Interview: Catriona McKenzie (Satellite Boy)

Interview: Catriona McKenzie (Satellite Boy). By Simon Miraudo.

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Catriona McKenzie says her feature debut Satellite Boy is a descendant of such Aussie classics as Storm Boy and Walkabout. A good thing then that she’s recruited the legendary David Gulpilil from those flicks to appear in her movie too. The picture stars newcomers Cameron Wallaby and Joseph Pedley as Pete and Kalmain; two boys who fight to stop mining contractors from knocking down their local cinema, where Pete resides with his granddad Jagamarra (Gulpilil). The Kimberley shoot was an arduous one, in which the cast and crew required “eight litres of water per person per day to survive,” but the resulting film is sweet and somewhat Spielbergian.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of Satellite Boy here.

We spoke to McKenzie about travelling the country in search of her two young stars, relying on the community to help build the titular satellite, and heading to the Toronto International Film Festival and rubbing shoulders with the stars.

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SM: What was the first germ of an idea for Satellite Boy?

CM: Well, I’d written a script that was quite different. It was really quite driven; lots of action, lots of characters. Afterwards, after working on the script for a couple of years, I realised I wanted to do something that was very distilled; very, in a way, archetypal, so that anyone – whether they were in Australia, whether they were in Japan, any country in the world – could look at the relationship between the grandfather and the boy and go, “Oh, I remember my grandfather.” Or, “I remember what it was like to be a kid.” Or, “I’m a grandfather, and I love my grandson.” I wanted there to be archetypal, very powerful themes through the film, so I stripped the other stuff away and was left with little Pete and Jagamarra, the grandfather. And it was sort of because of the relationship I had with my father who was a lot older than me – he was like a grandfather to me – and I really wanted to pay homage to him because he was such a beautiful man.

SM: There were a few moments early in the film – and maybe it was just the image of the boys riding on their bikes – that felt somewhat Spielbergian. It’s interesting you mention that the grandfather and grandson relationship was so prominent, because even in Steven Spielberg’s films there’s a big father-son aspect there. Have any particular filmmakers had an impact on you, and maybe you only realised after watching your work back?

CM: There are two films that I really love, that I saw as a little girl. One is Walkabout and one is Storm Boy, and it’s interesting because David Gulpilil is in both of those films, and how privileged am I to have, in my first feature, David Gulpilil? I still pinch myself. But there’s also Jida Gulpilil, who is David’s son, and he sings and does music on Satellite Boy. He wrote me this email saying how much he loved the film, and for him it was “the Storm Boy of the 21st century,” and it was the best acting he’d seen his dad do in a film, and that was really beautiful. To think of that full circle; I’d seen him in Storm Boy and Walkabout when I was a little girl, and here I was, working with him, and here his son was doing music and singing on the soundtrack to Satellite Boy. Definitely those films. Gallipoli had a huge impact on me. And, I mean, E.T., it’s true, Spielberg’s E.T. is a film that I have watched a lot. Even as an adult, I think there’s something really special about it.

SM: You mentioned that you retooled the script a little bit. Can you tell me about getting funding together and finally getting your feature debut into production?

CM: You spend years writing a script, and I don’t know if it was after the first year or second year, it becomes almost like a pie in the sky. “Oh yeah, we’re gonna make this.” But when you actually get the money, it’s like, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta make this!” I’d done The Circuit back in 2007 – I was the set-up director on that – and I’d been in the Kimberley and I’d seen the country and seen how beautiful it was, and I’d made a lot of friends. So I got Jub Clerc – she’s a Broome girl and she was my casting director – and we jumped in our car with our swag and our kids and basically took off and drove thousands of kilometres, forward and back, trying to find a suitable main kid. We were very low budget. We had very, very limited resources. Like, we had this tiny little car – we didn’t even have roof racks, we just had to put all of the swags on top of the car – it was very lo-fi. The very first night, we camped at the side of the road. We were getting in our swags. My son, who was two-and-a-half then, looked up and said, “Mommy, where’s the ceiling?” “I said, “There’s no ceiling, bubby. The stars are the ceiling.” He said, “Oh, right.” It kind of blew his mind, and he loved it up there. We went from that casting part of it to pre-production. Then we didn’t have any money to build the satellite dish or the cinema screen, even though it’s called Satellite Boy. We just had no resources. But, because of the relationship we had with the community, there was a guy called Paul Bikoden, and he so generously threw in steel and manpower to help build a cinema screen. And the satellite dish. It was a real privilege being in WA because the actual Kimberley – Wyndham, Derby, Broome, and Kununurra – they helped us make the film. So, despite the hardships – or the lack of resources, lack of money – in a way, that was a blessing because we were buoyed up and lifted up by the community around us, and that was a very special thing, you know?

SM: When you found Cameron Wallaby and Joseph Pedley – who play the two main boys – what was it about them that separated them from the pack?

CM: I was in Fitzroy Crossing – which, you know, you leave Broome, chuck a right and Fitzroy Crossing is one of the first places you come to really – and we were in the community centre and looking for boys. We called ahead and were waiting for people to come in, and [Cameron] was just playing out under a tree with some Boab nuts. Jub’s mum, Silvia Clerc, invited him to come in, and he just had this incredible imagination. I gave him a little scenario, and him and his cousin, Pumpkin, they just took me on this great journey. He hadn’t read the script, and I hadn’t told him the full story; he almost recreated the story in this room. It was like we were in the bush. He really had this great imagination. I was alone with Cameron at the time – Jub had gone out for a cup of tea – and I just remember thinking, “Wow.” You know? “This little kid could be Pete. He could play it, because he’s such a smart and great kid.” We kept going, and we found lots of great kids – there’s so much talent out there – and it wasn’t until we got to Wyndham, which was the very end of our journey, that we found Joseph Pedley. Then we did workshops, and put all different combinations of boys together, and eventually it was just very clear that Cameron Wallaby and Joseph Pedley as Pete and Kalmain had the best energy. It was just one of those magic things. And thank God, because the whole film hangs off those boys, and if they weren’t right, it doesn’t matter how everything else is. The audience just won’t buy it. So, it was great. We were the first feature film in the world to film on the ground in the Bungle Bungles. That’s a world heritage listed park, and we sat down with the traditional owners and got all the permission in place. Then we dragged those kids – it was so hot, you know, you needed eight litres of water per person per day to survive – we dragged those kids all around, because you couldn’t use the car; you had to walk. They were just amazing. So great, coming from never being on a film set before to being right in the thick of it. It was incredible; I was so proud of them.

SM: Well, from the Bungle Bungles, the film did debut at Toronto, at the International Film Festival. How was that? Taking the film overseas, and Cameron as well?

CM: Yeah, it was great. We ran into Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling and Pierce Brosnan, and you know, there was lots of celebrities. It was really exciting for everyone. Every screening was sold out, the reviews we got from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were … you couldn’t pay your first cousin enough money to write a better review. There wasn’t a negative word said about the film. We had articles like, “Boy from the bush outshines Hollywood stars.” People were stopping Cameron on the street and wanting him to sign autographs, and he would just stand there and scratch his autograph and all these Canadians would be sobbing. They’d see the film and flock down and they were crying. They loved the film. I think it was good for Cameron and his mum. It was very special to be able to, you know, share that. We also had the producer David Jowsey, and Henry Dangar, the editor, was there. It was really great.

SM: I understand you’re working on a couple of projects next. One is a horror movie, and one is about a scientist who discovers life after death. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

CM: Yeah, in fact, the producer of One White Crow is from WA, and we’re working on that at the moment. That’s about this Australian scientist from 1895 called Richard Hodgson who meets this woman called Lenora Piper, and he’s a debunker of fake spiritualists and clairvoyants, and he meets this woman Lenora Piper in Boston, and cannot debunk her. He cannot prove that she’s a fraud, and in the end it’s Occam’s razor. Well, actually, she’s probably the real deal. It’s a true story. And I’m writing a supernatural thriller called Min Min, and that’s about the Min Min lights. Again, I guess maybe Spielberg does… Spielberg inspired a generation, or a generation of filmmakers, because he did Poltergeist and there’s a touch of Poltergeist in Min Min. We won’t call it horror. It’s not quite as sophisticated as “supernatural thriller.”

Satellite Boy plays the Perth International Arts Festival from December 10 to December 23, 2012.

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