When Damian Hill passed away on September 22, 2018 at the age of just 42, the Australian film industry was robbed of a gifted actor and writer who was just beginning to lean into the kind of recognition that he so duly deserved. This was not, however, the flashy recognition of box office dollars and major media attention. Damian Hill was a true independent spirit, and he existed well and truly outside the mainstream. “I’m always attracted to the underdog, or the person who’s got the rough deal,” he told FilmInk in 2015, indicating exactly where his creative instincts lie.
After grinding away on short films and episodic television (he had appeared on Neighbours, Nowhere Boys and City Homicide, amongst others), and in small roles in features, Hill shifted gears into screenwriting, making his debut with 2015’s highly regarded Pawno. A sprawling, multi-character ensemble drama set around the grungy confines of a pawnbroker’s shopfront in Melbourne’s Footscray, the film was intelligent, sharply written and deeply moving. Hill’s script only got moving in earnest when he met Scotsman Paul Ireland, with whom he was acting on stage in a production of Ray Mooney’s gritty prison drama, Everynight, Everynight. “When you’re doing a play, you get to know each other inside out,” Ireland told FilmInk in 2015. “You make yourselves so vulnerable, and Damian and I just clicked. We both had other ideas and scripts boiling away, but we thought that Pawno was the one. There was something there, and we decided to make a go of it. We both see ourselves as very humble people, and we have a sense of humour about things. That’s what really connected us together.”
That connection would prove extraordinarily fruitful, with Pawno (check out our review) making a major impact on Australia’s critics. “An outstanding example of contemporary independent Australian cinema,” said David Stratton, while his longtime screen partner, Margaret Pomeranz, agreed. “I loved this film, loved it, loved it,” she said. “It’s the first thing that I’ve written,” Hill told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “But I’ve read a lot…I’ve read a lot of things,” he giggled. “I’ve thought about different bits and pieces, but I’ve never really written anything.” That someone could deliver a script so richly detailed, nuanced, sensitive and knowing on their first try is nothing short of staggering.
Damian Hill also took on a major role in the film, playing Danny, whose quiet demeanour hides a history suggested to be filled with pain and damage. It’s a superb performance, layered with pathos, and Hill’s unconventional charisma bleeds off the screen in abundance. While he followed it up with small roles in Broke, The Death And Life Of Otto Bloom and Spin Out (“It was fun. I wore a dress and just pretended to be really drunk”), Hill only got one more chance to really shine in a front-and-centre role on screen.
Sadly under-appreciated, 2017’s West Of Sunshine (check out our review) is a gorgeous diamond-in-the-rough, with Hill brilliant as Jim, a down-on-his-luck gambler who has to look after his young son (played by his real life step-son, Ty Perham) while desperately trying to scrape together the cash to pay back a hefty debt to a loan shark. “I got to meet Damian through a friend of mine,” West Of Sunshine writer/director, Jason Raftopoulos, told Parikiaki. “After I saw him doing a scene, I was quite impressed and became quite friendly with him. He is an interesting person, a beautiful actor, and had the right energy for the role.”
Damian Hill’s performance in West Of Sunshine is soulful, heartfelt, unforgiving and utterly unsentimental, and sadly hints at what could have been. His final two screen appearances are equally strong, but far less prominent, with Hill appearing in Slam, which is set in Sydney’s tough south-west and revolves around the world of slam poetry (check out our review), and the excellent outback thriller, Locusts (check out our review), in which he plays a vicious thug with striking authenticity and rich invention.
“This was very sad for us all,” Locusts writer/producer, Angus Watts, tells FilmInk. “Damian was a true gentleman – a talented, quietly understated, earthy human, lost way too soon. His loss just two months after Locusts wrapped, was felt deeply right across the independent film industry, and the film is dedicated to his legacy of passionate independent filmmaking. Damian came on board a few weeks before the cameras rolled. He’d heard rumors about a desert genre film and wanted in, but to my embarrassment, all we had left was a supporting bad guy role. I apologetically offered to beef the role up, which I did, but he wasn’t fazed in the slightest. He jumped right on board, and of course stamped his own brand on the character and knocked it out of the park, as always. Damian and I connected as introverted filmmakers/writers, and had discussed potentially working together on a future suspense concept that I have in development. His understated tenacity as a filmmaker and passion for his work was an inspiration to all who had the pleasure of working with him.”
Damian Hill’s final screen legacy is his script for Pawno director Paul Ireland’s contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. “It’s set in the commission flats in Prahran, and it’s full of amphetamines and Adidas tracksuits,” Hill snickered to FilmInk in 2015, when the film was still in the early stages of production. “It’ll be cool, I think…I don’t know if it’ll ever be made though.” Thankfully it did, with the film making its premiere at The Melbourne International Film Festival in August this year. Hill was also set to star in the film, with his role of an upward-thinking drug dealer ultimately recast with Mark Leonard Winter. “It was difficult, difficult for everyone,” the actor said on stage after the film’s premiere. “I looked up to Damian a lot. He was a hero to me. I respected his work so much. It was daunting, because he had a unique quality. You can never fill those shoes.”
FilmInk glimpsed Damian Hill’s unique quality solely as an interview subject, but he was a truly fascinating one. Funny, self-deprecating, and candid, he regaled with stories about working as a kitchen hand, and what he learned from his co-workers, most of whom were African immigrants. Hill was humble and honest. “I’ve got four kids – two of my own and two step-kids – and this kind of thing puts a lot of pressure on relationships,” he said of working in the film industry. “You take whatever acting jobs you can get, but that means doing a lot of difficult jobs in between. It’s been hard.”
Damian Hill looked to be turning the corner to his own brand of success – earned on his own terms – which makes his passing even more sad. In short, he could have been a real hero of the independent film scene. His legacy is perhaps summed up best by his brother, Julian Hill. “He shied away from it [mainstream success], pushed it away at times,” the Labor Party politician said on stage after the film’s premiere. “He wanted to tell the stories of ordinary Australians, of working class people – real stories, messy stories, uncomfortable stories, of forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, stuffing up. His films are beautiful.”
We couldn’t agree more…
Locusts and Slam are in cinemas now. For more on the late, great Damian Hill, check out our video interview for West Of Sunshine and our interview for Pawno. To read Locusts producer/writer Angus Watts’ personal tribute to Damian Hill, click here.