The Making Of Praise: An Aussie Grunge Classic

August 18, 2017
Nearly twenty years since it scorched its way onto Australian cinema screens, we raise a glass and spark one up in honour of the 1998 local classic, Praise.

Queensland author Andrew McGahan’s novel Praise – which was published in 1991 and eventually won the prestigious Australian/Vogel Literary Award – seethes with raw emotion and hard truths. Beautifully and graphically written, the book’s hero is the chronically laidback Gordon, a chain-smoking asthmatic sweating under the Brisbane sun and scuttling his days away in a ramshackle guest house populated by itinerants and the elderly. Into Gordon’s going-nowhere-fast world comes the loud, vivacious and wholly uncompromised Cynthia, his polar opposite in almost every way. They soon move in together, and begin an often savage relationship precariously built on a shaky foundation of sex, booze, cigarettes, self doubt and a singularly battered brand of love.

In 1998, the film was brought to the screen by first time producer Martha Coleman, who tapped fellow first timer John Curran to direct, who in turn cast film novices Peter Fenton (a highly acclaimed musician and the frontman of the much loved rock group Crow, who had no previous substantial acting experience) and Sacha Horler (who had just graduated from NIDA) in the highly challenging lead roles of Gordon and Cynthia. The crew was a mix of newcomers (casting director Nikki Barrett, costume designer Emily Seresin and several others all made their debuts) and experienced old stagers. Praise was one of the defining local films of the nineties, and it scored ten deserved AFI Award nominations. From its broiling passions, frank sexuality, richly aesthetic look, emotive and unconventional music score (by cult heroes The Dirty Three) and finely judged and wonderfully full bodied performances, Praise is a masterpiece.


Andrew McGahan: Author and screenwriter

Martha Coleman: Producer

John Curran: Director

Nikki Barrett: Casting director

Emily Seresin: Costume designer

Peter Fenton Plays Gordon

Sacha Horler Plays Cynthia

A recent pressing of the novel, Praise.


Andrew McGahan: “I never envisioned that the book would be turned into a movie. I could scarcely imagine it would be published, let alone go any further.”

Martha Coleman: “I responded in a very personal way to the honesty in Andrew McGahan’s writing. I hadn’t seen a relationship story like the one in Praise told in that way before, and I wanted to see it filmed.”

John Curran: “The book was daring in its insights into the aimless youth-and-vice -driven-dole culture of the late ‘80s. This book helped kick-start the whole movement of ‘grunge lit’ in Australia, and at the time it felt born of the present. I was fascinated by Gordon. I admired his qualities and perspective, but at the same time, I was very frustrated by him. Here was a character fully conscious of his weaknesses and listing them with confessional honesty and humour.”

Peter Fenton: “I remember a lot of talk about the book, but I hadn’t read it. I suppose I felt sorry for a bunch of writers who been lumped in with the ‘grunge’ movement, because as we suckers in the music world were aware, anything that moved in the early to mid nineties was shot down with that revelatory salvo.”


Martha Coleman: “I worked with one other writer on two drafts. Andrew doesn’t remember this, but when I first spoke to him, I asked if he would be interested in adapting the novel for the screen and he said, ‘No, I’m a novelist.’ But I couldn’t let it go, so I re-approached him and he agreed.”

Andrew McGahan: “By then, my attitude had changed – mostly it was just that I’d put some distance between myself and the book, and I agreed to give it a try.”

Martha Coleman: “Andrew is a pretty rare kind of person. I wanted Andrew’s voice, and his lack of judgment. I wanted the intelligence and heart in his writing to be there to provide the tone for the film.”

Andrew McGahan: “I knew nothing about screenwriting. I was wary about rehashing a story that I’d already finished with. But Martha and [script editor] Amanda Higgs gave me a crash course on the technical side of screenwriting, and to my surprise the script itself felt like a whole fresh chance at capturing the story, rather than merely the act of retelling it. Like any author doing an adaptation, I found it tricky at times to let the book go. Praise had a strong autobiographical element, so to a degree it was my life that was being reworked by other people, and not just my book.”

Martha Coleman: “I think Andrew did a beautiful job.”


Martha Coleman:Praise was pretty straightforward in terms of funding, especially by today’s standards. I couldn’t get the AFC interested in development initially, so I financed the development through the income I made producing commercials. I also gained some investment from Pod Film, who I worked with at the time, and the director who was initially attached to Praise also provided some cash flow. The process was slightly held up when the director and I parted company and his agent, noticing the lack of a termination clause in the contract, demanded that I pay the director off before proceeding any further with development. This held things up for about eighteen months while I raised $60,000 to buy the director out. I did this by selling the soundtrack rights to the record company RooArt, who John and I had made music videos for at Pod. I felt pretty tenacious though, and never doubted that the film would get made. Down Rusty Down – a short film that John and I made together – had gotten into The Sundance Film Festival, and it had quite a buzz around it; this is when all the financing for Praise came together. Southern Star came in as sales agent, Globe came on board as Australian distributor, the FFC was a major investor, and the NSWFTO was a minor investor.”

Praise director, John Curran


Martha Coleman: “I’d spoken with a few other directors, and most of them wanted to give the film a grungy, dirty aesthetic, which didn’t give access to the heart in Praise. It was shining a torch on the obvious ugliness while obscuring the more subtle emotions that were there. Even though we were friends and had been working together on commercials for five years, it was while we were making Down Rusty Down that I saw John for the first time as a filmmaker, and not just as a commercials director. I saw real emotion in John’s approach to directing, and a beautiful aesthetic sense. John didn’t jump on the grunge aspects of Praise, but focused on the love story between Gordon and Cynthia. He saw the beauty amid the pain. I expected some resistance from the funding bodies because John was a pretty left field choice, but he’s ‘good in a room’, as they say, and they were easily won over. People became very excited about him, and rightly so.”

John Curran: “I can’t stress enough the invaluable contribution of Martha and Andrew on the development of the script. I came on board after they had done much of the hard work in distilling the book to its essence.”

Andrew McGahan: “John slotted right in to the whole idea of Gordon, which was impressive seeing that he’s anything but a Gordon type of person himself, and an American to boot.”

John Curran: “I was heavily involved with Andrew in the revisions – far too many for his liking.”

Andrew McGahan: “All three of us worked away on the drafts, right up until the last day of filming, when John wanted to know if it would be okay for Gordon to keep his socks on in a sex scene, to which I screamed ‘No!’ Gordon might have a small dick and be lousy in bed, but there are limits…”

Peter Fenton and Sacha Horler in Praise.


Andrew McGahan: “John and Martha did consult me about some of the casting, but basically I was happy to leave it to them.”

Nikki Barrett: “Casting was very important because a large chunk of the film was two people in a room, and they had to hold our interest. It was my first film, so I didn’t have a very informed view of how casting served a film/story; I just knew that they needed to be watchable and believable. We tested across a really wide range, from high profile actors to uni acting groups and people from parallel performance worlds like music and comedy. The film had been funded without any cast attached, which almost never happens these days. It gave a certain freedom to the process. John and Martha had a very clear idea of the world they were trying to create, and they remained committed and truthful to that.”

Martha Coleman: “We received a call from Nicole Kidman’s agent. Nicole was looking to do something challenging. This was around the time of Eyes Wide Shut. We flew to London to meet her. Many conversations between John and Nicole followed, but she was stuck on the never ending Eyes Wide Shut shoot, and in the end she passed. It gave us great confidence to have Nicole’s interest in our little film, but part of me was relieved to be released from the pressure of having such a big star on my first film. It would have been a very different film. It would have made money! But it wouldn’t have been what it ended up being, which felt just right.”

Nikki Barrett: “We looked and looked and looked. Sacha was in fact one of the first Cynthias we tested, but Gordon was much harder to find. He had a passivity that in some ways is opposite to the energy that actors bring into the room, and we struggled to find that. One night after we’d been testing for ages, John said, ‘What do we do now? I don’t know what happens here! I’ve never made a film before!’ I sort of stammered back, ‘Um, I don’t know…I’ve never cast one before.’ We all felt really sick.”

John Curran: “I really struggled with the casting of Gordon. It felt like I’d looked at every working actor in Australia, along with a lot of non-actors. I’d reached a point where I could feel the people around me losing faith. My descriptions of the qualities I was searching for – a mix of grace and social awkwardness – had become so obtuse that no one knew what the hell I was looking for. In desperation, they begged me to put someone – anyone! – on tape to give them a sense of the sort of guy that I was looking for. Peter Fenton immediately popped into my head. I’d met with him and his band Crow a few years earlier about directing a video. He had a presence that was similar to what I’d been describing. I told Nikki Barrett to put Peter on tape for reference, figuring that he would come in, turn around a few times, and go home. Anyway, I forgot all about it and a week later, out of fear really, I ended up giving the role of Gordon to another actor, and I immediately knew that I’d fucked up. After a celebratory drink with him, I went back to my office and sat in the dark until two in the morning. I was depressed. At some point I noticed a tape on my desk marked ‘Peter Fenton’. To my surprise and amusement, I realised that they’d misinterpreted my directions, and had called Peter in to read scenes. He was wooden and awkward, but so present and inadvertently funny that I watched it over and over again. Eventually I woke up Martha and said, ‘I have really good news, and I have really bad news…’”

Martha Coleman: “John stuck to his guns until he found Peter. I probably would have compromised. Peter had never acted before and we expected some resistance, but he sailed through.”

Nikki Barrett: “We knew Sacha because she had graduated from NIDA a few years before and had been in for castings. Sacha came right at the beginning of the process and Peter came right at the end.”

Peter Fenton: “I’d done drama at school, but apart from a few readings at The New Theatre, I’d done no acting at all. It wasn’t on my radar at all. But I’d heard that John was thinking of me for the role. I was working in the law courts as a court reporter and friends were ringing me to implore me to go for the role. I read the book about three times, and I was sent the script, which I read over and over. Compounding this was the fact that the long term relationship I was in was coming to a brutal threshold, and any suggestion that I do the film was met with serious and adamant objection. I decided I’d do the screen test, and I met John Curran at The Annandale Hotel and fired questions at him. He said, ‘Peter, if you do this film, it will be the bravest thing you’ve ever done.’ I was up for it.”

Martha Coleman: “As it happens, Sacha was one of the first people on the casting tape, but we missed her in the first round because we were feeling our way. After weeks and weeks of casting, John and I scrolled back over the tapes and there was our Cynthia – about third in line on the first tape!”

John Curran: “I met Sacha fairly early on in the process and knew I had found Cynthia, but I strung her along while I cast about for guys to play Gordon. I kept calling her back in for readings opposite different candidates, and as the casting for Gordon dragged on, she became more and more impatient and outspoken and Cynthia-like in her attitude toward me. So in a way, my inability to commit to a Gordon helped dispel any doubts that I had about her as Cynthia…or at least I like to think of it in that way!”

Martha Coleman: “Every one of the supporting roles was carefully considered as well and, I think, perfectly cast. The range shows a lateral thinking about casting – they come from a range of experiences and areas but each actor had the right quality for their character. They really help to make this film.”

Sacha Horler: “Everyone had gone for the Cynthia role, including a lot of big names. I would never have gotten the role if it wasn’t for the open casting call that Martha and John had done. I really have them to thank for that. I remember being in a bar after getting the role, and every actress in there had gone for the part.”

John Curran: “This sort of film wouldn’t work without exactly the right cast, and I feel that all my agonising went into the search to find the right Cynthia and Gordon. Once I found Peter and Sacha, the hardest part was over.”

Sacha Horler: “When I first met Peter, he smelled of beer, and I thought, ‘Oh, fuck! What am I going to have to deal with here?’ But he wasn’t like that at all. He’s such a gentle soul.”

Peter Fenton: “The wonderful Nikki Barrett helped to demystify the audition process for me. I was called back a week later to do another test, but this time with Sacha, who had already been cast as Cynthia. Meanwhile, I did a one-week ‘screen acting for dummies seminar’ with David Field and Blazey Best to get me up to speed with the whole biz. I walked into the audition to find Sacha standing there in her underwear. I apologised, and she replied, ‘Well, if you get the job, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me than this.’ I liked her instantly. Afterwards, I found a wine bar, had a few settlers and watched the televised funeral of Michael Hutchence on the bar TV. It was a strange day indeed. When I got the role, I found myself in a world of wonderful, generous people.”

Sacha Horler and Peter Fenton in Praise.


John Curran: “I’d worked with [cinematographer] Dion [Beebe] on a short film and a few commercials, and for whatever reason, we always seemed to approach every shoot with the same lack of prep. But by this time I’d accepted it as my preferred process. I don’t storyboard too much; I don’t load up the walls and my brain with other references.  I like free-falling to a degree, and Dion is good on the fly, and was happy to work this way. I love his eye and lighting sensibilities of course, but mostly I like his wordless, intuitive grasp of the underlying mood and dramatic requirements of a scene. He’s a great guy to be in the trenches with.”

Martha Coleman: “Music plays a big part in the emotional pitch of Praise and John has a very good ear for music. Music tells us how we are meant to feel, and when John played me The Dirty Three’s Horse Stories CD, I had never heard anything like it. Their music is very emotional and they have an ability to show beauty in pain. The process was quite unconventional in that The Dirty Three wanted the freedom to do what they wanted. They are such geniuses that we felt very comfortable – excited even – to just let them at it…we knew that they would come up with magic. We gave them a rough cut of the film and they went into a studio for a day, and then gave us the tracks. John and [editor] Alexandre [De Franceschi] cut the tracks to the images. The Dirty Three nailed it.”

A scene from Praise.


Andrew McGahan: “It was terrible that the budget forced us to shoot the film in Sydney, rather than Brisbane. I was supposed to have a cameo role in the waiting room of an STD clinic, but the scene got cut because of time restraints.”

Peter Fenton: “I remember there being some minor outrage in the Brisbane newspapers about us taking their film and shooting it in Sydney.”

Sacha Horler: “We were at Film Australia in Artarmon. But to everyone’s credit, it looked like Brisbane in the middle of summer. People still come up to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I know that pub in Brisbane.’ But everything was shot in Sydney, mostly in the studios at Film Australia. There were some great locations as well, and everyone did a great job in making the film look like Brisbane.”

John Curran: “I had the normal, garden-variety fears about directing my first feature film: losing all control of the shoot and the actors; being exposed as a fraud…those sorts of things!”

Emily Seresin: “The set was pretty small and emotionally intense a lot of the time. John would say, ‘Hey, what do I know about wardrobe?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, me too.’ I really liked working with John. He has a very strong vision, but he’s not set in any particular way, so things can evolve within it. I like to ‘taste it and see’ a lot. John was very trusting…and he smoked in the wardrobe department!”

Sacha Horler: “There were a lot of first timers on the film, but we were surrounded by more experienced people who were there to make sure that it worked, and that things got done on time. They wanted the film to be as good as it could be. It was a wonderful mix. I don’t think I would have gotten through that film without Jamie Crooks, the first assistant director. I just needed someone who would tell me to look after myself, and he did that. I remember Martha saying to me once as well, ‘This is a serious, difficult role, you know? So don’t go out drinking and hanging out with your boyfriend.’ I don’t know if I listened to her or not.”

Martha Coleman: “The most extreme stress for me was being two weeks into pre-production, and still not having any money in the bank. I thought I was going to have to send the crew home. Then the money came through at the eleventh hour. The shoot itself was really smooth though. We had a great crew. It was pretty relaxed.”

Sacha Horler: “There were lots of jokes, and drinks on a Friday night out of the back of the film truck, and ‘Whose turn is it to get the slab?’ and that sort of thing. The material was so tough that everyone bonded over it. Peter and I just really clicked, mainly because he’s just such a wonderful person. He’s a very dry character, and we were actually quite similar despite the obvious differences in our characters. I felt very protective over Peter, and often very cross at Peter too, but that was because I was already Cynthia. If he was late or forgot a line, I’d be furious, and I was never sure if that was me, or if it was just Cynthia raging out of control and getting angrier and angrier that she’s not getting any sex. So the lines blurred for me. But I was very protective of him because he was so new to film, and he didn’t know things like basic technical terms. It must have been surreal for Peter.”

Peter Fenton: “I was like a fish out of water, and Sacha was really focused and hungry to do this thing well. She was a totally generous and intelligent actor. Interestingly, our different personalities countered each other’s traits amazingly well. People seem quite surprised when I tell them how much fun the shoot was, which was in stark contrast to the film’s emotional caterwauling.”

Sacha Horler: “I was on the set, in the nude, and it was my birthday. Everyone came in and said, ‘Yay! It’s Sacha’s birthday!’ I just thought, ‘This is just too fuckin’ weird!’ That’s an example of how relaxed we had become. None of us wanted it to end. I had the advantage of going on to another role very quickly after this. But Cynthia was still so inside me that when I had to do a masturbation scene for my audition for the film Soft Fruit, I was like, ‘Yeah, fuckin’ bring it on! Man, that’s nothing!’ Cynthia was still lurking around in me. She took a while to shake!”

John Curran: “The shoot had its ups and downs, but mostly ups. It was my first feature, and it was like running a marathon after training for years as a sprinter. It took a while to adjust to the pace.”

Peter Fenton: “My favourite quote was from the props guy, Moxie Moxham: ‘I’ve just given Peter his hundredth cigarette, and it’s not even lunch time.’”

A scene from Praise.


John Curran: “It’s much easier to shoot bad sex than erotically charged scenes! Sacha came from a theatre background and Peter had no training whatsoever, so my process was different with both of them. Sacha, like many actors, didn’t want to know what her character should do – she wanted to know why she was doing it. Peter, on the other hand, was perfectly fine with me acting something out when words failed us.”

Sacha Horler: “I knew that if I let my fear of the sex scenes – or just my fear of being the lead in a feature film – get to me, then I’d be fucked for the whole film. There would be days when I’d look at the call sheet and go, ‘Okay, we’re in the bedroom again today…I’ll just go and get my tiny piece of cloth and put it on and hope that we get through it.’ But once you’ve got the trust of the director and the crew, and you feel comfortable with them, sex scenes aren’t necessarily the hardest thing to do. There was very confronting emotional stuff that was much worse.”

Peter Fenton: “Sex scenes would be difficult for any actor, I’d imagine. It was confronting being naked on set. I discovered that there was a whole array of bits and pieces to protect one’s modesty, but we found that these were more hindrance than help and we discarded them early. They locked down the set and made us feel very comfortable. Also, taking me away from the stark reality of the situation mentally were the little journeys that one has to travel in each scene, like small symphonies. I was struck by the very musical nature of filmmaking, with the tempo, rhythm and feel all joining together to create something.”

Praise editor, Alexandre de Franceschi.


John Curran: “I can’t stress enough the contribution of my editor Alexandre De Franceschi, who I’ve worked with for over twenty years. My back blew out during the shoot, and I eventually had to take a break in post-production for an operation, so on top of the painful process of editing our first feature together, Alexandre also had to endure my bear-like moods and whining. For that I am eternally grateful.”

A poster for Praise.


Andrew McGahan: “I did find parts of the film disturbing on a personal level. It aroused very painful memories. But mainly I was watching it from a professional (and hypercritical) point of view – noting all the things that we got wrong, or which I didn’t like, or which seemed to drag with the audience. I can’t say that I’ve ever simply sat back and enjoyed it as a movie. I don’t see how I ever could, either personally or professionally.”

Martha Coleman: “I was so pleased that people responded so positively to it. Some people didn’t get it, but on the whole, people respected the film. Our Australian distributor Globe went bankrupt (or some such) just prior to the release. It was only released on six prints across Australia and it’s a shame that when all those four and five star reviews came out, and when the opening weekend broke all screen average records for an Australian film, that we weren’t able to go wider to reach a bigger audience. But there was a huge awareness for such a small release. This continued when it was released in the US. Apart from winning the Fipresci Award at Toronto, it received brilliant US reviews and was listed in The New York Times Top Five Films for 2000. It was a tiny little film that had a big bite. When it was well received, I felt a monkey jump off my back. I felt that all the hard work and focus had paid off and I could move on. It didn’t make any money…but at that stage I didn’t feel the producer’s burden of commercial responsibility that I do now!”

John Curran: “Like the book, I knew the film would polarise opinions, so I wasn’t surprised at the mix of criticism…though some of the bad reviews were scathing bordering on personal.”

Sacha Horler: “I always say that it’s at least a five-glasses-of-wine film. You need two glasses before the film to get into the headspace, and then two-to-five after because it’s a really powerful film. It’s funny and beautiful but it’s very powerful too. I had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘That was me. I was Gordon in university.’ It didn’t matter what sex they were. Guys would sometimes say, ‘I was like Cynthia for a while’ in this confessional tone. That’s always a measure of how good a film is. If people identify so strongly that they want to share their stories with you, that’s great. It deserved to be a hit because everyone had worked so hard on it. It came at a time when Australian films were getting edgier, with films like The Boys and Head On, and critics and audiences wanted to see that.”

Andrew McGahan: “My own AFI award wasn’t so significant – there were only two films in the ‘adapted screenplay’ category that year! But the fact that Praise got ten other nominations, and that Sacha won best actress…that was satisfying. [Despite ten nominations, Praise only received the Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay Awards. Two Hands won for Best Film] Sasha blew me away in the film. She was frightening; watching her was like reliving all the traumatic moments that led to the book being written in the first place. She’s a raw monster on the screen, but you can understand her completely and see all the vulnerability and fear. Peter got the passive essence of Gordon dead right, and the emotional paralysis that can sometimes make him so cruel. And he was the perfect foil to Sacha. That bewildered helpless look in reaction to yet another Cynthia explosion – it was something genuine and natural, and something that a more professionally trained actor might have struggled with.”

Sacha Horler: “Because I was nominated twice, I didn’t think I’d win. [Sacha also won the AFI Award for Best Supporting Actress for Soft Fruit in the same year] It was life changing for me. I’d thought for so long that I’d never get into film, and that I’d especially never play a lead, so to get that reaffirmation was amazing so early in my career. It’s hard to think that I could ever match it again…I may have peaked too early. I really didn’t know what I was doing when I did Praise, so it was a great reaffirmation.”

Peter Fenton: “It was a wonderful time.”

A British release poster for Praise.


Nikki Barrett: “I haven’t seen it for a long time – my brother stole my copy! I remember it being so much funnier than I expected…in a good way.”

Emily Seresin: “Getting your first feature is difficult. I’m eternally grateful to John and Martha for giving me the break. Films like Praise don’t come along often, in terms of the integrity of the people involved, the script and the working process. I joked about peaking too early…but I was kind of serious too. It was sad when we wrapped. It’s still a favourite film. The Dirty Three are still my favourite band. It feels good to go to interviews and people still say, ‘Oh, Praise – I loved that film’…even when I don’t get the job!”

Sacha Horler: “It’s going to be one of those films that lasts forever. People still tell me how much they love the film. It’s been such a long time since I’ve watched it, but I have an absolute love for it, so it’s great when people tell me that they really love the film too, and that it’s important to them.”

Peter Fenton: “It makes me feel proud in my heart. It’s a film that is studied to a degree, and it sits with me very comfortably. We worked together on a film that had, if you will, a good shelf life. There was always a feeling on the set that we were making a good film. I was actually at a bar last night, and someone came up to me out of the blue and told me how much they loved the film. It still happens.”

John Curran:Praise exists now as a document of a very special period in my life. I was working with great friends on material that we all loved, and it offered us the opportunity to capture for posterity a familiar milieu of Australian characters stuck in post-school ruts that we all, in our own way, could relate to. I was certainly aware of an undercurrent in both the story and in my life at the time – a sense of existing in a gap, and struggling against inevitable transition. I knew that after Praise, for good or for bad, things would somehow change for me. And they did. It introduced me to Hollywood and I got an agent. I started getting scripts out of America.”

Martha Coleman: “I feel enormous affection for Praise. It was my first baby and it took up a lot of my focus for five years. I haven’t seen it for ages and I’m sure I would be blinded by its flaws now, but for better or worse, it was the film that we intended to make and I feel proud of it. But I’m not sure I ever want to be that focused on one film again… it’s not very healthy!”

Andrew McGahan: “There was far more good than bad about the whole experience. Martha and John were a pleasure to work with. The film looked and sounded beautiful, and in the end it produced deeply moving moments. That’s not a bad result for a bunch of beginners on their first feature, as most of us – the producer, the director, the writer, the actors – were.

With very warm thanks and great indebtedness to all who contributed their time for interviews and made this article possible. It’s hugely appreciated. Special thanks also to Katrina Berg, Kelly Doust and Marguerite Barbara for their invaluable assistance. Praise is available now on DVD.




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