December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

The dry and the wet: Robert Connolly

By Harry Windsor
The Australian producer-director of ‘Blueback’ has always sought to spotlight people with vision

How does a filmmaker follow up their most successful film? If you’re Robert Connolly, you just add water. The Dry was the director’s biggest hit, buoyed by the popularity of Jane Harper’s novel and the scarcity of Hollywood competition at the height of the pandemic. Now, two years later, Connolly is back with another big-ticket adaptation, this time of the Tim Winton novella Blueback. Shot on location at Western Australia’s Bremer Bay, it’s the decades-spanning story of a girl whose friendship with a blue groper fosters a lifelong commitment to protecting the reef.

Eric Bana is back, too, this time as a spear fisherman, and Blueback is looking to replicate The Dry’s holiday release strategy, premiering January 1.

But if Connolly is nervous about how the new film will stack up at the box office, he isn’t showing it. He’s proud of the work, he tells me, sheltering from the rain inside a Greek restaurant in Sydney, on a pit stop before flying to Canada for Blueback’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Scrolling through images from the shoot on his smartphone, he shows me a photo of the film’s star, an animatronic fish that required four puppeteers, at the maquette stage. And a video of its first “really embarrassing” test dive in an inflatable pool. Connolly’s moon-faced excitement makes the 55-year-old seem boyish, as though he can’t believe he gets paid to play with toys this expensive.

The director’s insistence on practical rather than digital effects meant Blueback was shot in the ocean, rather than a water tank, and the actors learnt how to free dive. Connolly was inspired by films such as Luc Besson’s The Big Blue. He also loved indulging his inner science boffin. He informs me that some corals seem to be able to endure warming more resiliently than others, and that genetic studies are trying to work out why. “I just get excited,” he says, “because there are great minds [out there] – people who went to school, fell in love with the ocean, went to university, did a science degree. I met these people. They usually feel like they’re about 30.”

Connolly has already finished shooting a sequel to The Dry, and a third film is on the horizon. He’s in the middle of the most prolific period of his career as a producer, too, with Blueback to be followed into cinemas by two debut features in quick succession. First up is Emily (in January), an acclaimed Emily Brontë biopic directed by Frances O’Connor, who starred in Connolly’s 2005 film Three Dollars. Then there’s road-trip movie Sweet As (April), directed by Indigenous filmmaker Jub Clerc, who worked with Connolly on 2013’s The Turning. That anthology film was also based on a book by Tim Winton, and it’s where Connolly’s relationship with the author began. So he’s adept at forging partnerships, and many of them endure for years.

Married to this gift is a certain entrepreneurialism that goes way back. In fact, it’s striking to see just how uncommonly interested in financial questions he’s always been: 1997’s Rust Bucket, his first short, was about an insurance scam; 2001’s The Bank, his first feature as a director, was about gaming the markets. And his small company has clearly hit upon a financial model that works. Based in Port Melbourne, in an office space he shares with Bana, Connolly maintains a core group of private investors that includes philanthropist and property developer Andrew Myer, and he’s got a small distribution company, so he understands the industry – in business parlance – end to end.

Connolly tells me he only started producing out of necessity, however, after a realisation in film school that he “wasn’t going to be that filmmaker that the world jumped on and elevated”. He studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in the mid 1990s, a decade or so after Jane Campion. Campion’s student film Peel remains one of the great short films, he says, noting that it made sense to see that kind of “genius talent” get snapped up to make her first feature, 1989’s Sweetie. But Connolly took a more circuitous route, apprenticing himself while still a student to that film’s producer, John Maynard.

Maynard has shepherded some of the best debut features of the past 40 years, from Kasimir Burgess’s Fell (2014) to Vincent Ward’s dreamlike Vigil (1984), which is still one of Connolly’s favourites. The veteran producer was prepping the 1995 comedy All Men Are Liars when Connolly accompanied him to the tiny Queensland town of South Johnstone for the shoot. He sat next to the production office’s fax machine and watched the sausage get made. Afterwards, Maynard sold him the old Volvo wagon he’d been driving during production for a cool $20.

Back in Sydney, Connolly kept coming into the office and Maynard found he didn’t mind. “I liked him a lot,” Maynard recalls. “I thought he was smart as – you know, sharp. And he had something that most other people didn’t have, and that was the ability to stick at something and to take a long-term view of it. And he had okay politics.”

The men went into business together, kicking off their partnership by producing 1998’s highly influential The Boys, loosely based on the murder of Anita Cobby. Connolly had optioned Gordon Graham’s play after working as production manager and lighting designer on the original production. The subsequent film was a precursor to the gritty crime dramas Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, and it greased the careers of everybody involved after premiering at the Berlinale.

Connolly’s next film, The Bank, once again starring David Wenham, followed quickly, though he initially detected a certain stigma attached to the idea of a producer who also directs. “It’s almost like self-publishing,” he says. “But really, we would be better off if more directors felt that they could be producers. And I know there might be some producers that find that heretical, but in cinema there’s a great tradition of it locally.” He points to George Miller and the work the Kennedy-Miller production house did in the 1980s.

Three Dollars followed, and, like The Bank, it’s about the economic forces at play in ordinary lives. But where The Bank was a broad-brush denunciation of capitalism, Three Dollars is more specifically targeted; unusually for Australian cinema, it explicitly engages with the politics of the day. Wenham plays a public servant who loses his job after refusing to cut corners, and the film is a product, Connolly says now, of his anger about the Howard government “unravelling the nation”. Like his characters, the director was in his thirties and had just started a family. “I was putting a flag in the sand and saying, something is happening. And it’s not right. And it is going to set something in motion that we’ve got to put in check.”

Connolly describes Three Dollars as his least commercially successful film. “It very much was out of vogue to make stories about the middle class. People like the uber-wealthy stories – they love Succession. And then we love The Boys.” That might be one reason he’s never returned to that milieu in his films.

His next film as director, about Roger East and the Balibo Five, saw him shake up his approach, abandoning storyboards and shot lists to shoot handheld with a small crew, operating almost like the journalists who were the film’s subjects. “How do you make this highly industrial process feel like you’re splashing paint on a canvas every day? It’s almost the central challenge of being a director.” But 2009’s Balibo was another commercial disappointment, and afterwards he made a detour into television, directing episodes of The Slap and police drama Rush.

Working in TV only reaffirmed his commitment to cinema, Connolly says, and cemented his belief about what audiences want from it. “I think there’s this whole obligation you have as a filmmaker now. Because I love cinema, and cinema has to evolve. It’s not an art form locked in aspic. And I think audiences demand this massive cinema experience. And the idea that we can’t deliver that in Australia is just bullshit.”

He thinks it’s a mistake to think that streaming will kill the big-screen experience. Films made for the small screen just feel different, he says, pointing to one recent star vehicle he describes as inept. “No matter what people say, the narrative aesthetic of feature films made for Netflix is different to the narrative aesthetic of films made for the big screen.”

The Dry and Blueback were shot on large-format cameras, the better to showcase the landscape and give audiences that “massive” experience. Those films, and 2014’s Paper Planes, all take place in regional Australia, and their sun-blanched extremity feels like part of a calculated effort to compete under the new paradigm. They’re films about a mythic Australia. But in reaching for something larger-than-life, Connolly also flirts with caricature. Blueback is the kind of film in which Bana plays a character called Mad Macka and uses words like “hooroo”.

Connolly wrote the script, and he’s conscious, he says, of the risk of cliché. How to avoid stereotypes is “the big question we always ask. And I think it’s about not judging the world that you’re depicting.” He grew up at the foot of the Blue Mountains, he notes, and his kids went to public schools. The Dry could have been an Australian Deliverance, but “for a country that values our regional life so much, that would have been a tragedy”.

Connolly tells me that one of the reasons the former government eventually decided to retain the 40 per cent tax offset for feature films (after plans were announced to reduce it) was that the National Party loved The Dry. And there’s no doubt that films he’s made in the past decade are less angry and more inclusive. Films for everyone, even bankers and Coalition voters. “These bigger commercial works, they’re not lectures. They’re not driven by soft-left politics either, even though [that’s] my own politics. I feel like we do ourselves a great injustice [by] marginalising our views.”

But he disputes the idea he’s steered away from political content altogether. “I think it’s still in the engine room of why I make films. I think I found a different way to crack the same nut. So The Dry is very much a film that looks at the impact of global warming on regional Australia. There’s a lot of sociopolitical issues [too]: John Polson’s character has a gambling addiction.” And Blueback presents a dialectic between activism and science, foregrounding what Connolly describes as a new approach to the environmental movement: optimism. “If you say to people, ‘The Barrier Reef’s gonna die, it’s too late,’ people curl up in the corner and they do nothing.”

Still, his recent films are unlikely to be packaged together on DVD, as The Boys, The Bank and Three Dollars were, with an accompanying documentary entitled The Political Arena. Maynard recalls that it was Connolly himself who pushed for that kind of umbrella release, and he agrees that a shift has occurred since Balibo, the last film the pair made together. “There was a fork in the road which he took, but he’s never ever left behind that idea of nurturing other people,” Maynard says. “That is quite rare.”

Connolly has spent a career trying to reconcile the commercial and political, industrial and creative, but the one constant has been his commitment to bringing people up. He talks with pride about Thomas M. Wright, whose moody cop drama The Stranger recently found a surprisingly robust audience on Netflix. Connolly executive-produced the 39-year-old’s debut feature, 2018’s Acute Misfortune, after earlier directing Wright in Balibo.

But Connolly’s nevertheless “really concerned the film industry is ageing, and we’re somehow not empowering [the next generation]. You know, in the music industry, in general, you can be Lorde and winning Grammys at 17.” He wonders if he’s more cognisant of this discrepancy because his children, with casting director Jane Norris, are now 18 and 20. “[Or] maybe I’m more aware of it because I reflect on my own career and how young I was when I made The Boys.”

Connolly’s hand-wringing is unnecessary, because he is empowering the next generation. The capacity of individuals to effect real change is a through-line of his work, from Oscar Isaac’s José Ramos-Horta in Balibo to Mia Wasikowska’s marine biologist in Blueback. He’s looking to spotlight people with vision onscreen and off, and they’re often young. His optimism may be tinged with anxiety about the future, but he’s also lowering the ladder to create one he wants to see.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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