Taking Flight: The Making Of Storm Boy

November 15, 2016
With the 1976 Aussie classic, Storm Boy, set to screen in a brand new print at The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival, we take a look back at the creation and legacy of this country’s most beloved family film.

“This sort of thing had never been done before in Australia, but it all just flowed,” producer, Matt Carroll, tells FilmInk on the line from his office at Screen NSW. In 1976, things were just starting to get rolling again in the Australian film industry after a long period of flat-lining inactivity. Peter Weir had triumphed with Picnic At Hanging Rock in 1975, Bruce Beresford had unleashed Barry McKenzie upon an unsuspecting public in 1972, and the likes of Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, and Fred Schepisi were warming up with well received short films. In 1975, Matt Carroll had produced Sunday Too Far Away, one of the greatest Australian films of the seventies, and for his next project, the on-the-rise producer shifted gears dramatically. Australia’s film industry was still small in the mid-seventies, but the section of it catering to children was practically non-existent, with classics like Dot And The Kangaroo and Fatty Finn still a few years away. It was a casual comment thrown Matt Carroll’s way that would change not just the course of his career, but that of the Australian film industry in general. “Somebody – I can’t remember who – said to me, ‘Oh, have you read Storm Boy?’ I just went out and bought it. It was the version with all of the wonderful pictures by Robert Ingpen, and we took an option on it.”

The much loved children’s novel was written by Colin Thiele, a part-time author and full-time schoolteacher who was something of a minor celebrity figure in South Australia. When the state’s long serving premier, Don Dunstan, had revolutionised South Australia’s education system, Colin Thiele was tapped to set up a college dedicated to training specialist teachers, and he quickly became a figure of great inspiration in the field. After serving in the RAAF during WW2, Thiele had become a passionate environmentalist before the term even existed, and he had a particularly strong affinity for his South Australian surrounds.

Greg Rowe in Storm Boy

Greg Rowe in Storm Boy

It was during a 1960 trip to The Murray Mouth, where the river slips into the southern ocean, in The Fleurieu Peninsula region of South Australia, that Storm Boy was born. To be more specific, it was The Coorong, a rough, remote national park and lagoon ecosystem 156km southeast of Adelaide. “I felt an affinity for The Coorong immediately,” Colin Thiele told the SA-centric website, Postcards, in 2006. “From my boyhood, I like solitude and not loneliness, but I like the open space of wilderness. There aren’t many places in the world anymore where you can go and see something almost as it was from pristine days.”

Written in just four weeks, but not published until 1964, Storm Boy tells of Mike Kingsley, a young lad who lives in a makeshift hut on a rugged stretch of beach in The Coorong with his reclusive father, a taciturn, self-sufficient fisherman nicknamed Hideaway Tom. Free from any proper form of formal education, Mike wanders the waterways of his sea-and-sand blasted home, where he meets and befriends the Aboriginal loner outcast, Fingerbone Bill. When he witnesses the shooting of a pelican mother by poachers, Mike – renamed Storm Boy by Fingerbone Bill because he “runs like the wind” – rescues her three chicks, and names them Mr. Proud, Mr. Ponder and Mr. Percival, and nurses them back to health. Mike’s father eventually forces Mike to release the birds, but Mr. Percival returns, and he and the boy form an iron-strong bond that will lead to tragedy and Storm Boy’s painful coming of age.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and Mr. Percival.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and Mr. Percival.

Though he would eventually write over 100 books, Storm Boy would remain Colin Thiele’s key work, perfectly distilling his greatest qualities as an author: humanism, environmentalism, a great sympathy for the young, and a simple yet deeply poetic style. The book was a huge success both in Australia and internationally. “He was already well known and really prolific, but he didn’t have an agent or anything like that,” Matt Carroll tells FilmInk of Colin Thiele. “I then discovered, of course, that the book was required primary school reading. It had a huge readership.” Funding for Storm Boy came from the burgeoning South Australian Film Corporation, which had been established by Premier Don Dunstan in 1973, and was the first state film corporation in the country. They’d had great success with Matt Carroll on Sunday Too Far Away, and were happy to jump aboard for the producer’s next feature. Further money came from TV network, Channel 7. “I was friendly with Ted Thomas at Channel 7,” Carroll says of the network’s then boss. “Sunday Too Far Away had been a big success for him. I convinced him that Storm Boy would be terrific for him too, and that it would play perfectly in Channel 7’s family movie slot. Ted was fantastic; he’d put up serious amounts of money for movies.”

With the rights to the popular book in hand, and his finances in place, Carroll set about having Storm Boy adapted for the screen. “The first screenplay that I had written was a total dog,” Carroll laughs, “so I won’t mention the writer! I was very depressed with that.” On the suggestion of Sunday Too Far Away’s screenwriter, John Dingwall, Carroll then turned to Melbourne writer, Sonia Borg, who had worked extensively in children’s television. “I’ll never forget the moment that I walked through the door,” the producer says of his first meeting with Borg. “It was like she was living in a menagerie! There were animals everywhere! Sonia started from scratch, and right from the very beginning, it was marvellous.” When Carroll approached Colin Thiele about the burgeoning adaptation, the author was slightly hesitant. “I was a bit protective,” Colin Thiele told Postcards. “I asked questions like, ‘Where are you going to make it?’ and Matt Carroll looked at me as if I was a stunned old mullet and said, ‘Well, I would have thought that we’d make it down on The Coorong!”

Greg Rowe and David Gulpilil in Storm Boy.

Greg Rowe and David Gulpilil in Storm Boy.

Like Colin Thiele, Matt Carroll loved The Coorong, but it was an experience that he had there that prompted the only moment in the final film version of Storm Boy that the book’s author wasn’t entirely happy with. When Sonia Borg turned in her eloquent, heartfelt draft of the screenplay, it was a little short in length, and Carroll felt that it could have used a little more action. After camping out in the sand dunes of The Coorong over a weekend, Carroll felt that he had the answer. Looking up at the glistening, uninterrupted view of far-off stars in the South Australian sky from his makeshift beach camp, the producer was suddenly disturbed by the incongruous sounds of revving engines, churning sand, and booze-fuelled hollering. As Carroll later discovered, parts of The Coorong had become popular with young recreational dune buggy riders, who’d get on the drink and then tear up and down the area’s beaches. Carroll told Sonia Borg about his experience, and she wrote a frightening scene into the script in which Storm Boy is menaced by a crew of dune buggy hoons while his father is away, with Fingerbone Bill eventually coming to the lad’s rescue, movingly leading to him also building a friendship with Hideaway Tom, as well as his young son. “I showed Colin Thiele the draft of the dune buggy scene, and he hated it,” Carroll laughs. “I said, ‘But Colin, I was there! I nearly got run over! They’re all over the bloody place!’ He groaned and moaned, but he said, ‘Okay, you’ve convinced me.’ He eventually allowed it, and the only creation in the adaptation was the scene with the dune buggies. They’re the only thing not in the original book.”

With the script locked down, Matt Carroll found his director in French-born Henri Safran, a longtime behind-the-camera veteran who’d been working steadily in European and Australian television since the early sixties. “In those days, the only directors were working in television,” Carroll explains. “There was a remit to make the film as South Australian as possible, because Colin was a legend there, and we were working with The South Australian Film Corporation. We were trying to develop a local industry, and despite the fact that there were no South Australian directors ready, the rest of it was really South Australian.” But although he had a script and a director, Carroll realised that he was missing something. “I didn’t have a pelican,” he laughs. “And that was a big task.” Australia wasn’t exactly crawling with pelican trainers at the time, and the production was stumbling in the dark when it came to working with the birds. A first attempt (all under the watchful eye of Parks & Wildlife) to train six baby pelicans failed because the birds had already imprinted onto their mothers, and they became extremely stressed when dealing with humans, leading to them being returned to the wild.

Greg Rowe and Peter Cummins in Storm Boy

Greg Rowe and Peter Cummins in Storm Boy

The production then got permission to take another four pelicans, this time younger ones that had only just broken free of their shells. Trainer, Gordon Noble – who had mainly worked with dolphins – set up a beach shack in which to raise the pelicans (“It stank! Pelican shit smells like rotting fish,” laughs Carroll. “It was awful”), but his task proved a difficult one. “We couldn’t do all the traditional animal training, because the moment that you gave them any food, they’d go into a feeding frenzy,” Carroll explains. “The way that pelicans eat at that age is that the mother comes back to regurgitate the food into their mouths. When they gorge themselves, the chicks then have what you can only describe as a pelican epileptic fit. None of the vets could make sense of it.” Feeding the pelicans with a funnel every four hours, Noble in the end bizarrely used his small, white pet dog – which the birds thought was a fish – as a fake source of reward for the pelicans, and the imaginative animal expert was ultimately able to get the pelicans to perform on cue. “They’re so hard to train,” Carroll sighs at the memory. “Luckily, we only ever needed one pelican at a time, so we could alternate them, and basically get a bit of a performance out of them.”

Casting the human performers would prove decidedly easier. “We knew that we wanted David Gulpilil as Fingerbone Bill,” Matt Carroll says. As well as a number of television productions, the extraordinarily charismatic Aboriginal actor had featured in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 classic, Walkabout, and had been a part of the wild, booze-and-drug soaked production of Philippe Mora’s bizarre bushranger belter, Mad Dog Morgan, which starred deranged American import, Dennis Hopper. The experience of making the film had unsettled David Gulpilil to his very core. “He was puzzled by Dennis Hopper,” Philippe Mora told The Sydney Morning Herald. “David went walkabout and asked the kookaburras and the trees about him. Retrieved by police Aboriginal trackers, David gravely told me that all the Australian flora and fauna had declared that Dennis was crazy. No surprise to me, I told him.” Matt Carroll managed to convince Gulpilil that shooting Storm Boy would be a far less threatening and unusual experience.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and David Gulpilil.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and David Gulpilil.

To play Hideaway Tom, Carroll tapped veteran actor, Peter Cummins, who had given a memorable performance opposite Jack Thompson in the producer’s Sunday Too Far Away, as well as appearing in the likes of The Removalists and The Great McCarthy. “He’s a great actor,” Carroll says of Cummins, who would go on to feature in many fine Australian films and TV series. But finding the young actor to play Hideaway Tom’s son, Mike “Storm Boy” Kingsley, would prove a little more difficult. Carroll and his team auditioned around 300 boys for the role, asking each of them to act “happy and sad” in the sessions. The requisite sorrow, however, was rarely forthcoming, with most of the boys – all of whom were familiar with Colin Thiele’s book – saying that they were thinking of sad moments from the novel. “There was no emotion, though some were a bit better than others,” Carroll says. Then came Greg Rowe, a ten-year-old Adelaide boy whose only experience was an acting course that he’d received as part of a prize that he’d won in a kids’ modelling competition, and a TV commercial that he’d booked soon afterwards. At his agency’s suggestion, Rowe went to the offices of The South Australian Film Corporation to audition for the lead role in Storm Boy. “This kid comes in, and he looked terrific,” Carroll recalls. “When we asked him to, this kid looked incredibly sad, and Henri Safran asked him what he was thinking of. I actually get emotional whenever I think about this,” Carroll says, audibly moved. “Greg said, ‘I’m remembering when my grandma died. I loved her very much.’ We all bawled our eyes out, and that was it. We had our boy. He could just connect with the emotion. Greg Rowe was Storm Boy.”

There was also an instant connection between young Greg Rowe and David Gulpilil, with whom he spends much of his screen time. “The first time that I met him,” Rowe recounted in a 2008 interview on Channel 7, “he just gave me a big hug and said, ‘I want you to call me ‘wooa’, which is an Aboriginal word for big brother, and I’m going to call you ‘gooma’, which means little brother.’ From then on, David just took me under his wing. He was a fantastic person to work with.” Not exactly on the same page was the film’s director, Henri Safran. A hardened veteran, he wasn’t used to working with free spirited, unconventional talents like Greg Rowe and David Gulpilil. “He was a bit of an arrogant Parisian,” Carroll says. “He wasn’t a warm and fuzzy type of director.” The producer let Safran concentrate on the logistics of the shoot and the narrative swing of the story, and brought in an acting coach to work with Rowe and Gulpilil. He helped the untried actors get into character, and to get their dialogue down. “They all worked together,” Carroll explains. “There was enormous chemistry. I also left David in charge of doing all of the Aboriginal research, and he got involved with the local indigenous community. There was a lot of care taken, and it was a special experience.”

Matt Carroll and Greg Rowe

Matt Carroll and Greg Rowe

The shoot took place on location in The Coorong in winter, where the production built the beach hut that Storm Boy and Hideaway Tom live in. “My one enduring memory is of how cold it was,” says Greg Rowe. The remote nature of the shoot also made things difficult. “We had road access, but back in those days, it was incredibly difficult. We were working off this huge generator, so it was tough.” The interiors were shot on a far more predictable soundstage, with the team literally dismantling the beach shack, and then reassembling it inside. “We actually had the hut back to shoot in,” Carroll laughs.

The shoot itself progressed smoothly, except for one heart-in-the-mouth, gut-on-the-floor moment. While shooting on the beach with Greg Rowe and the pelicans, a flock of wild pelicans landed near the water’s edge nearby. Intrigued and rattled, the production’s four trained pelicans flew off to join them. After a long period of arduous training, Carroll feared that the pelicans would simply join their wild brethren, and fly away into the wintry South Australian sky, never to be seen again. The birds’ trainer, Gordon Noble, however, had an idea. He’d send his little dog – the one that he’d used to train the birds, who had become comfortable with the mutt – bounding into the flock, with the hope being that the wild pelicans would fly off in fear, leaving the trained pelicans behind with the little hound that they knew so well. The ploy worked. “After that, he was always called Bruce The Wonder Dog,” Carroll laughs. “The tiny little white dog saved the whole film!”

A vintage newspaper ad for Storm Boy

A vintage newspaper ad for Storm Boy

Once the shoot had wrapped, Henri Safran left the project to return to his television work, and left Matt Carroll and editor, Gerald Turney-Smith, to cut the film together in the editing room. “It’d been really hard work,” the producer sighs, before revealing that he soon realised that he had an even bigger problem. Though the film looked great (the stunning images came courtesy of master Australian cinematographer, Geoff Burton) and hung together well narratively, there was something indefinable missing. When Carroll screened the film for John Morris (the Australian cinema pioneer who had mentored the producer at The Commonwealth Film Unit, and was one of the founders of The South Australian Film Corporation), he quickly had his answer. “I told John that there was something wrong with the film, and that the chemistry wasn’t quite right,” Carroll explains. “I couldn’t put my finger on it though…I was too close to it. Then John just turned to me and said, ‘Matt, the pelican doesn’t talk.’ And I went, ‘Oh my god, you’re dead right!’”

John Morris was not, however, suggesting that they bring in an actor to provide overdubbed dialogue for Mr. Percival, and turn Storm Boy into a typically cute-and-cuddly kids’ flick with an anthropomorphic talking animal sidekick. “John said that we needed more emotions from the pelican. He said, ‘He’s got to be angry, he’s got to be in love with the boy, and he’s got to say yes or no…that’s all he’s got to do.’” Matt Carroll then got together with the film’s composer, Michael Carlos (“He was a very, very bright guy,” says the producer), and nutted out ideas about how they could make Mr. Percival communicate more effectively on screen, and become a more fully rounded character. An electronic musician adept with the early synthesizer, Carlos fed duck noises that Carroll had recorded during the shoot into his machine, treated them sonically, and then laid them into the film’s soundtrack. “Lo and behold, the pelican could talk,” Carroll laughs.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe.

Now with a “talking pelican” and an edit that he was happy with, Carroll took the final cut of Storm Boy to major distributors, Village Roadshow. What he found was another obstacle. “[Village Roadshow managing director] Greg Coote said, ‘Look, Matt, the picture’s terrific, but it’s a kids’ picture, and it’s going to take what kids’ pictures do. Why don’t you distribute it yourself?’” Though temporarily deflated, Carroll subscribed to the old adage of turning a challenge into an opportunity, and he did indeed distribute the film himself. In a nice twist, Greg Coote’s initial knockback would end up being another fortuitous swing in Storm Boy’s favour. Knowing that the film was always a deeply South Australian endeavour, Carroll headed back down south with the picture.

With its raggedly artful visuals; a one-of-a-kind setting; wonderfully engaging performances from Greg Rowe, David Gulpilil and Peter Cummins; a strong environmental message; and a moving central relationship between Storm Boy and Mr. Percival that would rival anything in the Disney pantheon of kid-and-animal movies, Storm Boy was a film of rare beauty and quiet power. Most importantly, it met with the approval of the book’s author, Colin Thiele…with one minor quibble. “Colin was a dry sort of fellow,” Carroll says. “He was pretty chuffed with the film, but then he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and said, ‘But I still don’t like the dune buggies!’” In distributing Storm Boy, Carroll turned to the most powerful players that he had on his side: Colin Thiele, and the book’s publishers, Rigby. They printed up new editions of the book with images from the film on the cover, and Colin Thiele raised interest in the film amongst the school community. As such a well-loved book, said interest was immediately forthcoming. “We rented a cinema in [Adelaide’s] Hindley Street, and we actually brought in school kids from all over the place by bus,” Carroll explains. “We decided that we would make it compulsory viewing for all primary school kids! We also did an education kit based around the film, and we got that into the schools too.”

The Storm Boy poster

The Storm Boy poster

Carroll’s gamble soon turned out to be a massive win for the producer. “The best phone call of my life came after the first weekend, when the figures came in,” he says. “Greg Coote said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’ve got the highest grossing picture in the state! What are you doing? The figures are phenomenal!’ I told him that we were running three sessions a day and busing people in to see it. He said, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘Just take it away! I’m exhausted! Take it on to the rest of Australia!’ So they did! Village just copied what we did in every state. The numbers were colossal because of all these kids! Then we sold it all over the world. It did really well in France, and it won a lot of European awards. It did huge business internationally.” In Australia, Storm Boy was warmly reviewed, and almost instantly became a childhood classic, with the film’s themes and images resonating through the ages. It took out the AFI Award for Best Film (beating out no less than Bruce Beresford’s Don’s Party), as well as receiving a further six nominations, including a Best Actor nomination for David Gulpilil, and nods for Henri Safran and Sonia Borg.

Storm Boy turned out to be a launching pad for pretty much all involved. David Gulpilil went on to become Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal film star, with subsequent performances in Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, and Australia. Director, Henri Safran, worked consistently in television, and also directed interesting films such as Norman Loves Rose (1982), Bush Christmas (1983), and a Sydney-shot adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1984), starring Jeremy Irons and Liv Ullmann. Cinematographer, Geoff Burton, became one of Australia’s best shooters, lensing the likes of Stir, A Street To Die, The Year My Voice Broke, Sirens and Blessed.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and Mr. Percival.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and Mr. Percival.

Even the film’s chief pelican performer, Mr. Percival, went on to live to the ripe old age of 33, passing away at Adelaide Zoo in 2009. “He was immensely popular, and was also our No. 1 breeder, leaving behind seven offspring,” Adelaide Zoo senior keeper of birds, Brett Backhouse, told Adelaide Now. And Matt Carroll, meanwhile – emboldened by the success of Storm Boy – went on to produce a fistful of Aussie film and television classics, including Breaker Morant and The Club.

But for the film’s angelic but earthy young star, Greg Rowe, acting would be of only fitful interest. “I absolutely hated looking at myself on screen,” he told Channel 7 in 2008. “It’s only in the last five or ten years that I’ve been able to look at the film without cringing. I’m not sure why…it’s like looking at old home movies of yourself. It’s hard to explain.” Rowe reteamed with Matt Carroll on 1978’s charming Blue Fin, another striking and successful adaptation of a novel by Colin Thiele, but after that only appeared in a further two films: 1980’s Dead Man’s Float (opposite Young Talent Time star, Sally Boyden) and 1982’s Freedom, directed by Scott Hicks (Shine, The Boys Are Back) who, incidentally, had booked his first job on a film set as a runner on Storm Boy.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and Mr. Percival.

A vintage Storm Boy lobby card featuring Greg Rowe and Mr. Percival.

After finishing high school, Rowe worked in a bank for three years before moving to England, where he worked in a pub. It was while pulling beers that Rowe met his future wife (“It was love at first sight,” he said on Channel 7), with whom he now lives in Canada, raising two young daughters. “Last time that I was in Australia, I actually bought a couple of DVDs of the films that I was in, and I showed the girls,” Rowe said. “They got a real kick out of them.” Undoubtedly, just like thousands upon thousands of other children have since the film’s release in 1976. Storm Boy was even adapted recently for the stage in a highly successful collaboration between Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company and The Sydney Theatre Company. And, unsurprisingly, a remake is also in the works. Following on from recent announcements that two other 1970s Australian classics – Wake In Fright and Picnic At Hanging Rock – will be reconfigured for the small screen, Storm Boy will be getting “reimagined” too, courtesy of screenwriter, Justin Monjo (Catching Milat, Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door, Brock) and director, Shawn Seet (Deep Water). Set as a cinema release, this new version of Colin Thiele’s book will be set in the present day, and has already received high praise from script readers in LA.

Simple but stunningly beautiful and utterly heart-wrenching, the film truly stands the test of time. “It all came together well,” Matt Carroll reflects today. “The pelicans worked, and the relationships worked too.”

With warm thanks to Matt Carroll, without whom this feature would not have been possible. A newly restored print of Storm Boy will screen at The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival,which is on June 28 – July 6, 2019. 

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