David Caesar’s Mullet (2001) may well save the year for Australian films. In a moment when audiences have been sucked towards Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001), Mullet seemed to materialise out of the blue to stake out a claim on behalf of that segment of our filmmaking practice that wants to engage with Australian society, do it in a way which befits more modest ambitions and demonstrate that there are simple but meaningful methods to put Australian voices and characters on the screen.
The fact that Mullet has come along is one thing. The more important fact that it has found a receptive audience is another. David Caesar, a filmmaker for whom there has always been great hope has delivered a droll comedy of Australian manners. Critics, and by far the best critique of the film has been that done by John Flaus in Senses of Cinema, have embraced the film warmly and helped place it in an unusual context – a laconic comedy of Australian manners. This is rare but welcome.
Much of the reception that the film has received has resulted from the acute public presentation of the film that has been supervised by its producer Vincent Sheehan. He has attended its various openings, from town halls and cinemas on the South Coast of New South Wales to the capital cities, and sought to ensure that the film was given the best opportunity to find an audience. It comes as a surprise that this is the first feature film that Sheehan has produced. He has however steeped himself in his craft and thus far adopted models that are outside the mainstream.
I spoke with Vincent Sheehan just before the film had its first screening in Canberra.
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GG: What’s your background as a first time movie producer?
VS: I went to the City College of Art and bummed around in rock bands for most of my early 20s.even most of my late 20s. I then did a degree in communications at UTS [University of Technology Sydney] and started working in the film business. I’d always been working loosely there through all of my music days so I come from a hands-on background. I slowly started to find that the thing I enjoyed most was putting together projects and working with teams of people. I worked at Metro Screen, the community production place.
GG: How did you come to hook up with David Caesar on this project?
VS: About ten years ago I was working at Metro Screen and this big boofy bloke came in and wanted someone to cut his show reel. I tried to find someone to do it but no one would so, because I’d worked as an editor, I ended up doing it with him. We sat in this room just arguing about surfing and fishing and football and everything and we became friends. We had a real dialogue about the world. We both came from small towns and we had a dialogue about sensibilities before we had a dialogue about film itself.
GG: So what’s on David’s show reel?
VS: It’s interesting. David came in with a collection of a lot of unrelated but unique features of Australia that connected to me in a way that many films don’t. I thought that this guy had a voice.
GG: How easy was it for you to get Mullet into production?
VS: It was hard because Mullet is not a genre film. It’s a character piece set in a small town. It’s not plot driven. It’s everything that makes a film difficult to finance. Even with David and Ben Mendelsohn attached, it wasn’t an easy film to get up. But that made us approach the financing by deciding to work outside the standard model. We found ourselves working with SBS and Globe who were enthusiastic about what we were trying to do. Rather than pitching it as a big commercial film and seeking FFC money we had to look at a different model which was what we thought was its audience and its market potential and its international commercial potential as well.
GG: Did you attempt to find private finance?
VS: Not really. It’s not what I know. Ironically though the major factor was the sale to the Premium Movie Partnership, which is Showtime Australia, the cable channel. They were our principal investor. I’m open to finding investors wherever but it’s always about finding partners that are alike that’s important.
GG: A lot of film school graduates tend to be more directed towards industrial production but David Caesar seems to be different.
VS: David sits far to the left and I think he has always had a problem with the film school for that reason – when he was there and when he left.
GG: There’s not a lot of encouragement to get outside the loop and think differently.
VS: That’s another reason why this film was made outside the model. The people I aspire to emulate – heroes – are the group of New York-based filmmakers who are much more inspiring, much better than any we have here in Australia. I’m thinking of James Schamus, Ted Hope and Christine Vachon who work out of New York. I admire their philosophy. They just have a different attitude and relationship with directors like Hal Hartley and Ang Lee. They are making independent and very bold cinema. Todd Haynes is another director they encourage…and Todd Solondz.
They offered me a model, more than any kind of Australian film production; they seemed to show a different way of making films.
GG: They don’t seem to be making low budget films as a calling card to go somewhere else.
VS: That’s true. I want to make commercial films but what I like about those New York producers is that they don’t compromise and they work outside the models. And they do it for the right reasons not just to break rules. They make entertaining but quite unique cinema and they have been successful.
GG: Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) is a masterpiece that endures. It’s not just a film that came and went in 1998.
VS: It’s one of the most extraordinary movies I’ve ever seen. I sat in the cinema when it was over for about ten minutes. I couldn’t move. Yet people just don’t get it, which is fine, but I think it’s a most moving film. It’s really bold and very sad. The moment when the son gets so confused and says “Don’t you love me?” That’s extraordinary. I think Todd Solondz is one of the most unique voices in cinema.
GG: How have you found working with SBS Independent?
VS: Thank God for SBS Independent. They are doing what the ABC has failed to do for about the last eight years. Mullet is a regional Australian film and it’s been perfect timing for SBS because they are going back for more money and they can say look at this, its working commercially. Bridget Ikin and Barbara Masel have been perfect partners for us. They got what we were doing immediately and let us do it.
GG: Did they ask for much rewriting?
VS: We had a final draft and David rewrote things based on who was cast and where we were. It didn’t change that much.
GG: The Adelaide Festival is involved with SBS Independent as well.
VS: Our next film is with the Adelaide Festival. They are having a film component and so they invested in four Australian features, one of them being our film Walking on Water which Tony Ayres is directing. They put up a certain level of equity and SBS Independent did the pre-sale and a certain amount of equity as well. The NSW FTO [Film & Television Office] also put some money in.
GG: What does Adelaide get out of it?
VS: They get the premiere.
GG: What sort of relationship have you had with the Adelaide Festival?
VS: That has been through Bridget. She has left SBS Independent and she is the Executive Producer looking after all four projects for the Adelaide Festival.
GG: How do you find dealing with Australian distributors, right across the range from the cottage industry through to the big American companies?
VS: I’ve known Globe for a long time and they’ve been long time supporters of Australian films. I have a huge amount of respect for Troy Lum at Dendy Films. He’s got a real vision for international and Australian cinema. He embraced Mullet in a very interesting way. He’s a Chinese born Australian who grew up in Bankstown. His first cinema experience was The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) and that was when he got hooked on Australian cinema. That sums up Troy for me.
Someone said to me the other day that Mullet was like a companion piece to The Year My Voice Broke. It’s as if Ben had left that town, a crazy lovable guy, and came back.well.
GG: What plans do you have to show it outside Australia?
VS: I’m going to Rome to see an Italian distributor. That will be on the way to Edinburgh. We’re waiting to hear from Toronto and Montreal and I got an e-mail today from Telluride. If we do reasonable box-office here then we’ve got another hook. They need to have it in some kind of context so they say, well, if it’s working in a commercial or even cultural context here then they have something to sell it to their own audiences. So we’ve been waiting for this to happen. Toronto is great. The community responds and you screen in 800 seat theatres to packed houses. That’s what you want out of a festival. It has to be a platform so distributors can actually see an audience reacting.
GG: Did you think of the festivals here in Australia?
VS: No.well we did for a little while. There was a Lynden Barber article in The Australian about Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) which suggested that Mullet would have been a better choice for the Sydney Film Festival. I like Lantana, I think it’s a good film but throwing Mullet up before 4,000 people would have been wrong for the film. I’d love to have a film that would be right for opening night but it’s too many people for this one. That’s why I love the AFI rules this year. But let’s face it if this film had been the opening night film of the Sydney Film Festival we would not be doing the box office we are doing now. We could have had enormous amounts of bad publicity.
GG: I think you are being very narrow.
VS: Look, I love the Sydney Film Festival but the only way we could have gone on there would have been to give it a screening in the small theatre down at the Dendy with people fighting to get in, queues around the block. But that would not have helped the film either. Lantana was a better choice. Its release is a long way off and it won’t hurt the film.
GG: You’ve been happy with the early box-office?
VS: We opened the same week as Swordfish (Dominic Sena, 2001) and we were really hoping to have the week’s best per screen average even though we were only on nine screens and they were on over 200. We just missed out. But we still took just over $20,000 per screen.
GG: How aware were you of what would be needed for the publicity?
VS: The trailer was the hardest part of the film. We were happy with the stills photographer. Lisa Tomasetti was very good. Actually my partner has just produced another film directed by Tony Ayres. She had William Yang as one of three stills photographers. The results of William’s work are just amazing. For Mullet we actually took stills off the original negative. We used the image of the fish in the bucket for the international campaign in Cannes and we took that off the original negative.
GG: If we can get back to Mullet and solve a mystery, John Flaus makes the point in his Senses of Cinema review that the guy hitchhikes down from Sydney and then has enough money to go and buy a car. Why doesn’t he buy a car in Sydney and drive down?
VS: You couldn’t buy a ute like that in Sydney! In that condition! For that price! That car is the Mullet character. Why wouldn’t he do something like that? There was a car yard scene of him buying the car. Like every film there are deleted scenes. We’ve put a couple of them on the web site so people can view what we deleted.
GG: Are you doing more films with David?
VS: I’d love to work with David again but it has to be about projects.