Songs Of Truth :The Making Of Bran Nue Dae

July 11, 2018
With the popular Bran Nue Dae, indigenous filmmaker, Rachel Perkins, created a big, broad, vivid Australian musical. To celebrate NAIDOC Week, we look back at the making of this sunny groundbreaker.

Actor Geoffrey Rush once described Uncle Tadpole as “one of the great figures of literature.” Ernie Dingo agrees – and he knows Tadpole well. Dingo first played Tadpole in the original 1990 stage musical Bran Nue Dae. Almost twenty years later, he slid back into Uncle Tadpole’s shoes. But this time, Tadpole was on the big screen. “There are so many wonderful characters like Tadpole in the Aboriginal communities,” Ernie Dingo told FilmInk upon the release of Bran Nue Dae. “The jokester, the prankster, the con artist, the teacher who doesn’t realise that he’s a teacher. Uncle Tadpole is the kind of person that loves life but prefers to look after himself because he’s sick of looking after everyone else. He has a bit of fun along the way – a bit of singin’, a bit of dancin’, a bit of drinkin’, and chasin’ women. Lord knows what he’ll do when one slows down to let him catch her, but he’s got ideas. He’s a man of the world.”

Tadpole is an important figure to Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie), the central character in Rachel Perkins’ feel-good road movie musical Bran Nue Dae. It’s 1969, in Broome, Western Australia. Willie’s an indigenous Australian high school kid about to return to boarding school in Perth – a boarding school run by none other than Geoffrey Rush, in the guise of the German priest, Father Benedictus. But Willie clashes with Benedictus, leaves the boarding school, and sets out on a road trip that’s soaked in comedy and rootsy music.

Bran Nue Dae is so joyous, in fact, that it picks you up and takes you with it whether you feel like it or not – its spirit is so infectious that you have no choice. Who could resist a film with a cast that includes not only the aforementioned, but also Deborah Mailman, Magda Szubanski (in a scene-stealing cameo), and songbirds Jessica Mauboy and Missy Higgins, who both made their acting debuts in the film. “It’s a dream cast, and we had a dream experience casting them,” director and co-writer, Rachel Perkins (Radiance, One Night The Moon), told FilmInk.“Everybody we asked to be in the film agreed, and they were all our first choices.”

Perkins thought that it would be “a really big, long search” to find someone to play the crucial role of Willie. The stage musical Bran Nue Dae was written by Broome’s Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles (who appear in the film), so Perkins decided to start looking for Willie in Broome itself to “keep the integrity of the character from that place. We just went through all the high schools and asked kids to do a little practical ad-libbing thing for us and put them on camera,” Perkins recalls. “Rocky was part of the first school group on the first day. Stephen Page [choreographer and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director] was with me, and we immediately thought, ‘Rocky’s great; he’s got something going on.’”

As an acting test, each kid was given the task of trying to convince Page or Perkins to leave the room. McKenzie ran in puffing, panting and wheezing. “You’ve got to come outside,” he excitedly told Page. “There’s the most beautiful sunset!”

“He described this purple and gold sunset to Stephen,” says Perkins. “He was just fantastic. We thought, ‘Wow, he’s got this; he understands this.’ So we eventually cast him. We did a lot of auditioning with him, but he was the first person that we liked.”

McKenzie has an innocent quality, which Perkins says “was critical for the role. We did have another guy in mind,” she adds, “but he felt like he’d already emerged into the world, whereas Rocky is still a young boy. The world is still fresh and new for him. He’s an innocent…sort of [Laughs]. He’s an innocent young man. I mean, he’s very good looking, so he’s very popular with the ladies [Laughs]. That said, he does have an innocence that’s still there. Plus, he’s a Broome boy, born and raised.”

Looking back, McKenzie says that he “felt kind of natural” at that first audition. On the first day on set, he was “a bit nervous” but by the second day “it just felt like, ‘Oh yeah, the same routine – make-up, on the set, action. I got into it,” he says.

Rocky McKenzie in Bran Nue Dae.

The Year 10 student, however, has only been bitten lightly by the acting bug. He has other plans. “If there are any other acting opportunities while I’m at school, I’d probably take them,” he says, “but if it’s after school and I’m doing university, I’ll probably do uni. I wanna go to uni and get a degree in Physical Education – or something to do with sports – and then probably work back at the school or go out to communities and help young kids with sporting opportunities.”

McKenzie has already made a name for himself as a star basketball player, but missed state trials to go to Sydney for one of his Bran Nue Dae auditions. Fifteen-year-old McKenzie says that his schoolmates are “a bit shocked” about his foray into film. “I’m all about sport – acting is a whole different thing to what they see me as. They’re happy for me though.” Tellingly, Bran Nue Dae remains Rocky McKenzie’s sole on-screen credit.

Basketball is something that McKenzie and Ernie Dingo have in common. In 1973, Dingo became the first indigenous Australian to play state basketball for Western Australia. He and McKenzie also have another link – Dingo knows McKenzie’s family. It was only natural that Dingo should become McKenzie’s mentor. McKenzie says that his screen mum, Ningali Lawford-Wolf (Rabbit-Proof Fence) – who, like Dingo, appeared in the original stage production of Bran Nue Dae – also played mentor, as did Geoffrey Rush. “They were just a big influence on me and all the other kids in Broome,” says McKenzie. “They took me under their wing and helped me a lot.”

Ernie Dingo and Rocky McKenzie in Bran Nue Dae.

Says Dingo: “In regards to mentoring young Rocky, it was just about trying to show that you can have a life in performing, and then go back and be yourself. It’s not all about being precious. I would say to him, ‘Don’t think that you’re la-de-da yet, son. Stay raw. Stay true to who Willie is.’ I knew how important it was – not only for me as an actor playing my role – to bring forth the last twenty years of the stage version of Bran Nue Dae,” Dingo continues. “To add to the characters of everybody, I’d just whisper a little subtle word in their ear about where the original characters come from and about having a bit of fun with them. It’s just like bringing up a baby – you give as much information as you want or can, and then you let them work out what’s important and what they can take from it.”

While Dingo, Rush and Lawford-Wolf mentored McKenzie, Deborah Mailman played a similar role to singer and first time actor, 2006 Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy, who has since appeared in The Sapphires and the TV series, The Secret Daughter. “Deborah Mailman was my mentor throughout the whole film,” Mauboy told FilmInk, adding that the established actress encouraged her to “just be the character” of Rosie, the girl who claims Rocky’s heart. Mauboy says that she “fell in love” with Rosie, although she was taken aback when she realised that she was to play the romantic interest. “I got the script and it said in bold writing, ‘The Love Interest’, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what do I have to do? Are there any kissing parts?’” laughs Mauboy. “I was a little bit nervous, but by just reading and really feeling the character, it was obvious that there was a big connection that I felt with Rosie.”

When Perkins first approached Mauboy for the part, the songstress made it clear that she didn’t consider herself an actor. “I’d never done anything like it before, apart from doing music video clips,” she explains. “That’s all the experience that I’ve had being in front of the camera. But I felt that there was a connection with the director and the producer and I said, ‘Yes, I want to come on board, and I would really love to be a part of Bran Nue Dae.’”

Jessica Mauboy

Mauboy proved a natural on screen, as did fellow songstress, Missy Higgins. Perkins trusted her instinct that Higgins was right for the part of Annie, a Kombi van-riding hippy who Willie and Uncle Tadpole meet along the road. Yet Perkins had concerns. “I thought that it would be too much of a risk for her,” says the director. “It’s quite a crazy script, and she’d never acted before. She didn’t know me at all. She’s so well known, so if the film works out badly, it’s a risk for her potentially. But she was into it.”

When this is put to Higgins, she replies that the risk factor “may have crossed her mind”, but her chief concern was over whether she could cut it as an actor. “I didn’t want them to regret choosing me,” Higgins told FilmInk. “Above everything, there were so many things about the film that told me that it would be an amazing learning experience. It was in Broome, which is my home away from home. [Higgins wrote her 2007 album, On A Clear Night, there] I had friends working on it and acting in it. It was a musical, so I knew that there was at least one thing that I could do well. And it was an Aboriginal Australian coming-of-age road movie. When is that opportunity ever going to come around again? So all the worries that I had were totally surpassed by the positives that I knew would come from it on a personal growth level.

“Coincidentally, I had quite a few friends working on the film,” Higgins continues, “and everyone else became like family as well. Broome was scorching hot and a lot of the scenes were shot out in the desert with little to no shade. The energy was quite sapped at times, but everyone loved the project. Tom [Budge, who plays Annie’s boyfriend] and I spent most of the time giggling in the front seat of our Kombi van while a massive air-conditioner tube kept the temperature manageable. I had no idea how well actors get treated. One of the jobs that my friend had was to follow me round with an umbrella so I wouldn’t get burnt, which was a very strange dynamic for two friends to have! I kept taking it off her and apologising profusely.”

Ernie Dingo and Missy Higgins.

Higgins – who has not acted again since Bran Nue Dae – describes the vibe on the set as “ridiculously joyous.” Dingo agrees. “It was absolutely electric,” he says. That energy translates into the film. Underneath the fun, however, there is a political subtext, which asserts itself most memorably in the tune “Nothing I Would Rather Be”, which includes the very hummable refrain, “There’s nothing I would rather be, than be an Aborigine, and watch you take my precious land away.” The politics are there, yet Perkins – who is the daughter of the late Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins – was determined to keep things light.

“It’s in the tradition of films like – and I might sound like an idiot saying this – Priscilla,” says Perkins. “In Priscilla, there’s a serious quality in terms of coming out and homophobia. But it’s not necessarily what the film’s all about. It’s packaged in a fun and entertaining way. There are a few films that have pulled that off. Hopefully, we will too [Laughs]. The big thing in Bran Nue Dae was policing the tone,” Perkins continues. “It was really being adamant about finding the tone that we wanted and sticking to it, because the potential was there to go off on serious tangents about racism or about the Catholic Church and Aboriginal people, or whatever. We firmly believed that tonally it should be a light, madcap film. We were tempted to make Bran Nue Dae more complicated, and more dense, and more heavy, but my instinct was to keep it light. So movies like Finding Nemo were actually a reference for us. I know that sounds crazy because it’s an animated film, but tonally it’s about someone being homesick and wanting to go home. Along the way, Willie meets all these crazy characters who help him and he learns and he grows. The Wizard Of Oz was another reference for us. I was trying to keep the tone in that heightened, funny, madcap zone.”

Bran Nue Dae is a brew of cinematic styles – there’s even a dash of something from cartoons in the form of sound effects. “Scooby Doo was a reference for us,” laughs Perkins. “There are a lot of references in there, and people might find that jarring – some of the musical performances are a take-off on ragtime Hollywood production cliches. Some people may say, ‘Oh well, that’s very derivative. Couldn’t they have something more Aboriginal?’ [Laughs] It’s not for those people.”

Jessica Mauboy and director Rachel Perkins and Rocky McKenzie.

The indigenous-themed and created Samson And Delilah and Stone Bros. were released in the same year as Bran Nue Dae, but when FilmInk brought this up, Perkins was cautions about filing all indigenous films under one catch-all heading. “People have been saying, ‘Wow, here’s this indigenous film that’s emerging’, but this is my third feature. It’s fantastic that there’s been a cluster of work, and obviously Warwick Thornton’s film, Samson And Delilah, has been so successful. That’s really taken the country by storm. For a lot of people, it’s the first indigenous film that they’ve seen. But it’s been around for much longer than that. It’s a very positive thing that it’s seen as an exciting part of Australian cinema – which it is. What I sometimes find difficult is that everyone lumps indigenous cinema together, and they’re just such different pieces of work. Bran Nue Dae is closer to Priscilla or Starstruck than Samson And Delilah. But yes, they are by indigenous filmmakers, and they come from that place, but they are very different films too. This is a film that references all sorts of different traditions. Films like Chicago and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were big references for us. Tonally, we were trying for something that was perhaps a little unusual compared to Australian filmmaking of recent times [Laughs].”

Bran Nue Dae’s songs – which were produced by musician and score-smith par excellence David Bridie – also soak in a wide range of influences. “Those are songs that have been sung for the last twenty years around campfires across Australia,” Perkins explains. “They’re iconic indigenous songs. They draw on a bluesy, rootsy heritage, as well as having the distinctive Broome sound which, if you’re into that sort of music, you will definitely understand. There are a lot of country-and-western influences in there too. It’s a very hybrid soundtrack.”

Adds Dingo: “The thing about Bran Nue Dae is that there’s a young man [writer Jimmy Chi] sitting down at [the outdoor theatre] Sun Pictures in Broome, watching all these Hollywood movies on screen with all these white Americans, and then going, ‘You know what? Blackies can do that.’ That’s why all the songs were created in that vein; all the dances were done in that view. The cheekiness was done like those great Broadway productions. It’s a really cheeky attitude.”

Jessica Mauboy

Jimmy Chi’s life and his creation of the stage musical were covered in a 1991 documentary by Tom Zubrycki (also called Bran Nue Dae), and Perkins is not the first to attempt to try to adapt it for the big screen. Years ago, Perkins heard that another team had spent some time in the adaptation process. She thought at the time that her plans for the film wouldn’t eventuate, but the first team didn’t get it off the ground. The rights eventually reverted back to Chi, and then went to his friend Graeme Isaac, who Perkins knew well. She approached Isaac, and asked if she could helm the film version.

“Part of the process was also about keeping Jimmy very much involved,” says Perkins. “I went to Broome to meet him and for him to approve me as director. That was my own little audition with Jimmy [Laughs]. He’s a very down-to-earth man. He lives a very quiet life in Broome, but he’s a creative genius. He was a great collaborator to work with because he also has a keen feel for where he wants to pitch it, and to make it whacky and crazy – he loves that about cinema. He grew up watching musicals, and he loves the musical tradition. He really guided the project creatively.”

Perkins was working on the Logie-winning historical documentary series First Australians – about the continuously difficult relationship between indigenous and white Australians – when the call came through that Geoffrey Rush had a window of opportunity to come on board as Father Benedictus. “If we didn’t shoot then, we would have lost him,” says Perkins. No sane filmmaker would miss out on having Rush amongst their cast. Perkins dropped what she was doing and headed to the set. “I went from First Australians to Bran Nue Dae without a break – it was very full on,” she laughs. “First Australians had a very specific brief to tell history, and Bran Nue Dae was like an elixir for that in a way. It was like a medicine for the soul. First Australians was much harder. The subject matter was a lot darker and a lot more painful. Bran Nue Dae was the opposite. You’re conscious of its history, but it’s actually a celebration of life. After First Australians, I really needed a few laughs.”

Geoffrey Rush

For Perkins, Broome’s remoteness and unique geography was an essential part of Bran Nue Dae – as was its local community. “Bran Nue Dae is a great iconic work for that town,” Perkins says. “We engaged a lot with the locals and spent a lot of time working with them. All the community volunteered to be in the film and to get dressed up in the period costumes. They gave us permission to film there. Those sorts of relationships enriched the experience of filmmaking. Economically, we didn’t have the money – nor would I have wanted – to shoot it all at a studio in Perth or Sydney. There’s just so much richness around Broome that you can draw from. It would be a shame not to use it.”

Adds Higgins: “There’s an incredible energy to the desert and the people and the ocean there. Its history is also very intense – you can feel that powerful things have happened there over the centuries. Even the colours are intense to the eye: the open space, the pindan dirt, the boab trees, the quiet streets and the squashed mangoes lining the streets. It was a sanctuary.”

Perkins describes Broome’s ocean as an “intense aquamarine”, and set against a red landscape, it provided the filmmaker with “an electric contrast of colours.” The director made the most of the locations, but upped the colours during the film’s processing. “We pushed the heightened look of it,” she explains, “but grounded it in the reality of Broome’s already vivid terrain.”

Adapting a play or musical for the screen has its own special set of challenges, and one that Perkins faced was which songs to cut. “The original play had something like 26 songs,” the director explains. “We obviously couldn’t have that many. It would have been a whole film: ninety minutes of music! We had to significantly cut back the songs and allow more time for character development.”

The Bran Nue Dae cast.

Deciding which songs to leave out was a sometimes agonising process, and Ernie Dingo jokingly complains that his only problem with the film is that “it’s three hours too short – you want more of it.” Bran Nue Dae marked Dingo’s return to the big screen after a decade. Although he’d worked with the likes of Wim Wenders on Until The End Of The World, he told FilmInk at the time that he hadn’t been offered a film script in ten years. Why? “Because everyone thinks that I’m a bloody television reporter!,” he cried. “Everyone thinks that I’m a travel reporter! I started acting in 1979. I’ve been acting for thirty years, with eighteen years on The Great Outdoors. I’ve been typecast as a bloody TV reporter – I can’t even get a gig on the bloody TV soapies!” But would he want a soapie gig? “Nah,” he replies, “but I still can’t get one.”

Like Perkins, Dingo sensed that Bran Nue Dae would appeal to a wide demographic. “We’re very lucky in Australia because everyone loves a musical,” he says. “You know – Priscilla, Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding. They’ve all been wonderfully accepted. So hopefully, playing along those lines, we’ll show you the ‘coloured’ version of it [Laughs]. It’s fresh and raw and cheeky. That’s what I love about it. It’s refreshing.”

As well as being influenced by the Aussie camp classic The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Perkins also had similar box office hopes for her film. “We made it for a broad audience,” she told FilmInk just before the release. “That certainly was our aim. We made it so that both adults and kids could go and watch it together and maybe have a good time [Laughs]. Hopefully it will reach out to audiences.” It certainly did. Bran Nue Dae eventually made more than $7.5 million, and now sits in the Top 50 Australian films of all time at the local box office.

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