Not Your Typical Father & Son Story: The Making Of The Sum Of Us

August 23, 2018
Though now over twenty years old, 1994’s The Sum Of Us is just as fresh and vital today. Producer, Hal McElroy, and co-director, Geoff Burton, reminisce about the making of this much loved Aussie classic.

“I cried when I read it,” producer, Hal McElroy, tells FilmInk on the line from his Sydney office. “It was such a wonderful piece of work.” Penned by Palestine-born, New Zealand-raised playwright, author, and screenwriter, David Stevens (who sadly passed away just last month, at the age of 77), the stage play, The Sum Of Us, tells of the warm, deeply moving relationship between nice guy, Harry Mitchell, and his equally likeable, sports-loving son, Jeff, who just happens to be gay. Theirs is a bond built on transparency, trust, and love, and they form an unbreakable union that is tested but never torn.

Though a highly accomplished writer of film (Breaker Morant) and television (The Sullivans, Homicide), and a screen director in his own right (A Town Like Alice, The Clinic, Undercover, and the US drama, Kansas, starring Matt Dillon and Andrew McCarthy), David Stevens’ initial attempts to get The Sum Of Us produced on stage in Australia failed. Undeterred, he took the play to the US, where it opened on October 16, 1990 at the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre, where it ran for 335 performances. With Tony Goldwyn and Richard Venture heading the cast, and Kevin Dowling in the director’s chair, The Sum Of Us won The Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play 1990-1991.

The Sum Of Us playwright David Stevens

Not surprisingly, The Sum Of Us was noticed by major players in Hollywood, always on the lookout for fresh product. The producers of the stage play, however, were one step ahead of the game. Along with the play’s director, Kevin Dowling, its consortium of investors – flush from the success of the Off-Broadway run – funded the writing of a screenplay, which David Stevens undertook himself, even though it was “a movie that he didn’t want to write,” according to his NZ Onscreen bio.

The screenplay then found its way to Australian producer, Hal McElroy, a legend on the local scene who had worked with Peter Weir on The Cars That Ate Paris, The Last Wave, and Picnic At Hanging Rock, as well as producing the groundbreaking 1983 TV classic, Return To Eden. McElroy was acquainted with David Stevens (“Back then, it was a small industry, and we all knew each other,” he laughs), and instantly fell in love with The Sum Of Us. “I was deeply, deeply moved,” McElroy says.

He wasn’t the only one. During its run at The Cherry Lane Theatre, The Sum Of Us had been seen by the likes of Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman. According to McElroy, many of these big names had expressed a direct interest in starring in a film version of the play. Now officially on board as a producer, McElroy started making approaches. “A process like that, when you’re dealing with superstars, takes three or five months per request, because even back then, they had a ‘firm offer or no read’ policy,” McElroy explains. “You need to have your financing secured, but I didn’t have my financing because I was trying to get them interested! But each one of them had declared to Kevin Dowling that they wanted to be in the movie, so we organised to go back to those individuals and present them with the screenplay and ask if they were interested. And then each one of them said no for a multitude of reasons, or their agent said no. It may have just been first night theatre chat, or it may have been their agents perceiving that there was no money in it, or it was career suicide to play a homosexual. Who knows? I spent nearly two years chasing the dream! The budget went from 2 million to 5 million to 15 million…we were speaking to Tom Cruise! It was insane! I tried and tried, and got absolutely nowhere.”

The Sum Of Us producer Hal McElroy

Bordering on disillusionment, and suffering a number of blows while working in a faltering Australian television industry (“Nothing was happening,” McElroy says. “This was the late eighties and early nineties. Channel 10 went broke, Channel 7 nearly went broke, and Channel 9 got sold and nearly went broke. It was getting more and more frustrating”), McElroy’s excitement about The Sum Of Us was reignited when he received a letter from actor, Russell Crowe, saying that he would love to appear in a film version of the play. Though far from being an international star at the time, Crowe was red hot locally after his towering performance as a Neo-Nazi skinhead in the 1992 controversy-baiter, Romper Stomper, and McElroy was duly thrilled to receive the communication. “He turned up at my office, and said that he loved it and wanted to be in it,” the producer tells FilmInk. “I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never had an actor – still to this day – who would insist upon coming to a meeting and look you in the eye and say, ‘I want to be in it!’”

A daring choice for Russell Crowe (especially after playing the resolutely macho Hando in Romper Stomper), the actor responded to the inherent warmth and positivity of The Sum Of Us. “It’s just a great movie,” he told Attitude Magazine in 1995 upon the film’s US release. “It’s very warm and funny. It’s about the love between a father and son, and the shifting responsibilities in the generations. That’s basically an age-old subject for movies, but a lot of people will think, ‘Oh, yes, The Sum Of Us, it’s about homosexuality, therefore it’s got to be about AIDS, with people arguing and crying and stuff.’ That’s the great thing about this film: there is no anger between the father and son. The way that we approached the character is the normalcy of homosexuality – it’s not shocking or surprising. The whole perspective of the movie is that sexuality is not the thing that makes you what you are.”

Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper

With Russell Crowe declaring his allegiance to the project, McElroy shifted his thinking about what the movie could be. When the likes of Paul Newman and Tom Cruise were circling the project, it was assumed that the story would be uprooted and replanted in America. “It was just a story, and though it sounded Australian, it obviously played well in New York,” McElroy says. “It wasn’t overtly Australian. It was just a story about a father and son.” With Crowe on board, The Sum Of Us again became a distinctly Australian story, and then led McElroy in a direction that would truly firm up what the film would eventually become, and his thoughts of a Hollywood adaptation dissipated. “I said, ‘Fuck it! What about Jack Thompson as the dad and Russell Crowe as the son? And we’ll make it as a low budget Australian film!’ Nobody said no, so I just said, ‘Fuck it! Let’s just do this!’”

Aussie legend, Jack Thompson –  the star of classics like Sunday Too Far Away, The Club, Breaker Morant, The Man From Snowy River, and many, many more – was perfectly cast as Harry Mitchell, a tough, rugged, but accepting man, and something of a quintessential Australian male. “It was such a delight because it was so well written,” Thompson told The Weekend Australian in 2010 of The Sum Of Us. “I loved Harry’s line that his son Jeff wasn’t really gay, just ‘cheerful.’ I grew up with men like Harry, in the bush, and in the army. Their attitude was that it doesn’t matter what you do in your home, it’s how we get on that matters. David Stevens told me that he wrote it as a tribute to the tolerant and intelligent Australian men that he’d worked with and known.” Working with Russell Crowe was also a big and highly personal lure for Jack Thompson. “As a six-year-old, Russell had a part in a Spyforce episode in which he gets his first line onscreen ever,” Thompson told the ABC of the early seventies TV series in which he starred as a WW2 military operative. “I’ve got to fix up a bandage on his foot. And he says, ‘Thanks, mister.’ Russell said later in an interview, from there on in, from his experience then, that he just wanted to be Jack Thompson up there on the screen. We created a friendship there, and an intimacy that will be there all our lives.”

The Sum Of Us co-director Kevin Dowling

Ironically, just as he was getting The Sum Of Us up, McElroy had also received interest in a TV series that he was developing called Blue Heelers, which would, of course, go on to become a major hit for Channel 7. He’d also gotten a kids’ quiz show off the ground in Brisbane. “After three years of doing nothing, I was run off my feet,” McElroy laughs. The Sum Of Us, however, remained a peak project for the increasingly busy producer. His next challenge came with assigning a director for the film. After successfully mounting the play in New York, US-based Kevin Dowling was McElroy’s first pick: he was intimately familiar with the material, he was a vital part of its development as a screenplay, and he’d been with The Sum Of Us pretty much from the beginning. Though he’d never directed a film before, Kevin Dowling was the man for the job. The only problem was that he was an American. In order for The Sum Of Us to get status as an Australian production, which would qualify it for various funding and taxation guidelines, McElroy needed to bring in an Australian co-director. The producer picked Geoff Burton, a master cinematographer who had shot classics like Sunday Too Far Away, Storm Boy, The Year My Voice Broke, Stir, A Street To Die, and many others, as well as directing a number of highly regarded documentaries.

Geoff Burton had worked with The Sum Of Us creator, David Stevens, many years previous on a number of TV programmes (“He was a very kind gentleman, and very smart as well”), and loved what he read when he was handed the screenplay. “It was terrific and terribly innovative,” Burton tells FilmInk. “At that time, we were experimenting as much as we could with films, and trying to do things differently. There were a lot of different things to work on with this film, which is another reason why I willingly jumped on board.” As well as having a non-stereotyped gay character front and centre (Crowe’s Jeff Mitchell is a rugby playing plumber, no less), The Sum Of Us also veered from mainstream cinematic tradition by having its characters “break the fourth wall” and speak directly to the audience. “I was terribly impressed when I was working in the UK a few years before and saw the film, Alfie,” Burton says of the 1966 British classic in which Michael Caine’s ruthless cad shares his thoughts with the audience to-camera. “I was really conscious of the idea of an actor breaking from a dramatic scene and involving the audience. I thought that was fantastic.”

The Sum Of Us co-directors Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling

Daring concepts such as these were pushed through during an intensive pre-production period. “We went through a long work-shopping period with Jack and Russell, and that was incredibly important,” says Burton. “David was sitting in on that, and writing as well. That was a wonderful experience for some weeks where you had the involvement of the creator and the writer, the two co-directors, the two stars, and a very interested and involved producer in the form of Hal. That was a terrific period, and a lot of important decisions were made, especially in regard to the way that the film would translate the play, specifically in terms of actors addressing the camera, and the breaking down of the fourth wall. That sort of workshopping doesn’t happen that much anymore. Budgets get tighter, and the pressure is on to shoot more in shorter periods.”

That workshopping also involved an extended period of off-screen bonding between Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson. To achieve the appropriate levels of on-screen chemistry for a father and son who dearly, deeply love each other, the elder actor suggested that his co-star come stay with his family on their farm for a number weeks. “Jack is one of the most gracious and generous people that I know,” says Hal McElroy. “He’s full of generosity and grace and good spirit. He’s a wonderful guy. He knew that to make this work, he and Russell really had to bond. They became as close to father and son as you could possibly imagine two actors becoming. Jack was already a father, and a very good one, but this was, of course, a construction. It required Russell to let go and surrender and say, ‘I’m going to let this man be my father even though he isn’t.’ Jack made the offer, and insisted upon it being turned into a reality. It wasn’t just a process that they went through. It was a huge investment of time and energy.”

Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe in The Sum Of Us

Despite the obvious bond that the two actors had developed, Geoff Burton tells FilmInk that when it came time to shoot, their natural competitive instincts also started to kick in. “It was pretty interesting,” he chuckles. “There was a lot of young-bull-and-old-bull between Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe. Jack used to love telling stories about how he was a young actor working on Spyforce, and Russell’s parents were caterers on that. So Russell was this young kid sitting on the steps of the catering van! Jack liked to remind him of that relationship! There’s an enormous amount of respect between the two, but there was a degree of competition. Kevin and I enjoyed that. We used to love watching that. In some ways, there was no tension on set. It was very cooperative, and right from the start of that shoot, we knew that there was something special going on. It was a really pleasant shoot, but sometimes Kevin and I would play different roles with Jack and Russell in order to keep that competition going between them.”

While Hal McElroy refers to the co-direction set-up of Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling as “an arranged marriage” that fell prey to a strong desire on the part of both men to collaborate and compromise too readily, rather than thrash out any perceived problems, Burton says that he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “Kevin would defer to me on how we should cover scenes, and I’d always defer to Kevin in terms of how scenes should be referenced to an audience,” he says. “There would be theatrical staging and devices that would be carried over from the play. In other words, unlike a lot of other adaptations, we were never going to hide the fact that this was once a play. So we had these rules and guidelines, and I would set about working out the coverage. We’d rehearse together. I had grave doubts about some of the more theatrical elements in the film, but Kevin would say, ‘Believe me, it’s going to work.’ He knew the play so well, and he knew how audiences responded to it. He knew that the jokes would work, and that the scenes with the characters breaking the fourth wall would work. We had a very close working relationship.” Says McElroy: “I applaud them both for working so hard and respecting each other as much as they did.”

Kevin Dowling and Russell Crowe on the set of The Sum Of Us

Though Burton and Dowling never intended to mask the stage origins of The Sum Of Us, their film makes great use of a number of dazzling Sydney locations: Harry Mitchell works as a ferry captain, gifting the directors with a Sydney Harbour backdrop for a number of scenes; Jeff’s lover, Greg (John Polson), works in the picturesque Botanical Gardens; The Gay Mardi Gras is briefly featured; and Harry and Jeff sink schooners at a variety of Balmain pubs. “It was almost before Balmain was trendy,” Hal McElroy laughs. “Okay, that’s not quite true, because Balmain has been trendy since the seventies, but it became mega trendy from the late nineties and onwards. We used a lot of those locations just before they were gentrified. I remember having an interesting discussion with Geoff and Kevin because I’d found a fantastic location right at the end of Balmain looking out against what is now Darling Harbour; it was a real working man’s cottage at the end of a dead-end street. It was in original condition, and I said, ‘Why don’t we use this place?’ The view was amazing, and it was a working man’s cottage! But they refused point blank. They said that it was too obvious, and that we had to be more real than that. They were determined for it to be as blue collar as possible. So I thought, ‘Okay, I tried!’ In those days, the film and television industry was still warmly received when we’d turn up on location to shoot. And a lot of the industry lived in Balmain, so it was a normal situation! It was a nice, easy, amiable shoot.”

Despite enjoying an easy-rolling shoot, Geoff Burton tells FilmInk that the taboo elements of the film – Harry’s embracing, and even encouraging, of his son’s romantic and sexual activities, and the fairly candid depiction of said activities – did cause a little unease at Southern Star, one of the principal financial backers of the film. “Without naming names, the executive producing area was concerned about some of that stuff,” the director says. “Kevin and myself had to front up a few times to the headmaster’s office to say that a father could react this way to his son because he has compassion and tolerance. There was a bit of that going on, but we always hoped that it would be groundbreaking in terms of tolerance toward someone’s sexuality and same-sex relationships, and it certainly was that.”

John Polson and Russell Crowe in The Sum Of Us

The film is indeed famous for a scene in which Russell Crowe and John Polson (in an early role for the eventual Tropfest founder, Aussie film mainstay, and Hollywood director) share a passionate kiss, which Crowe amusingly discussed on the television programme, Inside The Actor’s Studio. “Whenever people ask me, ‘So Russell, what’s been your favourite screen kiss?’, I always say that one, just because it freaks people out, you know? Before we shot the scene, John came up to me, and he goes, ‘Russell, uh…you know that we’ve got the kissing scene coming up, mate. I’ve never kissed a bloke, mate, and uh, I was wondering if we should get together and rehearse?’ And I said, ‘Johnny, Johnny…mate, sit down, have a seat. Now, I’m about to go and work with Sharon Stone [on The Quick And The Dead] after we finish this movie, and I’ve got a kissing scene with Sharon. How do you reckon she’s going to react if I ask her for some rehearsal time?’ And he said, ‘But I’m only saying it because I’ve never kissed a bloke!’ And I said, ‘Well, mate, I’ve never kissed a bloke either! But I’ll tell you what, alright? You lean in far enough, I’ll lean in far enough…and I’m sure that we’ll remember what to do!’”

John Polson and Russell Crowe in The Sum Of Us

Though an amusing story, this anecdote points directly to a problem that The Sum Of Us would eventually encounter. “I made a mistake,” says Hal McElroy, “and it was to say this: that because it’s pro-gay, the gays will like it. I’m not gay, and no one involved in the making of the movie was gay. Neither of the directors are gay, Jack isn’t gay, John Polson isn’t gay, and Russell certainly isn’t gay.” When the producer accompanied the film for its screening at The Sydney Film Festival, he got his first taste of negativity at the Q&A afterwards. “We were shocked,” McElroy says. “Quite a chunk of the audience was gay, and they were offended by the movie. Someone stood up and said, ‘This is a shocking piece of dishonest, sentimental tosh, and it should never have been made. How dare you make it? You’re not even gay!’ We were flabbergasted, and that was the mistake that I made as a producer. I second-guessed that audience, and thought that because it was pro-gay, that they would like it. Part of the gay community – probably still to his day – see it as sentimental and not reflective of the harsh realities of being gay. And that’s true; it doesn’t. It’s a very affectionate, warm and sentimental story, and deliberately so. There are many who see the film as a cynical attempt by heterosexuals to take advantage of homosexuals, which was, of course, horrifying. I was completely shocked by that, and still am to this day, but all I can say is that my intentions were honourable. As was everybody else’s. And what can you do? It’s just a reminder that not everyone likes everything. There are people who remember The Sum Of Us with great affection and respect, there are some who don’t even know that it existed, and some who thought that it was horrible. And that’s showbusiness.”

Deborah Kennedy and Jack Thompson in The Sum Of Us

The film’s screenings at The Sydney Film Festival, however, were not without warmth and appreciation. “We screened it twice at The State Theatre, and both screenings didn’t have an empty seat,” recalls Geoff Burton. “And just standing at the back and sensing the audience’s response to it was terrifically gratifying. We did a Q&A after one of the sessions, and I remember this middle-aged bloke, rather than asking a question, he did a thank you speech, because the film reflected his situation with his gay son, and this film became a way of negotiating that. It came out that this was a very useful piece. We never intended to make a training film,” Burton laughs, “but it’s nice when people can actually put a piece of drama into a social context like that and turn it into an expression of love.”

The DVD cover for The Sum Of Us

When FilmInk asks Hal McElroy for his final thoughts on The Sum Of Us, the producer becomes clearly emotional. “With everything that I do, I do it with a lot of passion and investment of energy,” he says. “My projects are literally like my children, so I love them dearly, and I’m proud of all of them. But when I’m making them, I’m completely blind to their faults. It’s only years later that I can even bear to look at them. I don’t think I’ve seen The Sum Of Us for twenty years, and I would probably leave the room! When I look at them again after a long time, all I usually see are the faults and the warts. But I have a great deal of pride in the film, and fond memories of the making of the film. I’m proud of what we did in, shall we say, a political sense. It was an important milestone for the industry, and I’m glad that I did it. There’s not a single regret, and no bad memories. I was thrilled when I got your email, and I thought, ‘Gee, that’s nice that someone remembers it, and thinks that it’s worthy of re-examining.’ It was very flattering, and I’m very grateful. But I also know that this is the entertainment industry, and that it’s a meat factory and all that sort of stuff, and if it’s not a big hit, it’s just, ‘See ya later!’ for most people. But I don’t think that it was anything but good for just about everyone involved. So it’s a win-win. Looking back, I’m really glad that I did it. Certainly, there are still people today who say they love the movie, and that’s nice over twenty years later. It’s a very gratifying thing.”

With warm thanks to Hal McElroy and Geoff Burton for making this story possible. 

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