“They’re basically doing nothing. They end up with nothing, and poor David has nothing left. Wesley’s living for nothing. And the men – the way that they treat David, they may as well have nothing, because they’ve got nothing inside. No soul,” explains writer/director Mark Fitzpatrick of his debut’s title, The Nothing Men. With its working class setting, grim subject matter, and unblinking gaze at the breakdown of social mores, The Nothing Men is a cross between David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and the masculinity-in-crisis movies made in the seventies (Scarface, Taxi Driver, etc). In other words, it’s the kind of film that any hot-blooded male actor would beg, steal and borrow to be a part of.
Mark Fitzpatrick and actor/producer Martin Dingle-Wall first met on the stage production of The Nothing Men. “It was originally a screenplay, which I wrote in 1997,” says Fitzpatrick. “I got $3,000 from The Australian Film Commission to develop the script. I got a few good producers [Anthony Buckley, John Brousek], who tried to get production funding from the government bodies, but they didn’t have faith in the script. In 1999, I got offered a Hollywood deal by Gale Anne Hurd [Terminator, Armageddon, The Walking Dead]. She offered me a substantial amount of money for an option for three years and, because I had aspirations of directing and being involved in the whole thing, I rejected her offer.”
Fitzpatrick admits that he regrets making that call, especially after the next four years yielded no start date on The Nothing Men production. “I decided to get it up as a play, so I re-wrote it for the stage. I invited every film producer in the country to the play.” The four-week run in Sydney’s Newtown enjoyed great houses, but nothing eventuated, apart from Fitzpatrick being introduced to a young actor by the name of Martin Dingle-Wall.
In April 2007, two of the play’s cast, Martin Dingle-Wall and Andrew Winter, rocked up at Fitzpatrick’s house and proclaimed that they would produce the movie. “After the play, which I did straight after I did a soap opera [Home & Away], I went away for four years,” says Dingle-Wall, who played a different role in the stage play to the one that he plays in the film. “I did a bit of writing and had the idea of coming back to Australia to end that life of waiting for the phone to ring. I’d written things; I wanted to come back and produce a film. Actually, I’d written myself a lead role and said ‘I’m going to work this out.’ Then I went around to see Mark to find out what happened to The Nothing Men screenplay – it was the most brutal and confronting thing that I’d ever read in this country.”
The Nothing Men is the story of a disparate group of sacked men sitting in the abandoned warehouse that used to serve as their workplace, waiting to receive their redundancy payments. They suspect that head office may send in a spy, so when David, a clean cut and awkward man, turns up unexplained, they fear that he may be there to steal their final paycheque. Heading up the cast are two of Australia’s greatest actors, Colin Friels and David Field, who put in close to career-best performances.
Veteran producer Anthony Buckley had shown the script to Colin Friels back in the nineties, and he liked it. Mark Fitzpatrick always had his friend David Field in mind for the part of the suspected spy, so much so that he named the character David. When an actor who had committed to the film dropped out because he was feeling that the characters were too unsympathetic, David Field suggested his good mate Colin Friels. The Nothing Men was coming closer to going into production. “At the end of the day, there’s a moment when you have to put a signature down,” says Dingle-Wall. “You’re off the edge of a cliff and in free fall. That’s exciting, but you start having to make commitments. If you pull back and you have nothing to show for it, that’s personal, professional and emotional suicide. That can’t be done. But also, the other side of it with producing is that you become so busy that you don’t have time to factor in the consequences or give anything too much thought. You’ve just got to go – and go now.”
After seeking independent private investment, Dingle-Wall had to make a decision. “My mother sold her shares; my uncle backed it, my sister, my roommate and myself. Everything I had.” During the pre-production process, the filmmakers were introduced to the Red One camera, and although it hadn’t been tested by a feature film at that point, the theory was that it produced incredibly high resolution images to rival film resolution. The Nothing Men became the second feature film in the world, after Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 biopic Che, to use the camera.
According to Dingle-Wall and Fitzpatrick, the production (in an abandoned warehouse in Sydney’s Southern suburb of Rockdale) had to be secretive because the government funding bodies that invested in the script’s development did not want the film to happen unless the filmmakers played the bureaucratic game, which they were not willing to do after investing their own money in the film. “When we got the rough cut, we went out in the private sector,” says Dingle-Wall proudly. “At our first screening, our first private investor said, ‘Wow, okay, what do you need to finish it?’ We were like, ‘Well, we need a quarter of a million dollars.’ And he just wrote a cheque.”
Since the film’s completion, the road didn’t get any smoother. All the local film festivals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide – rejected it. “Forget the politics, why would The Sydney Film Festival decline a film shot in Sydney, starring David Field and Colin Friels?” asks a perplexed Dingle-Wall.
“It was difficult making the movie,” continues Dingle-Wall. “But there were really sweet moments too. When everyone was rejecting us in Australia, we got an email that we didn’t expect. It was Ted Schilowitz from Red, and he was like, ‘Guys, forgive me, I’ve been on tour promoting the camera. I just watched your film. Fuck me. Guys, you’re coming to America. We’re going to host a screening, and I’m going to fill the cinema. Thank you for using our technology.’ They are the moments when you get your nutrients to keep going. They filled 300 seats with film school graduates and executive producers.”
“They all turned up to see how the Red looked on screen, and after the film, we got a standing ovation,” Fitzpatrick joins in. “The most popular comment was, ‘We came here to see the Red, but after a few minutes, we were so into the story that we didn’t care what it was shot on.’ In the audience was David Valdes, who produced Unforgiven and The Green Mile. He tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘What else have you got?’ The next day, he set up a meeting with the royalty of Hollywood, David Ladd [Serpent And The Rainbow, A Guy Thing]. I pitched my next film, and he’s on board. So we’ve got a Hollywood deal off this success with The Nothing Men.”
It was, however, a very tough road. “We fought in this country against our own people, and all we wanted was to get our film in front of Australian audiences,” says Dingle-Wall. “They can’t throw anything more at us that we haven’t copped. We don’t need to be celebrated, but a festival would have created awareness. You can’t make an audience member like your film, but you should be able to put it in front of them. I believe that The Nothing Men does stir you emotionally, and that’s ultimately important.”
If you haven’t seen The Nothing Men, be prepared to be emotionally stirred courtesy of OzFlix.
The Nothing Men is available to buy on OzFlix. Click here for all information.