes here are a bit jarring at first.
Well, the company that made Speed Racer also made a thing called Motorcycle Hero, and it’s basically Speed Racer on motorcycles. I had a vague memory of watching that as a kid, and it was a combination of that and the fact that Wayne Gardner was a massive celebrity in Japan for years before he was a big celebrity everywhere else, and part of his image is a manga image, really. That idea of the man-child hero is a very Japanese image and he fit it perfectly. Originally we were going to cover the Suzuka race which he won as a manga as well, but very late in the piece the real footage came through. But it just became a lovely storytelling technique.
Wayne is in cinemas from September 6, 2018.