John Romeril developed the script for One Night The Moon. His writing career commenced whilst at Monash University, and then at La Mama theatre in the late ’60s. He helped form the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory (1970-1981), and in 1974 he won the inaugural Canada-Australian Literary Award. He has been a writer in residence at several national and international tertiary institutions, and over 40 of his original works and adaptations – both musical and dramatic – have been produced. They include Love Suicides (1997), Hanoi-Melbourne (1995), The Kelley Dance (1984), and The Floating World (1974) and Marvellous Melbourne (1970). Together with Rachel Perkins, Romeril was recently awarded a Gold AWGIE for the script for One Night The Moon.
– One Night the Moon Production Notes
A consideration of One Night the Moon‘s development and production process reveals that it was an unusually collaborative one in the sense that it involved the contributions of a theatre writer, musicians, composers, songwriters (Mairead Hannan, Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody) and a screen director (Rachel Perkins). Kathryn Millard recently spoke with writer John Romeril about the process of developing One Night the Moon.
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Kathryn Millard: I’d like to talk about the process of writing One Night the Moon.
John Romeril: The idea was prompted by a documentary that screened on SBS called Black Tracker (Michael Riley, 1997). As it happened, the executive producer was Rachel Perkins but the actual filmmaker was Michael Riley. I don’t know if you know Michael’s work?
KM: Yes, I do, I like it very much.
JR: Empire (Michael Riley, 1997), for example, I think is just a fantastic piece. Astonishing. Black Tracker was about his grandfather, who was nicknamed Tracker Riley. It contained this story, among others, that was more or less Tracker Riley’s life and times with the NSW police force. He, for example, was awarded the King’s Medal in 1942, which was the highest award a policeman could receive in any Australian state. It’s called the Queen’s Medal these days, but King’s Medal in 1942 or so when he received it for the work he did in gathering a lot of forensic evidence that solved a serial killing spate in Western NSW, not far in fact from Dubbo. A guy had claimed what was referred to as the ‘Baker’s dozen’. He killed 13 people over a period of time, and it was the evidence painstakingly put together by Riley that led to the arrest. Black Tracker was full of stories like that, one of which included ‘The lost child’ story. Tracker Riley turns up with members of a search party thinking he’ll get the gig of looking for the lost kid, but the father refuses to have a black man on the property, so he’s unable to do any tracking. He’s very aware that the way the search is being conducted is likely to wipe out any kind of tracks. And not being allowed on the gig irked him and sought of gnawed away at him for a long time. The kid, of course, wasn’t found. One day some years later, after the farmer had left the district, Tracker Riley got onto the place. He wanted to follow through on his theory of what the kid would have done and what the kid’s movements would have been. And within about seven hours had managed to locate the remains. So it was a case of knowledge offered and knowledge refused. A pretty blatant example of us not respecting the skill and know-how of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and doing so in a way that had quite tragic results.
KM: It’s such a powerful example of that, such a tragic example of knowledge rejected… So you saw Black Tracker…
JR: So I saw it. And so did Mairead Hannan. It was about that time that ads had gone out calling for submissions for music theatre works. They received about 250 applications. We were included in the first short list which was 16 and that dropped down to four that were actually earmarked for production. Ours I think is the first one that’s been followed right through. The others are still in process. Ours, too, I suppose is the only popular music one amongst them.
KM: Can you tell me more about the scripting process and where your involvement began?
JR: The terms of reference of the brief were to ensure that the film was a narrative driven by music. So music and song were always to be the engine of the show. It was one of those gigs, I suppose, where I as a writer was paid for how much I didn’t write. Stress was always placed on visuality and music, I suppose. For a time, too, we also wanted to make it a dance film. Mairead at the time was part of the Xylouris Ensemble. Georgie Xylouris is Crete but he was living in Melbourne and married to one of the Hannan girls. And there was an ensemble called the Xylouris Ensemble that mixed both the Celtic kind of influence that Mairead and her Irish brethren grew up making as music, with the kind of Greek Cretan styles of folk music that they either married into or began to develop as young girls. They’ve long had a connection with the Greek community here in Melbourne. They began playing Celtic Irish music in their youth but Greek music as well. Now there’s a form of Greek music that’s from the Pontian region and it’s a very kind of foot-stomping, soldier-like kind of music. The kind of dancing to it is also that way inclined. And we thought perhaps the search party could start out – in 3D naturalism – but transform into a movement piece that used the vocabulary of Pontian dance. And of course would have Pontian influence of the soundtrack to it…
The dance notion became a bridge too far on the budget, so that fell off the twig early. But the terms of reference were to make a piece of music drama, so obviously music and song tended to lead. Mairead was mates with Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. They’d played together at various folk festivals and gigs. And she leant on Paul and Kev to join her and Xylouris Ensemble as the musical heart of the piece. They set out, there was a discussion, everyone looked at the original documentary and kind of had a bare bones grasp of the story as it was from life. And we sort of fished for song and music occasions within it. And I went away and tried to write a kind of treatment that I thought covered the bill of goods.
KM: And what form did that take?
JR: The treatment?
KM: Was that a story line? Or a scenario?
JR: A scenario is closest to it. It was an attempt to look at the character and look at where the drama was. I felt that the original story fell into three acts. Noting that the kid is lost, the parents seek help, a search part is put together and Tracker Riley arriving willing and able to set out and look for the kid. That is interrupted by racism of the father farmer. And so Tracker heads home. Then Act 2 is like the search for the kid minus the person who should be there and spans the next few days and ends in no show for the kid. Act 3 some years later as Tracker Riley was able to get back to the place and to find the remains of the kid. That constituted Act 3 in my view.
KM: And so did that scenario distinguish which parts of the narrative would be conveyed by visual action or dramatic action or the lyrics of the songs? Or was that something that came later?
JR: I did put in a few lyric or song ideas. Other people already had theirs but hadn’t necessarily tabled them. Mairead, for example, just wanted to do the instrumental sections. We noted ideas like setting out on the search party, riding for help, the search drags on. These sort of things can have visual co-relatives or ways of conveying them. And the idea of a nursery rhyme singing the kid to sleep ‘One night the moon came sailing by’ was called ‘Makin’ Tacks’ in the early days. Now it’s called ‘One Night the Moon’. That’s one example – I thought it would be a good idea for the band to sing the kid to sleep, and to sing a cute song about the moon stealing little children. And the idea that the kid’s fascination with the moon had grown from her parents singing her this song, and what do you know, one night she actually does follow the moon. So Paul then massaged that. You know, there were a few lyrics I’d put down in one verse and said the next one would be like ‘One night the moon came by on a train, blah, blah, blah’ and so Paul knocked that into shape. A lot of things came in a clump then, I think we got maybe seven or eight numbers fairly smartly. And as they came to hand, I had to kind of figure out how’d we could fit them into a structure, where they could be used. Kev, for example, tends to write in a fairly abstract way.
KM: Can you give me an example of that?
JR: One of the songs we ended up not using for example was one about tracking. The words are like “this is your history, but I’ll track down what actually happened”. But it involved images such as being able to track across concrete. Odd, because the film is set in a rural location. Then there’s his song at the end which I think is fantastic: ‘You who find the Moon’ , ‘You’re not lost if you find the moon’ or something.
KM: So, in some cases, as the writer you came up with imagery and metaphor which was then picked up and extended by other people in a way?
JR: Yeah. And vice versa. I mean we knew ‘This Land is Mine’ was always going to be a duet idea. And Kevin and Paul wrote and sang it together. It was a white man and a black man have a discussion in a song and in a song the lines between are drawn.
KM: What did you see the function of the lyrics as being, John, in the writing phase?
JR: In Paul’s case, he tends to write character. Whereas the voice in Kev’s pieces is more often an abstract eye. And often more spiritual and metaphysical. Kev was great on the spirit of the land and Paul was really good on character. An example of a late breaking song was ‘An unfinished business’. He came in one day with that and it of course involved two voices – a male black voice and another voice, which could easily be the mother. So it’s this nice idea of there is this unfinished black and white business but also unfinished business here with the meaning that ‘I wasn’t allowed out on the search. We didn’t let you go on the search. Can we finish it? Is there something that can be done? What’s the next step?’ And it became the song that sort of covers hurt and longing. Sometime later, against her husband’s wishes, the mother seeks the assistance of the black tracker and those two set out to find the child as per the film now.
KM: One of the things I find really interesting about the film is the genre mix. The idea of using a musical with a mystery story, which is an unusual thing to do. I wonder what kinds of challenges that presented. What aspects of the musical you were interested in drawing on?
JR: Well, personally, maybe a third of my work so far, like 20 – 25 plays of mine, are music drama or musicals.
KM: That’s a rather substantial amount of work!
JR: Yeah, so I’m no real stranger to what can be achieved in the genre. Or in music theatre anyway. And it’s always astonished me that, given how potent it is or can be in the theatre, that the tradition of the film musical is something of a broken tradition and a despised one. Like I guess it sort of continues but in a very much truncated form in your MTV kind of video clip stuff and the odd musical that still manages against the odds to get filmed. I mean Luhrmann’s first, his dance flick, I think is really good. There’s some wonderful oddities from time to time, they keep cropping up, you can’t keep them down! And there’s always been popular musical figures like, you know, the Elvis films kicking around. But it’s been an under-explored or not a sexy part of the cinematic industry.
KM: So do you think the possibilities of the musical have been explored further in music theatre? That there’s perhaps a less restricted notion of what’s possible?
JR: Yeah, certainly. I mean, I find film generally very timid and I know why. Because it’s so capitally intensive that risks are not embraced as readily as they ought to be. And yet, in the taking of risks you immediately put yourself in a dramatic area, and it ought to be second nature or standard operating procedure. But, of course, you’ve got to get your money back and protect your budget and so on. So yeah, it would be my view that people could take a lot more risks and find out how audience friendly the form actually is. I mean filmmakers have no qualms at all about using music mercilessly in supporting a soundtrack and are very aware of its potency. But to use music in a way that allows it to lead or drive or define the genre – it’s a step that’s rarely taken… It seems to me a sane social inventory reveals how hot to trot Australia is in the music department. Such singers, such composers, so much musicianship! We know how great and how many fine actors are on hand. We don’t have a problem recognising how ‘tooled up’ we are there. But our TV and film industry – to my chagrin and its discredit – doesn’t seek to explore and exploit in like fashion how musically well-resourced the nation is. Small countries, small industries, play to their strengths. They must and should. Otherwise it becomes a Burke & Wills story (they starved in a place where Aboriginal folk found plenty to nourish them). My fear is that we will ignore the abundance of musical talent we have because the form it comes in challenges received notions of what film is and how it should be made. I hope I’m wrong.
KM: Sure. Was One Night The Moon an unusually collaborative project for you? How do you usually work?
JR: I wouldn’t have thought so because I try to work collaboratively. Although it certainly was a case of being given a brief and then waiting sometimes for the music to arrive before I could work. Or allowing myself to relate to the music and see where that would take me or what sort of story I could make out of this. But we all meet regularly; it’s been a four-year process. Our first choice as director was, of course, Michael Riley, a) because it was a family story of his and b) because, on the evidence of Empire, it’s already an abstract cinematic eye that he has and we could all imagine him applying himself to a musical film really well. But he’s a very sick boy on dialysis and decided that he probably wouldn’t have the strength to see a project of this magnitude through. And consequently we then began negotiations with Rachel. And Rachel came in towards the end and had her ideas of where the turning points should be.
KM: You’re laughing. What kind of process was that? Did it involve re-negotiating some things about the script?
JR: There were some significant departures. Because Rachel was also the director and had to make it hang for herself and it was never going to go anywhere much if it didn’t. I, for example, and here my inexperience might have been a factor, had some ideas… that may have required a much bigger budget then we had. I was very interested in the look of the ‘daguerreotype’ as a visual influence… And a passing sociologist had been quite struck by the Aboriginal view of the world. And he suggested the Aboriginal mind had a highly evolved kind of photographic kind of mechanism, that it relies very much on recording visual data and has a very sophisticated form of literacy. And, of course, I was much taken by this idea and this guy was a tracker. So close ups of this phenomenal world were, in my view, a dead cert for this flick. As a cinematic technique. But also that unusual form of cinematography would say something about the character. The world as seen by the tracker’s eyes would be a feature of this thing. And in some ways would privilege the Aboriginal’s sensibility a bit more than perhaps it exists in the film now. In my head it was always Tracker’s story. And I think what Rachel has done, and wanted to do was make it a story about a mother who loses her kid. And that’s where her sympathy and her way into the story lay. So that was definitely a different emphasis. It was at her urging that we dropped the time slip, the two years later, and tried to reduce it down to a more or less continuous action. Maybe a month is what you see.
KM: So the story shifted more from the real life one you began working from?
JR: I think, too, I’m probably a bit of a historian, so that the sociology of white trash in depression times and a jump cut to Australia at war in 1942 was also interesting to me. The idea of a policeman who was a black in uniform in 1938 and then the same black in uniform in 1942, but he’s in the army now. He goes back to the district and gets his chance to follow-up. Those sort of things. But, I mean, you know what things are like. You have three thousand ideas and five of them get up.
KM: To some extent that’s just part of the process isn’t it. It’s inevitable that that’s going to be the case.
JR: It’s certainly a good challenge for a writer always to have the visual imperative forever before him.
KM: Has One Night The Moon made you any more interested in writing more for film?
JR: I’m open to offers!