Interview: Brendan Fletcher; director of Mad Bastards.

Interview: Brendan Fletcher; director of Mad Bastards. By Simon Miraudo.

Not familiar with the name Brendan Fletcher? You soon will be. The documentary and commercial director’s debut film Mad Bastards was recently selected to play in competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It will be one of 13 films from around the world (selected from 1073 submissions) to compete in the World Cinema Dramatic section – the same category Australia’s own Animal Kingdom won in 2010. Set in the harsh terrain of the Kimberley, Fletcher’s feature was 10 years in the making, inspired by the real lives of those in the Indigenous communities. I spoke to Brendan soon after he received news of his film’s selection at Sundance. His excitement was infectious.

SM: First of all, congratulations on the Sundance selection.

BF: Thanks very much. We’re over the moon, as you’d probably understand.

SM: Tell me where the germ of the idea for Mad Bastards came from.

BF: Definitely. Look, I’ve been working in the Kimberley for over a decade, making short films and documentaries with the Pigram Brothers. So often we would just come across these men who would come up around the campfire or at the pub or whatever, and they’re physically very impressive guys, and they always spoke very beautifully, and they were quite sort of, despite having such tough exteriors, they were sensitive men. I just thought, “Man, these guys are movie stars. They’ve got fantastic charisma, a great look and they’re really smart, and they’re open and vulnerable and brave.” So to be really honest with you, we found these guys, and we had to work out what the story was. We had the title, and we had a bunch of what I thought were movie stars, and that’s all we had. We thought, “Well, that’s probably a good start, so let’s try and come up with a plot.”

SM: Can you discuss the formation of the script. How do you get from that idea to the final product?

BF: Well, I’ll tell you mate, it’s not easy. We had our first script development grant in 2003 and that was from ScreenWest, and it took us til 2008 to get a financed script together. And even when that happened, when we started shooting, the script kept evolving. So to be perfectly honest, it was a nightmare. The process was: we sat down and yarned to these guys about their lives, and they told us stories; funny stories, hard core stories, things that happened to them, things that happened to other people. If you look at the credits you’ll see I’m down as a screenwriter in collaboration with Dean Daley-Jones, Greg Tait and John Watson. Now those are the three lead male characters in the movie. Dean is TJ, Greg is the policeman Texas, and John Watson is the old fella that leads the boys out on the camp, out into the bush; this sort-of wise old man with a beard. So basically what we ended up doing was over a number of years we would yarn with these men of the Kimberley, we would shoot test material of them doing scenes, and sometimes the guys who were doing great stories, or the ones who were great actors, weren’t great storytellers or whatever. So it was a really organic process that was a little bit tricky to manage at times, but ultimately we all boiled down to focus on Greg, Dean and John, and their stories, and how to write material that as performers they would be able to deliver on. I don’t think you’ve seen the film, but the character of Texas is a cop in a remote town. Now Greg Tate who plays that character is a cop; he’s been the policeman at Halls Creek for 17 years. So obviously the material that he was doing … he wasn’t doing Shakespeare, he was doing stuff he’d does everyday. Similarly, Dean who plays TJ – the other central character – TJ is basically searching for his son, and reconnecting with his son. That’s the impetus for the film. Dean has a son that’s the same age as Bullet (his son in the film), and although the context is quite different, there were moments in Dean’s life that he emotionally drew on to write the screenplay and ultimately to shoot.

SM: You have these actors playing characters that are somewhat based on themselves. Was there pressure on you, that you felt you had extra responsibility in the way you portrayed them onscreen?

BF: Definitely. Definitely. I suppose that’s why it took so long. Me and the Pigram Brothers first came up with Mad Bastards in 2001, so it took a long time to work through all those different pressures and all those different options and all those different people up there to get what we ended up getting as a cast and a story. The other thing I would say is that it was very collaborative. We’re very good friends; I just got off the phone then with Greg Tait, who plays Texas, to organise his travel to Sundance. Dean, Greg, the Pigram Brothers, myself, John – I suppose the responsibility was shared between all us, and so is the credit, in terms of the screenwriting and so forth. I knew those guys would pull me up if I was getting it wrong, and they knew I wouldn’t do anything s**t – or that they thought was s**t (laughs). Based on that kind of simple relationship, we found our way through that.

SM: Tell me a little bit about your thought process when it came time to apply for the Sundance Film Festival, and what it means to you to be selected.

BF: Oh man. Look, I made a documentary with Russell Crowe in 2002 or 2001 called Texas funnily enough. And that was selected for Sundance in some random category. But as far as I knew, I was not on any radar. I’d not had any shorts selected for any major international festivals; I was a nobody, and we had a bunch of nobodies starring in a film called Mad Bastards. Our sales agent said “Oh, look, why don’t you put it into Sundance?” And she gave us the address, and we sent them a DVD, I don’t know, back in August or something. And we heard nothing! No phone call – “You’re shortlisted!”, or “We really like this guy” – nothing. I was actually in the edit suite, working on something else, and I got a phone call saying “We’re inviting you to screen in competition in Sundance”; I got the phone call 10 days ago. I just almost fell down. I was probably only inches away from my knees going week and tumbling down, because it’s just incredible. We just thought we were a really out there film – and we knew process-wise we were out there – and we were proud of what we’d made, but to be selected for Sundance is …massive (laughs). I can hardly even speak. We’re so thrilled, and we’re so excited, and it means so much to the community in the Kimberley; they don’t really know a lot about Sundance, but they know it’s a goddamn big deal. And we’re going to take them with us; we’re bringing the Pigram Brothers, Alan and Steve; they’re not just the musicians, they’re producers of the film, they own the production company with me, so they’re in it at every level. We’re bringing Dean, we’re bringing Greg. It took about a week to sink in, and now it is sinking in, and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got over there and see what comes of it.

SM: There’s this new trend of Australian films getting embraced by international festivals, especially Sundance with Animal Kingdom last year. And films like Red Hill and The Loved Ones have all played overseas before reaching Australia.

BF: Exactly. Well, I suppose that one thing that’s going to work for us is that this a pretty out-there film … well, look I don’t want to say out-there, it’s a very accessible movie, and I think what we’ve discovered is it’s a lot more accessible than we originally thought. Ultimately, its themes are family, father and son, reconnection; it’s a fairly basic emotional storyline. But, it takes you into a world you’ve never been before, and I think there have been rare glimpses of this world cinematically before. So what we’re really happy before is that we’ll have an international stamp of approval; I mean, what is it, like 13 films out of 1100? It’s kind of insane that we’re in that category. It’s great; we’re in the same spot as Animal Kingdom last year. We’re a very different film from Animal Kingdom, but we’re thrilled to be buddies on that level.

SM: You’re far from putting Mad Bastards to bed; I know it doesn’t open in Australia until May next year. But can you tell me of any other films or even ideas and scripts that you’re planning on working on next.

BF: You’re absolutely right, it’s at least six-months more full-time on this film – I’m a producer as well. We’re going to give it everything – especially with Sundance now – to get a couple of small releases overseas, and get behind it locally. So I just haven’t got the brain space to think about what’s next, but there are a couple of, I’d say, genre films in the Kimberley that I’m developing with the Pigram Brothers. There’s also a film based in New York that I’m looking to do some work on too. Everything is in what I call an embryonic stage, and I’d be quite keen to do something not specifically Kimberley related next, because I feel like I’ve got more to offer than just that. But it’s pretty tempting to do something more on the genre side in the coming years. So, you know, let’s just see what happens.

Mad Bastards makes its world debut at the Sydney Festival January 18th, 2011 before heading to Sundance. It arrives in Australian cinemas May 2011.

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