Culture

Film

Untold stories in ‘Walkabout to Hollywood’

By Sam Twyford-Moore
Following David Gulpilil as he visits LA, a re-mastered documentary has significant revelations about the great actor’s lost chance at making his directorial debut

David Gulpilil on the streets of LA. Image © Claire Leimbach

David Gulpilil, the Yolngu actor and dancer, has entranced cinemagoers since making his debut in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout as a teenager. Audiences’ ongoing fixation with Gulpilil as a cultural figure has given rise to a number of nonfiction films being made about his life and work. One Red Blood – titled after a uniting catchcry of Gulpilil’s – appeared in 2002. Another Country hit thirteen years later, accompanying the semi-autobiographical feature Charlie’s Country, co-written by Gulpilil and his most frequent collaborator Rolf de Heer. Molly Reynolds, de Heer’s life partner, has made another documentary, likely aiming for a sense of definitiveness, as the actor reflects on his legacy following his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in 2017. My Name Is Gulpilil made its debut at this year’s Adelaide Festival.

One of the earliest documentaries focusing on Gulpilil has rarely been seen after it first screened on the BBC in the early 1980s. Walkabout to Hollywood has, however, recently been re-mastered and released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment. As its title suggests, the documentary shadowed Gulpilil as he travelled to Los Angeles. He was there, in part, to attend a set of retrospective screenings of his earlier films (Walkabout, Storm Boy, Mad Dog Morgan and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave). A loose fifty or so minutes is pulled together from observational footage, some featuring the actor at home in Ramingining, Arnhem Land. Other sections feature the actor in Redfern, where he teaches a traditional dance class. Once a Qantas jet leaves the tarmac and touches down in LA, Gulpilil is photographed awkwardly roller-skating around Venice Beach and attending Disneyland with his young family, spinning wildly around on the Mad Tea Party carousel. In a brief scene, Gulpilil is seen excitedly trying on and buying a pair of leather cowboy boots (John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy was all the rage at the time).

Walkabout to Hollywood was directed by Bill Leimbach, a long-time fixture of the Australian film industry, best known for producing the 2010 war film Beneath Hill 60 (he is now likely just as famous now for fathering the boys behind current Triple J favourite Lime Cordiale). Leimbach, who grew up in San Diego, migrated to Australia in the 1970s after finishing film school in London. He first met Gulpilil as he courted the actor to play Bennelong in a film exploring the relationship between Bennelong and Arthur Phillip, the screenplay for which Leimbach had written while still at film school. The historical epic ultimately proved too expensive to get off the ground, requiring recreations of tall ships and Sydney’s first settlements. (This was well before CGI, Leimbach reminds me.) The pair went on to make Walkabout to Hollywood instead.

Leimbach’s documentary elides the fact that Gulpilil was in the United States to film a small scene in Philip Kaufman’s space-race biopic The Right Stuff – the masterful three-hour adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book, a pissing contest replayed as epic poetry – but it does make mention of another project Gulpilil was hoping to get off the ground. The actor was envisioning this film to be his directorial debut and, for contemporary audiences watching Walkabout to Hollywood, unaware of this historical detail, the fact lands as a significant revelation.

The film was to be a Western that Gulpilil was enthusiastically calling Billy West and Lightning Thunderboy. According to its earliest loglines, Billy West was to tell the story of “an American cattle rancher sent to Australia in the early 1900s to run a cattle station in the Northern Territory”. West, travelling with his Native American wife, was tasked with producing beef supplies to export to American soldiers in the Philippines. Clearly Billy West and Lightning Thunderboy would have explored Australian­–American relations a good five years before Crocodile Dundee exploded onto the scene. (Gulpilil would go on to have a pivotal role in that huge international blockbuster, but later fell out with Paul Hogan over the extreme pay discrepancies between them.)

It is not explicitly stated in his documentary but Leimbach was lined up to serve as Gulpilil’s co-director on Billy West. Gulpilil had been responsible for the story and would direct the scenes with Indigenous actors, while simultaneously starring as Lightning Boy. Finances were in place and actors were flown to Australia, meeting in the film’s production offices in Kings Cross ahead of the start date of shooting in May 1981. Max Gail – an American actor best known for his role on the popular US police sitcom Barney Miller – was invited to take the role of Billy West. Gail had personal connections with Native American activists, and introduced Gulpilil and Leimbach to Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Native American singer-songwriter, who is seen jamming with Gulpilil in Walkabout to Hollywood, would be cast as the female lead. Despite all this significant groundwork, Billy West and Lightning Thunderboy would never eventuate. That fact now feels like a stinging loss, particularly because the prospect of Gulpilil co-directing a feature film would have cemented a genuine milestone in Australian cinema. There were a number of groundbreaking Indigenous-led documentaries being made at the same time as Billy West’s development – largely directed by women, including Essie Coffey, Coral Edwards and Madeline McGrady – but high-budget scripted features were almost exclusively the domain of white men.  

This was not, however, the first time that Gulpilil had come close to sitting in the director’s chair only to have it taken from underneath him. In Derek Reilly’s short biography Gulpilil – more extended magazine profile than book – the author notes that, in the early 1970s, the actor had been invited to join the newly founded Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Gulpilil rocked up to take his place alongside the iconic inaugural intake of students, including the directors Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong and Chris Noonan. Gulpilil’s admission into the school could have been read as a strategic step to give autonomy to Indigenous filmmakers to tell their own stories. Noyce – who would later direct Gulpilil in Rabbit-Proof Fence – told Reilly that ultimately the opposite was true, recalling that a short documentary credited to Gulpilil – Showing Melbourne to Maningrida – was not, in fact made by him at all. It was instead a case of “very well intentioned staff at the film school using him as a subject for a film”. The director sombrely noted that “Everyone tried to tell him [Gulpilil] what he wanted to do.”

Billy West and Lightning Thunderboy was a chance to right this particular wrong – by handing material agency over to Gulpilil – but financing for the film fell apart before cameras started rolling. It wasn’t a big, flashy falling out. The Australian government had, simply, failed to legislate 10BA – an infamous tax incentive that gave financiers a 150 per cent concession – in time for production to start. As a result, the film’s existing investors pulled out. Leimbach says the filmmakers lost $250,000, and sets that had been built in Arnhem Land went to waste. The principal players were keen to return to the film in a year’s time once 10BA was in law – the tax write-off did end up propelling most film productions in Australian throughout the 1980s – but in the interim the existing sets were burnt down by bushfires. With them went the hope for the first film born from Gulpilil’s own imagination. Leimbach was saddened that Gulpilil didn’t get the opportunity to direct, and that the largely Indigenous cast lost out on their roles.

Leimbach told me that, over the years, whenever Gulpilil would run into him, the actor would cry out, “When are we going to do Billy West? When are we going to do Billy West?” The script for the historical fiction must still be floating out there somewhere, longing to one day be made in Gulpilil’s honour. In the meantime, we have Walkabout to Hollywood, a remarkable record, capturing Australia’s most arresting actor, pregnant with the promise of being able to tell a story of his own invention, on his own terms.

Sam Twyford-Moore

Sam Twyford-Moore is the author of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania (University of Toronto Press). 

David Gulpilil on the streets of LA. Image © Claire Leimbach

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