If the Australian film industry is often stymied by Hollywood’s infrequent collaborations Down Under – James Wan’s Aquaman and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales being rare exceptions to the rule – then Melbourne producer/director Paul Currie hopes to revolutionise the old model by partnering with China, bringing big budget film financing to Australia.
“Part of the reason I have such a passion for China is that, in Australia, we need consistency and scale. A lot of great Australian crew leave the business because work isn’t consistent,” argues Currie who brought Asian director Leo Zhang to Australia to helm 2017 Chinese action drama Bleeding Steel, starring Jackie Chan.
“I’m passionate about my country. Bringing Jackie Chan to Australia was a great hoot; putting him up on the Sydney Opera House for some amazing action sequences…” he says.
Furthermore, it was Currie who ensured Mel Gibson’s 2016 award-winner Hacksaw Ridge was filmed entirely in Australia, utilising an all-Australia crew.
“I had great Australian teams working on both those films. I’ve learned how to do bigger scale and I think it helps our industry to sustain. Everyone knows about our amazing people in front of the camera but – behind the camera – we have some of the best technical people in the world,” says Currie, 46, who also directed 2017 thriller 2:22, starring Teresa Palmer and Sam Reid, in Australia.
“The opportunity for Australia to collaborate with China is that we can own and be a part of the projects we do, whereas, for America, Australia is just a production service vehicle and always will be,” he told FilmInk during his recent stint serving on the competition jury at the 3rd annual International Film Festival & Awards Macao.
“What I’m trying to do through ongoing collaborations with China, which I think is unique, is trying to build a pipeline of big-scale projects that is consistent for Australia. The Chinese market is a game-changer, but you’ve got to be really dedicated to China. Why I think it works is that Australians like to please as a culture. So, we will listen to China and almost a conduit for them between Hollywood; whereas America and China can be a little more difficult.
“But I believe Australia can really collaborate with China and I think there’s a new genre emerging as China takes its rightful place in the business; wanting their movies to travel and also wanting to get involved with other movies that can be brought in. It’s just all opening up.
“China could really help push the Australian film industry to a great level. We’ve got the expertise, we just need the money along with the government to help us make our movies and China is open to that collaboration – much more so than America,” says the Melbourne Institute of Technology graduate who entered the Australian film industry, at the precocious age of 21, co-producing action flick, Under the Gun, starring veteran martial arts stunt star and celebrity bodyguard, Richard Norton.
“Richard was already a movie star in the world of Hong Kong cinema. With Richard on board, I was able to learn about pre-selling a movie.”
Norton brought great clout to Currie’s debut production, already known for his powerful karate techniques and serving as hired muscle for concert tours by The Rolling Stones, ABBA and David Bowie.
“When Kevin Costner did The Bodyguard, he turned to Richard to find out what that world was all about,” says Currie who learned about the business the hard way.
“I was offered a big deal from New Line for US rights for Under the Gun, but I knocked it back because I literally had no idea what I was doing and thought we would do better than that. In hindsight it was a ridiculous decision.
“So that was my baptism by fire into making movies – a low-budget action film where we had to do everything ourselves. My mum even catered for the crew. She made soggy tomato sandwiches and the crew hated it, so I learned about catering from that. If you don’t feed your crew well and they’re not happy, then it’s not good,” laughs Currie who went on to direct and co-produce 2004 drama One Perfect Day in Melbourne, featuring Abbie Cornish and Leigh Whannell.
But a seven-year stint in Hollywood – where he executive produced 2011 drama Rampart starring Woody Harrelson – taught him the ropes.
More importantly, he would later team up with veteran film producer and former Fox Films executive Bill Mechanic.
“I really learned the business in the US. Bill has been a phenomenal mentor and someone who gave me a real opportunity,” says Currie who went on to make Hacksaw Ridge, The Moon and The Sun and 2:22 with the famed producer before returning to his native Melbourne four years ago, over-seeing production on The Moon and The Sun starring Pierce Brosnan with Chinese financing.
His next Australian film project, co-financed by China and also co-produced by Mechanic, could be his biggest yet.
Tentatively titled The Divide, he says, “It’s about the building of the American railway; a beautiful story about Chinese and Irish American immigrants who connected the country through the railway system. It’s Bill’s story and we’re close to casting [originally The Divide was to be directed by John Woo with Nic Cage starring; with a script by Christopher McQuarrie dating back to the early 2000s].
“It’s a visceral, amazing big-scale story that has beautiful ideas and themes and very relevant to the way America is now.”
Currie, who runs Lightstream Entertainment, doesn’t believe his films need to actually be set in Australia in order to bring filming to the country.
“My big thing now is that I want to bring great projects to Australia that are proudly Australian. An Australian movie doesn’t just have to be a movie set in Australia.”
Take for example Hacksaw Ridge. “This was an Australian movie; there’s literally only four or five people who weren’t Australians who worked on that movie. The rest of it is hundreds of Australians who are very proud of it. It’s a movie that travelled and did really well; beautiful story and it’s proudly Australian. It shows our technical ability, our actors and, to me, that’s a great calling card for the kind of movies that can be done,” says Currie who played a major role in bringing Mel Gibson’s film to Australia, a project that Bill Mechanic for almost 13 years prior.
“Bill and Mel have a long history and he always wanted Mel to direct that story. Bill developed it and got the rights. The movie almost got made a bunch of times but there were always problems with Hollywood executives who didn’t like that the hero didn’t have a weapon. That was a real issue in getting the movie made.”
Hacksaw Ridge would further serve as Gibson’s comeback into Hollywood after being shunned in the aftermath of his anti-Semitic rant back in 2006.
“But Bill always wanted Mel. He didn’t care about any of the politics; he just knew Mel was an amazing filmmaker and the right director for it.
“I think Mel may have passed on it two or three times, but he finally agreed.
“Even if Hollywood was probably not supportive at the time, Mel can always cast a movie because actors love him. That’s just a fact.
“Where I really came in was in helping to structure the movie because it probably wouldn’t have got financed through the Hollywood system,” he reveals. “It took Australia to actually finance that movie; the rebates and getting it through the way we did. And without the support of the Australian government, Hacksaw probably wouldn’t have got made.
“It was not a slam dunk. At the time, people weren’t that interested in the distribution. China – which ended up being huge – couldn’t even be sold so Bill ended up giving it to someone he knew in China and it ended up doing the same business as it did in the US. No one thought that would ever happen. It was a journey of sheer persistence.
“The one thing we knew, no matter what happened anywhere else, was that Australians love Mel; always have and always will. It was great for Mel to return to the place where he grew up and just to be loved again. The crew would walk over hot coals for him, and all the actors loved him.”
Ask Currie for his own all-Australian wish-list, he smiles and says, “I’d have Mel directing with Margot Robbie starring because she’s so exciting and amazing. Actually, Margot and Teresa Palmer together! And then I’d have Cate Blanchett mentoring them and Ben Mendelsohn coming in as the loose, wild character. And then I’d add Russell Crowe and Naomi Watts and a bit of Hugh Jackman and then you’d have it all. But I doubt that would ever happen somehow.”